Slags

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Gay and Lesbian  |  House: Booksie Classic

After a suicide attempt, a young gay man moves in with his aunt and tries to put his life back together.

CW: self-harm, suicidal ideation

I'll leave the light on.

Rogan didn't look like Angelina expected he would. Not that she knew what he was supposed to look like. She hadn't seen him since he was 14, and he was 28 now. Since then he'd grown a couple of feet -- or maybe she was misremembering 14-year-olds being smaller than they actually are. He was definitely wider, though -- broad shoulders and a tapered waist. She might as easily have been picking him up from the gym as from the hospital.

"I'm sorry to be putting you out like this," he said in a low monotone when he got into the car.

"It's no inconvenience at all," she replied. But she had a feeling that wasn't the right thing to say when both of you know it's not true. Of course it's kind of inconvenient to have your adult nephew stay with you, even under the best of circumstances. So she threw in a joke after the fact. "Where else will I find a babysitter who will work for free."

She might have only been half-joking about that.

She had always felt a kinship with him when he was younger and a gay-in-the-making. She took it upon herself to be the cool gay aunt while her older sister -- Rogan's mother -- tended to avoid the topic altogether. It wasn't that Lydia was homophobic, not in the "No son of mine" sense. Instead it was usually expressed as concern: "Won't it make your life so much harder?" she had told Angelina when she came out as a lesbian after college. By then Rogan was six and already pretty gay. "Don't you want to have kids someday?" "Can't you get fired for that?" "I just want you to be happy."

Rogan had always been a happy-go-lucky kid, wide-eyed and rambunctious. But something seemed to have calcified since then. His lava had cooled and hardened.

But she'd missed half his life since Lydia moved them a few hours upstate. She'd never been all that close to her sister, but maybe she shouldn't have let that keep her from her nephew. Maybe she should have reached out. She hadn't even known he was back in the city when Lydia called her in a panic. By then they had pumped his stomach and started his 72 hours under observation, which was how Puerto Rican Catholics said "suicide watch" without saying it.

She couldn't decide if she was concerned or relieved that he didn't say anything else on the way back to her apartment. He was quiet as a ghost walking through the front door. But there was something heavy about him too, like gravity was stronger wherever he stood.

"Where's Rosa?"

"Who?" Angelina asked. Oh that's right, her daughter, whose mother she was. "She's sleeping over with a friend of hers from daycare whose mother babysits for me sometimes."

"Were you afraid to have her around me?"

"Of course not. I just want you to get settled before Hurricane Four-Year-Old makes landfall."

"It's okay if you are. I get it. She's your daughter. Gotta keep her safe. I'm just –"

"Family," Angelina finished. "I'm sure you were about to say family." The thing is, she really was afraid to have Rosa around him and she didn't know exactly why. She had never picked someone up from a psychiatric ward before. She didn't know anyone who'd tried to kill themself – that she knew of, anyway. She was scared she'd do or say the wrong thing, that she'd trigger something – or the opposite, that she'd be oversensitive and he'd end up being the one trying to make her feel better.

All that, plus a four-year-old. She was probably more afraid for herself than she was Rosa or Rogan.

Angelina thought of Lydia when she made the decision to have Rosa. "Don't you want to have kids someday?" When Lydia had asked her that the very idea of a child was foreign to Angelina. No, not just foreign, extraterrestrial. She didn't know if she wanted kids. What's more, she hadn't even asked herself any of the thousand questions that come before wanting kids. A job, a relationship, a place to live, freaking health care – all that seemed hard enough before entertaining the notion of taking on another life dependent on you.

Eventually she got the job (not that her sister would approve of that either), the apartment (a one-bedroom on the fourth story of a walk-up – a flex-two really), even the health care for what it was worth. Then all of a sudden she was in her late-30s and didn't have the relationship yet, but she didn't want to wait. The idea of a life dependent on her had changed from something horrifying to something galvanizing. She felt like she had the capability to make someone else's life better, and in doing so make her own life mean something it hadn't before. Looked like she would have two of those now, for the time being.

"How's he settling in?" asked Caroline, when she met Angelina for lunch four days after Rogan moved in.

"Surprisingly well," said Angelina. "Rosa loves him. I think he's been officially inducted into her stuffed horse army. It's terrifying."

"Why terrifying?"

"Because eventually he'll leave."

"Maybe you could give him a job here." Caroline gestured around them. They co-owned a little queer bookstore called Madness in the Spring -- an Emily Dickinson reference, of course -- on a northeast corner in the little queer neighborhood. It included an obligatory built-in coffee shop where they were currently eating scones shaped like vulvae – penile and intersex options were also available.

"I've thought of that," said Angelina, who looked down at her baked vulva.

"I don't think it'll make him worse if that's what you're thinking."

"Of course not." Angelina kept looking down.

"Have you told him about your panic attack?"

"It hasn't come up," she said with the wry everything's-fine-if-you-make-light-of-it smile. "Which one?"

 

I want to end me.

It doesn't make sense to anyone when you try to explain it, but it was actually a good day, all things considered. Rogan took sleeping pills for his insomnia and that night it just ... seemed like as good a night as any. Like ... he felt at ease, he felt at peace, and that's how anyone would want to feel when they die, right?

Normal people think of going out that way when they're 90 or something, surrounded by family and drifting into a painless sleep after having accomplished all their life goals. But for Rogan the idea that he'd make it that far seemed remote at best, and he didn't want his last day to be a bad day.

So, yeah, it seemed like as good a night as any. At that moment, it made sense. He wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed when he woke up in the hospital. Was he even surprised? He didn't remember much about it.

A psychiatrist evaluated him, and he wasn't sure he was making any more sense with her.

Did he purchase the pills specifically for this purpose – "No, they were just for sleeping," though in the back of his mind ...

Did he swallow all of the pills or only some? A whole bunch, is that a good answer? He couldn't remember if he emptied the bottle. Maybe. Probably not.

What did he expect to happen by swallowing the pills? (Well that's a stupid question, isn't it?) Did he tell anyone? Did he remember being brought to the hospital? What did he think about the attempt now?

It's so stupid that that was the moment he started to cry. He hadn't cried when he took the pills. He didn't think he cried when he woke up. He didn't cry the last time he ... But at this moment he felt like he was failing a test he didn't even know he was supposed to have studied for. Should he have thought about these questions already? Would they let him out if he said something wrong? Did other patients who were better at depression know the right answers?

Do you still want to die? was what they really wanted to know. You tried to die and then you didn't, and we're legally required to find out if you're planning to make another go at it. So ...

Did he still want to die? No, not at that moment, not in the precise instance of being asked. But in ten minutes, who knows? In a day? In a week? He wasn't planning to kill himself the day he tried to kill himself, and then all of a sudden he did.

They ultimately discharged him. So he guessed he must have said something right. Or they decided he was a lost cause. Either way they scheduled him for a followup appointment with a psychiatrist at the hospital and sent him on his way.

He thought he'd go home with his mother. But she'd called Angelina since she lived nearby and it just made more sense, and it kind of did to be honest. It also dawned on him that his mother didn't really know what the hell to do with him – this sad homo wasn't really the son she'd raised, was he? That was kind of fucked up, but if he thought about it, it also wasn't untrue.

Rogan had a father too – most people do if you're gonna be technical about it. But don't even ask.

He had been renting a "co-living" apartment because that's what he could afford. He had his own bedroom that fit a full-sized bed, a closet, a desk, and … that's about it. But he shared a kitchen with about ten other people and a bathroom with three, all of whom he tried to avoid whenever he left in the morning for the gym or his job at CVS. It wasn't that he disliked them. He just didn't want to give them a chance to dislike him.

So they didn't really notice when he overdosed. It was late when it happened, and as self-farm methods go it was pretty discrete. No one knew except – fuck.

Sean was waiting there when Angelina drove Rogan to his apartment to pick up some essentials the day after he was discharged. Rogan didn't know exactly how long he'd be staying with his aunt, but he was pretty sure it wasn't going to be just an overnight kind of thing, and – Sean looked pissed.

"Feeling better?" they asked, more an accusation than a question. Rogan's stomach churned. He felt like throwing up.

"Can we do this inside?" Rogan asked, and Sean followed him into the apartment.

Sean was the one who found Rogan. Because Rogan called them after he'd done it. Not 911, not his suite-mates who actually fucking lived there – Sean. And the reason was so stupid and selfish. He'd hooked up with Sean a couple times, and they'd shared a couple of personal things with each other. So Rogan knew them well enough to trust them, but not not well enough that he felt embarrassed or ashamed in front of them – at least, not compared to anyone else he could think of in those minutes of panic after he unsuccessfully tried to make himself throw up. He hardly remembered Sean showing up, but clearly …

"Jesus, shit, I'm so sorry," said Rogan.

"Don't do that."

"Don't do what?"

"Don't apologize and make me feel bad for being mad at you."

"You have every right to be –"

"Of course I fucking do, but you giving me permission makes me look like the asshole, especially after ... fuck, are you okay?"

Rogan thought about it for a moment. "Define okay."

"Fuck you, that's how."

"Thank you," Rogan said. "For coming when I called. I wouldn't have blamed you if you didn't."

"Well, you wouldn't be around to blame me if I didn't, now would you? Do you even remember me coming? When you buzzed me up the only thing that made sense was you asking me not to tell your roommates, so I took you to the hospital in a fucking Uber. Driver probably thought you were just passed out drunk. I didn't tell him either, if you're worried."

Rogan swallowed hard to keep from crying.

"You made me responsible the moment you called me, and I've never been that person before. I'm not the one who takes you to the hospital. I'm the one who gets taken. And if you didn't wake up, that would've been on me, and you put it there."

"I'm so –"

"If you apologize again I swear to God I'm gonna punch you."

"Do it. I don't blame you. I deserve it."

"Jesus Christ, I'm not really gonna punch you right after you got out of the fucking hospital. I'm venting. Because I've been scared to death ever since I left you there and now you're literally the only person I have to talk to about it. How fucked up is that? What is this, our fourth conversation?"

"Fifth, I think, depending on how you define a conversation."

"I haven't decided yet if I'm even counting this one."

Rogan didn't say anything else, thinking Sean might actually punch him if he did.

"Are you moving out or something?"

"Staying with my aunt, maybe for a while."

"Need help packing?"

"Yeah, I guess … sure."

Sean tapped their foot a couple of times. "Okay, fuck it. Tell me what you need."

Rogan's aunt asked him who Sean was when they eventually came back out together, and Rogan, for lack of a better description, called them "a friend."

 

I'll come get my things, but I can't let go.

Caroline had just broken up with Emily when she suggested Slags.

"Slags?" Angelina had asked with an incredulous eyebrow raised.

"Sad, lonely, angry gays – and by 'gays' of course I mean inclusive of everyone on the rainbow: trans, ace, bi, non-binary, it's just better for the acronym. For people looking for books to feel shitty with and don't want any of that life-affirming crap."

"And what exactly would we put in it – scratch that, what wouldn't we put in it? It's not like there's a shortage of queer angst-lit."

"I'll curate it. A new selection of titles every week or two."

Of course she would. She's the one who named the bookstore after all. She had a dozen titles in mind before Angelina even said yes, and she probably only agreed to it thinking it would be a way for Caroline to keep her mind busy after the Emily of it all.

"You ever see two men or two women holding hands and want to do a hate crime on them, not because they're gay but because they found each other?" Caroline asked, apropos of nothing, as she was stocking the display that first week.

"That's dark," said Angelina.

"That's not an answer."

That was about a year ago, but Slags actually caught on. They even started a little book club. James Baldwin one month. Larry Kramer the next. Roxane Gay after that. An obscure book of poems Caroline really liked when she was a teenager so fuck it, it went into the curriculum. Caroline led the discussions, and she was damn good at it, creating outlines and reviewing supplementary texts for what was really supposed to be just an excuse to sell more coffee and dick scones. Seriously, she may have missed her calling as a humanities professor.

But then there was the comedown. For a couple of days after every book club, like clockwork, she'd be short-tempered, snapping at Angelina unnecessarily before apologizing and hiding in the back office to settle down. She didn't know what it was at first, but she eventually narrowed it down to something in the ballpark of loneliness.

For eight years there had been Emily, and now there wasn't. Book club nights gave her that feeling of mattering to someone. Hell, even outlining gave her that feeling. But then it was over, the assembled slags would go their own ways, and she was never really sure if they'd be back.

In case you hadn't guessed, breaking up with Emily was Emily's idea. After eight years. Initially Caroline thought remembering the good times might help, or be cathartic at least – just because it's over doesn't mean it didn't mean anything. But it's so much worse the longer they'd been together. How much of Emily's life had Caroline wasted just by taking up space in it? How long had she been wrong for her before Emily worked up the courage to finally say so? How many of the good times were really good, and how much of it didn't matter at all?

They'd lived together, and Caroline was the one who moved out since the lease was in Emily's name and she paid most of the rent. Caroline crashed on Angelina's couch for a while before eventually finding her own place, an affordable little studio that opened up a couple blocks down from Madness, whose unfamiliarity reminded her of the familiarity of what used to be home.

She didn't move out all at once though. She picked up things gradually over time, and she always made some excuse not to move everything out at once – too much to carry, or not enough time. Emily probably saw through it and maybe felt sorry enough for her to let her keep coming over. She only really embarrassed herself one of those times – okay, probably all of those times, but that one time for sure.

With a box of things at their – er, Emily's apartment door, Caroline turned around and said, "I kinda keep hoping one of these times I'll be on my way out and you'll ask me not to leave. From all the times you haven't done that now, along with the part where you told me you're not in love with me anymore, I guess I'm starting to take the hint."

"I really don't know what to say anymore," said Emily with the worst kind of sigh. She didn't sound angry, or anguished, or regretful. She sounded annoyed. Caroline's desperation was annoying to her. "Nobody wishes it were different more than me."

"I think there's one person who wishes it were different a little more."

"I want to be happy. I want you to be happy too. If I could explain it better, I would. But I can't keep going over and over it like this, and yeah, you dragging it out one hairbrush and one bookend at a time isn't helping either of us."

"I was happy, though. And now it seems like neither of us are."

Emily shrugged. "I wasn't. But I want to be."

Caroline's next trip to pick up her things was her last. Any other little thing she'd left behind was lost to time. Eight years of time.

So yeah, she was sad, and lonely, and fucking angry. Resentful too, though "Slargs" didn't have the same ring to it. And she didn't want to be consoled or reassured, and she didn't want to look on the bright side. Sometimes you just want things to suck as much as they suck and not to pretend otherwise. You know how it is – or you don't, whatever.

But it turned out she wasn't alone, at least for one night every month.

 

I could spit on a stranger.

Rogan was the kind of guy you message not expecting to hear back, way out of Sean's league – in his profile photo he was lying shirtless in bed with that body-fatless torso and that serious expression that in itself seemed to say, "Total top, no fems," even though he didn't actually write that in his profile. He didn't write anything else for that matter.

But hey, you've gotta shoot your shot, and it's so much easier to be rejected on Grindr where you can just pretend they didn't see your message, or at least that he's probably rejecting way hotter guys than you too. But Rogan actually replied, and it was the usual back and forth of noncommittal "Heys" and "How's it goings" before Rogan said those three words everyone longs to hear: "Wanna come over?"

Of course, the desire and excitement were mixed with a certain trepidation as Sean walked those two and a half blocks to Rogan's place for the first time. Specifically, "He's hot, so what's wrong with him?" And of course that begged the question of why something had to be wrong with Rogan to want them. Probably said something about their self-esteem, and walking to a stranger's apartment at 12:30am to fool around was the perfect time to be processing that shit, right?

But yeah, what's wrong with him? Maybe he was a serial killer, which is the kind of thing they tell you to be worried about on those apps – "they" in this case being the prevailing sex-negative culture and not the gender-neutral singular usage that Sean went by. But that didn't really happen, did it? Much safer for a serial killer to go cruising at a bar – that way you don't leave a digital trail showing your face. Except maybe Sean would be Rogan's very first victim and he'd be caught six or seven deep and Sean would end up on his Wikipedia page as "victim number-one." But who would play Rogan in a few years when he's interviewed in prison by Jonathan Groff on "Mindhunter"?

Were two and a half blocks usually this long? So far they'd had enough time to contemplate self-esteem and serial murder, and it was getting less and less sexy – except that Jonathan Groff was pretty hot, and so was Zac Efron in that movie about Ted Bundy they watched twice.

Sean snapped out of it when Rogan buzzed them up and they got a good look at him in person. Whatever was wrong with him they couldn't see it. Seriously how did this guy not have better options – oh for Christ's sake, Sean, it's not science-fiction for somebody to want to fuck you. Sean looked fine, they supposed, kind of a beanpole, but their internal barometer was skewed by looking at too many thirst-trap Instagays who looked … well, looked more like Rogan.

The sex turned out to be good. Real good. Not romance or candles or soft-focus good, but not the kind on transactional sex you sometimes got either. Impersonal but … caring, if that makes sense. Like, Rogan noticed Sean was a person, checked in from time to time, invited them to spend the night when they were done, which Sean didn't do, but they lingered longer than they usually did, and the two of them talked about dumb shit. Sean couldn't exactly remember what about – to be fair, they were a little fuck-drunk at the time.

Sean put Rogan in their favorites and met up with him a few more times after that. They even gave Rogan – gasp! – their phone number. But when they got the call that night, and they found him, and they struggled to keep their brain screwed on tight enough to figure out how to get him to a hospital so he wouldn't, you know, die, they thought about the serial killer thing again. They even let out an abrupt laugh sitting next to their unconscious fuck buddy in that fucking Uber. The funny thing, if you could call it that, was that they had been afraid Rogan would turn out to be a killer. Turned out they were just wrong about the victim.

For the next few days after that Sean was just fucking mad for no reason. No wait, there was a reason. It was because they were right all along. There really was something wrong with Rogan. He was fucked up, and clearly Sean was evidence of his acute mental illness.

Fuck you, Sean, he almost died, this isn't about you, you selfish asshole.

No, fuck Rogan. He's the selfish asshole. He made this about me when he called me. Out of all the people he could have called. Like I don't have my own shit, he has to load me up with his? He didn't even fucking know me.

Sean called the hospital once, but they wouldn't tell them anything, so they did the only other rational thing: stalked the front of Rogan's building for a few hours every day until Rogan came back. It took a couple of days, but that did the trick.

What's funny – again, not the kind of funny that's remotely amusing – was that the anger didn't go away after they saw Rogan was okay, got mad at him in person, and then forgave him kinda. They weren't mad at Rogan anymore, not really. Which made them wonder if they were ever mad at Rogan to begin with or if Rogan had just dredged up something that was already there. Like if you buried a body, but you didn't bury it deep enough, so a curious raccoon is all it takes. Rogan was the raccoon maybe? And the body was the anger they killed? Fuck it, they're no good at analogies.

To be completely honest, Sean knew they was pissed off long before Rogan. And fine, they were arrested for disorderly conduct that one time, but that was expunged after a year without another arrest, so it basically didn't happen.

Also, a frenemy from work once joked that Sean probably had a personality disorder, but then they Googled a few and weren't sure if she had been joking after all. This was after Sean was on their bike TaskRabbiting a fucking Happy Meal downtown and got cut off by some rich asshole in a Lexus. Sean spit into his open window at the next red light – and that wasn't even the thing they were arrested for.

"Sounds interesting," said Rogan after Sean told him that particular story. It was about a week after what they had settled on calling "That Night." Rogan was working for his aunt in a quaint little bookstore that made Sean a little sick to their stomach. They fucking hated cute shit, and somehow the dick scones made it even worse. Though it wasn't all bad. This was the gay neighborhood, and they'd gotten pretty good head in a guy's car across the street once.

"'Interesting.' That's ... a word. Which part: the spitting or the economic degradation of the gig economy?"

"The gig economy part I guess. Is that what you do full-time?"

"It's what they call a side hustle, and what the people who actually do it call survival prostitution. Which, by the way, if I looked like you, it'd be easy because I'd literally just sell my body – problem solved."

Rogan fidgeted awkwardly, which was when Sean noticed he was wearing an oversize t-shirt, and that he kinda always did now that they thought about it.

"What the fuck is that about, anyway? It's not like you work out for your health – you're a gay man, you basically exist for decoration."

"It's nothing, you'd think it's dumb," said Rogan, and now Sean noticed he was keeping his eyes down, which Sean had been told once or twice was a sign that they were being an asshole. Goddamn Rogan was too big to be such a fucking puppy dog. "You didn't tell me what you do for work, besides the side hustle. What's your ... entree hustle?"

"I'm a server at Olive Garden, so I literally give people entrees. Six months now and I haven't been fired yet. If I make it another three and a half weeks it'll be a new record." They crossed their fingers on both hands. "It fucking sucks, though, so I'm not sure what I'm rooting for." They thumbed through a random queer travel guide that showed you the best places not to get gay-bashed in Barcelona. "This place is dumb. I'm gonna bounce." And bounce they did, leaving Rogan a bit dumbfounded as he stocked "Travel Pink: Boston" on the shelf.

 

I don't know what it is, I just feel out of place.

Sleepless nights were nothing new for Angelina, but they were worse for those first couple of weeks Rogan was staying with her, and just entertaining that thought to herself made her feel guilty, let alone the possibility that her nephew might realize it. That was the last thing he needed.

She thought she heard the faint sound of him crying one night at 2:00am. He'd had a follow-up appointment with his psychiatrist earlier that day, so she imagined it was related to that, but she couldn't be sure really because she didn't know what he talked to his doctor about – she didn't ask because it was really none of her business – and maybe it wasn't even crying that she'd heard, or maybe it was a normal cry about something besides depression, like a stubbed toe or "The Notebook."

And that's how she ended up sitting in a chair pulled up against the window in her kitchen that overlooked a neighbor's window some 15 feet across. It was 4:00am, and she was exhausted but not tired, if that makes sense. Her body was ready to power down, but her mind would agree to no such thing, running on treadmills thinking thoughts about whether she could hear Rogan too much – or worse, too little. Would he hurt himself while she was just sitting there? Would it be even worse if she made up some pretense to check on him? He'd think he was under surveillance, and that wasn't fair to him.

She wasn't worried about her daughter – at least, not in the same way – which was itself another source of guilt. When Rosa cried, Angelina stepped in. She knew how, and when she didn't know how at least she knew it was her place to try. Rogan, though ... what exactly was expected of an aunt? And how much worse would things get if she was wrong?

The first panic attack she could remember was in college, though at the time she didn't understand it as a panic attack. That was just what finals week was like. The irony was that it hit her after her last final, when she should have been relieved. But it was her worst class -- American History 121, which she only took because it was a gen ed and whose professor was a condescending prick. She remembered handing in her blue book pretty sure she had failed, pretty sure she had failed her other classes too, pretty sure she would lose her scholarship if she'd even be allowed to come back at all. Fuck. Fuck. She stumbled into a bathroom before leaving the humanities building and bowed her head against a sink trying to catch her breath, and when she heard someone else come into the room she retreated into a stall and sat on the toilet with her head in her hands, seeing spots in her eyes, trying to stop the world from spinning. She thought she might throw up, but luckily she didn't. That time.

Whew, no one tells you what college is really like, she thought, figuring that was what college was like for everybody. But the next semester it happened in the dining hall before she had a chance to get away from prying eyes. She dropped her tray of food, with silverware and ceramic clattering loudly across the floor, and collapsed to her knees. People crowded around, probably thought she was dying – it was a whole thing. Since then she'd been on lorazepam, which she guessed kinda worked maybe. Got her through college at least. She regularly saw a counselor on campus, but couldn't afford regularly therapy right after she graduated so she just kept refilling her prescription. She wasn't sure how well it was really working anymore, but it didn't seem to make things any worse.

She was surprised when she saw Rogan peek into the kitchen at around 4:30. "Trouble sleeping?" she asked, not that she really needed to.

He shrugged.

"Pull up a chair. Maybe we'll get tired of each other."

He sat down with her, but didn't look at her, just down at the table or out the window. She thought maybe he was trying to be casual – no big deal, just the usual sleep-deprivation.

"Is Rosa okay?" Rogan asked.

"Rosa?" God, that sounded like she'd forgotten she had a daughter. In the second it took her to realize why he'd asked, he might have already decided to call child protective services. "She's fine. That's not why I'm up. She sleeps a lot better than me, actually. Must have gotten that from her father."

"Oh." Rogan nodded, and his eyes went back down to the table and then back out the window. "I know it's not easy having me here, and having me at your job too on top of that. It's not fair. I'm not any good at it. My mom calls you up and suddenly I'm living here with your daughter, and that's definitely not fair to her."

She reached across the table and grabbed his hand. "You're not why I'm up either. You're a bystander to whatever this is." That much was true. Worrying about him was more worry than she was used to, and she was used to quite a lot of it, but that wasn't his fault, which was why she gave him the short answer and not the long one: "I have insomnia."

He nodded, gently pulled his hand away, and looked back out the window.

"What was abuela like?" Rogan asked. The question took her by surprise after what felt like a long silence.

"My mother? She still is, present tense."

"Oh I know, I just wonder, when you were growing up ..." He trailed off and let the question finish itself.

"She was ..." Angelina started. "You know what, I thought I had an answer queued up there and then I suddenly realized that summing up your entire upbringing is hard."

"I'm sorry."

"Stop apologizing. And don't apologize for apologizing because I know you're about to."

"You're not the first person to tell me to stop doing that," said Rogan with a rare little smile.

"I have to tell myself more often than not, so I know that look when I see it. And you're related to me so it must run in the family."

"Yeah, I guess." Rogan fidgeted a little, his arms pulled close as if trying to make himself smaller. "Mom isn't like that."

"That's because she took after our mother, your abuela. I guess that's God's way of balancing things out: make one child who apologizes and another who never thinks she's wrong."

"I thought God was perfect."

"Well, Lydia would test anyone's faith." She could have gone on – for hours – but she stopped herself. "I shouldn't talk shit about your mom, I'm sorry."

"Stop apologizing," Rogan teased.

"Good, you're learning," she said. "I love your mom, and I love our mom. It's a family thing. Or at least I hope it is."

"I do too," said Rogan, and then after another long silence, "She doesn't love me, though."

"Yes she does. I know she does. I still remember when she had you. She was so attached to you she wouldn't even leave you with your abuela until you were four."

"I think maybe she changed her mind. Knowing what she knows now I don't think she would've had me."

"I don't believe that for a second. But here's the thing: never thinking you're wrong makes you stupid. And being stupid makes you treat people you love like shit sometimes. But that doesn't mean she doesn't love you. It just means she's not always good at it. And that's on her, not you."

"I guess," he said without much conviction. He shrugged and decided to go back to bed. Angelina stayed at the table wondering if something she said was wrong. She shouldn't have told him how attached Lydia was to him when he was born, that just made him feel worse about the way things were now. She shouldn't have talked about his mother at all; now maybe he thought she'd talk that way about him behind his back too. It's a family thing – maybe that's how he'd take that. But family should be better than that.

Angelina had thoughts sometimes that made her wince – physically wince, the way you would if you cut yourself on broken glass. Sometimes that glass got stuck under skin and she'd constantly feel it, hurting a little more every time she picked at it, unable to get it out. And she'd go from a wince to a cry – exhausted but not tired.

That night she picked at those thoughts and cried from the pain until about 6:30. She supposed, two hours of sleep was better than nothing.

 

If we were our bodies, I'd be joining you.

Rogan listened to the "Quiet Voice" audiobook at the gym. It was a short story collection by Jame Nujaim, who according to the book description on Audible was a queer multimedia artist and activist experimenting with form, identity, and memory in pieces exploring the pervasiveness of death. It was for Slags. Sean was reading it and raving about it. Rogan wasn't sure if he'd join them for the discussion, but he figured he'd follow along anyway.

It was the kind of conceptual stuff he hated in college, sentences devouring themselves, text about the textuality of text – and death, of course, which according to one story about a drifter was "transient" and yet "intransigent." Because metaphor, he guessed. When he was being graded on this stuff it was a nightmare, but now that the pressure was off it was kind of soothing nonsense interspersed with an occasional insight.

He caught someone checking him out while he was bench-pressing 220 pounds and listening to a passage about body decomposition. The guy was doing squats in a lime green tank top and loose-fitting gym shorts – clearly no underwear, clearly with specific intent. Nujaim was on about "desiccated soil" now and ... the guy adjusted himself performatively.

Rogan didn't like that he was attracted to this guy, whose name turned out to be Kyle when he learned it in the showers where they fooled around. Kyle went down on him, and Rogan grabbed the back of his head roughly and thrusted into his mouth. He wasn't sure why, but Kyle seemed to enjoy it. They were done after only a couple of minutes, though it felt like longer, and it was technically pleasurable in a basic physiological sense. But he couldn't help wanting to go back to hearing stories about death.

He wondered if he was a little broken. Most people would have enjoyed what just happened and who it happened with. He enjoyed it sometimes too, but not always and he still couldn't pinpoint why. He wasn't a sex maniac or anything, but he'd had enough to know what he likes, how, and why, right? He still always felt like he was making it up as he went along. He was a bigger, muscular guy, so he usually ended up doing the top thing by default, and that kinda felt right sometimes, but he always felt like someone else doing it, like he was a character he was playing. The way he moved and the way he was touched were like reenactments of half-imagined notions of what the other person wanted him for. It's weird to not even know what your fantasies are. And it wasn't because he'd never asked himself. But how do you figure it out when you're never really there?

He hated his body sometimes. That must sound weird. He knew that by most gay standards he was what one would call a draw. But he didn't get there by loving his body. It kinda started by trying to run himself into the ground. He got a D- on a midterm during his freshman year of college – not experimental literature, but psychology of all things, a gen ed that looked reasonably interesting when he registered for it. He still hadn't made friends, especially not with his roommates, who foolishly thought he was as straight as they were. And he thought about what his mom would think. And he thought about what he might do if his academic scholarship were rescinded, if he were kicked out, if he came out. All that was already there, roiling like magma under the cool surface. The D- cracked him just enough to nearly burn him alive along with anyone in Pompeii close enough to the danger zone. He punched the desk in his dorm room over and over again until his hand started bleeding, and then he left the residence hall and just ran.

He wasn't running to anything or from anything in particular. He was running just to run. Running to exhaust himself, to agitate his heart until maybe it would mercifully explode, to shred his ligaments, rip his muscles, and pull apart his joints. At a stop light he considered running into traffic, but instead he just collapsed onto the sidewalk.

The doctor at the campus health center warned him not to overexert himself when exercising, and at the time he was relieved that that's what she thought he was doing. He wouldn't have to explain to her what was really happening. He didn't really understand it himself for a while, but when he looked back on that now he realized that that was kinda the first time he tried to die – clumsily, inefficiently, inelegantly, nothing like a handful of pills.

Since then he exercised a lot. It felt good, in the real endorphins sense, but there was always that hint of something else, of wanting to push his body to the edge and then over it, straight off the cliff into the chasm below. He looked at his chest and shoulders and arms and legs in the mirror sometimes and thought about what they really were. They weren't made of healthy decisions, dedication, or discipline. They were built, a little bit at a time, by death. Someone should write a book of short stories about it.

 

Rogan joined Sean at the book club but didn't join the discussion even though he'd listened to the whole book and even read one story called "The Gape of Earth" twice. That was an oddly sexualized one where the main character was a mound of dirt absorbing nutrients from a decomposing deer. It helped him sleep.

He helped Caroline set up for it before and then helped clean up after, and she asked what he thought about it.

"I don't have anything particularly intelligent to say," Rogan said.

"I'm sure that's not true."

"That one guy talking about postmodern semiotics, though?"

"Eric got most of his talking points from the New York Times Review of Books and I'm guessing a couple of college essays he bought online, and he somehow thought the person who chose the book and runs the group wouldn't notice."

"You didn't call him on it, though."

"He bought the book – that book. And he came to my little club. Who am I to judge anyone who needs a little crutch? It's not like I picked the book because it was easy."

"Why'd you pick it?"

She shrugged and said matter-of-factly, "Because it made me feel like shit."

Rogan blinked a couple of times. "Oh."

"That's not what I mean. What I mean is I felt like shit when I read it and it didn't try to make me feel better."

"My aunt did kind of explain it to me."

"You ever feel like shit and someone tries to console you and you want to throw them into traffic? ... No? Really still just me? Like, they want to make you feel better and you're like, feeling better will make me feel better. You telling me to hang in there baby just makes me want to take the cat from that poster and drown it in a bathtub. But then I picked up Nujaim and they were like, shit is fucked and we're all gonna die, and I'm like, yeah that tracks."

"Do you still feel like shit?"

"A non-zero amount of the time."

"You didn't say that during the discussion."

"Maybe I should've, but I keep thinking I should at least pretend to do actual analysis. Fucking Eric -- I Googled the New York Times review on my phone while he was talking so I could ask a follow-up. See, when you do too much of the homework, you ruin the curve for everybody. So next time just come in and have nothing intelligent to say. Everyone'll be relieved, trust me."

She told him what the next book would be, a novel called "Purgatory is Other People" about a dead guy watching over his shitty family from beyond the grave – a comedy.

"Are you much of a reader?"

"I feel like when people ask that they're really asking if you're smart or stupid."

"I'm really not, though."

"I know."

"I own a bookstore, so I'm super pro-reading, but not as a value judgment."

"I usually read romance novels."

Caroline blinked a couple of times. "Oh."

"Now you're judging me."

"Only because I think 99-percent of happy endings are lies."

"I read to relax, so I look for really formulaic, just okay books about straight people who fall in love in completely unconvincing ways. It helps me not think about myself. Not so different from reading about death and dirt as you might think. Speaking of which, was the dirt supposed to be fucking the deer, or the other way around?"

"Death-sex metaphors don't all have to be penetrative, you know. Stop being such a guy."

"Sorry."

"But see, you just did a book discussion. Not so hard."

"I'm also sorry you feel shitty."

"No, I'm sorry for dumping on you."

"That's a nice change of pace actually. Usually it's the other way around."

"So how are things with that?" Caroline asked. "Pretend that came out better."

"It is what it is. But thank you."

"For what?"

"Letting me work here for starters. Also for not trying to make me feel better. Sometimes shit is just fucked."

"Not always."

"But a lot though."

Caroline thought for a second. "Yeah, a lot."

 

I'm so lonely I don't even want to be with myself anymore.

It was a beautiful thing when Caroline woke up to rain one morning. It was the good kind of rain. Not the cold, ugly, shitty kind of rain but a nice steady shower, no wind. She cracked open a window just enough to hear it, and it smelled nice too.

Then she hated it. Intensely and all at once. Because Emily wasn't there. The rain brought her out of sleep and into a memory she didn't even realize was there about – oh who the hell cares what it was about. It was starting to piss her off. It had been more than a year since she and Emily ended – how the fuck long was this supposed to take? How sick of it were her friends by now?

Talking to Rogan was the most she'd talked to anyone about it for weeks, and she hadn't even mentioned Emily by name. That's how tired of herself she was. If she were living with someone like her she'd leave them too.

But there was life before Emily. Really. Those eight years they were together didn't start until Caroline was 31, when she met Emily at – no, forget where she met Emily, this should be about her wonderful vibrant life before her, which she could project into a wonderful vibrant life after her.

Her first kiss, that was nice. Well, her first kiss with a girl was nice. She kissed a guy when she was 17. He took her out stargazing, but he got handsy so she slapped him. Then he kept getting handsy, so she punched him. She didn't know at the time if she didn't like him because he was a man or because he was an asshole. Turned out both.

The first time she kissed a girl was when she was 19. Meredith also stargazed in the sense that she worked at a science museum selling mugs, pens, and t-shirts with stars on them out of the gift shop. One day after closing she snuck her into the little planetarium, kissed her and got a little handsy, but Meredith pulled back and asked, "Is that okay?" In the heat of that moment Caroline wasn't thinking clearly enough to judge, but in hindsight "pounce" was an accurate description of how she answered that question. Yep, definitely gay.

Let's see, what else, what else? Good memories not related to Emily ... Well, Caroline did go on a date recently. Yes, an actual date, almost out of a sense of obligation, but it met the technical parameters of a date. Paula was a phlebotomist at the lab where Caroline was contributing her fluids for her yearly physical – a yearly physical she'd put off for three years. She didn't know what the ethical guidelines were for phlebotomists; did this count as dating a patient?

"I'm not really dating anyone right now," Caroline had said, her go-to let-them-down-gently.

"Yeah, it'd be weird if you were on a date at a doctor's office. I was wondering about in a few hours, though, at a more appropriate dating venue like a restaurant, if you'd like to date anyone then." She had the wry confidence of a Tig Notaro. Emily was nothing like Tig Notaro – see, not about Emily!

A restaurant was much too formal, but Paula didn't drink coffee so they settled on tea, which turned out to be way more formal than a restaurant would have been. They sat in a quiet cozy corner of Downton Abbey where a server brought them buttered mini scones and jam.

"I'm so sorry," said Caroline. "This seemed like a good idea at the time."

Paula had already eaten two scones, so she was clearly unfazed.

"I honestly don't know what a normal date looks like anymore," Caroline continued. "I just got out of a relationship." May as well get the worst first date topics out of the way early. Maybe follow that up with a debate about abortion.

But all Paula said was, "I'm sorry to hear that. How long ago was it?"

"A little over a year."

That raised Paula's eyebrows. "So not just just."

"Exactly, and I'm pretty sure I'm fucking this up right now already, and we haven't even gotten to the tea part of tea." Then their server arrived with two pots of an apple spice black tea blend. "Well, that's something at least."

"How long was it, before it wasn't?"

"Eight years. But there should be a time limit on still being hung up, right? It shouldn't have taken me this long to go on a date – which, by the way, this is my first date since if that wasn't clear from ..." She gestured to her whole body.

"You ever get a cut in an awkward place?" Paula asked, apropos of nothing. "You get a cut most places, slap a band-aid on it and you're done. But then you get one on, like, the inside of your knuckle. Could just be a paper cut, but you're always using it, bending it, moving it, and it takes forever to heal just because it's in the wrong place to just let it alone. You can't really time limit that. It's always different."

"I take it you've been cut before?"

Paula grinned. "Yeah, a couple times."

"But you've got your shit together."

"I'm good at looking like I do. Everybody's kinda pretending to have their shit together. You're not the only one who's hung up on stuff."

"I didn't mean to assume," said Caroline. "I think I assume everyone has their shit together but me. If only I were better at pretending."

"I'm gonna do a metaphor again, but it'll be quick, so bear with me. In my building sometimes the super will shut off the water for a few hours for repairs. When they turn it back on, you gotta let it run for a few minutes because at first it spits and sputters all this brown stuff. Gotta get that out of its system before it runs clear again."

"I'm the brown stuff? Does it smell?"

"I mean, pining over an ex is never a good look – especially an ex who's that past tense – but someone who likes you is still gonna like you. And by the bottom of that kettle maybe I'll be the one who fucks it up by saying something stupid. Wouldn't be the first time. But let's take it one scone at a time."

"You've already had three."

"Then catch up." Paula winked.

"You know, I own a little bookstore where we sell scones shaped like genitals. I think telling you that falls somewhere between small talk and TMI, but I'm not sure where."

"I'm pretty sure you just described flirting."

"Did I just do flirting?"

"Not sure it counts if it's not intentional, but more or less, yeah."

Achievement unlocked: more or less flirting.

The date went well after that. Or okay. Mediocre? Who can even tell after the tenth or twentieth time you've gone over it in your head. Maybe that's why she didn't tell Angelina about it. She didn't want more opinions on it when she could barely even handle her own.

No, that's not true. It actually came up with Rogan – or rather, she let it come up with him. The real reason she didn't tell Angelina was because she knew her too well. That would have made it too real. And after the whole thing with Paula drifted away after a few rounds of phone tag, she didn't want Angelina to be disappointed in her. It's bad enough to be disappointed in yourself.

Actually, no, that's still not the whole truth. The thing is, Angelina knew Caroline with Emily. She knew how Caroline looked and felt with Emily. She knew how Caroline acted while she was with Emily. She knew what it looked like when it was the real deal. And deep down Caroline didn't want to know if it was the real deal with Paula or if it wasn't. Maybe she still wasn't ready for the real deal. Maybe she didn't want realness defined by Emily.

Rogan didn't know any of that. So for him Paula was just Paula, and that's what Caroline wanted her to be too. And Caroline just wanted to be Caroline, whatever the hell that meant today. She could talk to Rogan and feel a sense of who she was at that moment, instead of who she had been.

Caroline put her phone back in her pocket after sending Paula what she didn't know at the time would be her last text message before whatever it was between them ran its course – some dumb joke about scones because that was their thing apparently, and then a smile emoji, but not the smile that was smiling a lot. The slight smile. In turn she smiled at Rogan, who was at the cash register at Madness in the Spring. Rogan smiled back. Also a slight smile.

Oh who the fuck was she kidding? To tell or not tell her best friend or her nephew. To date or not to date, to be whoever Caroline was today. It was still all about Emily. She was still going to sleep about Emily, waking up about Emily, looking out the window mad at the fucking rain about Emily. Still somewhere in the back of her mind. The water still running brown, still not safe to drink. And one night when all of that dawned on her she cried herself to sleep. Wasn't the first time. Wouldn't be the last.

 

You don't know me. You know one side of a story.

"You know, you don't have to limit yourself to such restrictive gender norms," Sean said. They were talking to Rosa, who was dressed as Elsa from "Frozen." The two of them were sitting cross-legged on Angelina's apartment floor while Angelina watched with her arms crossed.

"Can we maybe save the amateur gender studies curriculum for when she's, I don't know, five?"

"She can be anything she wants to be, you know. Maybe she's not even a girl. Who knows how Rosa will identify when she grows up?"

"Are you actually non-binary-splaining parenting to me right now?"

"I'm just saying."

Angelina rolled her eyes. Sean didn't think she liked them very much for some reason. They'd met a few times since Sean and Rogan became friends … or however you'd describe what they were. They hadn't had sex since That Night, and Sean wasn't sure either of them really wanted to. Nothing like a mental health emergency to take the casual out of casual hookups. The strings were fully attached now, so "friends" just made more sense at this point.

They were waiting for Rogan to get ready. Someone Sean knew from college was holding a small art exhibition of photos illustrating reptile fetishism. Yes, someone Sean fucked in college, but no, the reptile thing wasn't something Sean was particularly into. They just thought it would be fun, and hot, and invited Rogan to join, but he wasn't exactly sure what he should wear to a reptile fetish art show. Dude, nobody's there to look at you, but Rogan was self-conscious that way, and okay, in a room full of queers a lot of people probably would be looking at Rogan.

Come to think of it, Angelina probably did think this was a date, and Sean would probably be super-protective too if they had a nephew who'd tried to off himself not so long ago.

"How long is the exhibition running?" Angelina asked, expressing an interest and also probably pumping this asshole in her nephew's life for information.

"Just the weekend."

"Is art what he does for a living full-time?"

"More of a side gig." He repaired electronics, where he sometimes saw the fetish porn on other people's hard drives. "Why? Thinking about getting some reptile fetish art for Madness in the Spring?"

"What's fetish?" Rosa asked. Sean had forgotten she was still there.

"It's a word that just means when you like something," said Angelina.

"Why not say like then?"

"You're right, Rosa, like is a much better word that Sean should have used instead." She shot them a look. Yeah, she definitely didn't like them. "Not looking for reptile like art for the storefront, but he's an independent artist, we're an independent bookstore. I don't know, he might want to sell some of his work with us. Maybe we could turn him into a scone."

"I'll ask him." They smiled their biggest and brightest I'm not as big a prick as you think I am smile.

Rogan came out having replaced his oversize button-down shirt with an oversize polo, and his black jeans with navy blue jeans. Rogan had to explain all that because Sean couldn't actually tell from looking at him what was different.

"Call me if you need anything," Angelina told Rogan, and Sean was probably being paranoid to think that she meant that specifically about them, like, I'll pick you up if you get tired of this fucker.

 

"I don't think your aunt likes me," said Sean while the two of them were looking at one photo of a soft dick the size of a fucking fire hose that was body-painted to look like a garden snake.

"She likes you just fine," said Rogan.

"Now that makes it sound like she really doesn't like me. If she had said nice things about me you would've just said she liked me. It's the 'just fine' where my bullshit detector goes off. She clearly hates my guts."

"Okay, Sean."

At this point they had developed a shorthand – "Okay, Sean," or, I don't agree with you but I'm also not going to argue with you about this. Sean turned back to the photo. "Is this supposed to make me horny or scared?"

"I didn't know there was a difference," said Rogan.

Then the artist greeted them. Brian was a twink in a dog collar and a leather biker vest. He grabbed Sean's face with both hands and kissed them full on the lips. "You nasty piece of shit," said Brian.

"You fucking pervert, this is my friend Rogan." Rogan's hand shot out to make it clear that this would be a shake greeting and not a mouth greeting.

"How are you two liking the work?"

"It's weird, so I like it," said Sean.

"It's ... It's interesting," added Rogan while stuffing his hands into his pockets. "I don't know much about art really, so I'm probably the wrong person to ask."

"That makes you exactly the right person to ask. Come on." Brian wrapped his arm around Rogan's shoulder and guided him away to show him around – and not "show him around" as a euphemism, actually show him around. Brian came on strong, but he was 90% a cool guy. And the other 10% was flaky, not rapey.

Jim – that was another friend of Sean's, the one who rented this loft space and hosted wellness events, hot yoga, and biweekly sex parties there – found Sean next and gave them a big bear hug like the big bear he was. Well, maybe not totally a bear, he wasn't quite that beefy – otter plus, maybe?

"Where is he? Jim asked, fluttering his eyebrows suggestively.

"It's not like that," said Sean.

"I know, but you said he's hot."

"And definitely not ready for you. You break things."

"So do you."

"Yeah, well, not this thing." Sean hadn't told Jim or Brian about Rogan's ... well, what happened That Night. They'd mentioned Rogan when they hooked up because, well, Rogan was hot and they were bragging. Then they mentioned how they became friends, but yada yada yada'd over that middle part. They weren't sure if that constituted lying, or just protecting Rogan's privacy. But they decided that, when in doubt, it was nobody's fucking business. Honestly, there wasn't much that Sean thought was anyone else's fucking business that they hadn't told them already.

But it created an uncomfortable space for Sean because they were actually the only one who really knew how That Night was. Rogan was there in the technical sense of being physically present, but he hardly remembered any of it. There was just Sean.

You know how you can drink too much and black out – everyone else remembers, but you can't. Sean had certainly done that before. This was the opposite, like there was time missing for everyone else but them, a pocket of time and space that didn't exist for anyone else. Blacking out was better.

Brian returned with Rogan, who was none the worse for wear – no visible scars, anyway – and they enjoyed the rest of the show.

 

"Your friends are pretty cool," Rogan told them during their walk back to his aunt's after the two of them left. "How did you meet them?"

"School. Work. Life. Mutual friends. Some combination thereof. Same way you meet anyone really."

Rogan chuckled a bit.

"What?" Sean asked.

"Yeah, I don't actually meet that many people, so my way is no way. Especially other gay people, or bi or trans or queer – none of the initials really. It's intimidating, kinda like that dream where you have to take a final exam but you've never even been to the class."

"Well you know me," said Sean. "Or are you just friends with me because NB isn't in the initialism?"

"Oh you're terrifying. But you already know the scariest thing there is to know about me, which makes you either more or less scary, but I'm not sure which."

Sean stopped in their tracks. "Seriously, you're scared of me?"

"I don't mean it like that, like you're gonna hit me or anything."

"Is it because I yelled at you after you got out of the hospital?"

"It's not that kind of scared. It's like ..." Rogan paused, hands stuffed in his pockets and looking down like he expected to find what it's like on the sidewalk. "You're confident, and you have these friends. You made yourself at home at the book club better than I have, and I work there. I'm kinda tagging along waiting for you to tell me to fuck off."

Sean rolled their eyes and smirked.

"See, that! You want to tell me to fuck off right now, don't you?"

"I'm never gonna tell you to fuck off, Rogan. I'm fucking terrified of you too."

"Why would you be scared of me?"

"Of you, for you – it's hard to tell sometimes. I want to give you so much shit right now, the same way I'd give Brian or Jim shit. I want to tell you to fuck off sometimes as a joke. I want to tell you to fuck off sometimes because I really want you to fuck off, but not forever, maybe just for an hour or a day. But I don't do that because I don't know if you'd take it like you're taking it right now just imagining I might hypothetically tell you to fuck off. I watch what I say. And I'm an asshole who doesn't watch what they say, so that's hard fucking work."

"You think I'm that fragile?"

"Aren't you? It hasn't been that long since you literally almost died, and I know we kinda talked about it, but not really and definitely not since, even though that shit comes up for me sometimes, like some kind of PTSD. That Night was a thing that happened to me too, you know, and I'm afraid to talk to you about it so I just ... don't."

"I'm okay right now. You can talk to me."

"Honestly?"

"Yeah."

Sean took a deep breath. "Honestly, I want to tell you to fuck off sometimes because I don't want you to die, and I wish I didn't care if you died, but I do. Fuck!" There was an annoying, unfamiliar wetness around Sean's eyeballs that was pissing them off. "We're not supposed to be doing feelings right after lizard porn. It's fucking stupid."

"Can I ... maybe ..." Rogan motioned as if to hug them, which was when they really did tell him to "Fuck off!" And it made Rogan smile. "I want you to tell me to fuck off like you tell your friends to fuck off."

"I didn't figure for you for such a masochist bottom pig – fuck, sorry, too far?"

"No, it's okay," said Rogan.

"I can be a fucking asshole, that's just my default setting. Fair warning."

"I know you probably regret it every other always, and you'd probably be better off if it never happened," said Rogan, "but I'm glad you're the one I called. And I'm glad you came. But I promise not to tell anyone."

"Tell anyone what?"

"That you're not really an asshole."

 

I thank the Lord for the people I have found.

Almost two months. That's how long it took for Lydia to check in on her son. Or rather, she called her sister first, which was good actually because Angelina hadn't decided yet if she even wanted to tell Rogan about it. But Lydia drove down and everything, dropped in on Angelina while he was at the bookstore – Angelina made sure of that. She had Caroline bring Rosa there to watch for a few hours, which wasn't entirely out of the ordinary, but was just enough that Caroline probably knew something was up.

"I have some nerve," said Lydia as soon as Angelina opened her apartment door.

"You stole my line."

"That's why I said it, so you know that I know. It's fucked up, and you have every right to be mad at me. I can't imagine what Rogan thinks of me."

"You wouldn't have to imagine if you bothered to show up. Or call. Even once. I haven't heard a good goddamn word from you since your son – who almost died, by the way – got out of the hospital. Do you want some fucking coffee?"

"Make it Irish?"

"Oh, it's going to be mostly liquor. I'm gonna need it." Angelina poured two cups of brandy with a splash of coffee and invited Lydia to sit down – specifically in the chair Rogan would sit in by the kitchen window when they had sleepless nights together. Lydia wouldn't know the significance, but Angelina wanted the reminder.

"What could I say that wouldn't sound like an excuse?" Lydia asked after her first bracing sip.

"Nothing."

"How about the truth?"

"That you're a shitty mother? I know that already."

"You don't get to say that to me, you have no idea."

"No, I have an idea. I'm in the club now, remember? I have a daughter, who maybe you'll meet someday, and if she almost died –"

"First of all, that's not on me. You've never invited me to meet Rosa."

"Who needs an invitation to visit their niece? Or even just their sister who just had a baby."

"I wonder where I might have gotten the impression that I wasn't welcome."

"This isn't even about Rosa."

"No, it's just another thing you throw in my face when it suits you. You with the ammunition, same as always. You keep that gun locked and loaded."

"I wonder where I might have gotten the impression I need to defend myself."

"How is he?"

"He's alive, for starters."

"What, no thanks to me?"

"I wasn't going to say that."

"I love my son."

Angelina snorted and took another sip. "The thing is, I know that's true, which is why it's so hard for me to square that with not hearing from you for almost two months."

"Maybe you'll get it someday, when Rosa is old enough for you to get it, when she doesn't fit in your pocket anymore. When she tells you who she is, and it's not something you understand, at least not right away. You fuck up. You say the wrong things. You see her drifting away little by little, changing. And then … then he tries to kill himself, which is a mortal sin."

"Do not make this a fucking church thing, Lydia."

"I don't believe that shit, Angie. No one who wants to kill themself wants to kill themself, and God knows that. I know He does. God loves people who are so hurt that they're less afraid of what's on the other side of that than what's here. That's not a sin, no way it is. But we raised him Catholic, he knew what they said about it, and he tried it anyway – that's how bad he was, that's how bad fucked up. You think you know what being a mom is like when she's four?" Lydia took another sip. "You'll know when you start asking yourself if she's better off without you. If you're the thing that's wrong in her life. You start asking that question and yeah, it starts to make sense not to visit. Maybe the thing he really needs is you gone. And then what do I do? Text him? A letter or email from miles away? What would I even say?

"Who am I kidding? That's not going to be you and Rosa. I think when I called you that night I already knew you were a better mother than me. Maybe you're the mom Rogan actually needed. There's no instructions for having a gay son."

"Okay, that's some bullshit," said Angelina, "and maybe next time try to sell it to someone who doesn't own a bookstore. We have a whole section for parents of gay kids. I could have recommended a few instruction manuals. Better yet, I could have saved us both the trouble and just summarized it for you: you raise a gay kid the same way you raise a straight kid, a left-handed kid, a nearsighted kid, or a gifted kid – by showing the fuck up!"

Lydia finished her "coffee" in a bigger gulp than was probably healthy. "I miss him. And not just for the last two months. Since … he was 10, maybe?"

"And whose fault is that?"

"Mine, mostly, probably. His father's the rest of it, but I guess that's my fault too."

"That's not your fault."

"Not leaving the son of a bitch a lot sooner was."

The sisters smiled at each other. "Yeah, that was your fault."

"He gave me Rogan, and that's all he gave me. The rest was taking. By the time I figured that out …" She trailed off and twirled her finger around the rim of her "coffee" cup. "I'd like to see him. I don't know what the hell I'm even going to say, but I want to see him. If he wants me around, I'm going to stick around for a while. And if he doesn't, I'll go."

"Cutting and running isn't going to be any better now than it was before."

"Not forever, just ... Maybe what I've been doing wrong is thinking it's up to me. Let him call the shots this time. Or maybe that's not it at all. You never run out of new ways to fuck up with your kids. But I promise I'm not just going to disappear this time. No matter what happens."

Angelina didn't know if Lydia really meant that, but she believed she wanted to mean it.

 

Rogan woke up on one of those ordinary bad days where you start to wonder if everyone would be better off without you. If his aunt was starting to get sick of him, if he was fucking up at the bookstore. He rewound and replayed a few conversations with Sean that were probably fine, but he remembered accidentally mis-gendering them a couple of times – in his head, not out loud, but it was only a matter of time. He kept having arguments with them in his head, things he imagined them telling him about how disappointing he was, and he kept trying to defend himself, figure out some alibi to explain that he wasn't such a fuck-up while deep down kind of agreeing with them that he was.

He snoozed his alarm a few times, and the next thing he knew it was noon, he was staring at the ceiling, and he for sure was a fuck-up now. He was literally dead weight. What was the point of him, really?

You ever fantasize about crossing the street and getting hit by a car? Not so it kills you. Just a few broken bones that'll heal just fine, no lasting damage – pick a Smart car to do it, not an SUV. A nice, moderately distracting pain and a good reason to be flat-out that no one would be mad at you for. An ambulance ride to put things in perspective. Some terrible hospital food and a change of scenery. Buttons to press and a nurse to call – though you wouldn't want to bother them. Just one of those fluke accidents. It came out of nowhere, really. A crisis that isn't your fault.

When he finally dragged himself out of bed he didn't walk into traffic, so there was that. And when he fantasized about getting hit by a car he didn't want it to kill him, not right now at least. So he figured the glass was half full … No, that was an exaggeration. A few drops of moisture had collected at the bottom of the glass, condensation from having been left out.

His mom left the day before. Without seeing him. But that was actually his choice, not hers. He wasn't sure if it was the right choice, because when was he ever sure of a single choice in his life? It felt like the only choice, though. Or at least the only thing that felt like it was his choice at all. He felt like seeing her would have been for her, so that she wouldn't feel bad, and so wouldn't be mad at him for what happened. He would have spent the whole time making her feel better and the whole time after mad at himself for doing that.

So he said no. And he felt really fucking bad for saying no. He spent the last day periodically sneaking away to bathrooms to cry so no one would see how dumb he was being. Why are you crying? they kept asking him in his head. Isn't this what you wanted? What was the point then? This was ridiculous. Just figure out what you want already.

Slags was that night. He had planned to go. He had read the book – the comedy about the dead guy watching over his shitty family, and no he couldn't relate to that at all right now thank you very much. He'd told Caroline he would be there. He'd told Sean he would be there. And he was going to be consistent about one fucking thing today, so he didn't cancel. He went anyway.

His aunt came with him, probably to make sure he didn't throw himself into traffic for real. But he sat slouched in his chair the whole time with his arms folded across his chest and his copy of the book sitting face-down on the table. And suddenly something unexpected happened. He got up so fast from his chair that it clattered to the floor behind him and he hurled the book across the room, screaming "Fuck all of this!" before storming out of the store.

As soon as he got outside he thought, that's it, that did it. He was definitely getting fired for that. Angelina would probably ask him to move out because he was a danger to Rosa. I'm sorry. We tried our best. But this just isn't working out. I have to think about my family first. He sank down against the wall and sat on the sidewalk with his head in his hands. That's it, no way to take it back.

He was surprised that Sean was the first one to come check on him a few minutes later -- or a few seconds, he wasn't sure.

"That was fucking amazing," said Sean. "I'm aroused, obviously."

"How mad is everybody?"

"Mad?"

"I don't want to lose this fucking job over some stupid shit. I'll clean up whatever damage."

"What the fuck are you talking about? From the book? It was a paperback. Relax."

"I'm not fucking relaxed, okay?"

"Is this because your mom is such a cunt?"

"Don't fucking talk about my mom like that, what the fuck is wrong with you?"

"You're right, I shouldn't use language like that. I shouldn't have talked about what a piece of shit your mom is in such a gendered way. I should know better considering what thundering assholes my parents are. See? Descriptive without the sexist language."

"I just want to be okay."

"Join the club." Sean slid down next to Rogan. "You got Eric to shut up, though, so you're my fucking hero." They reached into their handbag and pulled out a flask.

"I probably shouldn't," said Rogan.

"Good, because it's for me."

They took a swig as Angelina came out to see her nephew in this sorry state. He looked up at her with pleading eyes. "I'm so sorry, I'll fix whatever's broken."

"I think your mom may be beyond repair," said Angelina.

"Ha, burn!" Sean raised their flask to her and took another sip of whatever the fuck was in there.

"You know I love her and I always will," said Angelina. "But seriously, fuck your mother."

"Yeah, fuck her," said Sean, who took another another swig and Rogan was starting to think was already a few swigs deep before they even got here.

"That's something we get to say, not you."

"Was not aware of the protocol. I apologize." They nudged Rogan. "See, I'm learning."

The three of them waited out there for about half an hour until the book club ended. Angelina and Sean didn't seem mad at him, but they seemed to be keeping an eye on him nonetheless. The attendees passed them as they left – Eric eyed Rogan cautiously as he went – and the three of them went back inside with Caroline, who was pouring four glasses of something out of a clear bottle.

"I'm so sorry, I –"

"Less sorry, more drinking," said Caroline.

"I don't think I should."

"Did I ask what you thought?"

"The Zoloft I'm on –"

"You think you're the only one in this room who's been on Zoloft? I was taking it for a few years, and if I could never have a drink after a shitty fucking week I would've needed another antidepressant just for that."

"I don't know if that's healthy."

"Yeah, well, you're in the wrong place for healthy. We only serve fuck-ups here." She sat him down and rubbed his back while he threw back a shot of … he didn't really know his alcohols, he just knew it burned going down. He asked for another, threw it back immediately, and Caroline did the same. Nobody said much after that, but then he looked her in the eyes, her hand still making small circles just below his shoulders, and he started crying all over again. He lowered his head down onto the table as he did.

"Why can't I just be okay?" he said, to himself as much as to anyone else.

"Because shit is fucked and we're all gonna die."

He didn't know exactly how long it took him to stop crying this time. At this point he was just an engine running until it was out of gas. But Caroline, Angelina, and Sean were still there when he did.


Submitted: March 30, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Daniel Montgomery. All rights reserved.

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