He rolls his eyes, smiles, slips the beads over my neck as I duck my head.
When I look back up at him, he’s beaming at me, and I think, I love you more now than I ever have. How is it possible that this keeps happening with him?
“Can we take a picture together?” I ask, but what I’m thinking is, I wish I could bottle this moment and wear it as a perfume. It would always be with me. Everywhere I went, he’d be there too, and so I’d always feel like myself.
He takes his phone out, and we huddle together as he snaps a picture. When we look at it, he makes a sound of strangled surprise. Probably in an effort not to look so sleepy, he threw his eyes wide in the last possible second.
“You look like you saw something horrible exactly when the flash went off,” I say.
He tries to pull the phone out of my hands, but I spin away from him, jog out of reach as I text it to myself. He follows, fighting a smile, and when I hand it back, I say, “There, now that I have a copy, you can delete it.”
“I would never delete it,” Alex says. “I’m just only going to look at it when I’m alone, locked in my apartment, so that no one else ever sees my face in this picture.”
“I’m going to see it,” I say.
“You don’t count,” he says.
“I know,” I agree. I love that, being the one who doesn’t count. The one who’s allowed to see all of Alex. The one who makes him weird.
When we get back to the apartment, I ask when he’s going to let me read the short stories he’s been working on.
He says he can’t—if I don’t like them, he’ll be too embarrassed.
“You got into an amazing MFA program,” I say. “You’re obviously good. If I don’t think they’re good, I’m obviously wrong.”
He says that if I don’t think they’re good, then U of I is wrong.
“Please,” I say.
“Okay,” he says, and gets out his computer. “Just wait until I’m in the shower, okay? I don’t want to have to watch you reading it.”
“Okay,” I say. “If you have a novel, I could read that instead, since I’ll have the whole length of an Alex Nilsen shower.”
He tosses a pillow at me and goes into the bathroom.
The story really is short. Nine pages, about a boy who was born with a pair of wings. All his life, people tell him that this means he should try to fly. He’s afraid to. When he finally does, jumps off a two-story roof, he falls. He breaks his legs and wings. He never gets them reset. As he recovers, the bone heals in its misshapen form. Finally, people stop telling him that he must’ve been born to fly. Finally, he’s happy.
When Alex comes back out, I’m crying.
He asks me what’s wrong.
I say, “I don’t know. It just speaks to me.”
He thinks I’m making a joke and chuckles along, but for once, I wasn’t referencing the gallery girl who tried to sell us a twenty-one-thousand-dollar bear sculpture.
I was thinking about what Julian used to say about art. How it either makes you feel something or it doesn’t.
When I read his story, I started crying for a reason I can’t totally explain, not even to Alex.
When I was a kid, I used to have these panic attacks thinking about how I could never be anyone else. I couldn’t be my mom or my dad, and for my whole life, I’d have to walk around inside a body that kept me from ever truly knowing anyone else.
It made me feel lonely, desolate, almost hopeless. When I told my parents about this, I expected them to know the feeling I was talking about, but they didn’t.
“That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with feeling that way, though, sweetie!” Mom insisted.
“Who else do you think about being?” my dad said with his particular blunt fascination.
The fear lessened, but the feeling never went away. Every once in a while, I’d roll it back out, poke at it. Wonder how I could ever stop feeling lonely when no one could ever know me all the way. When I could never peer into someone else’s brain and see it all.
And now I’m crying because reading this story makes me feel for the first time that I’m not in my body. Like there’s some bubble that stretches around me and Alex and makes it so we’re just two different colored globs in a lava lamp, mixing freely, dancing around each other, unhindered.
I’m crying because I’m relieved. Because I will never again feel as alone as I did during those long nights as a kid. As long as I have him, I will never be alone again.
ALEX!” I SHRIEK at the sight of his Tinder profile. “No!”
“What? What?” he says. “There’s no way you’ve read everything by now!”
“Um, first of all,” I say, brandishing his phone out in front of us, “don’t you think that’s a problem? Your bio looks like the cover letter to a résumé. I didn’t even know Tinder bios could be this long! Isn’t there some kind of character limit? No one is going to read this whole thing.”
“If they’re really interested, they will,” he says, slipping the phone out of my hand.
“Maybe if they’re interested in harvesting your organs, they’ll skim to the bottom just to make sure you don’t mention your blood type—do you?”
“No,” he says, sounding hurt, then adds, “just my weight, height, BMI, and social security number. Is what I wrote good at least?”
“Oh, we’re not talking about that just yet.” I pluck his phone from his hand again, angle the screen toward him, and zoom in on his profile picture. “First we have to talk about this.”