Our Lives in These Empty Spaces Aside

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by Tamago (卵)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/294307.html)

My name is Rainer, and I’m an alcoholic.

It’s how stories start, if you’re one of us. Hell, if you’re one of us, there’s no other way a story can start. My name is Mary, and I’m an alcoholic, and here’s the time I got fired from my job. My name is Chuck, and I’m an alcoholic, and here’s why my kids don’t speak to me anymore. Everything that came before, everything that’s come since, all of it prefaced by who I am and what my problem is. Everything colored by how I could slip back into a bottle at a moment’s notice. It’s a warning sign, a BEWARE OF DOG six feet tall and smelling like a half-empty glass.

It’s not an excuse, though I know some people who use it that way: I can’t be held responsible for my actions, officer; it wasn’t me, it was the one-armed can of beer. But alcohol never made me do anything I didn’t want to do; it just shut up the part of me that gave a shit about the consequences.

I don’t want to speak for anyone else here tonight, but for me there was only ever one addiction, and that was to bad ideas. Whatever I put myself through or put through myself, it was only ever in the service of bad ideas. Even now I’m at twelve years trying to be sober and two years actually succeeding, the real draw back down is the pull of bad ideas. My therapist calls them “intrusive thoughts”; I live next to the ocean, so I think of them as my sirens. I dream of shipwrecks. I wade out into the waves and curse the sense that stops me before I get in deep enough to drown.

So my name is Rainer, and I’m an alcoholic, and here’s the time I rode one of those bad ideas out to its inevitable conclusion.

~*~

When they’d gotten the letter addressed to “Lydia de Leon” (she got so upset when people assumed she’d taken his name, but here it was almost sweet), they’d assumed that was the end of it. Galen hadn’t read it, since it hadn’t been for him, but he’d stood in the kitchen making dinner while she’d gone into the study with it, and over a stir-fry with rice she’d given him the gist. One of his foster moms had run AA meetings, and he knew what the Making Amends step looked like. They’d both agreed that they were happy he seemed to have found help, then expressed doubt that they’d ever hear from him again. And for five years, they hadn’t.

Thus, the last thing Galen expected to see as he thumbed through the mail on that stormy Wednesday afternoon was a robin’s-egg-blue envelope with the same artful handwriting, only now those careful letters spelled his name.

“Can’t believe you went out in that,” called Lydia from the next room over.

Galen placed all the mail unopened atop the washing machine and began unlacing his running shoes. He was soaked to the bone, and there wasn’t much he could do about the rest of himself, but he could try to minimize the damage as he trekked across the house. “Just a couple miles,” he said.

Just.” She peeked her head around the corner and her brown eyes widened. “I’ll get you a towel or two.”

“Thanks,” he said, peeling off his shirt. Sweat and rain, indistinguishable now from one another, dripped from the fabric to the tile floor. He placed the shoes by the back door and tossed his clothes into the washer, until he was naked and goosefleshed all over.

Lydia returned with three whole towels in her arms; she gave an appreciative wolf whistle before forking them over. “Don’t get dressed on my account.”

“It’s cold,” he said, rubbing one across his dark hair until its wood-brown spikes stuck up in all directions.

“I’ll go start the shower,” Lydia said with a wink, and for a time, the mail was forgotten.

He remembered after dinner, though, and when he went back out to the laundry room, the blue envelope was still there atop the pile. It was taller and narrower than the other letters, with a downtown postmark and a generic stamp. He slid his fingers behind the flap and eased the glued-together paper apart. Something about the process felt delicate, like disarming a bomb where the explosive material contained within was the past.

One item lay tucked inside the envelope, a standard announcement from one of the tourist-district art galleries, a glossy reproduction of a seascape on cardstock, overlaid with text identifying the exhibit and its location. The back announced a champagne reception that Friday evening, but in the blank space where an address should have been was a handwritten note: I understand if you don’t want to come, but if you do, I’d like to see you there. -R

That card stripped away all the intervening years, and Galen was seventeen again, sitting outside the principal’s office, holding his bandaged right hand to his chest, a bottle of adolescent fury with years of practice gone into maintaining a cold, detached exterior. Hours of therapists hadn’t been able to crack him, but hours of therapists didn’t know the right buttons to push. Someone did, though, and that someone was now, in his memory, inside the principal’s office, getting read the riot act about fighting on campus and destruction of school property and all the things Galen was going to get a repeat of in just a few minutes. Galen didn’t want to think about that, though, so he squeezed his injured hand and let the pain focus him to quiet. Little red lines began to fade into view against the white gauze, floating into existence like ghosts, only unlike ghosts, they wouldn’t disappear. Stitches, he’d heard the school nurse say, and scar.

Stitches would probably have been a good idea, but they hadn’t happened, so scar had. He ran his left thumb up and down the deep, smooth lines that looked like a particularly inept suicide attempt, so botched it had even been done on the wrong side. They were just obvious enough that it was more polite not to ask. Say what one would of broken glass, but it cut clean.

He jumped at a touch between his shoulders, but when he turned around, it was only Lydia, her eyebrows drawn. “Everything okay?”

“Everything’s–” Galen sighed and handed over the gallery announcement. He watched as she turned it in her hands and read all the details, her face empty of expression. He’d had a black eye when he’d met her for the first time, and she’d asked about it, because she didn’t believe in talking around elephants in rooms. It was part of what made them work so well together.

At last she returned it to him, then drew her long brown hair back behind her ears. “Addressed to us?”

“Addressed to me.” He showed her the envelope.

Lydia regarded the evidence in front of her with an appraising nod, then took it from his hands; he watched as she walked over to the refrigerator and tacked it up at eye level with a heavy St. Alban’s Prep magnet, one of the billion or so they had from every time the school handed out one goodie bag or another to its faculty. “You should go,” she said.

Galen realized that subconscious gesture had drawn his hand up toward his chest, and he forced it down. “Why?”

“Because you’re still not over it.” She opened the bottom part of the fridge and pulled out a half-empty bottle of wine, the same they’d had with dinner, then proceeded to fill a short tumbler for each of them. They had wine glasses, but those were for company. They did not stand much on ceremony with one another. “And don’t make that face,” she said, without even turning around to see his expression. “It’ll be good for you. Go, see your childhood bully all grown up. And if he’s still an asshole, you can go right on hating him. But at least your hate will be the current version.”

As was so often the case, she had a point. “Are you coming?”

Lydia shook her head as she drank her wine with one hand and handed him his glass with the other. “Childhood bully and asshole ex are two completely different should-or-shouldn’t-revisit scenarios. Besides, he didn’t send it to me.”

With a sigh, Galen looked over at the tacked-up announcement. It was a seascape, all right, but as he looked closer now, he could see even in the tiny reproduction the way the clouds were rolling in across the sky, a great coming weather front. Already the ocean had begun to churn and whitecap, and all the trees along the far shore were bent almost double in the wind. In the midst of it all, almost hidden by the superimposed text — Rainer Barany: Storm Suite — was a small human figure standing down at the waterline, stark and pale in the ominous grey light. “Did you know he could paint?” asked Galen.

“I knew he could draw. He showed me some of his sketchbooks. But he’d get mad and burn them. I didn’t think he had the patience for anything that detailed.”

Galen nodded, still not quite ready to look away, now that he’d gotten in so close. He couldn’t tell at this size, of course, but something about the figure looked familiar. A self-portrait, perhaps, though that didn’t seem quite right either. But with a sky that low and close, there couldn’t be much time left to get away from the powerful and ultimately inevitable storm.

~*~

He’d expected the original to be larger. He hadn’t expected it to be massive. It took up almost an entire free-standing wall, stretching well above his head and fifteen feet wide. There was no frame; instead, the canvas bent around the edges, and the paint continued with it, as though someone had grabbed the landscape and bent it back at a right angles. The reproduction had by necessity flattened all the texture to the glossy plane of the cardstock, but here he could see the way the heavy oil paints rose and dipped as they piled together. Waves and edges of clouds stood out from the canvas in shallow relief, and even though he knew better, he wanted to run his hand over its surface and learn the way it felt. The way it glistened under the lights made him wonder if it was still wet, if perhaps touching it would smudge the colors beneath the pressure. This one didn’t even have a price tag, not that he could see. He supposed that if you had to ask, you couldn’t afford it.

What caught his eye was a flash of orange in the water. At first he thought it might be a trick of reflection, but no, under the crest of one building wave was a deliberate streak of orange paint. He looked at the others — some had the same effect, just little pops of light amidst the more traditional sea colors. He’d drawn enough pictures in enough social workers’ offices to know a little something about drawing the water. But he’d never picked up an orange crayon to do it.

There was purple in the sand, too, and pink at the edges of the stormclouds. The light that shone down in heavy, distant beams was tinged green. All the colors were in the places they weren’t supposed to be, but so precisely that he hadn’t noticed until he was almost nose-to-nose with the canvas. They weren’t wrong; they were all correct, and everything looked right. Galen didn’t know why he’d never noticed the orange in the ocean before.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” asked a heavily accented voice from behind him, and he turned to see an elderly woman who looked as though she might have stepped out of a stylized jazz age illustration. Her limbs were long and thin, her nose hawklike, her cheekbones razor-sharp, and between her fingers she pinched a cigarette holder as lean as she was, complete with unlit black cigarette. “He paints so fast, and even he took nearly an entire year to finish that one.”

“It’s–” Galen caught himself, realizing he had no words for art and not wanting to sound like a complete idiot. “It’s something.”

She smiled and held out her hand, limp-wristed, as though she expected a kiss instead of a handshake. “Rainer has quite the eye for–”

And then she stopped mid-sentence, and she looked at him — really looked at him, such that Galen felt as though he’d been mounted and shoved under a microscope. “The eye for…?” he offered, hoping that getting her started again would be a good first step toward distracting her from whatever had caught her attention.

“You’re the lion man,” she said, in a voice so declarative that he almost didn’t want to argue.

He needed to, though, because somehow she’d made a very strange mistake. “I don’t believe I am….”

“Oh, come.” Her bony fingers wrapped around his arm, grabbing him at the elbow as though she were his date. He was at once conscious of how the plain grey suit he’d chosen made him seem over- and underdressed at once. “Does Rainer know you’re here yet?” His name sounded properly at home in her Eastern European accent, the first syllable more Rhine than rain.

“I–” The crowd at the gallery was bustling and thick, but she dragged him through them like some modern-day Moses, parting them with little more than a word. “The invitation said–”

“Rainer!” She waved the hand with the cigarette, and just like that, there he was.

Age and a thick blond beard had changed his face, but the cold, heavy look in his blue eyes hadn’t gone anywhere. He’d always been bigger than Galen in all dimensions, but now he appeared diminished somehow, as though he’d found a way to stoop until he’d actually shrunk. Dressed in a heavy fisherman’s sweater and corduroy trousers, he managed the same middle ground all the other patrons occupied, between casual and deliberate. Though he fought it down with all his might, Galen’s first instinct was to take up a defensive position, ready to block those great, knobby fists.

What he got instead was a cautious smile. “Hi,” said Rainer, and recognition was clear on his face — as was fear.

The woman who’d dragged him over squeezed Galen’s arm. “You didn’t tell me he was real!” she announced, pointing to Galen with obvious pleasure.

The fear washed over Rainer’s expression, widening his eyes and drawing back the corners of his mouth. The possibility occurred to Galen that she hadn’t been mistaken, but what she meant by it was still a mystery. Rainer’s eyes darted to the circle of people around him, all of whom were watching the proceedings with obvious interest; every inch of his body language spoke discomfort, and Galen didn’t know if the others hadn’t noticed or were just choosing to ignore it. “Some sketches,” he said at last, as much to Galen as to anyone else. “Of people I’ve known. Galen and I went to school together.”

“Art school?” asked a bespectacled man.

“Middle school,” corrected Galen. “And high school.”

“Rainer here is all self-taught!” said the woman who had laid siege to Galen’s arm, to a chorus of murmured appreciation. “This is raw talent you see on the canvases around you.”

“With Madame Prochazka’s encouragement and guidance,” Rainer added quickly, indicating the woman at Galen’s side. “She’s the one who saw me painting miniatures for tourists and gave me gallery space.”

What followed next was nearly half an hour of art talk, though most of the talking was done by the others there, while Rainer and Galen occasionally made eye contact, only to then jerk their gazes away as though they’d touched something hot. There was nothing to be embarrassed or nervous about, Galen kept reminding himself, and then he kept finding excuses to stare at his feet. This was all some sort of weird dream, one where any minute now he’d look down and realize he wasn’t wearing pants, or remember that he was late for math class and hadn’t studied for his test, or something, anything that explained the world more than this. He fidgeted with the heavy silver band on his left hand and wished Lydia were there with him.

At last, some agreement seemed to have been struck between Madame Prochazka and the surrounding attendees, something financial in nature that required being done in an office somewhere, and just like that, they bustled away, leaving Rainer and Galen alone by a triptych of driftwood at sunset. The crowd had thinned out around them, maybe gone home or maybe just gone to another room, and the patrons remaining seemed more enraptured by the art than by the artist. Galen couldn’t quite stop staring at his feet.

Rainer broke the silence with a quiet laugh and raked fingers through his shaggy hair. “So, hey. Glad you could make it.”

The rational part of his brain knew he was talking to Rainer Barany, but the rest refused to believe it. He looked hobbled, Galen thought, and didn’t know why, but with the way Rainer held himself, Galen could almost imagine iron shackles around his neck and wrists, stooping him and fixing him to the floor. His voice had always had a bark to it, but now it had settled into a low rumble from his sturdy chest, and not a single swear or threat had passed his lips since Galen had been dragged to his side. Galen felt ashamed for having arrived so on guard.

He put on his best smile instead and extended a hand. “Thanks for the invitation.”

Rainer flinched — and then obviously tried to hide it, using the sharp gesture as an excuse to put his now-empty can of seltzer down on the table at his side. But it had been there, the kind of skittish jerk Galen had seen Rainer induce but never evidence in the eight years they’d been in school together. He pushed past it, though, and took Galen’s hand in his own, which had grown larger and knobbier in the intervening time. “It’s a little weird–” He stumbled mid-sentence as his eyes caught where their hands met; turning his wrist, he moved Galen’s scars into the light. “I wondered if yours faded.”

illustrated by Tamago

Galen shook his head. “Yours?”

With a sad smile, Rainer let go of Galen’s hand and raised his own left one. The white veins of old injury spread out across his skin, gnarling knuckles and slashing up the back of his arm past his wrist far worse than Galen’s own did, especially along the outer edge that ran up to his pinky. All Galen had seen at the time was the glass and the blood all over both of them. They’d both been suspended for three days, and when Galen returned he found out Rainer hadn’t. That had been the end of that.

“So,” said Rainer, breaking the moment by shuffling his hands into his pockets, “how’s Lydia?”

Galen had expected this; hell, he’d rehearsed this. “She’s doing well. Teaching middle-school Language Arts at St. Alban’s. I do tenth-grade World History and Government, same place. We live on-campus in a place off one of the main halls. For the residential students.” That seemed too hollow, though, so before he knew he was doing it, he’d tried to fire up a lie: “She wanted to come, but she–”

Rainer cut him off with a wave of his hand; his mouth wore a sad, self-conscious smile. “You don’t have to explain,” he said. “Hell, I wasn’t even sure I was going to see you.”

“Seemed like fun?” Galen offered with a shrug.

Rainer snorted. “Spoken like a man who doesn’t attend gallery openings.”

“I…” Galen sighed. “I don’t.”

“I try to avoid them too, but….”

“Kind of tough when you’re the man of the hour?”

With that little smile still warming his expression, Rainer nodded. He gave their surroundings a quick glance, then added, “I don’t think I like it much.”

“God,” said Galen, breaking out in a cold sweat just thinking about it, “I wouldn’t.”

That startled Rainer into a laugh, one so disarming and honest that Galen didn’t know if he’d ever even thought Rainer capable of that particular combination of emotions. “Still the quiet one, hm?”

“That’s me,” said Galen with a shrug, feeling quieter by the minute. He was starting to feel stupid for having come, and stupider still for having come alone. He didn’t belong here; he stuck out among the crowd of art buyers and had come looking for a seventeen-year-old boy, not a thirty-year-old man. Had he come to gloat, even, without realizing it? The years between high school and that moment got shorter by the minute. He was talkative enough now to shout down rooms full of noisy kids as needed. He’d tempered his taciturn nature until he could manage proper conversation. But his sentences seemed to be falling apart into short, declarative bursts now, and he found himself wishing for his old haircut, the one with thick frosted bangs long enough to hide behind. If he could hunch his shoulders enough, maybe he could pretend he was invisible.

The lines around Rainer’s eyes softened as his expression faded back into the neutral pleasant mask Galen knew men like them cultivated for situations just such as this.”Yeah, well.” Rainer cleared his throat. “Guess I ran out of most of what I had to say a long time ago. Now I just grunt a lot. Meow at stray cats.”

“They ever meow back?”

“Only if I didn’t put out enough kibble.”

“At least that’s a problem with an easy enough solution.”

“Not necessarily. You ever met a stray that understands the concept of ‘enough’?”

Despite still feeling awkward, Galen felt the corners of his mouth tug into a smile. “I never managed to be one myself.”

Whatever Rainer might have said in response to that was preempted by the reappearance of Madame Prochazka at his elbow. She held up three fingers, and when Rainer’s face shifted into an expression of obvious disbelief, she nodded and held up her hand, palm flat and facing him. He rewarded the gesture with a gentle high-five befitting someone of her frail stature. Galen was helplessly charmed. “So,” she said, turning her attention to Galen but still speaking to Rainer, “when is he sitting for you?”

“Sit?” asked Galen, wondering if the conversation had somehow made the shift from cats to dogs.

Rainer’s blue eyes went wide. “He’s not … he’s not here for that.”

“What am I not here for?”

Madame Prochazka swatted Rainer on the side of his arm. “I wish I had taped you the other day. Oh, no, Madame! Drawing people is so difficult! And I say, what? You practice! Life drawing. You stare at the sea for years, and you learn to paint the sea. You want to paint bodies, you need to stare at bodies.”

“You need a model?” Galen asked.

No,” said Rainer, his voice pitching high, before he turned back to Madame Prochazka. “I will attend the sessions at the University.”

“How many times have you promised me this? A thousand! How many times have you gone?” She held up her hand, fingers touched tip-to-tip in a clear zero, the answer to her question.

“I’ve been getting ready for a show–”

She made a noise so disgusted, Galen thought she might spit right there on the floor. “Excuses forever!”

Galen didn’t want to stick his nose into this one; in fact, he had known since elementary school that to volunteer for anything was a fool’s game, especially when it was for something he didn’t understand. So when he heard himself saying, “We could do that,” it was as though some alien force had possessed him for long enough to give his consent, then left him there to face the consequences.

Rainer’s look of shock made a strange pair with Madame Prochazka’s grin of obvious delight. “Good! The world needs more handsome men caught on paper. Bring me the sketches, I will give critique.” She patted Rainer’s arm, then dragged him down to plant a kiss on his cheek that left a red-orange smudge in the blond strands of his beard. “You’re very handsome,” she said to Galen. “Even features. That’s good. Ugly people make for good art all the time, but handsome and even is the best way to start.”

“Thank you?” Galen gave a little shrug, hoping that was an acceptably polite response.

“Thank you.” Madame Prochazka grabbed a little wisp of Rainer’s beard and gave it an affectionate tug; this was an oddly loving sort of abuse she had for him, somewhere between a mother and a big sister. “Make a date, then come. I need you to sign.” And she walked off at a martial pace, ending the discussion.

The silence that followed was brief yet fierce, and most of it involved Galen’s staring at the painting behind Rainer while Rainer found every excuse to stare at the floor. “She’s–” began Rainer at last, though he stopped and ran his fingers through his short hair, leaving its coarse yellow strands in a new pattern of disarray. “Forceful.”

“I know what that’s like,” said Galen, offering a little smile.

Rainer snorted a laugh. “I bet you do.” At last, he lifted his chin to look Galen in the eye. “You can change your mind.”

“No,” said Galen, glancing off in the direction Madame Prochazka had taken for her exit, “I’m afraid she’d hunt me down.”

“She might.” Rainer took a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips. “Swear to God, I didn’t invite you here so she could strong-arm you into posing.”

So why did you invite me here? thought Galen, but he bit the question back before it could even leave his throat. He wasn’t the kind of man who asked things like that, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to start the discussion that would lead to the answer. “Hey, it’ll be fun, right? Give us a chance to catch up.”

The lines of worry started to ease from Rainer’s face, until Galen could start to see a sort of eagerness beneath it all. “I was going to ask if you were free for coffee sometime.”

“I don’t like coffee anyway.”

“No worries. I can probably drink enough for the both of us. How are you at sitting still?”

“Pretty good. When’s a good time for you?”

Rainer snorted. “I am an artist; I am the definition of shiftless and flexible. You have a real job. We can work around you.”

They made quick plans for the following Tuesday afternoon, fast and light, as though this were something people scheduled everyday, as though they’d spent their adolescent years sharing quality time together instead of giving one another permanent scars. They even shook hands on it, though Galen was conscious of how small his own scarred one was when Rainer’s strong, knobby digits wrapped around it. Then then gave their awkward good-byes and started off their separate ways, Rainer toward the office, Galen toward the door.

He was nearly out onto the street when a painting caught his eye. Its dimensions were unlike all the others’; it was tall, but barely a foot across, and it made Galen think of the way their prison-like cinderblock high school’s windows had been, little strips of light that let in no more of the outside than was strictly necessary. It was technically another seascape, Galen supposed, though the sea took up little more than a strip across the middle. Everything above it was a fierce red sky, burning the clouds with sunset, and everything below was debris, a thousand broken bottles washed up on the sand, their cracked glassy surfaces reflecting the dying light. A quick glance to the white card on the wall at its side revealed two things about it: It was titled Heinrich, and it was not for sale.

~*~

“Okay, but why?” Lydia’s hands propped up her chin as she lay in the bed on her belly, letting her toes hang off the edge.

Galen sighed and crossed his arms beneath his head. The sun was up, streaming light through the windows; he couldn’t believe he’d slept so late she’d woken up first. But he’d gotten home late to begin with, and then he’d gone out for a late-night jog around the empty campus, trying to clear his head. It had almost worked. “He just … seemed so sad,” he said, because he’d asked himself the same question several times before, and that had been the best answer he’d been able to summon.

Lydia frowned. “That’s it?” When Galen shrugged, she poked him in his belly. “That’s all it takes to get you to take your clothes off?”

“Hey.” Galen rolled on his side. “No one said nude.”

“Of course nude!” Lydia laughed and poked him again. “All art is about naked people.”

“There is plenty of art out there not about naked people.”

“And you know how that art gets that way?” Lydia held her hands over her eyes as though they were a pair of goggles. “The artists imagine the naked people, and then put clothes on them.”

“This isn’t like that.”

Lydia flopped over onto her back. “Fine, fine. But if you make out with him, you have to take pictures.”

There were things Lydia said because she meant them, and there were things Lydia said because she was trying to get a reaction out of him, and their entire relationship had been about his figuring out which was which. Twelve years later, he still wasn’t very good at it. “Just because he’s an artist, you can’t assume….”

Her lips quirked into a smirk. “I’m not assuming because he’s an artist. I’m assuming because you’re gorgeous, and anyone who doesn’t want to make out with you is crazy. Even the lesbians want to make out with you!”

While that might not have strictly applied to all lesbians, he knew from experience it was true for at least a couple. “Okay. If, for some unforeseen reason, I wind up making out with Rainer Barany, I will take at least one picture.”

“Deal.” Lydia grabbed his hand and shook it. “So, did he grow up cute?”

Galen made vague gestures at his own cheeks, which were still smooth despite not having seen a razor since the previous morning. “Grew a beard.”

“Looked sad and had a beard? No wonder you volunteered to strip for him.”

With an exaggerated sigh just to let her know how ridiculous she was being, Galen rolled out of bed and stood, stretching tall with his interlaced hands high above his head. “Waffles or french toast?”

A lazy waking like this one had all the hallmarks of a waffles morning, so when Lydia didn’t answer right away, Galen turned back to her, puzzled. She was still smiling at him, but her smile had gone off with some distant emotion, something he couldn’t read. For all she harped on him about his being emotionally unavailable — a fair complaint, he was willing to admit — there were times her heart slipped from her sleeve and became a mystery. “Really, though, why?” she asked at last.

A flock of seagulls caught Galen’s eye as they flew past the window, crying and winding their way toward the coast. “An … apology,” he said, thinking of the way Rainer might have captured that sight with oily smears of blue and white paint. He wondered what other colors were there that he didn’t know what he was seeing. “Sort of. I wasn’t just some helpless kid he was picking on. I was an asshole too.”

“You know,” said Lydia, drawing a strand of her brown hair back behind her ear, “I think that’s the first time I’ve heard you say that.”

“Say what?”

“That you were kind of a jerk as a teenager.”

Galen tugged a pair of crisp, well-folded pajama pants from a nearby drawer. “I think it a lot.”

“Yes, well, you remember how you have to talk because I can’t read your mind.” It wasn’t one conversation they’d had about that; it had been several, and he’d pretty much deserved every one. “And you know ‘draw me like one of your French girls’ isn’t a standard way for guys who haven’t spoken in over a decade to get re-acquainted, right?”

It was a sincere question, and he might have been more annoyed if she weren’t so often an effective and necessary interpreter of human sentiment on his behalf. “I know.” He tugged on a grey shirt he wouldn’t mind soiling with batter or cinnamon, whichever she decided. “I think … maybe he and I don’t process emotions correctly.”

To Lydia’s credit, she was polite enough to muffle her great guffaw in a pillow. “I could have told you that in 1998.”

“Well.” Galen shrugged. “You don’t love me because I’m bright.”

“I love you because you’re going to go make me waffles.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Galen, firing off a quick salute. She returned it by sticking out her tongue as far as it would go, a sight which made him smile all the way into the kitchen.

~*~

At sixteen, Lydia was perfect. She was different from all the other girls. She didn’t care about the stupid things they cared about, and cared about the interesting things they didn’t care about. She wasn’t mean or petty or jealous or crazy like the rest of them. She cared about real things, like the planet instead of makeup. When she walked in the room, the jukebox started playing love songs. She could kick anyone’s ass at pinball.

None of that was true, of course — except for the pinball bit. But I can’t tell you what Lydia was really like at sixteen because I only remember what my mind did to her, and that was make her flawless. She was a girl who was nice to me, and that to me might as well have made her a goddess emerged naked from the foam at dawn, half-shell and all. I was in love with her from the moment I laid eyes on her.

The summer after my grandmother passed, I got sent to live with an older cousin while my aunt and uncle redid and moved into her house. It was a little seaside town where I didn’t know anyone, and here she was, this amazing angel whose father was an officer posted at the naval base nearby. She wore shorts all summer and her legs were tanned brown, and sometimes I don’t even know how I talked around her. I just wanted to be near her, to stare at her. The first time she held my hand I was so nervous I almost threw up on the beach. One night I slept in the scrub brush by her house just because I knew she was inside.

Two important things happened that summer, more important than falling in love: I didn’t punch a thing and I didn’t take a drink.

I had a different addiction to feed.

~*~

The studio in question was above the gallery, a large space that appeared to be little more than an undeveloped second floor and smelled of paint and must. A whole wall of paned windows let in the daylight and gave a beautiful view of a row of buildings and the beach beyond; Rainer had a few cracked open, letting in a warm salt breeze. “I wish my office looked like this,” said Galen as Rainer showed him in.

Rainer laughed and rubbed at the back of his neck. He was dressed in worn jeans and a white t-shirt that showed how broad his chest and shoulders really were; both were smeared with paint, some of which looked to have been there for quite some time. “It’s got its perks, yeah,” he said, nodding as he looked around. “Good light and a place to lean my canvases, that’s about all I need.”

A cot and a hot plate in the far corner caught Galen’s eye. “Office and apartment?”

“Makes the commute easy.” Rainer pointed to the other wall, which was stacked with plain brown wooden crates. “And it’s gallery storage, so if I’m ever feeling uninspired, I can stare at somebody else’s work until I feel uninspired and inadequate.”

“Tough crowd,” Galen said to the crates.

“You have no idea. So!” Rainer clapped his hands together, plastering on a big smile that didn’t quite cover the nervous furrowing of his brow. “Uh … can I get you something to drink? There’s coffee — which you don’t like, right. And … well, there’s coffee. And water. That I use to make the coffee.”

It wasn’t hard to guess how much of said coffee Rainer had had already, and it was just past two in the afternoon. “Water’d be great,” said Galen, who wasn’t particularly thirsty, but it seemed ruder and more awkward at the moment to refuse.

“You got it.” There was a mini-fridge by the hotplate, and Rainer pulled a Brita pitcher from it. “I guess beer is the more hospitable beverage, but….”

“Yeah.” Galen nodded, then frowned. “I mean, water’s fine. Not inhospitable. I just–” He stuck his hands in his pockets, rubbing his housekey with a nervous fidget. “I mean, I understand. I figured.”

“Yeah, I assumed Lydia would tell you anyway.”

“She … didn’t, actually. Didn’t have to.”

illustrated by Tamago

Rainer looked up from his pouring task, surprise lifting his eyebrows. “Oh.” After a moment, he replaced the pitcher in the fridge and walked back over to Galen, holding out the plastic cup of water like it was a white flag. “I wish I were the kind of drunk who could keep beer around for other people, but … getting sober’s never been the problem. Staying that way is a rougher goal.”

“Thanks,” said Galen, taking the cup. He took a drink and smiled, then realized he was doing what he did when trying to compliment someone’s cooking skills; the water had been polite, but it hadn’t exactly been a work of culinary genius. He needed to stop running what Lydia called his subroutines. “She didn’t hide the letter. But I’ve seen people do AA. And it made sense.” He caught himself and sighed; maybe subroutines were better than raw honesty at the moment. “Not that it made sense for you to–”

But he couldn’t backpedal fast enough to keep Rainer from laughing, tossing his head back and folding his arms across his chest. “Made sense for me to be a mean drunk? No, you pretty much called it there.”

Galen stared down into the cup. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s good to be able to laugh about it. Or at least talk about it.” With a wave of his hand, Rainer started walking towards a short pedestal by the window, and Galen, lacking anything less awkward to do, followed him. “Or meow at the cats about it, whatever’s closest. You want to just strike a pose or something there? Something natural, maybe a foot up or whatever you feel comfortable holding for a few minutes.”

All right, this was it. He’d told himself he wouldn’t get nervous, but now that he was here, his stomach was knotted up so tight he could only get down sips of water. “Should…” He set his jaw and steeled his courage; he’d even put on his cleanest, least ridiculous underwear today, for heaven’s sake. “Should I get naked now, or…?”

The charcoal crayon Rainer had just picked up snapped in two, and both halves fell to the floor. He swore under his breath and went grabbing for the pieces. “You’re — you know, you’re fine. Just like that. That’s fine. With your pants. On.”

Galen could feel a heavy flush creeping up from his chest. Damn everything, why did he have to have the world’s most obvious blush? “Because Lydia said–” If he could have summoned a hole in the floor to swallow him, he would have. “Art history, naked people….”

As Galen glanced back up, he thought he caught a flash of an expression on Rainer’s face, but he knew he must have seen wrong, because Rainer Barany was not a man who looked on Galen — or anyone else, probably, for that matter — with affectionate pity. “The history of Western art will testify that a great deal of it is not about naked people.”

“That’s what I said!” Galen exclaimed with such fury that he spilled water on his shoes, and then they were both laughing the laughter of broken tension. Maybe this wasn’t normal, or anything approaching it, but at least it could be all right.

~*~

The afternoon was still bright, but cooler than he’d expected; the air hung with a palpable weight, though, so maybe a front was blowing in. He walked the two miles back to the school along sidewalks, tracing the main drag when he could and dipping into residential neighborhoods when the path became less pedestrian-friendly. The little walkable downtown loved its tourists, but past a certain point, it wanted them in their cars and gone.

They’d spent their two hours together talking about nearly nothing, giving one another history lessons to make up for lost time. Galen’s account was brief, its trajectory plain and linear: high school, college, teaching job, with his marriage to Lydia and their moving back to be near her parents shuffled in there for a bit of color. It seemed so simple when he put it all like that, and really, it was the way he’d liked it. For a kid who’d been shuffled around foster homes ever since he could remember, getting married at twenty and settling into a permanent position at twenty-four seemed like beautiful, impossible dreams of stability. If he could just nail those to the floor, he’d be set for the rest of his life.

He passed some of the day students on their way home, waving at them in their blue jackets and red ties, though they were too young to have been in any of his classes. They waved back with the exaggerated cheerfulness of criminals greeting the cops, then scurried on their way, chattering amongst themselves in low tones once they’d passed him. He didn’t think they were up to any specific trouble, of course; middle-schoolers just loved to think they were getting away with things under the authorities’ noses, even if all they were getting away with was walking home.

Middle school was what he and Rainer hadn’t talked about, nor high school, and when Rainer hadn’t steered the conversation there, Galen had cut that swath of their shared history a wide berth. He guessed they both had better things to do now than to recount their greatest fistfights.

Rainer’s life had been far more eventful, though it came across somewhat oblique in the telling; a few glosses paved over places where Galen could read homelessness and addiction through the cracks. Mostly Rainer focused on the finer details of bits Galen had already been able to piece together, especially about his return to painting. So he’d done most of the talking, and Galen had done most of the listening (complete with occasional interjections to prove that, yes, he was listening), and that had been the kind of conversation ratio Galen had always wanted. He’d just never assumed he’d strike it with Rainer Barany.

Of course, even Rainer Barany wasn’t Rainer Barany anymore. It was almost easier to pretend they were strangers who’d decided, for no particular reason, to be friends.

Galen tried to run this whole experience by contrast past how he’d met his other friends, then stopped short as he realized he didn’t … have any other friends, not like that. Lydia had friends, of course, and he had her friends, and sometimes he had friends who were the husbands of her friends, but they were more the kind who clustered with him as group functions slowly segregated by gender, not the type who called him over just for a beer and the pleasure of his sole company. Colleagues and school administrators got together with him over lunch sometimes, but that was for school business as much as anything else.

He stopped by the little organic market on the way home and bought some vegetables, figuring he’d work them into dinner if she had a particular desire and stir-fry them if she didn’t. He listened to the cashiers chatter amongst themselves as one made his change and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d just talked to someone like that, about things that mattered, except they were years past so they didn’t matter at all. Who was the last person he’d met who’d needed to know anything about him and hadn’t already? He couldn’t remember.

As friends went, there was Lydia herself, of course, but a decade of marriage had been enough to convince him that ‘wife’ was a different category altogether. It was hard to talk about your problems with someone who might interpret your unhappiness as her fault. Not that Lydia ever had, at least not to his knowledge, but the fear she might was enough to make him hold his tongue.

Though if he was being honest, he thought with a grim little smile, it didn’t take much to make him hold his tongue.

This was what the court-mandated psychiatrists had cautioned him about when he was young, the way it wasn’t healthy to keep everything bottled up. One had talked about it like waves, like how the ocean had great underwater waves that the surface couldn’t see, but if they were left to travel unchecked, they could destroy boats and become tidal waves when they couldn’t stay hidden any longer. He’d nodded and resolved to bury it all deeper, so there wasn’t even anything people might suspect they weren’t seeing. Still within, still without.

During the first two decades of his life, only two people had managed to crack his stony outer shell. Lydia had done it with love, and Rainer had done it with fury. Maybe that was why he’d agreed to be Rainer’s model; maybe Galen owed him a debt of gratitude for that.

He had a piece of paper folded into his wallet, one he hadn’t expected to bring home, except that when they’d looked over Rainer’s work and Galen had expressed particular admiration for a certain drawing, Rainer had slipped an X-Acto knife from a pocket and cut it out of the sketchbook before Galen had even had a second to protest. He’d even signed it with a self-deprecating flourish, a stylized R that ran off into a little squiggle. In the face of that, Galen had been unable to refuse.

Once he was home again, he took the paper out and unfolded it, flattening it on the kitchen counter. He’d struck several silly, exaggerated poses, all at Rainer’s encouragement, but this one had been more subdued: sitting cross-legged atop the pedestal, elbows resting on his knees, hands clasped beneath his chin. He was probably just being vain, but something about it really made it look like him, more than all the others even had. Maybe it was the hunch of his shoulders, or the way the rough-lined sketches caught the shape of his hair, or just how the few lines that formed the contours of his facial features captured an expression he knew well from the mirror.

The opening of the back door caught his attention, and he turned to see Lydia walk in, a box of student papers caught against one hip. “When did you get back?” Lydia asked.

“Maybe five minutes ago.” Galen walked over and kissed her as he took the box from her; the kitchen table, her favorite grading spot, was only on the other side of the room, but it was the thought that counted. “How was your day?”

“It was fine. How was yours?”

“It was–” At a sudden loss for adjectives, Galen picked up the sketch and handed it to her. He watched her face as she studied its lines, wondering what she saw in it, if she saw the same things he did or if the romanticism of being a model for an afternoon had him picking out patterns where none were there.

At last, she looked up and smiled. “That’s really good,” she proclaimed, grabbing a magnet and tacking it up to the front of the fridge, over old event flyers and reminders.

“He did a lot more like that. Had a little egg timer set to five minutes, and every time it went off, I had to do something different.”

“Wow.” Her fingers traced the edge of the paper, where Rainer had sliced it free. “So, did you have fun?”

Galen shrugged, but he couldn’t help nodding as well. “It was all right. We talked a lot.”

Lydia put her hands on his hips and gave him a skeptical frown. “Since when do you, talking, and fun live in the same neighborhood?”

“All right, he talked a lot and I listened, also a lot.”

“Now that sounds more plausible.” She pulled him forward into an embrace, and he wrapped his arms around her shoulders. She was no longer the tiny hyperactive twig of a girl she’d been when they’d met; her twenties had caught up with her, as she’d put it, and she’d put a not-inconsiderable amount of weight on her frame. That was all right with him, though, especially when it made her so nice to touch and hug. “How … is he?”

“A lot better than he used to be, I think,” said Galen, and it was as honest of an assessment as he could make it. “A lot different, anyway.”

“That makes all three of us,” she said with a laugh, and though she’d surely meant it as no more than an offhanded quip, he found her statement rattling around his brain all evening. Maybe he wasn’t that different at all. Maybe he just had everyone so fooled that he’d even managed to fool himself. Maybe somewhere down below, deeper than even his own instruments could measure, the great destructive waves were still rolling along, in search of a place to crash against and destroy.

~*~

He was seated now in a high-backed chair, with a bolt of cloth tossed across his lap and pooled on the floor around his feet. Fabric was hard to capture in two dimensions, Rainer had told him, so as long as he was learning to do something difficult, there was no sense in not piling on every possible impossibility.

“Why is it so tough?” asked Galen, rubbing its edge as much as he could without disturbing the overall setting.

“All the folds,” Rainer said from behind his standing easel, charcoal pencil perched in his fingers. “All the light, dark, folds, edges, spaces, all of it so close together. It’s tough to make it look soft without just blurring it into one big mess, but the lines can’t be sharp enough so it stops looking like all one piece.” He laughed a little, under his breath. “Which is why I never do it, and why Madame has ever-so-gently suggested I try.”

“But….” Galen glanced out the window, to the beach in the distance. “You paint a lot of water.”

Rainer laughed again, this time louder but with the same self-conscious tone. “Oil paints and seascapes cover a multitude of sins. When I was a kid, there was a big book in the library about the Impressionists, and I remember just staring at the detail shots and thinking, what the hell, it’s just a bunch of dots and smudges. It isn’t anything. But you pull back far enough and your brain puts together the rest. I’m good with color, but she doesn’t want to let me keep using that as a crutch.”

For as little as he knew about art, Galen could see the logic there. “Is that why you use weird colors?”

“Weird colors?” asked Rainer with a frown.

Galen chewed at his lower lip, trying to think of a way to rephrase that didn’t make him sound like quite such a caveman about it. “Normal colors in weird places.”

“Oh! Yes.” Rainer tucked the pencil behind his ear and rubbed at the paper with his thumb, then gave a nod of satisfaction. “Your eye sees things that aren’t really there, strictly speaking, but are part of how your brain interprets the world. It’s why photographs never look quite real. The camera does that interpretation for you. It’s missing the sense of motion, depth, the way both your eyes have to work together to see one thing when they’re really seeing two.” He quirked his mouth to one side for a moment, staring at the easel, then sighed and reached for an eraser. “Or I think that’s how it works, anyway. I mostly do what looks good to me and make up the rest. That’s why I’m kind of a shitty artist.”

Lydia had talked Galen through the concept of fishing for compliments years before, but this self-evaluation of Rainer’s didn’t have the dramatic weight to it, the telltale attentive pause of someone waiting for contradiction. Nonetheless, Galen didn’t feel like he could let that stand — if nothing else, he had to defend his own artistic sensibilities. “I like your art.”

“Thank you,” Rainer said, and a little quirk of appreciation curled his lips. “That’s what I’m supposed to say, anyway, and not be that asshole who’s all, ‘Oh, no, your judgment is terrible, my work is absolute shit.’ Which is the asshole I’ve been for the past five years or so, so it’s been kind of a hard habit to break. But you never met him. You met the asshole before him, where everything he did was the shit. Big difference.”

“Maybe a little,” said Galen with a quiet smile.

“Maybe a little,” Rainer agreed. He scratched his fingers across his beard, leaving a little black smudge just by the corner of his mouth. “So, hey, speaking of me and being an asshole for most of my life, how’s Lydia?”

It was such a raw and honest transition that Galen couldn’t hold back a chuckle. “She’s good, she’s … good. Happy. I think. She’s always happy.” His shoulders began to slouch, and he sat back up, trying to keep still. “Busy. She likes teaching. She works with the drama club. She has a lot of friends.” Hearing himself speak, he found the sentences didn’t sit right; everything he said felt false, too clinical, like a book report instead of a husband’s loving thoughts about his wife. He wasn’t lying, yet he didn’t know if, had their roles been reversed, he would have believed a word of it. But what was he supposed to say? They hadn’t even discussed what Lydia might or might not want Rainer to know. She’d seemed fine about everything that had happened, but hadn’t volunteered to come along to a sitting or given any particular message for conveyance.

Truth be told, he didn’t even know everything that had transpired between her and Rainer, and sometimes he guessed he didn’t even know half. The times he’d seen them interact in high school, she’d been sweet to him and he’d been sour to her. She’d told Galen not to judge him too harshly, to take it easy, that he had a good heart underneath. Then Rainer had been suspended and disappeared, and she hadn’t said anything else about him at all.

“Happy enough she hasn’t smothered you in your sleep,” Rainer pointed out.

Galen narrowed his gaze, maybe a little more than he’d meant to. “You make it sound like an accomplishment,” he snapped without meaning to snap, except that reflex had given him no other reaction.

There was a change that came over Rainer’s face then, something that he hid under a new smile as soon as he could, but he looked for a second as though he’d been punched — and then, as the real surprise, retreated. “Sorry,” he said, looking down at his paints with an intensity they didn’t warrant.

The silence settled between them for a full minute as Rainer switched to paints and began to dab at the paper, and Galen tried to figure out just which one of them needed to resolve the situation. He’d heard ‘sorry’ from Rainer countless times — almost every time they’d had an altercation, in fact, one school administrator or another had shoved them in front of one another and made them recite prepared statements that paid little more than lip service to the concept of apology — but hearing Rainer actually sound contrite had struck a nerve. He played his statement over in his head: Had he actually sounded like that much of an asshole? Did he usually sound like that much of an asshole? His therapists had told him to work on his ‘capacity for self-reflection’; maybe what he’d thought was his having grown out of his high school attitude problem was just that he’d stopped noticing it was a problem at all.

He was a guest here, though, and he supposed that meant something. “I’m sorry,” Galen said with a sigh, breaking the pose long enough to pinch the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “I just … guess I didn’t know that was a nerve.”

The smile on Rainer’s lips softened, became less forced and yet sadder at once. “Land mines.”

“What?”

“Land mines. Emotional land mines. You can’t see them. But you or someone else steps on them and boom!” Rainer jerked his hands into the air, spilling a dollop of orange paint from his brush onto his hair. “Blows up in your face.”

Now it was Galen’s turn to smile again, honest yet also sad. “I think my shrinks preferred less violent metaphors.”

Rainer snorted. “Sometimes your brain’s a war zone. Doesn’t do anybody any good to pretend it isn’t. At least, didn’t do me any good.” At last he looked again up and met Galen’s eyes — then frowned and walked over with such a purposeful stride that Galen thought there might be a blow coming on the other end of it. Instead, though, well before he was in striking distance of any critical part of Galen’s body, Rainer grabbed the sheet and tugged it back toward its original position. Galen hadn’t even realized he’d moved it out of place. “There, now you’re straight.”

Not hardly, Galen thought, and he had to bite back a laugh that might make Rainer want further explanation. He nodded his thanks as Rainer walked back to the easel, then let his gaze drift out the window, watching flocks of birds zip and dive in the ocean breezes. “Did you know she was sick?” he heard himself say, before he could put together enough conscious thought to hold his tongue.

“What, Liddy?” asked Rainer. “Recently?”

This was ridiculous, it was ancient history, he hadn’t even discussed with Lydia whether or not it was appropriate to tell Rainer any of this, and something about the way Rainer had used his old nickname for her seemingly by reflex had set Galen’s hackles on end — but the more he tried to stop, the more he found the words pouring out. It had been so long since he’d met someone who hadn’t known, and in those few instances he’d let Lydia do the talking, fill in the details of her own history as she deemed fit. But Lydia wasn’t here now. “Sophomore year of college. Leukemia. Just … out of the blue. She was getting tired, and she was always getting these bruises, so she went to the doctor, and there was the cancer.”

“Christ,” Rainer said, the word more air than sound. He wasn’t painting now; his hand was frozen in mid-air, poised at the ready, as though he were the model. “No, I didn’t … I wasn’t around to hear.”

“She’s okay now,” Galen hastened to add, figuring that would be the end of the tale — and most times, it was. Tests, treatment, and full remission made for a lovely fable with a happy ending, and who didn’t love a happily ever after? So he couldn’t understand why he opened his mouth again and added: “She wasn’t for a while, though. It happened so fast. One day we were deciding what to do for lunch. The next day we were talking about chemotherapy options.” A bitter little laugh escaped his lips.”And then a year later we were deciding what to do for lunch again, almost like it never happened. Like a nightmare. Like I fell asleep, had a year-long nightmare, and woke up where we’d left off.”

Rainer nodded, and though he looked concerned, his face didn’t betray any of the discomfort most people felt when discussing severe illness like that. That was part of why Galen didn’t like to bring it up, because the crowd always seemed to be evenly divided between well thank God that didn’t happen to me and why are you so lucky to be alive when the people I know who had similar problems aren’t? He didn’t like to be pitied and he didn’t like to be envied, so as with so many things, silence had become the better option. “Must have been hard,” said Rainer, his tone hitting the unfamiliar middle ground of sympathy.

And there it was, another land mine, only this one exploded into a laugh twice as loud and twice as sharp. “You know what? It was actually easier.” When Galen heard himself speak, he nearly clapped his hands over his mouth in horror. “No. Sorry. Shit. I–” He forced himself to take a deep, centering breath and let it out slowly, through still through clenched teeth. “Wow, that was a horrible thing to say.”

“I’ve heard worse,” said Rainer. “I mean, a lot worse. I understand.”

“No, you don’t, you–” Galen wished his customarily taciturn nature would jump up and save him, but it seemed a dim hope. “I knew … what to do. When someone’s in the hospital, there’s not much you can do, so you do it. You get water if she needs it. You hold her hand. You tell her she’s pretty when her hair falls out. You promise her you’ll love her forever. I asked her to marry me when she was in a hospital bed. She was crying, her parents were crying, all the nurses were crying — even I was crying. It was the easiest thing I’ve ever done, because right then, it was the only thing I could do. It was my heroic measures. It was as though there were only one thing I could do, and one thing that was expected of me, so I could do it, and I could be great at it just by doing it, and–” Galen stopped when the pain in his hands became too great; he had been clutching the armrests of the chair so hard, their wooden corners had dug into his skin almost to bleeding. “And I’m sorry. I am. You didn’t invite me over for this.”

In the silence that followed, Rainer walked back toward Galen again, arms folded across his chest. “Made it less complicated,” Rainer said, bypassing all protestations and apologies. “Lowered everyone’s expectations for you.”

“Lowered expectations,” Galen echoed, nodding. “Simplified them. Her parents always liked me, but after that, they thought I walked on water. She thought I walked on water.”

“And it’s not so easy now?”

Sensing that the modeling was over, at least for the moment, Galen allowed himself the luxury of slumping in the chair. “Now I’m never sure I’m doing it right. I still love her. I always have. But now instead of a couple things I can do right, there’s a million things I can do wrong.”

Rainer’s look of sympathy took on a touch of a frown. “Does she say you do them wrong?”

“No.” Galen shook his head. “But maybe she’s too polite to say. Or maybe I’m not doing anything wrong, but I could do everything better. It’s–” Taking another deep breath, Galen again forced himself to relax his hands. “Never mind. It’s just me being me. Nothing unexpected.”

“You don’t have a lot of people you can just talk to, do you?”

Of course he did, he had several, and Galen would surely tell Rainer so, just as soon as he could think of one. On the spot, though, the best he could manage was, “There’s Lydia.”

Rainer nodded sagely. “Have you ever told her any of what you’ve just told me?” If he’d been a dog, Galen would have stuck his tail between his legs, and his downcast expression provided all the answer anyone could need to that question. “Hey, I’m not judging. I’m saying that … okay, and stop me if I sound too AA here, but some of us are really good at working our ways to places in our lives where we don’t have anyone we can talk to, so we convince ourselves we don’t need to talk to anyone. Am I getting close?”

Despite the misery settling on him, Galen found in his chest another good laugh. “Maybe I’d make a good alcoholic.”

“Hey, God knows I do. I even have the ‘it’s genetic’ excuse down both sides.” Rainer jabbed his thumbs into his chest with comically affected pride. “Anyway, my real point is, I’m used to listening. I’m maybe even a little good at it by now. So you can apologize if you feel you need to, but don’t do it because you think I need you to. Deal?”

“Deal,” said Galen, extending his hand to shake; Rainer stepped forward and took it in his own paw-like grip, and they shook on it like men who had just agreed to something normal men agreed to, and not to this … whatever he was supposed to call the agreement between them. At last, it became too much for Galen: “Is this cloth important?”

Rainer shook his head. “It’s an old drop cloth. Why?”

Unable to help himself, Galen grabbed a corner of it. “Hold still,” he said, and he proceeded to go after the orange paint, which had bobbed unnoticed atop Rainer’s head throughout the whole conversation. “You’ve got some paint on your–” On a very small part of him, truth be told, and when Galen finished it was on a slightly larger part of him, but it was thinner and less likely to make a mess if Rainer decided to scratch his head for some reason, so Galen counted that as a net win. “There.”

“Better?” asked Rainer, smiling from beneath his now slightly tinted hair, and it was then Galen realized just how close the two of him had gotten, and how Rainer wasn’t pulling away.

“Much,” Galen declared, and he was surprised to find that in more ways than one, it was true.

~*~

My father called me a faggot before I knew what one was. I was six, maybe five, and I’d tripped somewhere and cut my lip on my teeth. Blood everywhere, I was hysterical, sure I was dying, all the little-kid thoughts about injury and mortality. And he grabbed my arms and pulled me to my feet and told me I was a sissy faggot, and only faggots cried, and if I wanted something to cry about he’d give me something to cry about.

Of course I didn’t want something to cry about, but he gave me plenty anyway, over the years. I got sick a lot when I was a kid, and he’d hit me for that. He’d tell me about how my mother had run off with some big-city doctor when I wasn’t even two, and he’d hit me for that. I learned that sometimes being drunk made him rage and sometimes it made him catatonic, so my life became a game of Russian roulette. I became loud everywhere else and invisible at home. I picked fights at school with the big kids so the teachers would think my black eyes and bruises came from there.

So when I was eleven and they told me they’d found him on the beach that morning after the tropical storm, bloated and blue and washed up with the tide like so much garbage flung overboard, they said it had been an accident, but I knew the real reason, the one they weren’t telling me. Heinrich Barany’s faggot son had finally gotten so bad, the humiliation had up and killed him. And I could see that blame on everyone’s faces, every time they looked at me. All the adults, shaking their heads and thinking, yeah, if I had a son like that, I would have drank myself to death too.

~*~

He’d misinterpreted the phrase “running on empty” the first time he’d heard it, but had never seen a reason to change his definition. Already at nine, he’d taken to running — not pacing himself, but flat-out running, tearing as fast as he could until his lungs felt like stones in his chest. His stint with his foster family at the time had ended because of it, in fact, because when they found him eight miles away, pitched over and too weary to stand, they’d assumed he was trying to run away, and he hadn’t had air enough to tell them he’d always planned on returning; he’d just found himself too far from home with nothing left to get him back.

Lydia had told him more than once she’d been about ready to call the police as he’d staggered in the back door sometimes as many as two hours past the time she’d expected him in, but that came from a different kind of worry. She knew he’d always come back if he could; her worries came from other trains of thought, other misinterpretations.

But he ran because it was about being empty. He had to focus on his steps, on his breathing, on the terrain, so he really didn’t have to focus on anything at all. He couldn’t chase away all his troubling thoughts, but he could let a heavy fog settle over them, so that maybe he could pretend that if he couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see him. He could pretend he was alone. Running on empty.

His wristwatch told him he had two hours before his first class, so instead of taking the path that would lead him back to campus, he turned toward the beach. Running in sand was hard, but hard made the fog in his brain thicker. The light in the eastern sky was starting to shade a brighter pink, reflecting off the caps of the waves as they rolled in, tumbling one over another. Some mornings he’d do this and pass some of the students, usually sports clubs drilling their members into shape, but this morning the his feet were the only ones pounding tracks into the white sand.

The town shifted into view as he neared, tops of the taller buildings poking their heads out above the dunes and what few trees could manage to grow this close to the coastline. Most buildings were short and squat, a concession to both earthquakes and storms, but a few rose higher above the landscape than the others. One was a now-familiar converted warehouse; from where he was, he could see only the tops of those second-story windows. He’d started his run in near-darkness, and now even the streetlights were starting to flicker out, but he could see a glow from those windows that didn’t match the dawn.

A thought grabbed him, and he pulled his phone from the zipper pocket in the sleeve of his shirt; after one too many too-long jogs, Lydia had gotten him to promise, cross his heart and hope to die, that he’d never take off without it. He pulled it out and slid it unlocked, then tapped to his list of recent calls.

Rainer picked up on the third ring, sounding rough but not asleep. “Hello?”

It was only then, to his deep chagrin, that Galen realized he hadn’t really had a reason to call at all. “Saw your lights on.”

“Lights–” Rainer’s frown was audible. “Where are you?”

“Down the beach. Jogging. I don’t think you can see me. That surf shop is in the way.” Galen leaned back as far as he could while still keeping his phone pressed to his ear, feeling the low ache of tired muscles stretched warm. “Up early or up late?”

Now Rainer laughed, a soft, warm sound. “Late. I’m guessing you’re the early one.”

“Habit.” Galen turned away from the town, back out toward the water, where he could watch the paths of a few fishing boats cut across the morning. “Are you working?”

There was a pause before the answer, but it could have been anything, from putting down a paintbrush to thinking up an excuse. It didn’t mean anything; it could have meant anything. “Yeah. Sometimes I just get grabbed by an idea, so I know I can either stay up and do it, or try to go to sleep and wind up thinking about how I should stay up and do it instead. So I just got good at giving in.” He laughed again, and each time he did, it seemed to sand down the ragged edges of his voice. “It’s a very romantic vision of a tortured artist, but mostly it’s a pain in the ass. But at least I don’t have a real job, so I can get away with it.”

Galen chuckled in return, running his fingers back through his salt- and sweat-slicked hair. It was getting shaggy, which was something he’d been able to see in Rainer’s sketches of him, but Rainer had a way of making it look good, whereas in real life, it was mostly just silly. “Well, speaking of jobs…”

“Got to go corrupt the youth?”

“Something like that.”

“Good! They need it, the little–” The end of Rainer’s sentence was swallowed in a monstrous yawn, one that he battled back down before saying: “You know, maybe it’s time for me to get a little sleep.”

“See you tomorrow?”

“I’ll be here.”

They ended the conversation and Galen put his phone back in his shirt, then started off back for his house at all appropriate speed, running everything back into the black space in his head. A few rays of sun were peeking out now from behind the buildings, brilliant and orange, and the roads that ran by the beach were starting to fill with cars now. People with real jobs, not teachers who could walk to their every-other-day classes, not artists living in their studios, both awake on the dark edge of sunrise.

He slipped quietly into the bedroom and then the shower, letting the white noise of the spray keep those last edges of foggy calm as long as he could manage it. There was a clock by the shower head, a necessary fixture, considering that if he didn’t have some reminder of the way time was passing in the real world, he was as liable to lose hours standing here as he was letting the miles go by under his feet. He took great, slow breaths as the steam filled the bathroom. Long runs and scaldingly hot showers were things Lydia had said she was glad he enjoyed, and he was welcome to them all by himself.

Afterwards, he toweled off and climbed back into bed, where Lydia was starting to stir. “Good morning,” he said, kissing her forehead. He stretched his arm out, and she cuddled up next to him, pillowing her head against his shoulder. “How’d you sleep?”

“Mm, fine,” she said, kissing his soap-clean skin. “How was your run?”

“Good. It’s a nice morning. Maybe rain this afternoon.”

Her fingers crept up into his damp hair and ruffled it with great affection. “My garden will like that.”

“I called Rainer,” he said without preamble.

Lydia’s eyebrows rose, but he knew it wasn’t the sudden change of topic that had surprised her. She’d spent so much time encouraging him to actually speak whatever was on his mind, especially in the early years of their relationship, that she’d given him carte blanche on non sequiturs– mostly, as she’d said, because she knew they weren’t out of the blue to him, but if he felt he had to justify his commentary with context, he’d give up before he began. When he thought about how much patience she showed him on a daily basis, really, it wasn’t at all that odd to think she’d dated Rainer. In a way, it made perfect sense. “What did you call him?”

Galen poked her in her soft tummy, which made her giggle. “From the beach. I just saw the lights in his studio on and thought that … I wanted to know what he was doing.”

“Wait, you called him? On the telephone?” Lydia sat up a little. “My husband made a telephone call, of his own free will, unprompted, to talk to another human being?”

He rolled his eyes at her teasing, but she wasn’t wrong. “Should I not have?”

No,” Lydia said, kissing him on the nose. “Unless — did he react badly?”

Galen shook his head. “He was just awake. Painting.” He frowned, realizing that Rainer hadn’t specified the medium. “Maybe drawing. Arting.” When Lydia laughed, his frown deepened. “…What?”

Lydia flopped back against the pillows, a look of amusement prettying her already-pretty face. “You have a friend.”

Something about the declaration was so maternal that Galen’s immediate instinct was to deny: “What? No.”

“You have a friend. You’re like a little kindergartener on his first day of school, finding a buddy to sit with at lunch. It’s adorable.”

Is that what Rainer was to him? Galen hadn’t exactly put a lot of thought into the question, and certainly not in that particular direction. But as with most things in his life, he trusted Lydia’s assessment of most situations light-years before he trusted his own. “Was it too weird?”

“It was fine,” Lydia reassured him, giving him a pat on his shoulder for emphasis. “You are fine and I love you, and I’m glad you have a friend.”

“Even if that friend is Rainer?”

She nodded, then pulled him back close to her, draping her arm across his waist. “I’ll be honest, it’s still a little weird. But only because it makes me think of how weird it would have been a long time ago, not because it’s actually weird now. And from the way you talk about him, he really does seem like a different person.”

“He is,” said Galen, letting go unspoken any thoughts he had about how he wasn’t sure he himself had made any kind of corresponding transformation. She would just assure him he had, but she was biased, which didn’t make her unreliable per se, but gave her a certain obligation to say things that weren’t necessarily true. He’d just as soon bypass that altogether.

“Then I say you’re just fine.” She peeked over his shoulder at the bedside clock, then groaned. “Now can you make it stop being morning?”

“No,” said Galen, “but I can make you eggs and toast.”

“Acceptable,” Lydia said with a grunt that made it sound decidedly unacceptable, though Galen knew by now not to take that personally. She gave him a kiss before kicking her way out of the covers and stumbling off on just-awake legs toward the bathroom. He’d always popped out of bed in the mornings, which made living with someone who more slid out of it a constant source of affectionate amusement. He supposed being a beautiful woman’s alarm clock wasn’t too terrible of a job.

She stopped in the doorway to the bathroom, though, and turned, leaning against the doorframe; she folded her arms across her chest and looked hard at him, not as though angry, but as though examining him for some change not immediately apparent to the naked eye. “You two were a lot alike back then, you know,” she said, and Galen nodded. If she’d said it to him at seventeen, he would have thrown out his back with the strength of his denials. But at this point there was nothing to prove by pretending otherwise, even to himself. “And I don’t just mean the sexy parts. I mean the scary parts too. The anger you both had all bottled up. You both spent so much time just … swinging blind.”

“I know,” said Galen, nodding again. “But you fixed a lot of that.”

“Oh, no,” Lydia said in that tone of voice she sometimes took with stubborn students, “you fixed it. Maybe I gave you a reason, but you wanted to fix it. He wanted to crawl back into it. And I was pretty stupid at seventeen, but I knew the difference.”

There was a point she was trying to make, Galen knew, but it fell just on the periphery of his understanding. “Why … are you saying this now?”

With a smile, she raked her fingers back through her sleep-tossed hair. “Because I don’t think I ever did before. And if you and Rainer are going to be friends, you need to know that — not because of what it’s going to make you think about him, but because of what it’s going to make you think about yourself, if you don’t know why it didn’t work out with him but I’m still married to you. And it’s not just because you’re cuter.”

Despite the uncertainties her words were churning up inside him, Galen couldn’t help laughing. “I told you, he’s pretty cute now.”

“Nope. No beards. I am happy with my hairless dolphin husband who shaves his face less often than I shave my legs.”

Galen supposed he couldn’t argue with that natural advantage. “Scrambled?”

Lydia nodded. “With bacon.”

“We have veggie bacon.”

Slumping against the doorframe, Lydia draped one arm across her forehead and gave an enormous, theatrical sigh. “I take it back, I’m leaving you for someone less crunchy.”

“I accept that.” Galen nodded, and she blew him a kiss as she walked into the bathroom and shut the door behind her. Galen stood and dressed himself in the same slacks-and-shirt near-uniform he’d gotten accustomed to wearing while he taught; he’d tried a full suit for a while, but the casual dress of the other teachers had made him look awkward, so he’d toned it down. Even so, he plucked a dark blue tie from the rack and knotted it at his throat. Some things, he just didn’t feel right without.

She was more than capable of making her own breakfast, of course, and had done so on the multiple occasions early classes and meetings had called him from the house before she’d even begun to stir. But he did it — he made most of the meals, in fact — because it was something he could do for her. Eggs and waffles were love made simple, tangible, and edible. Maybe veggie bacon was tough love; he didn’t know how to categorize things like that. He just picked them up and made them happen. And breakfast needed to happen, and he was capable of making it happen, and she appreciated it when it did. The rules about love surrounding breakfast were easy.

But it wasn’t, he thought as he cracked eggs into a bowl and tossed their brown shells into the compost tin, as though Lydia made love difficult anywhere else. He knew he did that himself, and for no good reason, which was the annoying part. She wasn’t actually going to leave him; that was why it was all right to joke about. If something was wrong, she’d tell him. They’d work it out together. That was what people in love did. And nothing was wrong, so what was he worrying about in the first place?

By the time Lydia arrived downstairs, breakfast was ready and Galen had stopped clenching his hands so tight that the scars on his right one looked fit to burst. Something about his comportment must have given her pause, because she asked if everything was all right, and he told her he just had a lot of class prep on his mind, but everything was fine. And as far as she was capable of doing anything about it, it was true. Beyond that, it wasn’t important.

~*~

“What were you working on yesterday morning?” asked Galen, his eyes scanning the room but seeing nothing new since the week before.

Rainer shook his head. “Didn’t work out. Scrapped it.”

“After you stayed up all night working on it?”

“I know.” With a shrug, Rainer flipped a page in his sketchbook and started again, his hand flying across the page as it moved to capture Galen’s likeness as best he could before the timer ran out and Galen moved again. “Mercy killing, Madame calls it. But it’s a problem I have, where I get so wrapped up in an idea for a piece I know is never going to work, at least not the way I want it — so I get even more determined to throw all my effort into it so I can save it. But I can’t, so I’ll scrape it down after it dries and use the canvas again for a better idea.”

Though Galen didn’t know the protocol about art the creator had decided to reject, he figured it couldn’t hurt to ask: “Can I see it?”

Rainer paused mid-sketch, caught in a frown, then put down the charcoal pencil and stopped the egg timer. “Yeah, okay.” As he stood, he wiped his fingers on the hand towel tucked into his belt, leaving deep grey smudges in the already-stained terrycloth. “It’s really not going to look like much, though.”

“Like I’ll know the difference.” Galen rose from the chair where he’d been contorting himself in various poses for the last half hour or so. He’d started to look forward to these strange exercises, wondering if they were a little like the on-campus yoga classes Lydia sometimes joined in the evenings. He’d always considered those too low-impact for his various physical needs, but if they worked on the same principle of quiet discipline that posing did, he supposed he could see the appeal.

“No, you’ll know,” said Rainer, leading Galen over to a stack of canvases in the corner. One was on an easel turned toward the wall, and Rainer grabbed a side of it, rotating it back so Galen could see what was on it.

The front of the canvas was covered in streaks of color, but not toward any real shape Galen could identify. There was a little patch down in one corner that might have been a shell, if he squinted, but he didn’t point that out, figuring it would come off as kind of an insult if he guessed and was wrong. Other than that, though, the canvas — a little over a foot across, and maybe twice as tall — looked mostly like a space where someone had decided to wipe off excess paint, then continued doing so for the next several years.

Uncertain about how to respond to it, Galen caught his lower lip between his teeth, and Rainer howled with laughter. “Art!” he proclaimed it with a flourish of his hands. “It’s the wharf at dawn, can’t you see?”

“No,” Galen admitted, turning his head to the side to see if that helped. It didn’t. “Maybe you could try to spin it as an abstract phase?”

“No, no, abstract art is harder than representational art, because people expect you to have a reason behind it, and my reasons are mostly shitty. It doesn’t fly so well to tell the critics, ‘Well, I just felt like putting a little blue there, so I did.’ But whether or not you like what I do, you can look at it and go, yep, that’s the ocean. Not much else to justify.”

Though Galen could see the wisdom in this reasoning, especially from his own place of admitted unfamiliarity with the art world, something about the way Rainer spoke made him think of the paintings at the gallery opening, especially the one with the broken bottles and the man’s name for a title. “They’re not just about the ocean, though, are they?”

Rainer shook his head. “But if that’s all you get, then at least you got something.” He started to say something else, but was interrupted by a phone call from the other side of the room. “I should probably go get that. Poke around, I’ll be back in a minute.”

At first Galen didn’t know what he was supposed to be poking around. A closer look at the paintings in this corner, though, revealed that they were all Rainer’s — some unfinished, some that had been shown the other night, and some Galen was certain he’d never seen before. Wooden shelving nailed into the walls held several stacks of tiny canvases, some barely bigger than Galen’s hand, all of which showed the different seascapes at different times of day, visions of the world populated at most by a few specks of birds in the sky. They were pretty but generic, the sort of thing Galen had seen framed and hanging in the bathrooms of houses owned by people who cared enough to frame art and hang it in their bathrooms. He imagined they had made fine souvenirs, enough for Rainer to get by. Hell, under the right circumstances, he might have bought one himself.

The canvases too large to fit on the high shelves were tucked in shoulder-high cubbies to the side, packed close together and leaning against each other. A few were wrapped in cloth or brown butcher paper, but most were loose, and he pulled those out gently, wondering if there was some sort of proper procedure so he didn’t scratch the paint. They seemed to shift easily one against the other, though, and the few times he felt something catch, he pushed the painting in question back in instead of pulling harder.

It didn’t take long to see why most of these hadn’t been hanging at the gallery — not that they weren’t good, but Madame Prochazka had obviously been working on a particular curatorial theme, and these were somewhat off that. All were still various visions of the ocean, though here the storms had turned nightmarish in places, with tendrils of black and purple stretching down to the earth as though something were ripping itself out of the clouds. In places the sand looked corroded, like a beach after an oil spill; in one, the center looked the same as his gallery work, but the water there was contained, a world trapped inside the bottom of a whiskey jar. Galen supposed that for alcoholics, some metaphors came a little more naturally than others.

These had more people and animals than the others, too, especially the farther back he looked. Most were as imprecise as the rest of his paintings — maybe ‘imprecise’ wasn’t the word Galen wanted, but he couldn’t think of a better one. They were suggestions of things more than the things themselves, though Galen didn’t know how that made them semantically different from more photorealistic art. He definitely wasn’t cut out for this.

What stopped him in his self-deprecating tracks, however, was a painting as tall as his waist and three times longer. It was unfinished, or at least Galen thought it was, because he’d never seen any of Rainer’s completed works where the most of the paint ended well before the edge of the canvas began. What was there, though, was a great dark churning sea, where the sharp, thick slaps of paint that made the whitecaps might as well have been claws and teeth. The water stretched across almost the full length of the canvas, churning and crashing, until it stopped being water. He’d seen this kind of thing before — it made him think of that first Lord of the Rings movie, with the horses and the river — only the water here was inky grey and the animals that emerged from it as it the waves thundered to the shore were lions. Standing on the shoreline at the far edge of the painting, staring them down, was the most unfinished part of the work: a teenaged boy in a ragged sweatshirt and jeans, barefoot and emotionless in the face of the coming onslaught except for his hands fisted at his sides. The pose was rigid and wooden, and there was something about the proportions of the face that wasn’t quite right, but Galen knew now why Madame Prochazka had known him on sight.

“Sorry, that was a buyer,” Rainer said from what seemed out of nowhere, too close behind him for Galen to pretend he’d been looking at anything else. “They always want to — oh.” The last sound was a quiet exhalation, heavy in the afternoon air. “Oh, I … forgot that was still in there.”

“It’s–” Nice, creative, detailed, unexpected? “Me,” Galen finally finished; he felt stupid and conceited, but really, pretending his immediate reaction had been anything other than that would have been a lie.

“Yeah.” Rainer shoved his hands in his pockets. “From my pretty fucked-up memory, so forgive any artistic licence.”

“No, you–” Why was this so awkward? Rainer had known him for several years and had spent three Tuesdays now staring at him and committing his body to paper; that he’d used Galen’s likeness in the interim was hardly bizarre. “You made me look kind of … badass.”

Rainer shrugged, but he was smiling. “Well, you were. To me, at least. I got so used to everyone else cowering, and you never did. You were the only person who wasn’t afraid of me. Even I was afraid of me.”

“I was afraid of you,” Galen said, his voice hushed, his eyes fixed on the way the strokes of Rainer’s brush had written defiance onto his face.

“Shit, you could’ve fooled me.”

Galen nodded. “Terrified. There were times I had to pretend so hard that I didn’t care because I was just about to pee my pants with fear.”

Rainer reached out and ran his fingers along the far edge of the canvas, the one touched only by the sea. Galen was glad they both had the painting to look at right then, because he wasn’t sure he could have met Rainer’s eyes and suspected Rainer felt much the same. “I don’t like to blame my dad — it seems too easy, sort of a cop-out. But I know that’s why … why I am the way I am, to be polite about it. He was a drinker and a hitter and a shouter. So I guess I learned from the best.”

“I heard about it when your dad died.” Galen’s hand curled around his edge of the painting, feeling the coarse texture of unpainted canvas brush against his scarred skin. “The teachers pulled me aside. Told me not to pick any fights with you.”

“Did they?” Rainer snorted. “Did you?”

“No. You started it.”

“Man, whatever.” Rainer gave the painting a little shove back into its cubby, putting enough force behind the gesture that Galen was afraid he’d touched a nerve. He looked over to find that Rainer was smiling, but Galen didn’t know just how much that meant. “You were a genius at starting it. I could never be as subtle as you. That’s why I was always the one getting in trouble.”

As much as he wanted to, Galen supposed there was no use denying it. “I was kind of a shitty human being,” he said, easing the painting all the way back in, watching as the lion-waves were eclipsed by their fellow works of art. “Sorry.”

“No, hey, if I hadn’t been such an asshole myself, I would have lobbied to give you a medal.” Rainer grabbed a dry brush from a stack on a counter and began twirling it over the backs of his knuckles. “Shit, there was that year I was behind you in English, remember, and every fucking time I walked by you, you managed to trip me, and nobody ever saw you doing it?”

Galen groaned; he remembered, all right, but he wished he didn’t. “Swear to God, the first time was an accident.”

Rainer’s smile softened. “As long as we’re talking about what I hated about you…?” Galen nodded and gestured him onward. “You were what all the teachers tried to use to get me to apply myself,” said Rainer, stressing ‘apply’ with an accompanying eyeroll. “They were always on about that, about application. Galen applies himself. You’re just as smart as he is, but he gets better grades because he applies himself. If you just applied yourself, you’d be going far too.”

“Damn,” said Galen, his eyes wide. “They really did that?”

Rainer nodded. “I think they thought that the two of us were so competitive, it would get me going. Mostly it just … made me hate the shit out of you for even more things that weren’t your fault.”

Galen shrugged. “You hated me for a lot of things that were my fault. Seems fair.” With a slight frown, he nodded back in the direction of the paintings. “Those don’t really look like your other stuff.”

“They’re not,” said Rainer, and the way the lines on his forehead eased made Galen think he also appreciated the change of subject. “Those are mostly practice. Well, practice and therapy. I paint a lot of stuff from my dreams, but looking at other people’s dreams is almost as boring as hearing about other people’s dreams, so I don’t show them. Most of the time, I just sand them down and paint something better over it. I’ve got reusing canvases down to kind of an art.” He paused, then snorted out a laugh. “Pun unintended.”

“Is that what you’re going to do to that one?”

“Probably,” said Rainer, though when he looked past Galen to the canvas storage, it was with a heavy sigh. “But that’s … a lot of effort to get one that big ready for taking paint again.”

“I’d like it,” said Galen, and when Rainer frowned, Galen waved his hands in the air to scare off the unintended weight of that statement. “I mean, if you ever finished it, I would like to pay you for it. I’m not trying to help myself to your work. But if you decide to finish it instead, you have a buyer.”

The pencil-thin brush flipping around Rainer’s hand wobbled and fell to the floor, giving Rainer an excuse to break eye contact as he bent down and snatched it up again. “Tell you what,” he said, righting himself a moment later, “I ever finish it and it’s yours. I figure I owe you two anyway, if you don’t mind getting the strangest and most belated wedding present ever.”

“Deal.” Galen nodded and almost extended his hand before realizing that the agreement was weird enough already without having to shake on it. “No pressure. But if.”

“It’s kind of a big if, honestly. But hey, inspiration’s a weird thing. And I know Madame would like to see it done. She likes cats. All sizes.”

They were wading into touchy territory here, Galen sensed, but something in him kept him pressing on, the same part that lacked the courage to ask but still wanted to know why the hell Rainer had really reached out to him again after all those years. “Is that from one of your dreams too?”

Rainer’s eyes flickered downward, but he gestured back over to their earlier spots. “Come on, if we’re going to talk, I could use something for my hands to do. Go put up your dukes. Fighting stance.”

Galen knew what Rainer meant, but he couldn’t help chuckling as he walked back to his platform, squared his feet, and lifted his fists like a boxer. His formal training in terms of martial arts had been spotty, on account of having been shuffled around through so many families, but he’d taken lessons where he could and picked up a few moves here and there. He’d been the best at judo, because he’d been small and fast enough at the time to use both to his advantage, but there was something just visceral and poetic about strapping giant padded mittens to his hands and being given permission to pound the tar out of someone. “You going to fight me or draw me?”

“Are you kidding? You’d kick my ass in no time flat. Pass.” Rainer picked up his charcoal and sketch pad again, then started scribbling away. “And no, that’s only half a dream thing. The monster sea, yeah, that happens every so often. But I was awake when I had the thought of someone standing up to it, not afraid of getting hit. And I thought about who I could picture doing that, and there was one name on that list.”

Galen tried not to want to sink into the floor, but he couldn’t help it; he wasn’t made uncomfortable by the fact that Rainer thought of him that way, but by the fact that he was certain the compliment was unmerited. “Guess I put up a good front,” he said, squeezing his fists until the joints began to ache.

“I think we all do,” Rainer said quietly, looking back down at his work. “I mean, I think we all put up fronts. How good they are, that’s up for debate.”

It wasn’t until the timer went off, its sharp chime shattering the silence that followed their conversation, that Galen realized Rainer had set the timer again at all. Without being asked for specifics, he carried his body forward into the imaginary punch, crossing his right hand across his body and putting all his weight on his left leg. The move turned him so he was facing toward the windows, leaving Rainer so far on the periphery of his vision that Galen could hardly see him at all. “When you dream, what does the monster sea mean?”

“Nothing,” said Rainer, though Galen noticed the answer came almost quicker than thought. “Just a scary thing, like a haunted house. Did you know my father drowned?” He stitched the sentences together as though they weren’t unconnected, and Galen supposed they weren’t.

“Yeah.” Galen nodded. “The teachers didn’t say it, but I saw something in the paper a week later about that storm, and I figured.”

“So if I were a shrink, I guess I would say, yeah, fear death by water. But I think symbols like that are easy to give too much specific weight too, like the doctors that hear you don’t like caves and are certain it’s because you’re terrified of vaginas, or something like that, when really, caves are just fucking scary places all by themselves. We should all be afraid of caves!” Rainer laughed. “Maybe I’m projecting. But I’ve never liked caves, and I’ve always had a perfectly congenial relationship with vaginas, so … I guess sometimes a cave is just a cave.”

“A congenial relationship with vaginas?” asked Galen, using all his self-control to keep from turning and giving Rainer the skeptical face he felt the situation deserved. “You open doors for them?”

“No, that makes me sound like I’m a better career opportunity for vaginas than I probably am. You could ask my sort-of girlfriend, though.”

Only through colossal effort did Galen’s jaw not drop. “Sort-of girlfriend?” he ask, trying to play it cool.

He realized how much he must have failed when Rainer’s response was a belly laugh. “So which part got you, the ‘sort-of’, the ‘girl’, or the idea that anyone might date me at all?”

“Let’s … start with the ‘sort-of’ part.”

“Fair enough,” Rainer agreed. “Her name’s Wendy, she’s a biker and she surfs, and she’s around … maybe four non-consecutive weeks out of the year. We met at a meeting, even though she’s been sober a lot longer than I have. She used to be in the army and was injured in a pretty bad accident when her car’s brakes failed, and she won some sort of crazy settlement out of it, so now she just has a bunch of tattoos and rides around and does what she wants to do. So when she’s around here, we’re together, and when she’s not, we’re not.”

The timer went off again, and Galen decided he’d had enough of action poses, especially after keeping his right arm extended for so long; he grabbed a nearby chair and turned it around, then sat so his arms and chin rested on its back. “She sounds interesting.”

“That’s definitely what she is.” Rainer tore off another sheet of paper and kept on it; he had the paper now in his lap at such an angle that Galen could see the way each movement of his hand left long, black smears across the page. “And not looking for anything serious, which is good, because I just … kind of can’t do that right now. Too much going on in my life, too much going on in my head. Maybe someday, but not today. Probably not tomorrow, either. But she sends me postcards every so often, and that’s fun. Get to sort of keep tabs on her like that.”

“Yeah,” said Galen, who didn’t want a relationship that was anything like that, but still couldn’t help feeling the tug of its appeal. He’d been married since he was twenty to the woman he’d been dating since they were both seventeen, and though he didn’t regret a moment of it, hearing Rainer talk was like having an itch somewhere he not only couldn’t reach, but couldn’t altogether identify. “I’d like to meet her. Sometime. When she’s here.”

“That’d be great. We can take you to dinner or something.”

“Yeah.” Galen noticed that Rainer hadn’t included Lydia in those plans, and he wasn’t bold enough to ask for whose benefit that exclusion had been made. From the fond way Rainer spoke of her (when he spoke of her at all), though, and from even the brief description he’d been given of Wendy, Galen didn’t suppose Rainer was worried about a bad reaction from his end. “And, um, it’s not surprising that you’re dating a woman. I didn’t want to give that impression. I didn’t want that to come off like an insult.”

Rainer looked up briefly, one eyebrow arched, but from how his hand kept moving, it might only have been to remind himself of Galen’s position. “It wouldn’t be. But thank you.”

“Because I’m bi,” said Galen, in his haste to climb out of that hole finding himself just digging deeper in. “Lydia knows. We talk about it. So you can do whatever you like. And it’s okay by me. Not that you need my permission.” With a grunt, Galen dropped his forehead hard against his folded hands. “Most people wonder why I don’t talk much. You just got an object lesson in why.”

“And here I always thought it was because you were Mr. Cool,” said Rainer, and when Galen lifted his head again, Rainer shot him goofy finger guns.

“Got you all fooled.” Galen swept his hand, indicating some great invisible crowd. “That line about how it’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear like an idiot than to open it and remove all doubt? They wrote it about me.”

“Maybe you just need to apply yourself,” Rainer said, and that ended the session, because he was laughing too hard to draw and Galen was laughing too hard to hold still, laughing in the sharp, near-desperate way they did that worked like a talisman against the darkness. Maybe Lydia had been right after all. Maybe he did finally, from out of the most unlikely stretch of his past, have a friend.

~*~

If you’d asked me, at seventeen, to design a hell for myself, I would probably have said, Lydia Cordula falling in love with Galen de Leon. Just … what a perfect convergence of the only good thing I’d ever had and the person who made me furious just by existing. So when I walked into Physics that day and saw her take a seat at the table next to him, I knew it was the end of the world.

I mean, she was mine. Okay, sure, we’d barely so much as kissed a couple times, and we hadn’t even broken up because we’d never really been together, but she was still mine. If her father was going to get reassigned to my town, and she was going to start attending my high school, that meant she was going to be sitting next to me, right? Not someone else, and definitely not this taciturn asshole, staring at his textbook as she asked him all about himself and the class and everything else.

We got sent to the principal’s office that afternoon, both of us, because I said something nasty to him in the cafeteria, and he took a swing at me. I remember how good it felt when his knuckles struck my jaw, how righteous the pain was. Just beautiful, cold and clear. Like everything focusing down into a single justified rage point, a laser beam that I could use to burn right through him. I didn’t mess with extremities that time; I went for his throat. Two security guards had to haul me off him.

I pissed my teachers off, too, and not just by being a behavior problem. I barely studied or paid attention in class and still got some of the best grades, when I could be bothered to do the assignments. You know what two words I heard more than any others my whole childhood long? “Wasted potential”. But when you don’t see potential, someone says that and all you hear is “waste”.

I blamed Lydia for it, too, when she showed up again, accused her of being all sorts of shitty things, but she wasn’t the cause. Her arrival was just an excuse, a back-breaking straw.

I didn’t know why no one noticed me coming to class drunk that next month. Maybe they couldn’t smell it over the gallons of shitty aftershave I used to bathe in, I thought. But it was probably just that … that was what I’d become like. Angry, belligerent, surly in silence until provoked to outrage. Nobody could tell the difference between me drunk and me sober because there was no difference anymore. And pretty soon there was just no me sober anymore.

~*~

The first edges of the storm hit barely an hour after he’d gone to bed, waking him with peals of thunder that shook the house on its foundations. He hadn’t remembered seeing a warning on the weather report, but late-season storms were sometimes like this, little pockets of chaos and moisture apt to sneak in from out of nowhere. He was alone in bed, but Lydia indulged her night-owl nature on weekends, and he suspected the storm might have run its full course by the time she decided to turn in. Everything would be damp and muggy tomorrow morning, including the beach, which would be a sodden slog of sand if he decided to venture that way. All told, nothing special.

The rain hadn’t started yet, only the thunder and wind, but they were together more than he could just roll over and sleep through. He pulled on pajama pants and a t-shirt before padding back downstairs. Lydia was tucked up in her armchair with a blanket and her tablet, and she looked up when his footsteps creaked against the lower landing of the stairs. “The storm wake you up?” she asked, putting down whatever novel she was devouring this week.

Galen nodded as he sat on the couch by her. “Heard anything from next door?”

Lydia glanced out the window in the direction of their affiliated dorm, then shook her head. “But it’s the holiday weekend, so there’s not a lot of kids left to complain. Maybe we’ll hear it if the wifi goes down.” She pointed over toward the kitchen, where the outlets by the high countertop were permanently wed to a number of chargers. “Your phone went off a couple minutes ago, though.”

“My phone, not yours?” asked Galen. While giving out their contact information was a matter of protocol, there wasn’t a student under their care who didn’t know to try the land line first, then Ms. Cordula, and only as a last resort Mr. de Leon. It wasn’t that he was a bad resource at all, but more that she was far more likely to have her phone in arm’s reach.

“I was waiting to hear from mine next, but no.” Lydia patted her phone, which was sandwiched between the chair’s cushion and its arm, wearing its sparkly turquoise case. “And I didn’t hear a beep like someone left a message, so I figured it could wait until morning.”

It probably could, but since Galen was awake now, he might as well go check. He walked over to where he’d plugged in his phone before bed and woke up the screen, knowing somehow even before he saw that it would tell him that he had one missed call from Rainer Barany — and no message. It had barely been five minutes ago, though, and Rainer was a night owl too, so Galen told the phone to call him back. The phone rang several times through the connection before dropping him into the default voice mail message, one he listened to only long enough to confirm that Rainer’s number hadn’t somehow mysteriously changed in his phone’s memory.

“It was Rainer,” Galen said, still frowning at the screen as it idled first dim, then dark.

“Rainer?” Lydia pulled an afghan from the couch around her lap; the evening wasn’t what anyone might call cold, but the change in the weather had brought a noticeable drop in temperature, especially for so early in the year. “Were you expecting him to call?”

Galen shook his head. “I called back. He didn’t answer.”

“Maybe he’s gone to bed.”

“Or he’s working,” Galen said. He’d never seen Rainer really work, pour all his energy and concentration into painting, but he imagined it was a hell of a thing to see. Imagining Rainer so focused on his art that he didn’t bother to answer the phone wasn’t difficult at all. There was nothing to worry about.

None of which explained why his stomach felt as though it were trying to gnaw its way out from the inside. Lydia was the one who believed in intuition, cosmic confluences, the everyday magic of synchronicity. Even so, Galen couldn’t quite articulate to himself, much less to her, that what he was having now was a bad feeling.

The keys to their shared car were by his phone, and Galen picked them up. “I’m … going to go see.”

To Lydia’s great credit, she did not protest any of the million more critical problems with that plan, up to and including that it was no night to be on the roads. Galen found himself holding his breath, though, readying for her objections, but all she asked was, “Wearing Santa ducky pants?”

She had a point, especially considered the novelty holiday-printed pajamas didn’t even have pockets. “I’m going to go change, and then I’m going to go see.”

When he returned downstairs a few minutes later, this time in more outdoor- and weather-appropriate jeans and hooded sweatshirt, Lydia was standing in the kitchen, holding a travel mug of fresh green tea for him. “Be careful,” she said, handing it over. “Text me when you get there.”

“I will.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too,” he said, giving her a tight one-armed hug, holding the tea away so as not to burn either of them by its mismanagement. “I’ll be back soon.”

With a playful tug, Lydia pulled up the hood until it covered his head up nearly to his eyebrows. “I’m just glad you’re driving and not jogging there.” Her words made him pause — he hadn’t even considered that — and she smacked him on the shoulder. “No! I know you and I know how you get when you’re like this. Just drive carefully. And you can’t jog with tea anyway.”

Thankful as ever for her good sense, especially in light of his own terrible impulses, he gave her a kiss and promised again to be careful. The sky was just starting to spit rain as he made his way toward the nearest faculty lot, but grand strikes of lightning and their subsequent thunderclaps promised more to come. While the drive into town was through some meandering roads, the coming ill weather had chased almost everyone off the road, giving him less to worry about. Barely ten minutes after walking out his front door, he was parked on the street in front of the gallery, shielded by his car from what was now steady, blinding rain. A quick text to Lydia told her he’d arrived safely, her response to which was a little pink heart. There was nothing for it, then, but to go inside.

Of course he’d come this far before starting to feel stupid, because that was the way his brain, which hated him, worked. Normal people — even friends, even good friends, which wasn’t even what he and Rainer were — would have shrugged and called back in the daylight, or maybe waited half an hour and tried again. So there was really no explanation for it, except that extraordinary measures were the only ones which had ever made sense to him. All or nothing, in a life that was a least nine-tenths nothing. It was ridiculous thinking that he’d come all this way for his old bully, except that nothing else made sense; Rainer had, if nothing else, always been part of that maddening ten percent.

And the more he sat, the worse the downpour got, so he decided to make a run for it. The flimsy awning over the gallery entrance was more about sun than storm protection, so Galen pulled his hood on tighter as he hammered at the second-floor buzzer. Shit, maybe Rainer had pocket-dialed him. He hadn’t even considered that possibility for looking like an idiot, showing up frantic and Rainer with literally no clue what had set this all off. The more he buzzed for attention, the more he began to hope that Rainer wasn’t even home at all, that this would wind up being just one more mad impulse with only Lydia as its witness.

Then the door to the stairwell swung open, and Rainer was on the other side, teetering on his feet. He looked at Galen a long, hard minute before sighing. “…Shit.”

Galen searched for how to explain his presence. “You called,” he said at last, hoping it was at least enough to get him in out of the rain.

After a moment, it appeared to be. Rainer sighed and let his shoulders slump, but he pulled the door wide and let Galen in. Galen tromped up the stairs, but stopped to bend down and remove his sodden shoes and socks before he went inside; he was soaked almost through, but at least he could refrain from tracking water everywhere he went. When he lifted his head again, the smell hit him, one he’d caught when Rainer had opened the door, but there he’d been willing to chalk it up to his own imagination. He’d never been a big partier himself, but college had taught him what cheap hard liquor smelled like, and that scent now clouded the inside of the studio and rolled off Rainer in noxious waves.

“You’re drunk,” Galen said, and he didn’t mean it to sound at all judgmental, he swore he didn’t, but he could hear the sharp edge to the words as they came out. But then again, why shouldn’t he be? Rainer himself had told Galen about how bad his alcoholism had made his life, how many years he’d lost to it and all the addictions that bobbed along in its wake. He should know better.

“I’m fine,” Rainer snapped back, his words more sloshed than outright slurred.

“Why’d you call?”

Rainer shrugged, and something about the defensive hulk in his posture made Galen very aware of how Rainer was standing between him and what was so far as Galen knew the only door to the room. “Why’d you come? Hadn’t done enough good deeds for the day to earn your merit badge?”

Now that was a nerve that Galen hadn’t had struck in a while: Boy Scout, one of Rainer’s old digs. It was a nonsensical one, of course, and had been so even at the time — Galen had never come anywhere near a troop, and his behavior hadn’t been angelic enough to qualify him for the stereotype — but it had always pissed Galen off to no end. It had been stupid back then to take offense at an insinuation that Galen was a good boy who didn’t cause trouble for anyone, and it was even stupider now, and none of that explained why Galen had to coax his hands from how they’d balled into fists.

Instead, he squared his shoulders and resolved to deal with this like an adult. At least one of them should. “If you’re all right, I’ll go,” he said, feeling the tension in his jaw as he moved it to form words.

“Fine, go.” Rainer stepped out of the way of the door.

That should have been all of it. Rainer was drunk, it’s true, and that was a stupid move but not a fatal one. He didn’t even have a car, so far as Galen knew, so he wasn’t going to go out and get himself into an accident. Most likely he was going to curl up, be maudlin for a few hours, fall asleep, and wake up feeling at least a little bit like he’d gotten into said accident. Galen should shut his mouth and grab his shoes and go home, where Lydia would be glad to see him and he could change into something dry.

But some deep, bitter little kernel in him was too unsettled by this — Rainer had called him on a night like this, and it wasn’t Galen’s fault he was feeling this way right now, it was Rainer’s through and through. “If you want to waste your recovery, that’s your business, not mine.”

“Don’t you fucking call me a waste,” snapped Rainer, his voice a deep, chesty growl. “What have you done with your life that’s been so fucking great?”

So here it was, their weeks of reunion exposed for what they really were. Lydia was wrong: Galen didn’t have a friend; Galen had Rainer, who had always been a smug bastard at the best of times. The fact that Rainer had been fooling him — that he had, in fact, spent the entire last few weeks pretending to laugh when obviously all he felt was smug contempt — made Galen’s blood boil. “My life? My life is great. I have a job and a house and a wife and–”

“Way to go!” Rainer gave three great, sarcastic claps. “Jumped through all the hoops, got all the little prizes. Graduated to fucking Eagle Scout!”

No, the truth of the insult behind ‘Boy Scout’ said that Galen was too stupid to do anything but what he was told, and Rainer knew better than all this bullshit and was smart enough to tell it all to go to hell. “At least I’m not the one making drunken phone calls in the middle of the night.”

Rainer pressed a fist to his lips for a moment, and when he pulled his hand away, his mouth had worked its way back from fury to a cold smirk. “I was calling to tell you we should stop this. It’s a stupid exercise and you’re a shitty model, and I don’t need your sanctimonious bullsht when I’m just trying to live my life. Go back to–” He paused for a moment, then set his jaw. “Go back to your fickle, prissy bitch of a wife and see how long before she leaves your faggy ass for someone better–”

There was really no thought behind the action, only brutal reflex, as Galen charged across the short distance between them and hit Rainer square in the jaw with the very hand Rainer had disfigured all those years ago, when Galen had come charging into the art wing demanding to know what the fuck Rainer had said to make Lydia sob like that. He couldn’t remember what had been exchanged between them, whether Rainer had admitted to anything or shrugged it all off; he couldn’t even remember which of them had grabbed the other’s wrist and slammed them both so hard against the studio window — an old pane, one of the few remaining from the school’s original construction — that the glass shattered, cutting them both to pieces. He only remembered the way it had felt then, which was the same way it felt now: powerful, purposeful, for once in his life not lost or helpless at all.

In their school days, Rainer’s fury had always been lightning-quick, and the years and pounds hadn’t slowed him down. His fist was in the air before Galen’s had even connected, as though he’d planned it all along. Galen was in fine shape, but Rainer had sheer body mass behind the punch, and when his knuckles met Galen’s nose, Galen felt a shower of blood trickle down over his lips. It didn’t hurt yet, so he struck again, this time going for Rainer’s chest. His various instructors would be so ashamed of his sloppy form right now, and Galen didn’t care.

Hitting Rainer in the torso was somewhat like punching concrete, though, and from the way Rainer lunged forward after, Galen suspected the strike had done more damage to Galen himself than to his hulking opponent, who put two hands flat on Galen’s chest and shoved him back. The front door was closed now, preventing Galen from tumbling down the stairs, but giving him a metallic slab to slam into that knocked some of the wind out of him. He pushed off it and went for Rainer again, this time grabbing instead of striking, reaching for anything he could get.

Why had they spent so long pretending to like one another, pretending to enjoy one another’s company, pretending to talk for hours about things they didn’t tell anyone else, pretending to understand? This was the only thing either of them had ever wanted to do to the other. This, finally, was honest.

Drunk, Rainer was less steady than he appeared, and a quick sweep of Galen’s leg had him toppling in no time. The impulse to grab hadn’t been Galen’s alone, though, and he found himself falling as well, as Rainer’s fists claimed great handfuls of Galen’s loose hoodie. With his fall arrested by Rainer’s body, Galen took a moment to ensure that didn’t happen again by drawing back and letting the oversized sweatshirt come off in Rainer’s hands. That done, he drove an elbow hard into Rainer’s gut before jumping back, resting on his haunches, ready to leap into action again.

But there was no call now. Rainer lay there, gasping deep breaths that sounded like thick sobs, though he held the sweatshirt to his chest such that Galen couldn’t see his face. Galen tried to rake his soaked hair back from his face, only to find that his hands were shaking almost too hard to complete the gesture — and there was the pain now, rising up into the gaps in the adrenaline high. The slate-grey floor of Rainer’s studio was speckled with red paint, another unexpected color in an unexpected place. Except Galen knew it wasn’t paint, and it really wasn’t that unexpected at all.

“You could have left us alone!” Galen shouted, or tried to shout, though it came out barely a harsh whisper. Tears stung his eyes, rendering the room as vague and blurry as one of Rainer’s paintings. “You hate us so much, you could have fucking left us alone!”

“You’re all I have!” With a pained jerk, Rainer hauled himself into a sitting position, still clutching at the hoodie, which was as bloodstained as the floor. The side of his jaw was already swelling an angry red, and he looked to have cut his lip at some point. “My family is dead, or doesn’t want anything to do with me — and they never have, and I can’t fucking blame them. And everybody I meet now expects me to be some … some fancy artist, something I’m not. And then there’s you two and I thought….” He pressed the heel of his hand against the bridge of his nose.

He’d hit the back of his head against the door, Galen realized now that a headache was thundering toward his temples. He drew the back of his bare arm under his nose; fuck, he’d forgotten just how much hits like those bled. “Thought what?” he asked, settling back in an attempt to seat himself gracefully on the ground. There was nothing graceful about the movement as it actually came to pass.

“Thought,” Rainer repeated, then sighed. “I don’t know what I thought. That I might have a chance. At … something better.”

Tears spilled free from the corner of Galen’s eyes as he clenched his jaw. “But I was too fucked up. I get it.”

Rainer flinched as though he’d been struck again. “Don’t you get it? You won.”

“Won? Won what, Lydia?”

“Won … everything.” Rainer opened his bare hands. “You beat it. Whatever it was fucking us up in high school, it got me, and you beat it. It was like … like a car crash, and you walked away.”

illustrated by Tamago

A strike of lightning illuminated the sky as a peal of thunder rattled all the windows, and Galen wondered how he could have forgotten a storm like this. No wonder Rainer had called him now; no wonder a night like this had pulled him apart. “I think–” The sentence got lost for a moment in a ragged chuckle, one that hurt as it shook his shoulders. “I think the fact that I just … sort of beat the shit out of you means no, I didn’t. I just…” He let the sentence trail off in a heavy sigh. The blood was clotting now, but that made him unable to breathe out his nose, which gave all his words a silly summer-cold sound.

“Just made it quiet,” Rainer finished, and Galen nodded. He hadn’t stopped having a single one of those feelings, but he’d learned to tune them out, to stuff them down until he could pretend they were gone. And Rainer, bless him and damn him, had known just where to hit — figuratively and literally — to let them out. “Jesus, you’re a mess.”

Galen closed his eyes; it was true, but it still hurt to have Rainer pile on like that. “That’s one way of putting it.”

“No, I mean–” Rainer splayed his fingers wide and indicated his own face and chest, which made Galen look down — and he was a mess, his chest coated with blood, and his face surely worse. “Here,” he said, pulling himself to his feet with deliberate, pained movements, “I’ve got a washcloth somewhere. Probably mostly clean.”

“Mostly’s clean enough,” said Galen, who figured getting up off the hard floor was a good start. “Maybe some aspirin?”

For an answer, Rainer reached into a tackle box of paintbrushes on a nearby table and pulled out a white bottle, giving it a rattle. “Save some for me.”

As Rainer walked toward the back of the room, limping a little, Galen shook out four tablets into his palm. There was no water in his immediate vicinity, but there was the bottle of whatever rotgut whiskey Rainer had been drowning himself with, so Galen tossed them back with two noxious mouthfuls of that, hoping the combination would help sort him out. At this point, it could hardly hurt.

When Rainer returned, he had a wet washcloth in his hand, one that only smelled a little of turpentine. It was cold, but the cold felt good as Galen ran it over his chest, watching as the white cloth tinted pink. “I keep waiting for some vice-principal to come in and pull us apart,” he said, chuckling through his teeth.

“Guess that’s the shitty thing about getting into fights as adults,” said Rainer. “Got to do our own aftercare.”

That made Galen snort enough to cause a burst of pain and a spray of blood, and he groaned as he finally brought the cloth to his face. His nose wasn’t broken, just bruised, though it would probably be a few days before the swelling went down. “Oh, shit,” Galen said, “what am I going to tell my students?”

Grinning, Rainer shrugged. “Tell ’em they should’ve seen the other guy.”

“Fuck you,” said Galen, wincing even as he grinned. “God, it hurts to laugh.”

“Every day of my life.” Rainer looked out toward the windows, which were still being beaten by the downpour. “Look, why don’t you lie down for a bit. You can drive home later, after the rain lets up.”

Galen considered protesting, but the idea of being horizontal sounded so good that he just nodded and let Rainer show him over to the futon. It was surely more kindness than he deserved right now, all things considered, and he was grateful for it. “I’m sorry I’m a crap model,” he said, easing himself into bed.

“You’re not.” Rainer looked for a moment as though he might join Galen, but sat in a nearby chair instead. “And not just because you’re pretty.”

Galen tried to roll his eyes at Rainer, but they were sliding closed. He’d been up for too many hours now, and the pain and the receding adrenaline and the high-proof alcohol had all conspired to lay him out. He felt shitty, but shitty was better than numb, because at least it was a step on the road to okay. “Sorry you’re wrong about me.”

“Wrong?”

“And the lions.” Galen flapped his hand in the direction of the canvas storage. “I wouldn’t stand a chance. One hit and I’d go down.”

“So would anybody,” said Rainer, with the tone of a man speaking the obvious. “But you were always to me the guy who wouldn’t run before that hit.”

“That’s a pretty stupid thing to be.”

“Worse things than stupid,” said Rainer, and Galen smiled and let his eyes drift the rest of the way shut. The sheets smelled like paint and sweat, but that had become a comforting combination, and Galen wasn’t going to complain. He’d rest here for an hour, maybe, let the booze and the rain both work themselves out, then head on home. He had the thought that he should call Lydia and tell her not to wait up, but his body was already too far under to comply, and so he just gave in.

~*~

It’s shitty to treat someone else like shit because you hate yourself. So of course I’m an expert at it. Cycle of abuse, learned behavior, all that.

I looked at Galen and saw everything I hated about myself and wanted to be, all wrapped up in one package, like looking at myself in a funhouse mirror. I was furious at how much he could just ignore everything that was happening to him, so I made it so he couldn’t ignore me. When we were fifteen he got his ear pierced, a little gold hoop on the left side. I gave him hell for that and wanted one so bad. I once hit him so hard I made his eyes water, so I hit him harder because by that point I hadn’t cried in years. Fuck him for being weak enough to cry and fuck him for still being able to.

He never said it, but the grapevine knew about his homes, about how a different foster parent seemed to come for family things every year. None of it ever seemed to bother him. I wanted that silence. I wanted to be him and I had to destroy him, because if he was enough like me to see through me, I couldn’t let him live.

I wasn’t like my father, though. There was no Russian roulette with me; every cylinder was loaded, and every pull of the trigger set me off.

I wish I could say that stopped with the drinking, but that’s an older, worse idea, an addiction older than drying out could fix. I even feel like a loaded gun some days, knowing I’ve got that bullet deep inside me, just waiting for a chance to shoot. I’m not so good at the slow release; I’m more of an all-or-nothing guy.

It was years before I realized that there wasn’t a thing about the two of us that wasn’t exactly alike, and that that cut both ways.

~*~

He woke up sore, disoriented, and horny, which was a combination he was familiar with from his younger days, the rough yet satisfying mornings after getting suspended for one fight or another. But he also woke to grey daylight, and his first coherent thought was, oh, shit, Lydia.

“Texted her,” said Rainer, which let Galen know he’d given inadvertent voice to at least part of that thought. “Told her you were waiting out the storm and would probably just crash here.”

It was only then Galen realized where Rainer was speaking from, which was the other side of the bed. Mussed and shaggy, he looked not long awake himself, and the patch on the left side of his jaw had shaded into a dark red visible beneath the blond hairs of his beard. Most of them were various shades of yellow and brown, but some were actually white, Galen could see this close up. He’d come by thirty the hard way, but it wasn’t all bad on him, not by a long shot.

Galen nodded and grabbed for a tissue from a box by the bed, then ruined it and several more getting all the blood out of his sinuses. When he was done, his face was sore and everything smelled like copper, but he could breathe through his nose again. “Thanks,” Galen managed at last. “Did she say anything back?”

Rainer picked up Galen’s phone, which had been resting on a chair at the head of the futon, and swiped on the screen before turning it toward Galen. In the ‘sent’ text bubble was a very polite message from Rainer explaining exactly what he’d just said, one that would have been easy to spot by its verbosity as being not from Galen even if Rainer hadn’t started out by identifying himself. The reply was a single overpunctuated word — PICTURES!!! — and a couple cheerful emoji. Well, at least she wasn’t mad.

“I don’t respond because I didn’t know what she meant by that,” said Rainer at last, handing the device over. “But she didn’t seem worried, so I figured it was okay.”

Galen sighed and felt some of the blood he hadn’t lost the night before creep up in his cheeks. “Bathroom?” he asked in the hope of avoiding explanation.

What there was wasn’t much: a toilet, shower, and sink so small it was actually inside the shower stall, all inside a little concrete nook separated from the rest of the room by a plastic. It was enough, though, and one look at himself in the mirror told Galen that the toilet wasn’t the only thing he needed to use. “Okay if I take a shower?” he called out.

“Go for it,” said Rainer. “Towels are under the sink.”

Towels were actually in a waterproof plastic tub under the sink, which slowed down Galen’s search, if only for a second. He took off his still-damp jeans and boxers and tossed both just outside the curtain, then started the water. It took a good two minutes to heat up to a usable temperature, but when it did, it was marvelous. Galen stood there under the spray, letting the water that pooled at his feet swirl first pink, then clear, as it wound its way down to the drain.

There was no excuse for any of this, not the fighting or the crying or the drinking or the weird violent mood swings that slammed the two of them from enemies to friends and back again — and then back one more time, maybe? Galen didn’t know how much of what had been said the night before had been true, or what that truth mattered. Galen thought things all the time he didn’t say, sometimes even awful things about administrators and fellow teachers and even students, and none of those thoughts affected the way he treated the people he thought them about. Hearing it didn’t do anyone any good, but it also only changed things one way. Nothing got un-thought.

After a while, he noticed his fingers were turning to prunes, so he turned off the spray and retrieved a towel from the bin. His nose was still a puffy mess, and the back of his head hurt when he pressed against it, but with all the grime and sleep and anger washed off him, he both looked and felt a lot better.

At least he’d put on a fresh pair of underwear before walking coming over the night before, so he didn’t have too many compunctions about re-dressing his lower half. His hoodie was somewhere in the studio, though it was probably enough of a bloody mess by now that he’d want to ask Rainer if he could borrow a spare t-shirt. And maybe some socks too, if his own hadn’t dried enough. And if not, he’d go home shirtless and barefoot, like so many beach bums did by design every day. Practicalities were the easiest things to think about. They kept him from spiralling down. He could do something about them.

When he emerged, Rainer was sitting up on a chair by a work table, thumbing through a sketchbook which he closed as soon as Galen stepped out. Maybe they didn’t have to talk about it, and Galen definitely didn’t want to talk about it, but there was at least one thing he couldn’t leave unaddressed. Standing there half-naked and with his hair still dripping on his shoulders, Galen looked Rainer in the eye and took a deep breath: “I didn’t hit you because Lydia’s my woman and I was protecting her honor or anything like that. I hit you because Lydia wasn’t here to hit you herself. If you ever tell her I punched you, please tell her that.”

Rainer looked startled for a moment, then began to chuckle. “Or she will punch you?”

“Or she will punch me,” Galen agreed. “Probably just on my arm. But it will happen.”

“Understood.” Rainer nodded, then sighed as he used his fingers to comb back his hair, most of which popped right back to where it had been before he touched it. “I’ve never meant anything mean I said about her, not to you, not to her face, not ever. All that comes from the part of me that … likes getting punched in the face, I guess. Or at least feels like I deserve it. So if you ever tell her I punched you, tell her that too?”

“Deal.”

“Thanks. I–” With another sigh, Rainer looked away, out into the morning sky. “I didn’t mean a lot of what I said about you, either.”

Galen shrugged, ready to shake it off, let it all slide. “You meant a lot of it, too. That’s okay.”

“It’s not. Shouldn’t have said she was going to leave you. Shouldn’t have called you a fag.”

No, he shouldn’t have, but Galen wasn’t feeling assholeish enough at the moment to rub it in. “You were mad. And drunk. Shit happens.” His stomach gave a sharp growl; Rainer had started the coffee in Galen’s absence, but there were no other immediate signs of meal preparation. “Can I check your fridge?”

“Sure. There’s not a lot, but you’re welcome to anything.”

“Thanks.” He wasn’t kidding — the contents of his mini-fridge were fairly sad, and there were things lurking in the depths Galen wasn’t sure he wanted to poke, and he was fairly certain that it would have been chock-full of frozen pizzas if the freezer section hadn’t been the same temperature as the rest of it. But there were a few eggs there, and examination of a foil-wrapped cylinder revealed a recent and mostly uneaten bean burrito. A single pan sat atop the hot plate, with a few utensils in a jar nearby. Galen had worked with less.

While Galen cracked the eggs into the pan, Rainer stood and took a few cautious steps forward, as though he were watching Galen perform some strange laboratory experiment, once that if done wrong might blow up in his face. “I don’t do a lot of cooking,” he said as Galen scraped the burrito’s contents into the eggy mix. With the tortilla now empty, Galen popped it into a toaster over he saw hiding under a shelf, hoping that it just looked old and unstable enough to burn the place down.

“I do.” It was, after all, Galen’s favorite type of thing: something to do. A can of corn and a can opener gave the mess cooking in the pan something vegetative, which was sometimes all Galen wanted out of a meal. The hot plate only had two settings, and only one of those was hot enough to cook eggs, so Galen kept one hand stirring as much as he could, saving it all from burning. When the toaster oven dinged, he pulled out the now-crispy tortilla, broke it in half, put each half on a paper plate, distributed the egg mixture, and handed one plate to Rainer. “Forks?”

With an awed sort of expression, Rainer produced two shabby metal utensils from a cup otherwise filled with paintbrushes, handing Galen the fork and keeping the spoon for himself. “Thanks,” Rainer said, looking sheepishly down at the breakfast in his hands.

“Welcome.” Short of other nearby chairs, Galen took a seat on the edge of the futon, resting the place on his knees and over the floor instead of the mattress. It wasn’t gourmet, but it wasn’t bad, and it was definitely filling — and at least the absurd sodium content of the refried beans meant he wouldn’t have to go hunting for a salt shaker. “It taste okay?”

Rainer nodded, then chewed his way through his mouthful before answering. “It’s really good, actually. Thank you.”

“Leave me to my own devices and I just make a lot of oatmeal.” Galen broke off a bit of the tortilla and tried to scoop up the scramble; it worked less well than he’d intended. “But give me someone to cook for, and I’ll bother to eat real food.”

“Not so good at taking care of yourself for its own sake, are you?”

“Neither are you.”

“Point taken,” Rainer said with a conciliatory nod. “I’m glad you’ve got Liddy to take care of, though. For both of your sakes.”

Galen wavered over whether or not to make the next comment, but he figured that if Rainer had literally taken it on the chin from him the night before, they were past the point of dancing around causing one another pain: “You’re still in love with her, aren’t you?”

“Obsessive tendencies, addictive personality, history of emotional abuse and chemical dependency? Of course I’m still in love with her.” Shaking his head, Rainer took a drink of his coffee, then stared into it as he caught it between his hands. A couple of his knuckles had split, some along what looked to Galen like old creases. Some habits died hard. “But that’s way more about me than it is about anything else. It’s not her problem. It’s not yours. I don’t want your life; I’d be terrible at it. I just…”

A full minute passed as Rainer chewed at his lips, eyes still fixed on the contents of his cup. When there appeared to be no second part of the sentence forthcoming, Galen thought about how he’d finish it himself. “Just want something that isn’t what you’ve got?”

“Yeah,” said Rainer, a smile lifting his mouth at the same time tears brimmed at the corners of his eyes. “And you two seem happy. I mean, I know that’s not the whole of it, and it’s not perfect all the time, and it’d make me miserable trying to keep up with it, but–” Rainer let out all the air in his lungs in a noisy exhale, one that sounded like someone’s trying to imitate the noise of a bomb blast. “Stupid thoughts like these are what I get for not applying myself in school, right?”

“I don’t know. I applied myself and I have them too.” Galen shrugged and glanced at his phone, thinking of how he should probably call home soon. “I feel stupid. Everything should be fine. Everything is fine. And then … I don’t even have being drunk as an excuse for last night, or for high school, or for nights I can’t sleep so I go run until I throw up. And do not tell Lydia I do that.”

“Cross my heart,” said Rainer, who literally did with his index finger.

Galen gave Rainer a grateful smile before putting aside his empty plate and resting his forearms on his knees. The morning sun caught in drops of rain still clinging to the windows, the calm after the storm. “What’s wrong with us?” he asked, his voice soft.

“A lot,” Rainer said after a moment, making Galen snort a laugh. “A lot we got taught all the wrong ways to fix. I know I started drinking yesterday because … because there’s a part of me that says I don’t deserve to feel anything good, not after all the shit I’ve done, and it was working up my nerve to–” He waved his hands awkwardly across the distance between them. “I thought you wouldn’t come. To the gallery opening. Or I thought you would, and when you did you’d rub my nose in everything that’s gone good for you. But you were nice, so I thought, okay, he’s going to be nice until he remembers what I’m really like. And then you kept being nice. So … all I had left was self-sabotage. My one real skill.”

“I–” Galen chewed on the inside of his lower lip for a moment, looking for the words. “I like coming here. To sit, I mean. I really like it. But if it’s not a thing you want…”

“That’s the problem. It is.” Rainer shrugged. “I wouldn’t be trying so hard to fuck it up for myself if it weren’t most days the only good thing I’ve got. If I hated it? Sure, keep coming. I like it? Better screw it up, so I don’t get the idea that I deserve to be happy. And you know what sucks worst?”

“What?”

“I know all this. I know it! I’m telling it to you right now. If I went and paid a shrink a hundred bucks to listen for an hour, they’d tell me exactly what I told you. I know it and I can’t stop it. Five months. That’s my longest stretch of sobriety since I was, I don’t know, twelve, maybe thirteen. Ten years of trying to stop, of going to meetings where they tell me how to stop, and five months is the best I can get out of it. Because I can’t get rid of that voice that says, sure, it’s going to fuck up everything good you’ve got, but you know, that’s the best you’re ever going to be worth.”

Galen pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes for a moment, ignoring the ache from his nose as he let the darkness settle. “I think we’re both a mess,” he said at last, though he couldn’t keep from smiling. It was a shitty place to be, maybe, but a lot less shittier for not being there alone.

“I’ll drink to that,” Rainer said, and when Galen looked at him, startled, Rainer laughed the statement into a clearer joke, one that chased the weight from the air. Galen’s phone chimed, and they both looked over at it. “That Liddy?” asked Rainer.

Galen peered at the notification, then shook his head. “Just work things. It’ll wait.”

Rainer nodded, but he frowned in the phone’s direction a little longer. “So … what did she mean by ‘pictures’?”

For a very real, clear moment, Galen considered lying his ass off, and the only reason he didn’t was that he knew he couldn’t come up with a good enough story in time. He had never been overburdened by imagination, which made him a fundamentally honest person, if one sometimes hamstrung by the truth. “She joked — joked,” he emphasized, remembering with some chagrin the ‘faggy’ crack from the fight, “that you and I could … that we could make out, but only if we photographed and documented the event.”

The blues of Rainer’s eyes seemed to go bluer the wider they got, but he looked far more surprised than upset. “Is that really what she thought was happening last night?”

“I don’t know what she thought was happening last night,” answered Galen, hoping it was the best way around the subject. He couldn’t know all the impression he’d given, running off in the middle of the night like that, but he had to admit, there was something romantic about it. After all, both he and Lydia knew the only other person he’d tear out like that for was Lydia herself. “Maybe. Probably. She’s an optimist. So … probably.”

“And she’s okay with it?”

Galen exhaled through pursed lips. “Yeah,” he admitted at last. “She would be. In theory. And, again, with pictures.”

The puzzlement was still plain on Rainer’s face, but it had started to melt from bemused to simply amused. “And you talked about this last night, before you came over?”

“Before I came over the first time.” Galen looked away, trying to scare off the blush creeping into his cheeks. This was a silly thing to feel bashful about, but here it was. “After the gallery. She asked me if you were still cute, and I said you were doing the beard thing, and that’s when she said I was going to have to get naked before you drew me and–” Galen stopped, frowning; Rainer was all-out chuckling now, hand pressed across his mouth and shoulders shaking with the effort of keeping quiet. “What?”

“Well,” Rainer said with a suddenly straight face, “you don’t want to disappoint your wife.”

“I never want to disappoint my wife,” Galen said, unsure as to where this was going.

“So get your phone and scoot over,” Rainer said, and before Galen could ask why, Rainer was getting up from his chair to come sit beside Galen on the edge of the bed. Galen took his phone and opened it, then showed it to Rainer, who opened the camera app and flipped to the front-facing lens. “Maybe this way she won’t be so mad at me when she sees your nose,” he said, holding the phone out with his left hand and reaching for Galen’s chin with his right. Galen barely had time to register what was happening before Rainer’s mouth closed against his in a kiss.

It was a fun, camera-friendly kiss, too, one with closed lips and barely hidden smiles. At least, it was for at least a full three pictures, maybe even four, before someone’s mouth opened first and the other’s followed into a kiss more like the two of them, full of teeth and tongue and heat. Galen’s tongue found the place where Rainer’s lip had split the night before and prodded it, drawing a noise from Rainer that was more pleasure than pain. He found his arms reaching for Rainer as they did the night before, grabbing with a similar intensity but with very different purpose. His fingers found purchase in Rainer’s shaggy hair, locking him in place. And all the while, the shutter of his camera snapped away, recording it all for posterity.

Rainer shuddered and hissed as Galen’s fingers tugged near what felt like a little goose egg at the back of his skull, probably from when he’d hit the floor. “Why didn’t we do this in high school?” he asked against Galen’s mouth.

“Because in high school I hated your fucking guts,” Galen answered as he shifted his weight forward, pushing Rainer back down toward the bed.

“Oh, right.” Breathless, Rainer let his extended arm fall to his side, then pushed the phone to the edge of the mattress as Galen nuzzled his beard. He’d always thought it might be prickly, but Galen found it soft instead, nice instead of scratchy. “Hated yours too.”

“Glad we grew up.” Maybe it was a bad idea, or maybe it was just a ridiculous idea, but Galen had gone from baffled to painfully hard in a matter of seconds. The shower and breakfast and conversation had done well enough to calm his blood, but he wasn’t surprised at how quickly the fire from the fight flared up again inside him — or how quickly it seemed to flare up again in Rainer, judging from the way he was running his hands over Galen’s bare chest and arms. Galen had read somewhere that the ‘fight’ and ‘fuck’ responses were close to one another, but he supposed he’d never before fought someone he’d wanted to fuck. Every day brought a new surprise.

Finding he wanted Rainer like this wasn’t even that much of a surprise to Galen, not if he was honest with himself. When Lydia had first put forth the idea, he hadn’t rejected it, and it had been at the back of his mind every time he and Rainer had been together; every time he’d seen Rainer’s strong hands covered with paint, a dim little voice had wondered what they would feel like against his skin. No, he hadn’t wanted Rainer when they were younger; his deep adolescent fury and repulsion had knocked that right out of the realm of possibility before even approaching for consideration. But now that fury could be turned to a different purpose, and the intervening years had taught Galen enough about himself that Rainer wasn’t repulsive any longer. In fact, he was quite the opposite.

Thus, he was pleased to find, as he slipped his thigh between Rainer’s, that they were both hard and ready for this — that they’d probably been ready for this for some time, and only needing that last push to make it happen. And now he was crawling on top of Rainer, and Rainer was submitting beneath him, and Galen found himself fighting back the urge to just fuck Rainer right there, hard and raw. Of course, it was a stupid idea for so many reasons, not least of which being that they were unprepared supplies-wise for any of this, but the drive was strong, and from the way Rainer was opening his arms and legs alike, Galen didn’t think he’d meet too much resistance if he tried.

He contented himself with unfastening the top button of Rainer’s jeans and slipping his hand down inside them. He was ready to make some quip, maybe some stupid tease, but what his fingers found there stopped him in his verbal tracks. “You’re huge,” he murmured, only aware after the fact that he’d spoken.

Rainer laughed as he nipped at Galen’s neck. “Never gotten any complaints,” he said, his voice a low rumble that Galen almost felt more than heard.

“Now I’m glad I didn’t see your dick in high school,” said Galen, and Rainer laughed again, though the sound turned to a deep moan as Galen gave his cock a rough squeeze. It wasn’t ridiculously big, maybe, but it was a full, firm handful that made Galen lick his lips to think about. It had been a while since he’d had a cock in his mouth — maybe too long, as such things went.

A lot of this had been too long. He loved sex with Lydia and they still got up to a more-than-satisfactory amount of it, but she was at her core a soft, gentle person who wanted to be made love to, and while that was often all it took to make him the happiest man alive, the same part of him that had punched Rainer’s jaw wanted something to top the hell out of. He’d expected a fight about this, had even been turned on by the thought of continuing the struggle horizontally, but having Rainer spread his knees and show his belly was hotter than he knew what to do with. He pushed the heel of his hand against Rainer’s cock, drawing out from Rainer a pleading whine.

It was rough on his wrist, though, wanting so much and having so little room to move. Galen sat back on his knees, then grabbed the waistband of Rainer’s jeans and yanked them off, exposing Rainer’s pale skin, muscular legs, furred belly, and thick, uncut cock. He blew on the latter and grinned as it jumped at the sensation.

Sucking Rainer Barany’s dick wasn’t something his teenaged brain had spent much time thinking about, because though it hated him, it didn’t hate him in quite that way, and he’d still been some years away from some important personal realizations regarding his desire to suck anyone’s dick. Even so, while he couldn’t consider this an old fantasy fulfilled, there was still a satisfying sense of decade-old resolution as Galen took the head of Rainer’s cock between his lips and teased the skin there with his tongue. Rainer’s sudden departure from his life had been so sharp, so severe, that only the distraction of his budding romance with Lydia had kept him from realizing just what a constant presence Rainer had been, for better or for worse, and what a strange hole he had left behind.

It hadn’t been a hole in the literal sense, of course, but Galen wasn’t complaining. Neither was Rainer, for that matter; the sounds he was making were unmistakable encouragement, all moans and helpless whimpers. That was encouragement of the best kind, so Galen began ever-so-slowly slipping his mouth down the length of Rainer’s shaft. He may spent most of his life feeling uncomfortable about conversation, but sex had taught him about better uses for his mouth.

Galen was surprised when only a few minutes of diligent teasing later, Rainer grabbed for Galen’s hair and shot off in Galen’s mouth — surprised, but also pleased with himself. It seemed he wasn’t the only one feeling seventeen again.

Rainer stammered wordlessly as Galen sucked him dry, then collapsed back against the mattress, chest heaving with the effort of breathing. “Fuck,” he finally managed, draping his arm across his face. “It’s … it’s maybe been a while.”

Galen waited until Rainer was looking at him again, then licked his lips, pleased when that made Rainer bite his lip and groan. With a smirk, Galen petted Rainer’s hip, then started to push up his shirt to bare first his belly, then his chest. Where Galen was smooth, Rainer was pink and furred, a warm and pretty addition to his barrel-chested frame. He tugged at the shirt until Rainer lifted his arms, then pulled it over Rainer’s head. That wasn’t fair, though, so he took off his jeans and underwear for the second time that hour, then lay down beside Rainer until their naked bodies were pressed together. His own erection poked at Rainer’s half-soft cock, but he was ignoring it for now. This was an exercise in self-control, in being the boss, in staring the lions down.

The lion in this case, though, looked more like the housecats that congregated around the plates of kibble Rainer left on the fire escape. He lay half on his right side, half on his back, with his scarred left hand tracing the shape of Galen’s body. “I was thinking,” he said softly as he brushed fingertips over Galen’s hip, “you know what else that hypothetical hundred-dollar shrink would tell me?”

“What?” Galen propped his chin up on his arm, turning to give Rainer better access.

“That the more I think I hate you, the more I really hate the part of you that looks just like the part of me I hate.” Rainer raised a knowing eyebrow, looking for confirmation.

Galen sighed, but he couldn’t deny it. “Think I’d hear the same about me?”

Rainer shrugged. “One way to find out.”

Galen shut his eyes for a moment, letting Rainer’s hand skim and press his skin electric. “I guess so,” he said at last, resigning himself to something he’d hoped all his adult life to avoid. But as the previous month had made abundantly clear, sometimes the past had legs, and sometimes it knew how to hunt its escapees down. He reflected on that for a moment as Rainer kept stroking him, nearing but never quite touching his cock — then cracked open an eye so he could see Rainer’s expression when he asked, “The faggy part, you mean?”

Rainer’s deer-in-the-headlights look was worth the effort, but it lasted for only a moment before fading into a knowing smile. “Among others,” he said, and now he did reach down to handle Galen’s cock, skimming its sensitive surface with delicate strokes of his fingertips. For a man who could work such violence with those hands, he was also capable of great tenderness and precision. “Maybe nearer to the top than some.”

“You mean–” Giggles rose from Galen’s chest. “All those times we called one another ‘faggot’ and ‘cocksucker’, we were just giving accurate assessments of the situation?”

“Turns out!” Grinning, Rainer rubbed his thumb across the top of Galen’s cock. “I wouldn’t say I’m too gay for a girlfriend, but … pretty close. Of course, I think she’s a lesbian, so it’s only fair.”

Galen’s eyebrow arched. “You think? Isn’t that kind of an important thing to know about a girlfriend?”

“I figure she’ll tell me if it ever comes up,” Rainer said, punctuating the last two words with a gentle squeeze of Galen’s balls before resuming his slow, deliberate strokes. Galen let the air out of his lungs in a heavy, hot rush, which made Rainer smile as he leaned forward to kiss him. This was gentler than the kiss in front of the camera had become, if only because such concentration was needed elsewhere. Galen’s mouth made a study of Rainer’s, learning its tastes, its textures.

As Rainer’s scarred left hand stroked Galen hard, Galen’s right hand, with its mirrored wounds, stroked Rainer’s cheek right over where he’d struck a tender lump into it. It would fade, and the split lip would fade, and the swelling in Galen’s own face would fade, but the white spiderwork lines made by broken glass had remained all these years. Some things cut too deep to be taken back. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t also heal.

When Galen finally came in Rainer’s hand, it was with as little noise as he ever made, but his hand grabbed for Rainer’s shoulder and he held on tight, drawing their bare chests close. He broke the kiss long enough to wait, to hold his breath, and then he had his tongue in Rainer’s mouth as he spilled come between them, soaking bodies and sheets. Sometimes it was good to be a mess.

He’d expected that Rainer might disengage, with their being even now, but he stayed close, slowing both his hand and his mouth until he just held Galen’s cock in his hand and breathed against his lips. “Is this weird?” he asked at last, his voice barely even a whisper.

“Not in a bad way,” said Gale. He could feel Rainer’s lips rise against his own into a smile, so he smiled back. There would be much left to do today and in the weeks to come, and some of it needed to be done fairly soon, but for the time being, they had one another and they had the quiet. In the distance, the ocean crashed against itself and birds chased one another across the dawn. It was, after all, a new day.

illustrated by Tamago

~*~

She was sitting at the kitchen table when he walked in, and her jaw dropped with concern the second she saw his face. He held up his hands, half a posture of defenselessness, half a plea for her to stop before she even started. When she closed her mouth, he took a seat across her at the table and reached for her hands, which she placed into his.

“I’m going to talk for a minute, okay?” he said. His cheeks were wet and his eyes were puffy; he’d cried all the way home. “Everything’s okay, I’m not sad, I don’t even know why this is happening–” He gestured to the tears, which had started up again. “I just need you to … not say anything until I’m ready to stop. Okay?”

“Okay,” she said, giving his hands a gentle squeeze. God, it must have been so impossible to be married to him sometimes. She deserved a medal for it every day of their lives.

“Okay.” He nodded and took a deep breath. “I don’t really have a plan for this, so I guess it’s good to start with the easy stuff. I love you. I have about as long as I’ve known you. I know I’m not easy to love sometimes. I’m glad you sat by me that day because you thought I was cute, and I’m glad I was cute enough for you to badger me into going out with you. I’m glad this all happened. I’m glad you got to know me and stayed anyway.

“Rainer and I had a fight last night and sex this morning, and I–” He paused as her eyebrows shot up, but true to her word, she didn’t make a peep. “Yeah, I still don’t really know what happened there either. But I liked it. Both parts. And that’s less good about the fighting. I didn’t want to hit him. I tried to walk away, but he just … made me so angry I couldn’t think. I couldn’t think. All I could do was react.”

Galen bit the insides of his cheeks as he searched for the best way to get this out. He wanted nothing more than to shut up now, to bury it all again, to go back to pretending that everything was fine. That was why he knew he had to keep going. “I think I … need to talk to someone,” he said at last. “Someone like a therapist, except not by a court order and not being dragged there by foster parents. Because there’s … a lot that happened to me,” he said at last, scrubbing at his cheeks with the sleeve of the henley Rainer had let him borrow; it was too big on him, and that made him feel safe. “A lot where I kind of learned to say, oh, that’s just the way it is. It just happened. Can’t change the past, so no reason to cry over it. It’s gone. Move on.

“But it didn’t go anywhere. It sort of built up. Corroded me on the inside. And Rainer just–” Galen laughed a snotty laugh, and Lydia let go of him long enough to grab a box of tissues from the counter. He gave her a grateful smile before cleaning himself up a bit. “That asshole, he knew all my buttons to push, and it all came back up, until I choked on it.”

This next part was hard, because Galen didn’t like the implication that it was somehow Lydia’s fault that he was like this, but he couldn’t dodge it. “I’m afraid all the time. Of me, of it. Of what would happen if it got out. If I hit one of the kids, if I hit you, if–” He shook his head. “So I need to stop pretending I’m okay. Okay? Okay.” He squeezed her hands and blew his nose again; at least he hadn’t started bleeding again, though he certainly deserved it. “Okay. I’m done. Your turn.”

Lydia sighed and grabbed for tissues herself, but when she was done mopping up her face, she gave him a big smile. “I love you too,” she said, clutching at his hands. “You are the best thing that ever happened to me. And yeah, you’re a little messed up. I’m sorry if I didn’t push you to–”

“No, no,” Galen interrupted, shaking his head.

“But!” she continued over him. “But I know badgering you to do something is the number-one way to make you not want to do that thing. So instead I’m sorry that it had to get like this before you made that decision on your own. Fair?”

“Fair.” He nodded. “And I … know how you feel about Rainer, and believe me, that’s completely justified. He’d be the first to agree with you. But maybe the fact that he’d be the first to agree with you now says something?”

Lydia’s pretty, dark gaze grew distant for a minute, looking back over things Galen knew he’d never fully know. He didn’t even want to know; wanting to know, to take offense on someone else’s behalf, was what led to scars. “Yeah,” she said at last. “I miss the good part of him.”

“He’s … well, he’s not all good now. But neither am I.” Galen shrugged. “But he can behave. Better than I can most days. And he’s got just … a massive cock.” Lydia cackled out an undignified, unladylike guffaw at that, one that made Galen’s smile widen to a full grin. “Just huge. It’s kind of ridiculous.”

“Stop, stop,” Lydia pled as she scrambled for the tissues, trying to muffle her snotty laughter.

“I’ve got pictures,” Galen said, going for his phone. “Well, not of that. Maybe I should have.”

“Maybe next time,” Lydia said with a wink.

There was still a lot of ground to cover here before everything was okay, but it was pointed in that direction now, and that was a start. All he’d ever needed was a start. “Yeah,” said Galen, scooting his chair closer to his wife as he opened his camera’s photo album. “Maybe next time.”

~*~

It’s exhausting to live your life on watch, on a hair trigger, ready to go off at a moment’s notice. It’s like sleeping with one emotional eye open. How could you ever rest when you can feel the storm in the air, crackling through to your fingertips, making your skin prickle? What coud you do if you knew a second’s lapse in your vigilance could bring it crashing down on you? And it’s a process, learning to unclench your fists; learning first not to say the awful things you think, and then not to think them at all. It’s awful and it’s terrifying and it leaves a great big void where all that twitchy tension used to be. It’s a great big hollow, and then you’re supposed to put your heart there, unguarded, and feel safe about it. Good luck with that.

Sometimes, two years of sobriety makes me feel like shit, because it’s like, you lazy asshole, if you’ve done it this long, why didn’t you just do it in the first place? I’ll tell you why, that voice says: It’s because you’re still a piece of shit now, because you were a piece of shit then and you’re just covering it better now. And the better you get now, the worse it shows you were back then.

See? Still. Bad ideas.

But I didn’t want to say all of this here because I think I deserve some sort of medal — though I’ll take my second bronze chip, thank you. No, consequence or reward aside, it needed to be said. As someone on the front row today, and I won’t name names or look too hard in her direction, but as someone likes to say, people aren’t mind-readers. Sometimes you’ve got to let the people you love know how much you’re hurting, and sometimes you’ve got to tell them how much they mean to you. Just my luck, both of those happen for me in the same story.

Because the problem isn’t the alcohol, or the drugs, or the bad ideas, or whatever else addictions happen to. So when that voice shows up again telling me I was a lazy asshole for not being able to put down the bottle, I can tell it, no, that was a symptom, not the disease. I was addicted to the idea that I didn’t deserve anything better. That was the addiction I finally had to beat. And I wasn’t the only one.

So I’ve still got my head above water. The storm blew through and left me on the beach, but I’m still alive. I get up every day, cough a little seawater out of my lungs, and go on breathing, one bad idea at a time.

And when I close my eyes at night now, I sleep.


See this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

 

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