by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by Neru Momochimuchi (百千鞭練)
Isaac didn’t make mistakes. He was a very thorough and hard worker, and had been praised for that by his supervisor on so many occasions that he’d lost count, and something had to happen very many times before Isaac lost count of it.
He’d made a mistake today, though, and the part of the computer that checked his work for mistakes told him of his error with a box with a message in it saying that he needed to check again. After that he took his break (the one he was supposed to take twice every day, even though he usually didn’t and just said that he had) and went to stand in the bathroom with the light off and the rattling old duct fan on for exactly ten minutes. When he had counted six hundred seconds, he turned on the light again and took two pieces of paper out of his wallet.
One was a picture of Saturn, its rings, and two of its moons; that picture had arrived on earth on November 3, 1980, exactly six years, four months, and three days before Isaac was born, though it had been taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft before that, because light took time to travel no matter where in the universe you were (at least on the scale at which humans and spacecraft operated).
The other was a list of things from Dr. Mazzy that were okay, and the third thing on the list was ‘making mistakes’. He read the whole list over four times, focusing on those two words in particular. He didn’t forget things; sometimes he just didn’t remember to remember them.
He decided it was okay to make a mistake when he was excited, and he was excited. On Friday, Rick would be back. That made thinking about anything else difficult.
In the end, the computer was the only one who noticed Isaac’s mistake, and it wouldn’t be disappointed with him or tell anyone else about it so long as he fixed it, and he did. When the clock said 5:00:00 PM, he logged out, neatened his workspace, put his empty lunch bag in his backpack, and got on his bicycle. He obeyed all traffic laws, including the one about wearing a helmet. At first he hadn’t liked the way it made his head feel, but Rick had brought back stickers from all over the world and helped Isaac arrange them over the shiny blue surface, and now Isaac liked wearing it. For the past four months and two days, Rick had been in Mozambique; Isaac didn’t have a sticker from Mozambique yet.
At dinner his mother kissed his forehead as she brought him his plate and asked him about how his day had been. He didn’t tell her about the mistake, because Rick had taught him that when people asked questions like that, unless there was something terribly wrong, Isaac should say that it had been fine. “Fine,” he said, and she smiled, which made him happy. He liked making her happy.
His father’s workday had been less fine, and he told Isaac’s mother about it while Isaac separated the peas from where they’d run into the mashed potatoes. That was something else that Rick had taught him: that he didn’t have to be mad when food touched, that he could make it stop touching. Rick was smart and went all over the world with his camera and had filmed people who made entire television shows about how to survive in places like the desert and the tundra. Isaac watched those shows over and over, even though they weren’t about space, because he liked thinking about how this was what the world must look like from behind Rick’s eyes.
“Does he need someone to pick him up?” asked Isaac’s father, and then he was quiet until Isaac realized that the words were for him and looked up. “Does he have a ride?”
“A car,” said Isaac. The airport was too far away for Isaac to bike to, and he’d tried.
Isaac’s mother smiled. “Did he say who’s driving the car?”
“Mrs. Headley.” Rick’s mother was nice and made Isaac lemon cookies for his birthday every year and once took Isaac and Rick to the planetarium where Rick had held Isaac’s hand the whole show and punched the boy who’d laughed at them when he’d seen it.
“She should stay for dinner,” said Isaac’s mother. “I’ll make lasagna. Can you invite her, please, Isaac?”
Isaac pulled out his phone and opened its email client. You are invited to dinner with us on Friday March 23 after you bring your son Rick to our house after he is at the airport, he tapped into the subject like of the email. He looked this over and added in the body, It will be lasagna. That done, he closed the phone and put it away. Isaac’s mother didn’t approve of his having it out at family meals.
After supper, he put away the leftovers and did the dishes, then said good-night to his parents and went to his apartment over the garage. His parents and Rick had helped him remodel it when he’d finished high school and decided that it wasn’t right for an adult to live with his parents any longer. He’d spent his entire summer on that project, and when he’d finished, he’d made two small rooms and a bathroom out of the large space and curtained-off toilet that had been there when his parents had bought the house. One of the rooms was his bedroom, and the other had just been a room at first, but had become Rick’s Room as soon as Rick had gotten his film internship and needed somewhere to keep his camera equipment. There was small bed in there, and sometimes Rick slept in it, and sometimes he didn’t.
Isaac did his yoga exercises for thirty minutes, bending his body however the woman on the DVD told him to. He loved yoga because it was slow and didn’t make him frustrated because everything went by too fast. When Rick was here, they’d do it together. Rick was graceful and athletic and never fell over during poses the way Isaac did and never laughed at Isaac when he fell over during poses, just smiled and helped him back up.
Exercises completed, Isaac turned off the lights and took off his clothes. His laptop was on the table by his bed, and he took it and opened it to a webpage of free pornography. There were so many men together on this site, and they all looked different, but Isaac liked the men that looked like Rick best: the darkest skin, shaved heads, lots of muscles. He clicked on a link that opened a video where two men, both of whom looked like Rick, were kissing and only wearing dark grey underwear. Isaac had seen this one several times before, but he liked watching things he’d seen before. Familiarity was safe.
The taller one of the men put his hands on the other’s hips and started tugging his underwear down, and Isaac thought about what Rick would look like doing the same thing. Down went the underwear, revealing a large, dark penis that looked big enough already, but which Isaac knew would get bigger as soon as the other man put it in his mouth. That had been the thing Isaac had worried about the most when he’d started his research, how much of one another men seemed comfortable with putting in their mouths. He’d gotten over that by trying to imagine what Rick would have said to him about that, and then imagining that Rick told him to imagine that they’d all taken showers right before they started.
The laptop on his belly blocked Isaac’s view of his own penis, but he could feel it getting bigger as he watched the men and thought about Rick, until it tapped the back of the laptop shell with its tip. He’d spent several of his teenage years very mad at his penis and how it had a mind of its own. He could make his hands and feet and all the other parts of his body do what he wanted, but no matter how much he yelled at it, it would never listen. As with so many other things in the world, he’d needed Rick to show him how to appreciate it.
On the screen, the men got naked and touched one another with their hands and their mouths, and Isaac had seen it happen so many times by now that it was like watching the ballet dancers on PBS shows, only dancers didn’t have the same effect on him the men on the video did. Rick had told Isaac once that he didn’t want to kiss girls, and Isaac had said that he didn’t want to kiss girls either, and Rick had laughed and said it wasn’t the same because Isaac didn’t want to kiss girls or boys. That had been true right up until Isaac had figured that he could kiss Rick sometimes when they were alone, at which point he’d amended his earlier statement to reflect how he wanted to kiss boys a lot, but only if those boys were Rick, and Rick had laughed and kissed him some more.
He knew that Rick did more than kiss other boys while he was away, though, more than kiss and more than the touching that he and Rick shared while they lay together face-to-face in Isaac’s narrow bed. The first time he’d had that thought, which had come into his head from out of nowhere, he’d cried for two hours and been unable to explain to his mother what had made him so sad. On the screen, the two men were turned so they were facing one another on the bed, except that one was the wrong way on the bed so they could put their penises in one another’s mouths. Rick probably liked doing that, Isaac thought, and his penis twitched and tapped against the back of the laptop.
That was enough watching for now. Isaac closed the tab with the video in it and placed his laptop on the floor. He lay there in the dark, his eyes shut, hands flat against the mattress on either side of his hips. He thought about seeing Rick’s penis for the first time; he’d felt it but never seen it, and he assumed it would look like the ones the men in the video had, even though Isaac’s own was shorter and redder than theirs. He thought about putting his mouth on it and making Rick make the noises the men in the video made, which had sounded bad at first, but which he’d figured out were actually good, which wasn’t too much of a surprise, because as far as Isaac could tell the world was full of people who said things they didn’t actually mean all the time. He thought about the way the men in the video moved their mouths and practiced moving his own mouth the same way. At last, he put his hand on his own penis and bit his lip as he had an orgasm (as he came, that was what Rick said when that happened) that left semen all over his chest.
He kept a towel by the side of his bed that he cleaned himself up with, and when that was done he tucked himself beneath all the blankets on his bed, still naked. He didn’t like to do that to himself very often, because when he did, he had to be alone afterwards, and what he wanted instead was to be able to put his head on Rick’s chest and listen to Rick’s heartbeat. Rick wasn’t there, though, so Isaac shut his eyes and began to list all the four-digit prime numbers. By the time he got to 2347, he was too sleepy to keep whispering them aloud, and before he even reached the six thousands, he was asleep.
Isaac let Rick walk in the front door and set down his heavy duffel before throwing his arms around Rick’s neck and pressing his forehead against Rick’s shoulder. Rick’s arms were around his waist a half-second later, squeezing him tight. “Hey, stranger,” Rick said in a soft voice, and that was a joke because they weren’t strangers at all, they were best friends. Rick had explained the concept one summer afternoon while they’d been walking together back from the 7-11, and Isaac had agreed, yes, that definition fit. “I missed you.”
“I missed you too, Rick,” Isaac said. “You should come back to America and not stay in Mozambique.”
“I think so too! That’s why I’m back!” Rick gave Isaac two pats on his back to let Isaac know that the hug should be over, and Isaac nodded and stepped back, giving his parents enough room to hug Rick too.
Behind Rick came Rick’s mother, Mrs. Headley. She wasn’t a Mrs. anymore, Isaac’s mother had explained, because Rick’s father and mother weren’t married anymore, and Rick’s father lived in a different part of Baltimore and only saw Rick sometimes and never gave Rick presents except on his birthday and once for high school graduation. She was small and skinny, and now a lot of her black hair was silver. Isaac gave her a hug, just a little one, and he counted to three while he did it, and on three he let go.
“How was your flight?” asked Isaac’s mother, holding Rick’s arm as she led them to the dining room table. The lasagna had been ready for an hour, but Rick’s arrival had been delayed, so she’d kept it warming in the oven while they’d waited. Isaac had set the table for everyone with the good plates, which were white and had little blue flowers around the rim.
Rick sighed as he sat down. “Long. But that wasn’t the holdup. They sent us through customs twice. Something with the producer’s paperwork sent off some red flag, so some poor government employee had to look through all my camera equipment and dirty underwear again.”
Isaac’s father laughed, but not a mean laugh. “After dinner, I’ll start the washing machine, and you can just open your bag upside-down right over the top of it.” He mimed doing so, which made Rick laugh with him.
Rick’s mother folded her napkin in her lap. “I feel bad, just dropping him off here with all his washing-up still to do….”
Isaac’s mother shook her head and touched Rick’s mother on her shoulder. “Oh, we’re just glad to have him back too, Paulette. Besides, he does it himself! We just provide the machinery.” Every time Rick came home from being away, his mother would say things like ‘I feel bad’ and ‘are you sure you don’t mind?’ to Isaac’s mother. Isaac didn’t understand why, since Rick had his house and his bed and his editing equipment here and had told Isaac he liked staying there better than he liked the idea of sleeping on the couch in his mother’s sister’s or newest boyfriend’s apartment, but Isaac didn’t ask. Instead, he took a piece of twisted garlic bread from the basket on the table, untwisted the two strands, and ate each one separately.
Isaac let most of the dinner conversation go by him when Rick wasn’t talking. It was easy to do: he stopped thinking of the things that were coming out of people’s mouths as words and started thinking of them as sound without meaning, signal without substance, like the background noise of the universe picked up by radio telescopes. He didn’t like like large groups, and anything larger than two was a large group.
Instead of talking, he ate his meal and looked at Rick. Rick’s hands were big and dark, and he had a new scar on the back of one thumb, a puckered pink line that hadn’t been there when he’d left. He had a braided twine bracelet around his left wrist; Isaac hated the way jewelry of any kind felt, but Rick looked good in it. Little black curls had started to form atop his head and on his chin, the way they did when he’d gone too long without shaving either. Isaac fought back the urge to lean over and see if Rick’s skin tasted any different after being in Mozambique; he knew that wasn’t a thing to test in front of parents, and anyway, Rick would let him try later.
“A fishing boat,” said Rick, and the way he held up his scarred thumb to let the rest of the people at the table see let Isaac know that he was talking about it, so Isaac started listening again. “The day after we landed, we were just off the coast getting some shots in this little thing, all three of us — me, one of my producers, and the fisherman — in a boat that I didn’t want to get into in the first place, because it looked like even a little wave might send it over. So I made Dana — he’s my producer — go with me to get the shots, so if you can imagine all three of us — me with my only remotely waterproof camera, Dana, who’s this grumpy white guy in his forties with a big Santa Claus beard, and this skinny little African fisherman who’s got to be twice as old as both of us put together — cramped together inside a bunch of boards that made a space … couldn’t have been wider than this table, and not a lot longer.”
Isaac could imagine. He didn’t always know what to imagine when people told their stories, but Rick told good stories, and sometimes he told the stories a second and third and fourth time while he showed Isaac his footage on the little editing TVs in Rick’s Room. It was what Dr. Mazzy talked about all the time, empathy, and once he’d asked Isaac why he thought having empathy for Rick was easier for Isaac than having empathy for other people, and Isaac had told him that most people didn’t have film footage to go with their feelings.
“So we get two miles out from shore, easy, and the waves start to pick up, going from just batting the boat back and forth to really pitching and rocking. The fisherman looks fine — he’s been doing this literally every day of his life since he was five or six — but Dana’s starting to look real green. Seasick,” Rick added, looking at Isaac, and Isaac nodded; ‘green’ was an idiom that when used to describe people meant ‘ill’ or ‘jealous’ or ‘ecologically friendly’, and sometimes Isaac didn’t know which one applied. “And he leaned a little too close to the edge just as the wave pushed the other side of the boat too high, and bam!” Rick clapped his hands together. “Over the side, into Maputo Bay.”
Rick’s mother and Isaac’s mother both put their hands to their mouths, and Rick just grinned. “I mean, I didn’t know what to do — I’m barely hanging on myself, and I’ve got fifty pounds of really expensive equipment on or near me. And of course, that’s when I see the sharks.”
“Oh no!” Isaac smacked his hands flat on either side of his head. He wasn’t really distressed — obviously the story had a happy ending, or Rick wouldn’t be here telling it — but the story was getting interesting, and that’s how people showed they were interested.
Still wearing his big grin that showed most of his front teeth, Rick one hand on Isaac’s shoulder and pointed off in the distance, back to some now-unseen place where sleek bodies circled just beneath the surface of the water. “So I’m in a panic, because he’s here sputtering and splashing, and he doesn’t see them, and I don’t think the fisherman sees them either, so I do the only thing I know how to do, which is just grab over the side of the boat and haul him back in. I grab his shirt and use the camera bag on the other side for a counterweight and just yank–” Rick mimed the gesture, clenching his hands around some imaginary drowning man’s imaginary shirt. “And then we’re both back in the boat, soaking wet, while the fisherman’s looking at him like he’s stupid for falling over and at me like I’m crazy for not waiting for the life preserver and rope he’s holding like he’s half a second ready from throwing.
“And yeah, okay, that might have been a little easier, but I’m pointing in the water and telling him, no, not there’s sharks in there! But his English isn’t that good, and I don’t know five words of Portuguese, so I take the chance that the Spanish word will be close enough, and I’m here pointing and shouting, ‘¡Tiburón! ¡Tiburones in el agua!‘ And he just stares at me for a minute before I can see what I’m saying starts to make sense, and he then he just laughs at me and starts paddling the boat back to shore.”
“He wasn’t worried about sharks?” asked Isaac’s father.
Rick laughed and shook his head. “Oh, no, he would have been very worried about sharks, especially if they’d ventured that close to the shore. As it was, the moral of the story is that I still had a lot to learn about Mozambique, and that included how to tell the difference between a cluster of tiger sharks and a school of herring.”
That made Isaac and Rick’s parents laugh, though Isaac didn’t think anything was funny, so he didn’t join them. He’d seen sharks before, at the aquarium, but he didn’t think he’d ever seen a herring. He’d like to go to the aquarium with Rick now that Rick was back. They could go to the dark room with all the jellyfish and hold hands and watch the little glowing bodies spin and twirl inside their tiny tanks. Isaac liked that room best because the jellyfish looked like they were in space.
“Meanwhile I call him a week later,” said Rick’s mother, “and he tells me, everything’s great here, Mama, the weather’s so nice and pretty, and I’m getting my stitches out tomorrow.”
“I didn’t even notice it at the time, not until we got back to shore and I noticed first that my whole sleeve and shirt were covered in blood, and then that it was coming from me.” Rick held out his hand in a sideways thumbs-up (or, Isaac supposed, a sideways thumbs-down) where Isaac could see the jagged scar. “That boat was held together with a lot of prayer and a lot of nails, and one of them poked just a little too far out the side….”
Isaac’s mother shivered even though the room wasn’t cold. “Stitches and a tetanus shot, I hope.”
“Funny enough, after that thing with the bear trap in the Yukon the September before last, I’m all caught up.” Rick reached down to pat his left leg, just above the place where his jeans hid three long scratches that ran the length of his calf from knee to ankle. Isaac liked to touch them while Rick told him the story about the time he and the Tlingit wildlife activist he was filming came across a well-protected poachers’ camp. “So I can keep stepping on rusty nails for at least another year and a half, no problem.”
With a sigh, Isaac’s mother put her hand on Rick’s mother’s shoulder. “It amazes me, Paulette, how you let him go do all these dangerous things.”
“Jenny, I have been his mother for twenty-five years,” said Rick’s mother, “and I have yet to figure out how, when he wants a thing bad enough, to stop him.”
After dinner Isaac helped clean the dishes and bring in the last of Rick’s bags from the car inside. Rick kissed his own mother good-night, then gave Isaac’s parents hugs and thanked them for letting him stay here before hefting the heaviest of his duffels and following Isaac up the stairway to the rooms over the garage. Rick was very strong; Isaac wanted to help him carry the bigger bags too, but Isaac couldn’t even lift them off the ground. Instead, he was helpful by holding all the doors open for Rick, and when at last they were alone together, Rick opened his arms wide and Isaac hugged him long and hard, and Rick didn’t give him a single signal that the hug should end, and Isaac didn’t count to three and then let go.
Isaac’s legs started to get tired, though, so he stopped hugging Rick and took off his shoes. “I had yoga every night,” he said, pointing to the TV.
“Did you?” Rick grinned. “Maybe we can do some together in the morning. I’m beat, though.”
That was an idiom too, one that Rick used when he was tired, not when he’d been injured or had lost a game. “Are you going to sleep in this bed in here and not that bed in there?” Isaac asked.
Rick looked at him as he unlaced his own hiking boots and put them by the door. “I’d like to, if that’s okay with you.”
“Okay. I’d like to. That’s okay with me.”
“Good,” said Rick, and he took off his shirt. His body was very handsome and Isaac could see the lines many of his major muscle groups made as they pushed up from under his skin. Isaac stared openly, and Rick smiled back at him. The things Isaac did that bothered most people didn’t bother Rick. “So, did you do anything fun while I was gone?”
Isaac shook his head, paused to reconsider, and nodded. “Dr. Mazzy introduced me to a new doctor. Her name is Dr. Karimi. We’re going to work on Practical Life Skills. We practiced making macaroni and cheese.”
Rick grinned as he took his pants off, leaving only his light blue boxer shorts on. “So, will you make some for me sometime?”
“I will. It wasn’t very good.” Isaac had tried so hard to remember all the steps and follow all the directions, and he’d done everything right, but the boiling water in the pot had started spilling all over the sides, and he’d been so distraught that he’d turned off the stove completely, so the noodles had been a little crunchy at the end. Isaac wasn’t usually allowed to use the stove without someone’s help. “I like Taco Bell better.”
Rick laughed. “You always want to go to Taco Bell.” He pulled a white t-shirt out of his bag and put it on, then touched Isaac’s shoulder as he walked into the bathroom but didn’t shut the door behind him. The green toothbrush by the sink was his, and he ran water over it and put toothpaste on it. Isaac didn’t like brushing his teeth because he didn’t like the way toothpaste tasted, but he was brave and did it anyway. “You know, I bet if you asked this Dr. Karimi about it, she’d teach you how to make a cheese quesadilla.”
Isaac shook his head. “You can’t make cheese quesadillas. You buy them from the menu at Taco Bell.”
“But the people at Taco Bell have to make them, right? So there’s got to be a way. You just have to learn it.” Rick stuck the toothbrush in his mouth and started brushing.
As he brushed, Isaac looked at him, forgetting for a moment the impossibility of quesadillas and concentrating instead on Rick. He walked over behind Rick, into the small space between Rick and the wall, and put his arms around Rick’s waist and his cheek against Rick’s back, just between Rick’s shoulderblades. Rick kept brushing with his left hand, but he put his right one over the top of Isaac’s and placed one of his fingers between each one of Isaac’s, until they went Rick, Isaac, Rick, Isaac, all the way to their thumbs. Isaac held on tight until he had to let go to let Rick rinse out his mouth and spit into the sink. “I need a haircut,” said Rick, looking at himself in the mirror.
Isaac peeked over Rick’s shoulder until he could see them both in the mirror, even though all he could see of himself was the top of his head and his light brown arms around Rick’s dark brown waist. “My hair is longer than yours.”
“It is. Do you want to get a haircut too? We could go together to the barber tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Isaac nodded. “And then Taco Bell?”
Rick laughed and turned in Isaac’s arms until they were chest-to-chest in the small bathroom. His body was warm and smooth, and now he smelled like mint. “And then Taco Bell. It’s a date. But first, my body thinks it’s the middle of the night right now and I’ve got to get some sleep.”
By the time Isaac had gotten through his whole list of nighttime bathroom steps, Rick had turned off the light and crawled into bed, so Isaac stripped down to his underwear and crawled into the space Rick had made next to him, placing his head on Rick’s bicep and putting his hand on Rick’s stomach just below his ribs. Rick’s breathing was slow and even, and Isaac liked the way that made his hand rise and fall in time, like touching a very slow clock. He lay there for a minute, then stretched up to where Rick’s face was and kissed Rick on the mouth. Rick kissed back, petting Isaac’s arm as he did. It was so dark in the bedroom that Isaac shut his eyes, because they weren’t helping him anyway, and let the way Rick tasted and smelled and felt be more important.
After a short time, Rick pulled back from the kiss and touched their foreheads together. “I’m so tired,” he said, his voice little more than a whisper. “But I missed you. I really did. I missed everything about you. I thought about you all the time.”
“I thought about you all the time too,” said Isaac, not because it was polite to repeat something like that but because it was true.
“Then it’s good we’re back together.” Rick kissed him once more, a slow and gentle touch of mouths, before nudging Isaac back down to where their bodies had been before. He started to say something, but the words were cut off by a yawn, so Isaac was quiet and waited until he could continue. “Tell me something about Saturn. About one of its moons. The big one.”
Isaac had told Rick about Saturn and its moons and many other astronomy things before, but Rick wasn’t like Isaac, and he could almost always remember the things that people told him. He wasn’t asking because he’d forgotten, though. Instead, Rick had explained once, just like Isaac liked to hear Rick’s same stories again and again, Rick liked to hear Isaac talked about the things he loved, even if he’d heard Isaac talk about those same things before. “Of Saturn’s 31 moons, Titan is especially targeted for its richness in organic compounds.” As he spoke, he thought about the way Neil deGrasse Tyson’s words looked on the PBS website; Isaac had read it a few hundred times. “That moon has its own probe, the Huygens probe, which is a deployable subprobe attached to the main Cassini spacecraft. The Huygens probe will plunge through the atmosphere—because Titan has an atmosphere, for goodness’ sake! And it might have oceans, not of water but of liquid methane. You can only begin to imagine what kind of interesting chemistry we might find and what forms any possible life might take under such circumstances—perhaps life not as we know it, but as we don’t know it.”
He could have kept going, but he could tell from Rick’s soft snoring that Rick was asleep, so instead Isaac stopped talking and listened to Rick instead. He was a little tired, but not as tired as Rick, so he stayed awake a little longer, letting Rick’s breathing and heartbeat be what he imagined the background noise of the universe might sound like to the right ears.
Dr. Karimi had a large silver yoga ball in her office that Isaac was allowed to sit on instead of on a chair. He liked that better, and he wondered if his boss, Mr. Dietterich, would let him replace his office chair with a yoga ball. He sat with his hands in his lap and rocked back and forth, bouncing a little as he did, but keeping his feet flat on the floor. Today they’d worked on using the washing machine and the dryer, which was easy for Isaac because he’d helped his mother and Rick do it plenty of times before. Then Rick had come to pick him up, and Dr. Karimi had told Isaac to wait in her office while she spoke to Rick out in the hall.
He could hear their voices through the closed door, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying. A little clock on Dr. Karimi’s desk looked like a flower that rocked back and forth every time it clicked over a new second. Isaac stared at it for a while, then started to rock back and forth with it. The rhythm made him think of his father’s math practice drills: One times one is one. Two times two is four. Three times three is nine. Four times four is sixteen.
Isaac liked the other students in the class. There were two boys, Andy and Henry, and one girl, Sarah. Andy had a binder full of pictures of Disney princesses and said that he wanted to be Cinderella, and today Henry had laughed and called Andy a fucking retard gaybo, which was what he’d called Isaac last week. Isaac hadn’t let it bother him — like Rick always said, sticks and stones can break your bones, but people are just stupid — but Andy had cried and then had a seizure, which had ended the lesson. Dr. Karimi had put Sarah and Isaac at a table and given them a deck of cards, and they’d played Slaps until Sarah’s grandmother had come to pick her up. Sarah was good at slapping but not so good at counting, which made the game difficult.
He wasn’t mad at Henry. He knew Henry didn’t really mean it, or if he did, he didn’t really know what he meant. Henry just couldn’t help it. Two weeks ago he’d noted aloud what a bad idea it was to touch the hot burner, then two seconds later had deliberately put his hand right on top of it, which Isaac judged to be a pretty dumb move on Henry’s part. But Isaac had overheard Henry’s mother say they were messing with Henry’s medications, and Isaac knew that always made people a little funny.
There was a picture on Dr. Karimi’s wall of a big stone temple she and her husband had visited on their honeymoon to Guatemala. Dr. Karimi and her husband were in most of the picture too, but Isaac liked looking at the temple. Rick had been to Guatemala before, filming people for a documentary on the Maya that had aired last May. Rick had gone scuba-diving while he’d been down there, and told a story about the time he’d been exploring a coral reef next to another tourist, who’d decided to feed the moray eels. One huge green moray had mistaken that tourist’s hand for food, and had shot out and grabbed hold of the tourist’s finger (and at this point in the telling, Rick always grabbed Isaac’s index finger with his own hand, though he obviously never tried to hurt Isaac the way the moray had hurt the diver man), spilling blood into the water. Rick had pulled out his dive knife and sliced the moray’s head away from the rest of its body (which Rick demonstrated with a bold sweep of his left arm), but even with the animal dead, the moray’s jaw wouldn’t let go. He’d had to get the man out of the water before the blood attracted other animals and jam his knife between the eel’s jaws, then pry the teeth out. Isaac liked this story because it had a lot of gestures in it and because he knew what a moray eel looked like; he’d seen ones when he and Rick had gone to the aquarium.
The door opened, but only Dr. Karimi came inside, and she shut it behind her. “Hello, Isaac,” she said. She sat in the chair across from him.
“Hello, Dr. Karimi,” Isaac said, even though they’d already said hello earlier that day. When someone said hello to you, you were supposed to say it back, unless that person was a stranger, in which case you were supposed to use your best judgment. Isaac usually said hello back anyway.
“I was just talking to Rick,” she said, pointing to the closed door. The door wasn’t Rick, but Rick was probably on the other side of it. “He tells me he stays with you when he’s in town, and that he takes you to appointments sometimes.”
Isaac nodded. “I’m going to make macaroni and cheese for him.”
“That’s good, you can practice.” Dr. Karimi leaned forward and took Isaac’s hands in hers, and it was only when she’d quieted them that he realized he’d been flapping them. Sometimes when he had nothing important to think about, he forgot about keeping quiet hands, and they started fluttering on their own. “Isaac, I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to be absolutely honest with me. All right?”
“All right,” said Isaac, who liked being honest. Lying was another thing he wasn’t very good at.
“I know you and Rick have been friends for a long time. But does he ever make you do anything you don’t want to do?”
Isaac nodded. “Yes.”
Dr. Karimi’s grip on Isaac’s hands tightened, and Isaac didn’t like being held on to like that, but she was a doctor, and he was supposed to let doctors touch him even if he didn’t like it, because doctors were only ever trying to help. “You can tell me about it.”
“We went to the barber yesterday and he made me get my hair cut very short.” Isaac reached up to touch the short curls. He didn’t mind the way his hair looked when it was like this, and it was easier to wash, but it meant that barber had to get close to his scalp with his scissors, and Isaac didn’t like the way they felt or sounded. “And then he said we should do my parents’ laundry for them and clean up the house, and he even made me mop.”
There was a small pause, and then Dr. Karimi sat back in her chair, loosing her grip a little. “What I meant to say is, does he ever touch you in ways you don’t want to be touched?”
“No,” said Isaac. He always liked it when Rick touched him, and usually when Rick wasn’t touching him, that’s what Isaac wanted him to be doing, even when they were in public and he knew they shouldn’t.
“Well … all right.” Dr. Karimi patted Isaac’s hands and stood. “But if he ever does, you know you can talk to me.”
“Okay.” Isaac stood up with her and let her lead him over to the door.
Rick was waiting just outside, tapping on his phone, though when he saw Isaac come out, he put the phone away. After a quick round of good-byes from everyone and a reminder from Dr. Karimi’s secretary that Isaac’s next group appointment was in a week, Rick and Isaac escaped together out of the hospital complex and into the sunshine. Rick didn’t say anything as they walked across the courtyard full of trees and little flower beds, so Isaac didn’t say anything either. The sky had no clouds in it at all. It looked blue, but it wasn’t really blue — that was, there wasn’t a real, physical something up there that was blue that could be picked up and moved somewhere else and still stay blue. The atmosphere reflected light. If the Earth had no atmosphere, the people on it would be able to see the stars even in the daytime.
Without announcing that he was going to, Rick stopped and sat down on a wooden bench beneath the shade of a large tree, so Isaac sat with him close enough that their knees touched. After a minute or two, Rick sighed and put his hand on Isaac’s back. “I don’t think she likes me very much.”
“Okay.” Isaac had never been a very good judge at telling when people did and didn’t like other people. Usually it involved dramatic gestures or thrown objects before he noticed.
Rick closed his eyes and leaned back against the back of the bench. He was handsome and strong, and he was smart too in ways Isaac knew he’d never be. Rick never let Isaac call himself ‘stupid’, so Isaac didn’t, even if on the inside he knew it was actually true. “It doesn’t get easier, does it?”
Isaac looked at him, puzzled, before deciding that whatever Rick had been asking, if it was important enough, he’d ask again. Despite the sun, a chilly breeze blew past, freezing the revealed nape of Isaac’s neck; he turned up the collar on his light jacket. Maybe they could make macaroni and cheese tonight. Rick had stories about eating all kinds of weird foods, but Isaac liked macaroni and cheese and fish sticks and cheese quesadillas and especially pizza, and Rick said it was good to know what you liked. A couple of pigeons pecked their way across the sidewalk toward a discarded kid’s meal pack of McDonalds french fries on the ground near the trash can by the bench, and Isaac very bravely did not shoo them away. He didn’t like birds. They were unpredictable. A man walked by with three small dogs that scared the birds away. Isaac wasn’t allowed to have dogs because his dad was allergic to them, but he liked them all the same. When he was younger they’d taken him to an allergy doctor who’d given him a hundred million shots all over his back, then told him he was allergic to medicines he didn’t know how pronounce. It was okay that he couldn’t, though, because he had a metal disc he wore on a chain around his neck all the time, and the names of those medicines were printed there.
“I want to kiss you right now,” said Isaac, watching warily as the birds went in for another attack on the french fries. “I won’t, but I want to.”
Rick was quiet for a moment, then laughed and rubbed his hand in circles on Isaac’s back. “Wish it were that easy,” he said, though Isaac had to strain a little to hear him because he’d dropped his voice. “Can I take a rain check on that?”
That meant that whatever Isaac had asked to do, Rick wanted it to happen, but it would have to happen later. “You can take a rain check on that.” Isaac nodded.
They sat there for a few more minutes, just watching the people go by, until Rick stood and said, “June 18, 1974.”
Isaac stood with him. “Monday,” he said, though he couldn’t keep down the start of a giggle, no matter how hard he tried. As bad as Isaac was at trying to fool people with jokes, he was even worse at it with Rick. Barely ten seconds later, he blurted out the correct day of the week: “Tuesday!”
Rick growled a little and grabbed Isaac from behind, getting the back of Isaac’s neck in the crook of his elbow, and Isaac let him do it, because this was one of the few ways Rick would touch Isaac in public anymore. The more Rick would put his hands on Isaac behind closed doors, the less he’d do it when they were out with other people. Rick hadn’t held Isaac’s hand in public in years, not since before high school, when Rick had started shaving his head and wearing his pants low and going by ‘Rick’ instead of ‘Ricky’.
But it was okay. Rick was touching him and laughing, and Isaac was laughing too, and they’d go home soon and make macaroni and cheese together, and then Rick had a rain check to take care of.
He never remembered his dreams, but that didn’t mean he stopped feeling the way he felt in them when he woke up. It must have been a bad dream, too, because Rick was awake before Isaac even was, nudging him and calling his name. Isaac’s eyes snapped open, but his room was too dark to see anything of use; the stars he’d stuck to the ceiling in accurate constellations (or at least as accurate as one could get with sheets of glow-in-the-dark stickers from a museum gift shop) had already given back all the light they’d absorbed during the day, and were now as cold and dark as the rest of the ceiling. Someday all the real stars would burn out too, but that would be so long after Isaac’s lifetime that he wouldn’t have to worry about what would happen to him when they did. He still thought about it sometimes, though. Maybe that was what the dream had been about.
Rick drew his arms around Isaac’s chest, and Isaac squirmed until Rick was on top of him, resting his weight on Isaac’s chest until it was almost hard for Isaac to breathe. That made him breathe deep, though, and every breath of his was deliberate until he could feel his heart rate slow. All the while, Rick stroked his hair and whispered things in Isaac’s ear; Isaac wasn’t listening to the words, but he knew the tone meant you’re safe, I have you, I’m here. Isaac waited until he felt all right again, then craned his head upward and pressed his mouth to Rick’s in a deep kiss.
The hand that had been petting Isaac’s hair carded through it and made a fist in Isaac’s thick curls as Rick kissed back. He wasn’t speaking now, but Isaac could feel the same promises of safety in the way their mouths moved together. He loved kissing Rick. Something about that made sense in a way other things lacked. It was a puzzle, but it was no mystery: certain actions produced equal (if not necessarily opposite) reactions. Isaac slipped his knee between Rick’s legs until he could feel Rick’s penis against his thigh, and he pressed against it just enough to feel that it was hard and getting harder. Darkness was nice because no one expected him to understand any facial expressions or body language, not even Rick, who said he didn’t expect that of Isaac, except sometimes he really did, though Isaac figured he couldn’t help it. But here, Isaac could shut his eyes and let Rick’s body tell him by touch what both it and he wanted. Rick’s body wanted Isaac to keep kissing and feeling it, so that’s what Isaac did.
Rick was on a deadline, which meant that for all three of the nights since he’d come home (except, of course, the first), he’d been up late editing some more of his endless footage. Isaac always tried to stay up late with him when this happened and always wound up falling asleep in the chair next to Rick’s; Rick would wake him up and shuffle him off to bed, staying to tuck him in until Isaac fell asleep again, which never took long. He had an important job and he was working on a deadline, and Isaac understood that. But deadlines were bad and kissing was good. Kissing was, as far as Isaac was concerned, about the best thing.
Thinking back on what he’d seen in his well-studied porn clips, Isaac began to push Rick’s boxers down off his sleek, muscled hips. Rick hadn’t seen the same ones, so it wasn’t fair to expect him to know his half of that dance, but the sequence of actions gave Isaac something to hang on to. The room was warm, and Rick smelled of sweat and sleep, smells that Isaac loved. He opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue, licking until he found a drop of sweat on a slow trickle down from Rick’s temple. Rick’s mouth tasted good, his sweat tasted good — the rest of him, it stood to reason, had to taste good too.
Eyes still shut, he gave Rick a little nudge, and then a stronger nudge, until Rick rolled off him and they were side by side on the bed. Rick started to say something, to make some sort of noise, so Isaac put his fingertips over Rick’s mouth until he could feel the air in Rick’s lungs whoosh out silently against his hand. Isaac loved listening to Rick talk, but right now he didn’t want to use his energy making sense of Rick’s words when he had something else he wanted to focus on. He kissed his way down the middle of Rick’s chest, feeling the tiny curls of hair brush over his lips during his descent, until his chin bumped the tip of Rick’s penis. Now it was time to be brave.
The first taste was weird and salty, and a little gross and warm and mucose too, and Isaac might have given up right then if Rick hadn’t shivered and grabbed for Isaac’s hair, making sure a little more forcefully than usual that Isaac couldn’t go anywhere. Most of the time, Isaac hated being held in place, but with Rick it was all right. And now it was especially all right, because that meant Rick liked it. Bolstered by that certainty, Isaac opened his mouth and put the whole head of Rick’s penis inside, then flicked his tongue back and forth across the tip.
He was as scared of this as he was of any other thing he’d never done before, but Rick always told him that being scared was just what happened before you went ahead and did something brave anyway. Isaac took a deep breath through his nose, took it all in and let it all out, and as he did he realized that Rick did taste good like this — still a little gross, but not in a bad way, and that meant it was all right. He moved his lips and tongue around, tasting different places, feeling the textures at different spots.
Doctors and other people had told Isaac that he needed to practice empathy — something they defined as feeling the same as someone else was feeling, even though you didn’t share their reasons for feeling that way. In general, Isaac found that a stupid idea, especially since he sometimes had problems feeling things for his own reasons. But empathy with Rick while having sex with him was even easier than empathy with Rick under normal conditions: Isaac wanted Rick to feel good, so Isaac paid attention to the things Rick did when he felt good, and then Isaac just did those things even more. Having sex with everyone in the world wasn’t a practical or even very appealing idea, but it sure might have made a lot of Isaac’s interpersonal interactions easier.
Rick said something, then tapped Isaac on the shoulder and said it again, so Isaac took Rick’s penis out of his mouth and looked straight at him, paying attention this time. “If you keep doing that, things are going to get messy,” said Rick in a heavy, breathy whisper.
“I know,” said Isaac, and he went back to his explorations. Messy was the point. Honestly, it was as though Rick thought Isaac hadn’t done any research at all.
He lost track of how long he was there, moving and tasting and waiting for response, but he didn’t mind the time it took, because that time was with Rick, and Isaac liked it. Rick left one hand in Isaac’s hair, just resting and petting, but he had his other one over his mouth, muffling the little sounds that came out. They were pretty little sounds, easier to understand than words. He wanted Rick to make more of those sounds. Rick’s penis was big and couldn’t fit all in Isaac’s mouth at first, so Isaac did some of his breathing and relaxation exercises to loosen his throat so he didn’t feel like he was going to choke. When he felt he could, he leaned forward and let Rick’s penis slip down toward his throat, big and choking, except Isaac wasn’t choking, because he was relaxed. Rick made a sound that couldn’t be hidden behind his hand as Isaac pushed all the way down, until his nose was up against Rick’s belly and he couldn’t go any farther.
Rick’s body shivered and went a little rigid, but Isaac was so consumed with breathing and taste that he didn’t really connect those physical cues to anything else, and so he was surprised when Rick came; he felt the first pulse of Rick’s semen against the back of his throat, too far back even to really taste, but he pulled away quickly and got a long stripe of it down his tongue. It had the same kind of good-gross taste as Rick’s penis had, so he closed his mouth and thought about it for a minute. That had been messy. That had been all right.
A few seconds later, Isaac was startled by Rick’s arms as Rick sat up and grabbed him in a fierce bear hug, then pulled him back to the bed, kissing him deeply. One of Rick’s knees landed between Isaac’s legs, and Isaac pushed up against it, gasping. He might have been self-conscious about showing anyone else how much he wanted this, but this was Rick, and it was okay to let Rick know. He wondered what it would be like to have Rick’s mouth around his own penis. From all evidence before him, he concluded that it would probably feel good — but that still wasn’t what he wanted right now. “Just here,” Isaac said, holding Rick’s shoulders for leverage. “It’s okay here.”
Rick said something as he put his hand inside of Isaac’s shorts and put his hand around Isaac’s penis, but Isaac didn’t understand the words. It was okay, though, because Isaac just wanted to hear Rick’s voice, low and deep and full of air. Rick’s voice was the most beautiful thing about him, except maybe for all the other beautiful parts, and Isaac didn’t call Rick beautiful because Rick didn’t like being called beautiful, but that didn’t make it any less true. He felt Rick’s fingertips over his mouth, just a gentle pressure reminding him not to be loud, but Isaac couldn’t help it. His tongue still tasted like Rick, and Rick’s voice was in his ear, and Rick’s hand was stroking up and down his penis, and Rick was in his bed, and Rick was here, and Rick would never let anything bad happen to him–
He had an orgasm all over the inside of his boxer shorts and the outside of Rick’s hand, and he must have been making a sound because when he stopped to take a breath, there was an extra silence in his ears. He collapsed back against the bed, breathless, and let Rick do the things he did to clean up Isaac afterwards, like grab the towel by the side of the bed and take off Isaac’s boxer shorts until Isaac was there in just his t-shirt, still trying to get his lungs working right, feeling invincible.
After a minute, Rick lay back down next to him and put his fingertips over Isaac’s lips again, making Isaac realize that he’d been speaking. He frowned and shut his mouth, trying to remember what he’d been saying, but it was gone now. “Everything okay?” Rick asked, taking his fingers away.
Isaac nodded and wrapped his arms around Rick’s chest. “I like putting your penis in my mouth.” He thought about this for a second, remembering the reading he’d done about it on Wikipedia. “And having fellatio.”
With a laugh that resonated through Isaac’s whole body, Rick pulled him close until their penises were touching again; they were both soft now, though, so that didn’t matter as much as it would have ten minutes ago. “Well, for a first time, that was pretty damn good. But you can call it a blowjob next time.”
“I saw that,” said Isaac, remembering the list of synonyms he’d seen on the page, “but it didn’t seem right.”
Rick’s hand pet through his hair, untangling all the tangles Rick had put into it by grabbing at it before. His scalp felt a little sore, but he and Rick had talked about ‘good sore’ — like the kind you got after you did yoga — and ‘bad sore’ — like the kind you got after you did yoga badly — and this was definitely good sore. “Doesn’t make much sense, does it? I mean, no one’s actually blowing anything.”
“I wasn’t. I watched, too, and no one else did.”
“But you know better than anyone, names are weird, and the things people call other things don’t always make sense.” Rick punctuated his sentence by kissing Isaac’s forehead, which Isaac’s mom had done a lot when he was a baby and still did sometimes, only it was very different when Rick did it.
“They should.” People tended to say things they didn’t mean a lot of the time, which bothered Isaac. Once in third grade he’d been doing his multiplication times table worksheets as fast as he could, and his teacher, Ms. LaRiviere, had told him that he was on fire, which had led to some immediate distress on Isaac’s part and a later parent-teacher-student conference on the topic of how stupid idioms were. (That wasn’t what anyone else had said, but that had been Isaac’s clear takeaway from the conversation.) “People would have an easier time.”
Rick kissed his forehead again. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s true, isn’t it? I know for you especially. But some things are just stuck.”
Isaac had encountered stuck things before — like how sometimes his shoelaces got stuck in his bicycle chain — but the idea the relationship between a word and the thing it shouldn’t describe but did anyway as being stuck was a new one on him. “Are we stuck?” he asked, looking down at Rick’s chest.
Rick shook his head. “Stuck? No, we’re not stuck. We’re free to do whatever we want.”
No, that wasn’t what Isaac was asking. “No, are we stuck?” Rick didn’t answer right away, so Isaac tried again, this time putting the emphasis on a different word: “Are we stuck?”
“I promise, no. We’re really not.”
A spike of fear crawled up Isaac’s throat, from his stomach all the way to his mouth, and he started to breathe in a way that he knew made a high-pitched whine that his mother didn’t like, except he couldn’t help it. Rick left all the time, but it was okay, because he kept coming back. But if he wasn’t stuck, he wouldn’t keep coming back. Planets kept coming back to the same places in their solar cycles because they were stuck. Otherwise everything would just drift away.
“Hey, hey,” said Rick, hugging Isaac tight enough to startle him out of making noise. “Tell me what you’re picturing for stuck.”
“‘Blowjob’ is stuck to fellatio even though it doesn’t make any sense,” Isaac explained, making sure he said every word clearly. He loved Rick, but sometimes Rick was slow.
“Oh!” Rick reached under Isaac’s chin and turned his face up so they were face-to-face with one another in the near-dark room, barely visible to one another. “Yeah, we’re stuck. You and me. I’m definitely stuck on you.”
That answer made Isaac feel a thousand times better, and better made him feel sleepy, so he yawned and put his head back against Rick’s bicep. Rick had beautiful biceps. “I don’t want to be not stuck to you,” Isaac said, putting his arm around Rick’s waist. He didn’t mean stuck like with superglue, which he supposed was another meaning there, but there was no glue in the bed, so he figured Rick would know what he meant.
“No, we’re definitely stuck to one another. You to me and me to you.”
“Even though I don’t make sense?”
Rick patted his back. “Hey, you make sense. You make a lot of sense. Sometimes it’s a sense I don’t get, but that doesn’t mean it’s not sense.”
Calmed to a pleasant quiet, Isaac hugged Rick tight around his waist. Rick was sturdy; he could take a lot of hugging. “When Galileo first saw Saturn in his telescope, he thought it had ears, and assumed they were actually two moons. Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens was the first to accurately identify that the planet is surrounded by a wide, thin ring system.” Isaac paused and took a small breath. “I like you better than Saturn.”
“Wow,” said Rick, “that’s … a pretty big deal.”
“It’s true,” Isaac said. “You have ears too.”
“Is that why you like me? Because I have ears?”
Rick was joking, Isaac knew, because everyone had ears (except for the people who didn’t, like Vincent Van Gogh, and even then they’d usually started out having ears), and even though Rick’s ears were very nice ears, they weren’t special. “No,” said Isaac, poking Rick’s belly. “Silly.”
“Well, I hope you like silly, because you’re stuck with me.” Rick pulled up the covers over them, and Isaac felt so happy and safe that as soon as he closed his eyes, he was asleep again, with no bad dreams following him back there.
Rick never got to stay. It was like how on some mornings, Isaac wanted to stay home instead of going to work, except he couldn’t because you had to go to work, because that was, as his father said, the cornerstone on which our fair society was built. Isaac had a book on architecture that he’d read several times; he knew what a cornerstone was. Rick’s work was different from Isaac’s work, though, because Rick didn’t go to the same building and do the same things three days a week, eight hours a day (with a half-hour of lunch at precisely noon). Rick’s job was very different.
“Alaska?” Isaac asked as Rick took his phone from his ear and pressed the button to end the call. His mother had taught him that eavesdropping was bad, and it wasn’t usually a problem for Isaac, except that he always wanted to hear what Rick was saying.
“Looks like,” said Rick, staring at his phone a moment before slipping it into his back pocket. He walked back over to the bed where Isaac still was — the phone call had woken them both up, and Isaac had stayed awake too even though the phone call wasn’t for him — but instead of getting back in like he was going back to sleep, Rick sat at the foot of the bed. “For a while, maybe.”
Isaac knew he was bad with measuring time. He kept three calendars in his bedroom alone. “A while is how long?”
Rick crossed his legs up beneath him like the lady on the DVD did at the beginning and the end of the yoga workout. “A while means I don’t know how long. Could be three or four months, maybe even six or seven. It changes depending on what has to get filmed. I just go, and then they tell me when I can come home.”
“Seven months.” Isaac knew was bad with measuring time, but he also knew seven months was a lot of time that Rick wouldn’t be there.
Rick reached out to take Isaac’s hand. “It’s a great job opportunity, though. Everybody wants this spot. Well, everyone who doesn’t get seasick, anyway.” Isaac already knew that Rick didn’t get seasick, so he didn’t have to ask. “And it’s good money, and if you do well one season, they’ll probably ask you back for the next.”
“Okay,” said Isaac. He’d never been to Alaska, but he knew it was still in the United States, because the United States had acquired it by purchasing it from Russia. History wasn’t as interesting as space, but he knew a lot about that too. He had been given a certificate in elementary school because he’d been able to name all the Presidents of the United States, their Vice Presidents, and to what political parties they’d belonged. Isaac didn’t know what a Whig was, but he could remember that Abraham Lincoln had been one. He could remember lots of stuff. He wanted a job someday where people just gave him money for memorizing things.
When he heard Rick chuckle, Isaac focused back on him. “You don’t mind if it’s dangerous, though, do you?” Rick rubbed the backs of Isaac’s knuckles with his thumb. “You like the stories.”
“I like the stories,” Isaac echoed; then he slowed down and thought about what it meant to say that. “I like your stories. I like you.”
“I like you too,” said Rick, and he leaned in for a quick kiss before lying down next to Isaac again. He put his chest up against Isaac’s back and put an arm around his waist, which was something that Rick called ‘spoon’, and that was something Isaac hadn’t understood until Rick had actually pulled two spoons out of the kitchen drawer and showed him how they fit together. Now when Isaac put the dishes away after they came out of the dishwasher, he thought about Rick every time he got to the silverware. “And hey, maybe if it pays enough, I could save up to afford rent on an apartment.”
“Okay,” said Isaac. He knew Rick meant his own apartment, one where there wasn’t ‘Rick’s room’ and then everything else. Rick had stayed in his own apartment while he’d been at college, in a dormitory building called Winter that he said was named after a person, not the season. Isaac had gone once and hadn’t liked it. It had been too full of loud people he didn’t know, all of whom talked too fast and said strange things, and even though Isaac had gotten scared Rick hadn’t touched him until nobody else was looking. There had been a girl there, too, with bright tangerine lipstick who’d called Rick her boyfriend, and Rick hadn’t said she was or wasn’t.
Rick rubbed little circles against Isaac’s bare hip. “Or I could tell them no and ask for something shorter, closer to home.”
“Okay,” said Isaac. An apartment was also what Isaac had, but Rick couldn’t live with his parents the way Isaac lived with his. Rick’s mother lived with Rick’s aunt and uncle and cousins, because she didn’t have a boyfriend right now, and Rick’s father hadn’t been someone who’d wanted to live with Rick since before Rick and Isaac had met. There were apartments everywhere, but not many apartments close enough that Isaac could ride his bike and get to them. He’d have to get a ride in a car to Rick’s apartment, or maybe take a bus, and he hated buses because they made him sick to his stomach. Rick was going to go away forever to a place where Isaac couldn’t get to him.
“Hey.” Rick kissed the back of Isaac’s neck. “Talk to me. Tell me what you’re thinking.”
Sometimes Rick asked Isaac to do that, and Isaac really wanted to. It was what he wanted more than anything else that he wanted, to tell Rick what he was thinking. The problem was that there were sometimes no words for what he was thinking, or at least not any words that came fast enough to keep up with what was happening in Isaac’s brain. He wished he had a camera of his own there, hooked up to one of Rick’s TV screens so that he could just record and play anything he wanted, and no one would have to ask him to put into words what he was thinking. Maybe he should become a famous inventor and invent that, and then he could make millions of dollars and tell Rick it was okay to stay right here forever, just here, in the apartment, in their bed, no more adventures, no more stories except the ones he had already, again and again.
But there was no camera in his brain, so Isaac shut his eyes and tried to find all the words for what he was thinking. “I like you,” he said first, but he’d said that earlier and it probably wasn’t enough. “I like spoon.”
Rick laughed at that, but in the good way, and he hugged his arm tighter around Isaac’s waist. “Me too. What else do you like?”
“Saturn,” said Isaac, which made Rick laugh and hug him again, and though that was a nice response, it suggested to Isaac that hadn’t been what Rick was asking. “I like … you to come home. And not go to apartments.”
“I, uh.” Rick took a soft, wordless breath and rested his forehead against the back of Isaac’s neck. “I meant an apartment for us.”
“We have an apartment for us,” Isaac pointed out. It was Rick’s apartment as much as it was Isaac’s, after all; he had his own room and everything.
“I know. And you could come back here while I’m away, if you wanted. Or maybe–” Rick didn’t finish that sentence, though. Instead, he was quiet for a long time, and since he had to wake up in six minutes to start getting ready for work anyway, Isaac stayed awake and waited for Rick to speak again. Maybe an apartment that they got together would have a bigger ceiling with more places to put glow-in-the-dark stars. Maybe Rick would even let Isaac put them on the walls and doors, instead of just on the ceiling like Isaac’s mother had insisted. They could paint the walls and ceilings black and then fill them with stars, and it’d be like going to sleep in space every night. He thought about constellations and where he’d put them, even though he knew they all looked very different once you weren’t standing on Earth any longer. That was all right, though; he could figure it out.
When Isaac’s alarm went off, he reached over to silence the radio voices, then sat up, letting his legs hang over the side of the bed. He’d had this bed since he was ten, and when he’d sat on the edge of it then, his feet hadn’t touched the ground. Behind him, Rick sat up too, even though Isaac knew Rick didn’t have to wake up early unless he wanted to. “Hey, Newton,” said Rick, who sometimes called Isaac by his middle name when he was being funny.
Isaac turned to see Rick smiling back at him. “Hey, Cuffey,” Isaac said back in kind, even though Richard Cuffey wasn’t a famous scientist, so it wasn’t quite as funny.
Rick leaned in to kiss the back of Isaac’s shoulder. “I just think you’re a lot more capable of taking care of yourself than most people give you credit for,” he said, his lips brushing Isaac’s bare skin as he spoke. “You’re really smart. And … I love your parents, and I’m glad they’re able to look out for you as much as they do, but … sometimes I think you’d do a better job looking out for yourself. You’d definitely do a better job than they think you would.”
“Okay,” said Isaac. He’d been to doctors who’d told him and his parents that he’d never be able to live independently, though he’d had to ask later what that meant. But most of those doctors had never met Rick.
With one last kiss, Rick fell back into bed. “Okay, okay it is. Don’t let me make you late for work.”
“I’m never late for work,” said Isaac, who took great pride in how true that statement was.
“My point exactly,” said Rick with a smile.
Rick agreed to go to Alaska, and Isaac agreed that he should go to Alaska, so he didn’t call his bosses back and tell them he wasn’t going. Instead, he called them back and asked them when he was going, and they said he had to be on a plane with all his suitcases packed in eleven days. Isaac didn’t cry at all when Rick told him.
Rick didn’t say anything else about an apartment for them, either, and Isaac didn’t ask.
One day, five days before his plane was going to leave, Rick had to go to New York City, and he asked Isaac if he wanted to come along. Isaac had been to New York City before, on school field trips and twice with his parents, but he’d never been alone with Rick before. He had to ask his parents, who’d said yes, but only after making sure Rick gave them all the details about where they’d be going and where they’d be staying. Rick had promised that he’d take good care of Isaac, and Isaac’s mother had said that nobody doubted that, but everything she said seemed like doubt anyway.
Isaac didn’t like keeping secrets from people, and Rick wasn’t a secret, but the way he and Rick kissed one another was a secret. It had been a secret ever since the first time they’d done it, sitting together on Isaac’s bed in his old room, on June 21st, 2002, which Isaac remembered because it was the first day he’d kissed Rick but also because it was the summer solstice, the longest daylight of the year. It had been a Friday and he’d been wearing red sneakers and Rick had shown him that kissing was the best thing in the world, but then afterward had said that they couldn’t tell anyone. When Isaac had asked why, Rick had told him that it was okay to kiss boys sometimes but it wasn’t okay to tell other people about it, because other people would think you were a fag, and it was bad to be a fag, which was a word that seemed to be defined as a boy who kissed other boys, only in a bad way. Even though he’d never told anybody that he kissed Rick, not even his parents, people had called him that all through high school anyway. Isaac guessed that he just looked like a fag and tried not to let that bother him.
So Isaac couldn’t tell his mom not to worry, Rick would take care of him because Rick always took good care of him and never made Isaac do anything he didn’t want to do except when it would be good for him later, like haircuts, and Isaac knew this because Rick promised him that every time Isaac kissed him, and Rick had never lied to him or gone back on his word.
That Wednesday morning, Isaac packed his backpack with everything he would need for an overnight trip. He put in one pair of boxer shorts, one pair of socks, one t-shirt to sleep in, one t-shirt to wear home, a clean pair of jeans, his toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, a comb, his laptop, the charger for his laptop, his phone, the charger for his phone, and a biography of Copernicus. Rick assured Isaac that the studio was pretty casual, even for a business place, but because it was a business and it was Rick’s work, Isaac put on slacks, nice loafers, a pressed shirt with a collar, and a tie with star maps on it. His mother brushed his hair back and put some gel in the front of it so it didn’t get too messed up on the way to New York. Isaac felt good about how he looked.
They took a train there. Isaac liked trains better than airplanes because you could see all sorts of interesting things out the window of a train, but out the window of the plane, where it should have been interesting, it was usually just mostly clouds. Rick pulled out his laptop and plugged a pair of earbuds into the jack, then handed one of them to Isaac and put the other in his own ear. Isaac settled up next to him and Rick turned on some of his footage, the kind he was going today to talk about with his bosses. Isaac watched all of Rick’s shows when they were done — several times each, in fact — but there was a diference between seeing the final television product and seeing what Rick called his ‘raw’ footage, the kind that no one else had cooked into something else.
This particular set of images started in a place where Isaac could both see the water and hear it in his one plugged-in ear. He could hear birds, too, and all sorts of people talking. There were boats lined up back on the water, ones like the boat in Rick’s story of how he’d scarred his thumb (which he’d already told Isaac several times, and Isaac never got tired of gasping every time the sharks-but-not-really-sharks showed up), and Isaac could hear them too, how they smacked up against one another with every wave. People — sometimes the same ones as the people who were talking — walked back and forth carrying nets and fish; some of them looked at Rick’s camera as they passed, while some didn’t even notice.
“Smells like fish,” said Rick, and it took Isaac a moment to realize the Rick that was speaking wasn’t the Rick here with him in real life, but the Rick on the tape from Mozambique. A muffled voice answered him, a man’s voice even deeper than Rick’s, and Rick laughed. “Yeah, well, I guess all the people here would be worried if it didn’t smell like fish.” The voice said something else, and Isaac concentrated as hard as he could to make sense of the words, but they were too far from the camera’s microphone for him to understand. This time, Rick didn’t say anything back, and a moment later, the camera turned down a road toward the water.
This was how the world loooked to Rick, always straight ahead and focused. Rick’s camera never went anywhere strange or wandered off. It went where it was told to go, but Isaac went where he was told to go all the time, and he still saw things on his own that no one else had to show him. But people told Isaac to focus all the time, and no one ever told Rick that. Rick could concentrate on his own without having to be reminded.
As Rick’s camera walked toward the water, that other voice started talking again. At first Isaac thought it might be speaking another language, but he could make out single words here and there, and once there was a clear command to “get a shot of this.” That was when Rick’s camera pointed down to where some boys were playing with a net.
“Two of them showed us around later,” said Rick, and this time it was the real Rick, speaking in the ear Isaac didn’t have the earbud in. He spoke quietly, because it was polite to speak quietly in public and on a train, and they were in public on a train. “Sammy and Eduardo. They’re brothers, so they took me to their father’s boat and showed me how they helped him with his catch.”
“And then?” asked Isaac, waiting the rest of the story.
Rick laughed and squeezed the back of Isaac’s hand briefly. “And then I got it all on film, and I said good-night and went back to where we were staying. Not all my stories end in wild animal attacks or major injuries, sorry.”
Isaac nodded and went back to watching the footage. He was glad that Rick hadn’t gotten attacked or injured, but he still liked those stories best anyway. And he wished Rick hadn’t stopped touching his hand.
They had to ride a subway to get to the network offices, which Isaac didn’t like because he didn’t like going underground, but all the discomfort of that journey was erased the moment he stepped in the front doors to the network offices. They were amazing, full of huge glass windows and television screens that showed all sorts of shows, some of which Isaac had seen before, some of which he hadn’t. He wanted to stay and watch the screen where Neil deGrasse Tyson was talking about black holes, but Rick nudged him on past to a bank of elevators. Rick let Isaac press the button to call the elevators, and they waited until one of the elevators arrived, and when the elevator got there they stepped inside and went up.
The floor where they came out wasn’t nearly as interesting as the floor they’d left; in fact, it looked like a plain old office, not unlike the one where Isaac worked. There were desks and phones and staplers and computers, and even though no one else was wearing a tie, Isaac felt comfortable. He couldn’t hold Rick’s hand, so he held on to the loop at the end of Rick’s messenger bag strap and let Rick lead him through the desks. Some people even had two and three computers on their desks, and Isaac was frankly jealous.
Three people were waiting for them at the end of the hallway, two men and a woman, and the woman was wearing a tie but the men weren’t, which Isaac thought was funny and strange and nice. Rick introduced them all: “This is my best friend from back home, Isaac Walcott. Isaac, these are some of my bosses: Aston Lee, Miriam Carpenter, and Dana Levinworth.”
“Hello.” Isaac stood on the other side of Rick so he wouldn’t have to shake anyone’s hand; he was bad sometimes at shaking hands. The last name he’d heard, however, pulled up a memory of one of Rick’s stories, and Isaac turned toward the bearded man it belonged to. “You fell in the water.”
“I did!” said the man named Dana, but he laughed as he said it, so Isaac liked him. “And I see Rick’s already been getting some mileage off the tale of that rescue. It’s nice to meet you, Isaac. Rick’s told us a lot about you.”
“Okay,” said Isaac. The top of his foot itched, so he scratched it with the toe of his other foot. “May I please use the restroom?”
They all chuckled as though Isaac had said something funny, and Rick put a hand on his shoulder to turn Isaac back toward the way they’d come. “Just on the other side of the elevators. And then when you’re done, why don’t you come back here and hang out on this couch, and I’ll come out when I’m done, and we’ll go get something for dinner, okay? If you need anything, just ask Davey.” Rick pointed to the desk next to the sofa, at which sat a young man with blue hair that he’d probably dyed to make it look that way. “All good?”
“All good.” Isaac nodded. Rick had explained to him before that Isaac wasn’t allowed in the meeting, and Isaac had agreed to wait because Isaac didn’t mind waiting sometimes. “I have to tie my shoe.”
“Good thinking,” Rick agreed. The other two bosses had gone back inside the room where Rick was going to go, but the man named Aston was waiting, leaning against the doorframe as Isaac bent down to fix his loose laces. “Hey,” Rick said to him, and though Isaac knew he shouldn’t listen in to other people’s conversations, he did anyway.
“When you didn’t call, I thought it might be because of a girl,” said Aston, and Isaac recognized it immediately as the deep voice from the Mozambique video. Isaac’s fingers fumbled with his laces, and the knot he’d made came undone.
“I’ve been busy,” said Rick, speaking in the low, fast way he sometimes did when he was saying things he maybe didn’t want Isaac to understand. “And I thought from the start we understood, it wasn’t going to be anything to call about.”
Aston put his hand on Rick’s shoulder and Rick brushed it away as Isaac stood up again. “I’m done tying my shoe,” he said, because maybe that would give them something to talk about other than what it was Rick didn’t want Isaac to know. “I’ll go to the bathroom on the other side of the elevators and wait on the sofa and you’ll come out when your’re done and we’ll go get something for dinner, okay.” Isaac repeated the instructions because that was the best way to let someone know he’d understood what he was supposed to do.
“Great,” said Rick, and before Isaac could leave to go to the bathroom, Rick pulled him in for a quick, surprising hug, one that Isaac wished had lasted a little longer. “Be good.”
“I’m very good.” Isaac hoisted his backpack over his shoulder and set out according to Rick’s instructions.
The bathroom was the kind Isaac liked best, where he almost didn’t have to touch anything to make everything work. He took care of his business without making a mess and he washed up afterwards, both of which were things stressed by his life skills classes that he’d never had any problem remembering. Dirty things got to be dirty all they wanted, but clean things needed to stay clean. He scrubbed his hands with soap as long as it took him to count to ninety, then rinsed them clean under the automatic faucet and dried them with the automatic drier.
Halfway back to the couch where Rick had told him to stay, Isaac’s brain did something Dr. Karimi called ‘making inferences’. That was when you looked at all the things you’d heard and said, and then used them to make a guess about something that was probably true, even if nobody had said anything about that. He nearly stopped in his tracks, but he remembered that he was in public and in an office, so he went back to the sofa and sat down.
After counting backwards to zero from two hundred fifty-two by multiples of three, Isaac stopped and stood. Davey, the desk man with the blue hair, looked at him. “Need me to get you something?”
“I want to take a walk,” said Isaac, hugging his backpack around his shoulders. “Can I take a walk?”
Davey pulled one of the business cards from the holder on his desk and wrote something on the back, then handed the card to Isaac. “No problem. When you come back, just show this to the front desk and tell them to call me if they’ve got any questions.”
“Thank you,” said Isaac, putting the card in his pocket next to his phone. He counted to five. “Where can I take a walk?”
“First time in New York?” asked Davey, and Isaac nodded. “No problem. Just remember it’s a grid. If you go out and turn left, then take the first right when you get to….”
What followed was a lot of directions — a lot of directions — about places in and tips on and routes through Manhattan. Some of the places Isaac recognized — like Broadway and Times Square and Brooklyn — but everything else might as well have been in a space alien language. Isaac tried, he really did, he tried so hard, but there were too many rights and lefts and straights to keep up with, and they didn’t mean anything by themselves. Isaac kept his hands fisted in his pockets and didn’t say anything, and he nodded because it was polite to look interested when someone was talking, but even Davey’s pointing didn’t have any meaning to Isaac. At last, Davey stopped, and Isaac nodded again. “Thank you,” he said, because that was polite too, and then he added, “and please tell Rick I had a walk.”
“Sure thing … Isaac, right?” Davey asked. He didn’t wait for confirmation before saying, “My cell number’s on the card too, so if you’re going to be in town for a while, maybe you could give me a call?”
That had been like what Aston had said to Rick. “Okay,” said Isaac, and he turned and went back to the elevators, then took them down to the lobby and walked out of the building, past all the talking televisions, to the street.
Just remember it’s a grid. He could do that.
It turned out to be easy to know where he was, even if he didn’t know where he was going. The streets that said AVE behind their numbers were all parallel to the other streets that said AVE behind their numbers, and the streets that didn’t say AVE anywhere were parallel to all the other streets that didn’t say AVE anywhere. There were crosswalks at nearly all the corners, and at each one he could make the choice if he wanted to turn left, right, or straight, and even though there were all sorts of other people on the street with him, no one cared if he went left, right, or straight. No one said anything to him at all, in fact. Sometimes they bumped into him on crowded sidewalks, but Dr. Mazzy said that was okay, because sometimes that just happened when lots of people were together, and pretty soon it’d be over again.
He thought about the solar system, and how Manhattan was built on rectangles but the solar system was built on circles. Maybe if people had all the room in the solar system, they’d build circular cities too, and then they could just go around as often as they liked. Before he’d understood about Saturn’s rings and how they weren’t solid planes, he’d wanted to build his house there. It was a silly idea that science said could never be true, but he still liked thinking about it. Maybe some people could live on the top side of the rings and some people could live on the bottom side, and then they wouldn’t have to go so far to visit one another. You wouldn’t have to go all the way through an oblate spheroid, like Earth was, or even all the way around it, like you had to take a plane to get from America to Mozambique, or from Baltimore to Alaska. Maybe if they lived on Saturn’s rings and Alaska was on the other side, Rick could go to work in Alaska every day and come home with his camera to Isaac every night. That was how Isaac wanted things to be.
Maybe people would make more sense if they went in circles more often. Rectangles were full of decisions: left, right, straight, or even turn around and back the way you came. Planets moved in circles around the sun and they never had any problems with it. Planets never wanted stupid things. Moons went in circles around planets and they never wanted stupid things either. They never got scared or lonely or lost or jealous. People were made of the same elements as all the other things in the rest of the universe — ‘star stuff’, Carl Sagan had said, and Carl Sagan had died, but before he’d done that he’d known a lot of things — but somehow people had screwed up the star stuff and made emotions out of it, which was why Isaac had to pause his walk until he stopped crying. A nice man with a turban and a hot dog cart handed him a handful of napkins, and after he blew his nose, Isaac remembered to say thank you.
It wasn’t until Isaac noticed two things at approximately the same time that he began to worry a little. The first was that the sun had dipped behind even the shortest of the buildings, which made the breeze that blew all the trash along the streets seem harder and colder. The second was that the street that he was on was called York, which wasn’t a number at all. The rectangles had failed him.
Behind him was a building that looked like a university, and it had benches out by the street under the trees, so Isaac sat down on one of them and put his backpack on his lap. Lots of people about his age walked by, laughing and talking to one another, but nobody talked to him or sat by him. He supposed this was where he might have been, if he’d been normal like Rick, if he hadn’t had to be in all his life skills classes and reading resource classes, if his whole brain didn’t have a wall around it that made it hard for things to get in and harder still for things to get out.
Isaac sat on the bench and watched all the people walk by as the sky grew dimmer and all the city lights started to pop on. Rick got lost, too, in his stories sometimes. Sometimes he had to sleep in a tree and sometimes he had to dig a cave in the snow to sleep inside and sometimes he had to light a signal fire to let the planes know where to find him. He never got lost alone, though; he always had somebody with him. Somebody like Aston. And he always got back home.
After a while, Isaac stood again and started walking. He thought the building where Rick was might be behind him, but he couldn’t remember the numbers now, which was stupid, because remembering numbers was what he was great at. But he could remember them when they had some sort of meaning, and these numbers had no meaning in and of themselves, just meaning when you put them next to one another. He didn’t want to go back there anyway. Instead, he walked until he saw a street with a number on it — E 67th, which wasn’t an AVE, so it went east and west, and not north and south — and he turned left on it. He wasn’t going to get back to a numbered grid by staying on a street called York.
He walked straight, crossing a few AVE streets, and after not very long he started to see the words ‘Central Park’ and ‘Central Park Zoo’ appearing on signs. He knew Central Park; he’d been there with his parents and his school. It was called Central Park because it was right in the middle, which was a good place to be. The Sun was in the middle of the solar system and it got along just fine.
Isaac crossed the last AVE at the crosswalk, and then he was on the same side of the street as Central Park. He didn’t think it was the biggest park in the world, but it was pretty big. He had a little money on him, but he didn’t want to go into the zoo right now. Instead, he took one of the walkways in amongst the trees. It was amazing how fast, in the coming dark of evening, the city disappeared. He could see little glimpses of artificial light through gaps in the leaves, but if he closed his eyes halfway he could pretend they were stars and he was somewhere else, one of the strange places Rick talked about, maybe even Alaska. Alaska probably had more snow in it, but maybe not everywhere. Some parts of Alaska might be exactly like this. Isaac should get a camera and film this too, so that he could show his story to other people, to prove once and for all why circles were better than rectangles and why planets were better than people. Maybe they’d understand.
From out of somewhere, the Farscape theme song started playing, and it was nearly done before Isaac realized the place it was coming from was his pocket. He pressed the green button to answer it. “Hi,” he said, because his phone had told him already who was calling.
“Isaac! Where are you?” Rick’s voice was full of emotion, Isaac could tell, but he couldn’t tell what that emotion was. Maybe he was happy that Isaac had found such a nice place to be. It probably wasn’t true, but it was nice to think.
“You had sex with Aston,” said Isaac into the phone. A squirrel ran across the ground and then back up a tree. Squirrels slept in trees all the time, and so did birds, but Isaac didn’t think the ways they kept from falling out would work for people.
“Isaac, please, where are you? Are you okay?” No, that was worry. “Tell me where you are and I’ll come get you.”
Isaac looked up at the trees. “I’m in the wilderness,” he said. “Miles from civilization. Living off the land. I may have to sleep in a tree.”
“Jesus fuck, Isaac, tell me where you are! Are you in Central Park?”
“I’m in Central Park,” Isaac confirmed. Someone had left a can by the bench, and he picked it up and put it in the garbage can that was for things you could recycle.
“Stay right there. I’m coming for you right–” There was a small hissing noise from Rick’s side of the phone, and then the background was full of city sounds. “Fuck, Central Park is…. Where the fuck is Central Park?”
Isaac looked around. “It’s at E-six-seven street and an AVE. I don’t know which one. Why did you have sex with Aston? I don’t like him.”
Rick was silent for a moment, though Isaac could hear from his breathing that he was still holding on to his phone. “Can we talk about this later?”
“I don’t want you to have sex with Aston.” It was strange, how easy this was to say into a telephone. He’d been so afraid of telephones, but he realized the bad part was listening through them. Talking into them wasn’t bad at all. “I don’t like him.”
“Promise me you’ll stay put until I find you.”
“Do you like him better than me?”
From Rick’s side of the phone, there was an audible horn blast followed by some words people could say in movies but not on TV. “Isaac, can we please talk about this once I find you?”
“I don’t like him. I don’t want you to like him.” Isaac felt his knees tremble a little, so he sat down on a bench. “I don’t want you to kiss him. I know you kiss him, but I don’t want you to.”
“Isaac, I–” Rick sounded out of breath. Maybe he’d been exercising. “Okay. We slept together sometimes. While we were in Africa.” There was another pause, and Isaac waited. “It was just sex. And I really wish we hadn’t.”
“I don’t want you to like him.”
“God, no, Isaac, I — fuck, I barely even like to be in the same room with him. He was just … there.”
Isaac didn’t understand; there were lots of people in his life that were there around him, and he didn’t have sex with any of them. He had sex with Rick because he liked Rick best of anyone else in the whole world, and now he didn’t want to go get dinner with Rick because he wanted to throw up instead. “I know.” He pulled his legs up underneath him on the bench so they wouldn’t be touched by the five big dogs that walked by on leashes all managed by the same girl. “I know you do all the time. When you’re gone. And you don’t tell me.”
“Fuck, fuck, motherfucking fuck,” Rick swore, his words coming out in heavy puffs of breath. “Isaac, I — fuck, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want you to.” Isaac pushed the hot-dog vendor’s napkins up just under his eyes; they were wet and gross by now, but they were all he had. “Stop.”
“Just — fuck, Isaac, please just … stay there, okay? I’m coming for you.”
“Stop,” Isaac repeated, folding his hands into fists. “Stop, stop, stop. Stop it. Stop doing it. Stop. Stop. Stop.”
“Isaac!” shouted Rick into the phone, and Isaac closed his mouth so the words wouldn’t get out any more. “Just stay there. I’m almost there. I see the park.”
For a moment, the idea of Rick’s showing up made Isaac want to run away and make good on his threat to try sleeping in a tree. He could probably do it, too; some of the branches looked big, and Isaac had always been small for his age and had never caught up with being the right size for anything. Maybe he could learn to live in the park. They probably didn’t let people live in the park, but maybe he could get very good at it and learn to do it in secret. He could pretend the other people didn’t exist and they could pretend he didn’t exist, and even though he knew about light pollution, he could find the darkest place in the park and live there and look up at the stars every night, not the glow-in-the-dark sticker-stars in his bedroom, but the real stars.
He was still looking up at the sky where the stars should have started to peek out, in fact, when he heard his name and turned. Out of breath and with his bag slung awkwardly around his chest, Rick was standing there at the edge of the walkway. Isaac definitely didn’t have enough time to climb a tree now, not in the five seconds it took for Rick’s long, strong legs to carry him across the distance between them, until they slammed into one another so hard that Isaac might have been knocked over had Rick not caught him in his arms and hugged him tight enough that it was hard to breathe.
“God,” Rick gasped next to Isaac’s ear, crushing him in a hug, “I was so fucking worried.”
“I went for a walk,” said Isaac, feeling his cheeks wet with tears again. “Just remember it’s a grid.”
They took a taxi to the hotel where they were staying, but they still had to walk to the street so they could get the taxi, and Rick held Isaac’s hand the whole way to the side of the road, and then the whole ride in the taxi. He had to let go of Isaac long enough to pull out all the cards and sign all the papers that let the hotel know they were who they said they were, but as soon as he was done, Rick interlaced his fingers with Isaac’s and they headed together up the stairs.
The whole hotel room was about the size of Rick’s room in Isaac’s apartment, but was definitely better than sleeping in a tree would have been. Rick dropped his bag on the floor and did a bellyflop sideways on the bed, so Isaac did the same thing, only he bounced almost off the end of the bed, but Rick caught him and drew him close, and they lay there together like that for several minutes. Rick smelled like sweat, but Isaac liked that.
“It was a shitty thing for me to do,” said Rick, and for once Isaac didn’t have to wonder what he was talking about. “I thought you wouldn’t know. Or you wouldn’t mind. …No, that’s not true. I knew you’d mind. That’s why I didn’t want you to know.”
“Stop.” Isaac put his hand on Rick’s chest and Rick became quiet, so to make sure Rick hadn’t understood the wrong thing, Isaac repeated, “Stop.”
Rick patted Isaac’s side. “Here, sit up a minute,” he said, pulling himself into a cross-legged position on the bed, and Isaac did the same, until they were knees-to-knees and Rick had both of Isaac’s hands in his. “I’ll stop.”
“Okay,” said Isaac, who was happy to leave the matter at that. “Can we have pizza for dinner?”
“We can in a minute, but hold on. This is important.” Rick squeezed Isaac’s hands in the way he did when Isaac really needed to listen, so Isaac really listened. “I’m … not really brave. I’m glad you think I am — fuck, I really need you to think I am most of all — but most of the time, I’m not. I’m still scared of a lot of things.”
“Sharks.” Isaac nodded. He understood.
“Well … yes, sharks,” Rick said. “But there are things that scare me more than that. Like … having someone call me a fag. Or having my dad find out that I am.” Isaac didn’t think Rick kissed him in a bad way at all, but he was patient and waited for Rick to finish speaking. “But it scared me to death thinking something might have happened to you on account of something that was my stupid fault.”
“I’m fine,” said Isaac. He’d gotten lost, but only a little, and he’d found his way to Central Park, and if he’d had to, he could have found his way somewhere else he’d decided he needed to be. He wasn’t always good at following directions, but he was good at solving puzzles, and he liked circles better than rectangles, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t figure out rectangles if he needed to. He only ever got lost if he was going somewhere and stopped paying attention for too long. In fact, that was his only problem with most tasks that involved more than one step. But he did more than that at work because he’d learned how. He’d learned lots of things. He probably had room to learn more.
Rick squeezed Isaac’s hands. “I know you are. You’re really amazing. I tell everybody that all the time. And I hate myself most when I don’t give you enough credit for how amazing you are.”
“Okay,” said Isaac, “but it’s fixed. You stop and we’ll be boyfriends.”
“Boyfriends?” repeated Rick, which was good, because that let Isaac know he’d understood.
Isaac nodded, and then, just in case Rick was being slow again, he explained: “It’s when you kiss somebody only and don’t kiss anyone else ever.”
“That….” Rick took a deep breath and let it out through his nose. “That’s one definition, yeah.” He rubbed his thumb over the back of Isaac’s hand, up and down his knuckles like hills, ascending and descending each knob of bone. “I don’t think your parents would like the idea, though.”
Parents, as far as Isaac understood, had nothing to do with boyfriends, but he was willing to trust Rick on this one. “Yes they would.”
“I’m not so sure. Your new doctor already thinks I’m molesting you.”
Isaac remembered all the lessons he’d sat through on STRANGER DANGER and good touches versus bad touches and when you needed to get an adult, and what those lessons described was miles away from what he and Rick did together. What they did was more like what the people in the porn movies did, and those were all over the internet, and they weren’t like stranger danger at all. “That’s stupid,” said Isaac. He decided he didn’t want to have this conversation facing Rick, because Rick’s face was making a lot of expressions, so he scooted over and sat side-by-side next to Rick and put his head on Rick’s shoulder. That was easier all around.
After the space of another long, deep breath, Rick turned and kissed the top of Isaac’s head, right in the middle of all his hair. “I don’t deserve you.”
“Okay,” said Isaac. He was struck with a sudden horrible thought: “Is there pizza in New York?”
Rick laughed, but the laugh was kind of like crying too, and he had to reach for a handful of tissues from the box beside the bed and blow his nose before he could answer. “There’s pizza everywhere. But definitely pizza in New York.” He didn’t make a move to get off the bed, though, so Isaac waited a minute more. “…God, Isaac, I’m so sorry. I’ve been such a shitty person and I’m so sorry.”
Rick, it seemed to Isaac, was trapped — at least, that was what Dr. Mazzy called it, when Isaac got into a place where he wanted to think about other things and move on and be okay, except that he couldn’t because some thought kept holding him down. He’d never seen Rick get trapped like that before, but he supposed it could happen to anyone. At least now Isaac knew what he needed to do. He scooted forward on the bed until he could reach his back pockets, then took his wallet out. He pulled the two important pieces of paper from it and handed them both to Rick.
Rick first looked at the picture of Saturn, smiling as he recognized it. “This is the one that was taken on my birthday, right?”
“Your birthday minus six years,” Isaac specified. The second thing Isaac had ever learned about Rick — the first had been his name — was his birthday, and he’d been so excited that he hadn’t even known what to say to this amazing boy with the amazing birthday. At recess, he’d pulled out his fat National Geographic Saturn facts magazine and showed that picture to Rick, and when Rick had proclaimed it ‘cool’ and said he wanted to see more, Isaac had been so happy he’d cried a little.
“Looking good, Saturn,” Rick said, and he placed the picture down face-up on the bed so that he could see the second piece of paper. “What’s this, your list?”
“Read it,” Isaac instructed.
He hadn’t meant for Rick to interpret his command to mean ‘aloud’, but that was okay too. “‘Here are things that Dr. Mazzy says are okay for me,'” Rick read from the top line. “‘One, when other people do things that don’t make sense. Two, when I want to do things that don’t make sense to me. Three, ma–‘” Rick was quiet for a moment as he pressed his first to his lips and swallowed. “‘Three, making mistakes.'”
Isaac looked at Rick, who was crying now, and that sometimes made it hard for people to talk, so he volunteered himself to read the rest of the list. He and Dr. Mazzy had written it together, and he knew it by heart, but the words were sometimes still nice just to see. “‘Four, when food touches other food on a plate. Five, asking to be alone sometimes. Six, asking people to explain what they mean when I don’t understand. Seven, trying new things.'”
As Isaac finished, Rick reached for his hand and twined their fingers together, then turned so they were touching forehead-to-forehead. “I think being boyfriends is a new thing I’d like to try.”
“Okay,” said Isaac, but this time he meant it. “Do boyfriends go get pizza with sausage and mushrooms and black olives and hold hands there and on the way back?”
“Yes,” Rick said, nodding. “Yes, that is what boyfriends do.”
New York City didn’t turn off any of its lights at night, or at least that was how it seemed from Isaac’s position by the hotel window. They’d gone out earlier and found a place that served pizza in giant individual slices, and the pizza place hadn’t had one pizza with sausage and mushrooms and black olives, but they’d had one pizza with just sausage, and one pizza with just mushrooms and black olives, so Isaac had gotten one slice of each and put them face-together like a pizza sandwich and been satisfied with the outcome. Rick had eaten three slices, all from the pizza with way too many toppings on it for Isaac to count, but it had made Rick happy, and that was what mattered. And they’d held hands all the way there and all the way back, and no one had called them fags or any other bad names at all.
Rick was asleep now, all wrapped up in the covers of the hotel bed, but Isaac didn’t feel like sleeping just yet, so he’d stayed there with Rick in the darkened room until Rick had started snoring, and then he’d wrigged his way out of the bed and over to the chair by the window. He’d decided he liked New York. It was a grid and it had a pretty park in the middle and there was pizza. It had all the things he needed.
Maybe Rick could save up for an apartment in New York. It was a long way away from Isaac’s parents, but not too far away, and there was a train. He’d seen people riding their bikes around a lot, and even though he didn’t like the subway, he could be brave and learn how to use it. There were lots of things to do and see here, too. He looked up at the sky and couldn’t see any of the stars, and that made him sad, but there were always other places to see stars, and there were things he liked about space he couldn’t see from Earth, even on the darkest night with the best telescope.
He could remember the day he’d realized he’d never be an astronaut. It had been right after his twelfth birthday, and he’d had a seizure so bad he’d slept through the whole week following. Rick had brought him a book on astronauts to the hospital as a get-well present, but Isaac had been too tired to sit up and hold the book, so Rick had read it to him, and when he’d gotten to the section on requirements to be an astronaut, Isaac had started crying. Astronauts needed to be able to do things with their brains that Isaac’s brain would never be able to do. They needed to have reasoning and concentration and memory, and no matter how much Isaac wanted to have these things, his brain wouldn’t ever be able to cooperate.
He also remembered that Rick hadn’t tried to argue or tell him he could do anything he wanted, the way Isaac’s parents did. He’d just sat there and held Isaac’s hand, and when Isaac had stopped crying, Rick had turned to the next section, the one all about how astronauts did experiments in space, and started reading again.
Isaac’s backpack was by his feet, and he pulled out his laptop and opened it, then connected to the hotel’s wireless network. He opened his email client and started an email to his parents. He left the subject line blank and went straight for the body of the email. Rick is my boyfriend and I’m happy and please don’t be mad, he wrote. He didn’t think they would be mad, but if Rick thought they would, it would be better to tell them in an email than in person. Isaac didn’t like trying to talk to angry people. New York is pretty and we ate pizza. Tomorrow we are coming home on the train and a subway or a taxi in New York. I rode in a taxi today and went to Central Park and it was fun.
Even that didn’t seem like quite enough if they were really going to be mad, though, so Isaac added: Rick can take good care of me. He frowned at that sentence, then deleted it and replaced it with, I can take good care of myself, then added, and Rick is good at helping. Isaac deemed that an excellent conclusion, so he made sure that both of his parents’ email addresses were correct, then pressed ‘send’. The screen reloaded to let him know the email had gone through, so he closed his laptop and put it back in his backpack, then crawled back into bed.
Rick was normally a sound sleeper, but Isaac’s curling up next to him woke him a little, and he extended his arm so that Isaac could use it as a pillow. “Everything okay?” he asked, his voice a sleepy rumble.
“Everything okay,” Isaac confirmed. He put his hand on Rick’s bare, warm chest and shut his eyes.
“Just couldn’t sleep?”
“Just couldn’t sleep.”
Rick kissed him on the forehead. “So tell me something Carl Sagan said.”
Isaac loved Carl Sagan best, almost as much as he loved Saturn, almost as much as he loved Rick. “Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth,” he said, calling back to mind one of the episodes of Cosmos he’d seen countless times, one he’d known by heart even before he’d known what all the words meant. “Each of those worlds is as real as ours and every one of them is a succession of incidents, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet at this moment, here we face a critical branch point in history. What we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants. It is well within our power to destroy our civilization and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition or greed or stupidity we could plunge our world into a time of darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilization and the Italian Renaissance. But we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet, to enhance enormously our understanding of the Universe, and to carry us to the stars.”
At least, that was what he meant to say. He remembered getting through the first part of it aloud, at least, but somewhere in the middle of the speech, talking became an effort, and the next thing he knew, the brightness from the window was not the lights of Times Square, but the morning sunlight, and Rick was nuzzling him awake, and it was time to go home.
“November 19, 1965.”
“February 29, 1972.”
“Tuesday. Birthday: Saul Williams.”
“No kidding,” said Rick, and Isaac was pleased that Rick had liked that bit of trivia about his favourite musician. “Okay, how about … July 4th, 2035.”
“Wednesday,” said Isaac with no hesitation. Rick seemed to think that dates in the future were somehow harder to figure out, when really, calendars just repeated themselves every twenty-eight years no matter which way you went — unless, of course, you went farther than 1900 or 2100, neither of which were or would be leap years, but if you knew that you could adjust your calculations for it. Everything was just a matter of having sufficient preparation.
They walked hand-in-hand down the airport terminal on the public side of the security gates. Isaac’s parents had said good-bye to Rick that morning at the light rail station and let Isaac take him by rail to the airport with the understanding that Isaac would come back alone on his own. They hadn’t been angry about Rick and Isaac’s being boyfriends, or at least they’d said they hadn’t been angry, and no one had yelled, so as far as Isaac was concerned, everything was okay. Rick had come to bed late one night and said he’d been talking to them about it a little, and the next morning everything had seemed the same as it always had before the New York trip, which was Isaac’s standard for everything’s being all right.
“August 21st, 1904.”
“Sunday. Can you call me on the telephone from Alaska?”
Rick stopped in his tracks and just looked at Isaac for a minute, but then he smiled. “Yeah, I can call you from Alaska. Well, maybe not when I’m actually out on the boat. But when I’m back on land, if I can get a signal and you want me to, I’ll call you every day, if you want.”
Isaac nodded. “And sometimes you can just talk.” He still didn’t like the idea of the telephone with most people, but after New York, talking to Rick like that seemed a lot less scary. “And you can tell me when you’re coming home, and when you do I can come get you again and we can ride the train home together.”
“It’s a deal,” said Rick, squeezing his hand. He looked up at the big electronic board by the security gates and sighed. “Okay, I’ve got to go. But I’ll be back before you know it, and when I do, we’ll talk about all sorts of things, like apartments. Okay?”
“Okay,” Isaac agreed, and he squeezed Rick’s hand back. “Come back soon.”
“Soon as I can,” Rick promised. He glanced around for a moment, then used his grip on Isaac’s hand to pull him closer, until they were chest-to-chest in a hug. “Do you want to kiss me right now?”
Isaac nodded. “Yeah.” He usually did.
“Then go ahead,” said Rick, tilting his chin downward until his mouth was in range.
The idea of kissing Rick in public both terrified and delighted Isaac, and he found for a second that he was so excited he couldn’t make himself move. He didn’t want to miss the chance, though, and Rick’s plane was about to leave, so Isaac rocked himself forward on his tiptoes until he was tall enough to fit the gap between them, and then they were kissing, open-mouthed and warm and not at all like he saw people who were family or even close friends kiss. It was a boyfriend kiss between boyfriends, and one of them was going to go away, but he’d come back, and then everything would be okay again.
It was still new to both of them, though, and Rick pulled back after not too long, though he let his arms around Isaac linger for a moment more. “Okay,” he said at last, stepping away and slinging his bag up over his shoulder, “time for another adventure.”
“Bye.” Isaac gave one last wave as Rick stepped into the security line, then turned to go. He’d brought people to the airport before, mostly his mother with his father, who’d always insisted they stay and wave until she disappeared on the other side of the metal detectors. Isaac didn’t really see the point, though, so he put his hands back in his pockets and set off for the light rail station. The train wouldn’t be there for another twelve minutes, but he didn’t mind waiting, even if it was a little chilly out.
Sometimes he thought maybe he could be an astronaut anyway. Maybe science would discover something that needed to be done in space that only his brain could do, and they’d ask him and he’d say yes, of course, he’d be glad to do the job. And then Rick could come with him and make a video of the whole thing, like Cosmos, only actually in space, and they’d go to space and eat space food and share facts about space. Isaac knew more about space than he did about almost anything. They could call the show Isaac and Rick’s Space Show in Space. It’d be the best show ever.
It probably wouldn’t happen, of course, but he could still dream it, and that was an important first step.
His phone buzzed in his pocket as he got to the rail platform, and when he pulled it out, he saw he had a text message from Rick: I miss you already.
I miss you already too, Isaac texted back. He waited a minute, and then another, but there was no reply. Rick must already be on the plane, with his seat back and tray tables in their full and upright locked positions, and all his portable electronic devices switched off for takeoff. Next he’d land in Detroit, and then in Seattle, and then in Anchorage, and by the time he got to Unalaska, Isaac would be asleep. They could talk on the telephone the next day, though, because Isaac just had to go to the doctor, not to work, and going to the doctor didn’t take as long as going to work.
He would get back from the airport before his parents got home from their jobs. Maybe he’d make dinner for them. He’d have to stay very focused, doing it on his own for the first time, but he felt confident. He’d learn how to do things even better, and when Rick got back, Isaac could show him how good he’d gotten. And if he didn’t do it all right the first time, it was still okay to make mistakes.
Just before the train pulled up, Isaac glanced over his shoulder and saw a plane lift off into the air. Maybe it wasn’t Rick’s plane, but maybe it was, and either way, it didn’t take off like a space shuttle. Airplanes and space shuttles landed the same way, but they had to take off in different ways because they were going different places. Alaska was five thousand miles away. The Moon, which was about the closest place anyone would need a space shuttle to get to, was (on average) 238,900 miles away. Lots of people lived in Alaska. Only twelve people had been on the Moon, and none of them were still there now. That didn’t make the Moon better; it just made it farther away.
He took his seat on the rail car and closed his eyes and thought of Rick, who might have been thinking of him too. Isaac was already planning on meeting him at the airport in the spring and kissing him right there, in front of everyone. And someday in billions of years when the Sun burned up and the Earth was destroyed, the atoms that made them both right now would be sent out to join the rest of space. It might take until the end of the universe, but someday Isaac would get back to where he’d started: the deep black beyond the Earth’s amosphere, the place where all the stars lived. Rick would be with him too, and Isaac’s mom and dad, and Mrs. Headley and Dr. Karimi and Dr. Mazzy and Aston Lee and Mr. Dietterich and Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan and the man with the hot dog cart and everyone else who’d ever lived or would ever live, all out there in space together, because some things could be neither created nor destroyed. Some things just were, no matter what, and when Rick came home, more of them would be in their right places.
Outside the train, the world went by, and somewhere above him in the sky, a plane flew away, and objects in motion would stay in motion, and objects at rest would stay at rest. Isaac Newton — the real one, the one Isaac had been named after — had figured out that law, and a law wasn’t a theory, it was a law. The air Rick had breathed out was still in Isaac’s apartment, and the sheets still smelled like him, and there were little parts of him everywhere, and someday he’d come home, and against the great scale of universal time, a few months wasn’t long at all. Before Isaac even knew it, they’d be together. The train would rock its way down the tracks and Rick’s airplane would fly west and the planet would rotate and the solar system would turn and the galaxy would spin and the universe would keep on expanding, and with enough time, everything in it would again be made right.
Gosh, that’s bloody lovely. What a fantastic, beautiful, refreshing story.
This is fantastic! The middle section, with the fight and Isaac getting lost in the park, nearly made me cry, but the resolution was so sweet and perfect. A really, really wonderful story.