by Lee Gabrielle Crow
April truly is the rainiest month. Of course, the Crescent City is no stranger to moisture – a city built atop a swamp on the Mississippi’s mouth, gradually sinking ever lower until one day, the sandbags won’t work and the levees will break and the city will be eaten up by the sea. This line of thought makes every day it rains (especially in April or during hurricane season) particularly terrifying, but everything in New Orleans terrifies in the right light, with the right music, and at the right time. This Cristobal knows well, having lived in the city since 2002.
He lives in a big green shotgun house on South Carrollton Avenue. There are trees of indeterminate species in the front yard, which would shield him from the rain if it wasn’t pouring down quite so hard. Cristobal stands on the porch for a good long while, smoking a Marlboro, and only when he feels the blanket of a nicotine high over his head – calming, heavy – does he decide to venture out into the rain in his flip-flops and gym shorts, out to the edge of the property, where the mailbox is. He shovels several handfuls of magazines, bills, and a package for Cloud into the curve of one arm, then runs wildly back to the porch, into the house, to dump the sopping wet mail onto the living room table. Cloud looks up from where he’s reading the news on his phone in his nest on the sofa.
“That was kind of silly, wasn’t it?” he asks.
Cristobal widens his eyes at him. “You’re the one who’s been talking about mail in the mailbox for the past few hours.”
“I figured it would stop raining eventually and then you could get it.” Cloud looks at his package on top of the mail pile and smiles, unfolding his legs and leaning forward to pick said package up. “I hope these are our Brita filters.”
Cristobal rolls his eyes and heads into the bedroom to change into a set of dry clothes. “Dios mío, we’re so fucking gay,” he mutters, pulling his dripping T-shirt off as he goes.
The reader is probably wondering how they met. This is the most important story of any relationship – that is, the first meeting and the last, or at least most recent, meeting. Cristobal Luna was born in Alajuela, Costa Rica and raised in the thrill of a yearly earthquake, skating in the skate park with his long black hair and eating empanadas and yuca frita from the footstands with his friends and his girlfriends up until he was fifteen, after which the Lunas packed their bags and moved to New Orleans. Cristobal, Piedad (his mother, the teacher), Arturo (his father, the metalsmith), and Sofía and Lucía (his twin sisters, the eternal orators) lived in a four-bedroom house with hardwood floors and a big old kitchen in the Tremé and ate rice and beans for every meal just like they used to back in Alajuela, and Cristobal, during his late adolescence in the Crescent City, got up to even greater tricks than the ones he was already used to back home. He found the skateparks and the bars that didn’t card, smoked cigarettes during his off periods at George Washington Carver High School, gave his friends and himself stick-and-poke tattoos of astrological symbols and skulls and fruits, and made love with his various girlfriends and boyfriends wherever and whenever he could – the last one of which he nearly got pregnant in the summer between high school and college, which was the ultimate impetus to stop acting up so much. “You behave yourself, mijo,” Piedad said to him one of those many summer nights, when Cristobal sat up with her watching Family Feud in no shirt and a pair of sweatpants that were so full of holes he wouldn’t dare wear them outside (mostly because Piedad would beat him silly if he did). “Behave yourself and learn and settle down.”
“But I’m going to college, mami,” Cristobal whined in a way that seemed to make perfect sense to him at the time. “Misbehavior is the status quo in college.”
“Not for you, it’s not.” Piedad, with her silvering hair and her crow’s feet, looked at her son and said very seriously and very lovingly, “Please, Cristobal. Be good.”
And Cristobal mostly was good. He stayed out of drugs and didn’t engage in hookup culture and kept on top of his grades and, when junior rolled around, moved into an off-campus apartment on Broadway that he kept all to himself, cleaning and cooking his own meals and taking his medicine and being the adult his mother wanted him to be. That’s the only way he could have been and stayed sane. That’s the only way things could have ever worked out between him and Cloud.
Cloud Ono, on the other hand, was a born and bred New Orleanian from all the glorious shitholes in the Bywater and the Marigny; a Japanese/Scandinavian mutt who’d never known his father and ate his first meals on a tatami mat on the floor (his mother was a huge fan of getting back to her roots); a survivor of Katrina, which had hit when he was sixteen and from which he and his mother sunset were still recovering financially; a strange grunge/punk hybrid who had been stretching his earlobes since he was fifteen, who had a hard time making eye contact due to some deeply set in self-loathing and guilt, who had a tattoo of a wolf on his arm that was actually so completely awful that nowadays he considers tattoo removal every time tax season comes around, who was a freshman at Loyola University New Orleans in the fall of 2007. He lived in Biever Hall with a biology major named Aaron Lagrone, who played Christian rock music without fail every waking morning of the week and often went on bizarre rants about the moral degeneracy of their freshman class. He thanked the gods (or the state of Louisiana, or his own stellar grades which had gotten him the Ignatian Scholarship to this school) for his meal plan which allowed him to bring Starbucks to every class and every shift in the Media Services lab in the library. He took showers in the disgusting communal bathroom and invested in flip-flops and Lysol, which he carried with him everywhere in his dormitory. He missed his crazy hippie mother, and called her at every opportunity.
“Hello, my thundercloud,” Sunset Ono sang to him over the phone at around 9:30 on a Sunday in August, when Cloud was afforded the opportunity of aloneness in his room. Cloud traced his eyes and his index finger over the brick wall his twin XL bed was set adjacent to and listened to his mother hum a tune that sounded vaguely like a song he’d heard a long time before, when he was a kid riding in her Pontiac GP. “How are things?”
“Weird,” Cloud admitted. He was always honest with his mother then, never having learned quite how to shield himself from her though he shielded himself from everyone with his lies. “I don’t really feel like I fit in here.”
“I thought you were so excited to go to Loyola, though,” Sunset said in a sympathetic tone.
“I was, and I am.” Cloud willed himself to make sense. “I’m just so different than everyone else here.” (Which, to be sure, was a hard feat to accomplish being that Loyola, Tulane’s Catholic neighbor, was definitely the weird school of the two, the haven of hipsters, artists, marijuana-smokers, social justice warriors, incredibly smart weirdos, racial minorities, funny Jesuits, and manga fetishists, with the striking exception of the business majors.)
“Different is good, baby,” Sunset assured him. “Different makes you interesting.”
Cloud sighed. That’s what he’d been told all his life, and yet he only had a single (almost) friend in his eighteen years and nobody seemed to find him interesting or good – just off-putting. Maybe this was his curse. “Of course,” he said to his mother, because there was no point in arguing with her at this point; he’d already tried in his earlier adolescence.
Cloud just continued to float through school in the somewhat discouraged state he’d existed in since day one, when Aaron Lagrone woke him up with the WBSN 89.1 FM. He read his psychology texts and articles alone in the quad and took inventory of all the media equipment at work. He wondered idly if he could run an IV and mainline Starbucks into his veins, if that would produce the same ridiculous caffeine high he was perpetually on in those first college days. He ate alone in the cafeteria and, for the moment, ignored fliers for the Yoga Club that met in the Recreation/Sports Complex and the upcoming university retreats in September and October. Then, on Thursday, August 30th, Cloud’s sole (almost) friend texted him at 11:11 PM: Come meet me in front of Carrollton in 10 min.
Cloud stared at this cryptic text. Whitney Nguyen was a girl he’d known since kindergarten – rich, beautiful, popular, and interested in cool and manly things like mixed martial arts and mixology – and he’d never quite had the confidence to call her his full-fledged friend being that they’d always been so different, class- and personality-wise, but she’d been in his life forever and was close enough to him for them to have exchanged phone numbers, so who’s to say that she wasn’t his friend? She certainly is nowadays.
Cloud, who had already changed into his Catholic schoolgirl shorts and fuzzy socks and gotten in bed with a good book, wrestled with the notion of getting up. He sort of trusted Whitney to not drag him into something crazy at an hour like this on a Thursday night, but oh, how soft the bed was. Oh, what good excuse could he come up with not to go, what nonexistent homework or early morning obligation. Oh, how he ached to do basically nothing, and oh how this aching had gotten him virtually nowhere socially or experientially in eighteen years. Pushing the urge to languish aside, Cloud got up and put a pair of jeans and his Converse on. He put his bottle blond hair in a high ponytail and took with him his phone, his room keys, and his Student ID, which he’d need to get back into Biever when all this was over. He walked on across the Residential Quad to Carrollton Hall and waited five minutes for Whitney to show up in a cute, summery outfit, lipglossed and toting around her perpetual huge rich-girl bag in which she carried all of her various devices and all of their respective chargers. Seeing her, he waved without speaking, and she smiled and approached him and declared, as if she doubted he would, “You came!”
“I wanted to see what was so important you couldn’t even explain it,” Cloud said drolly, leaning against the railing next to the scan-to-enter front door of Carrollton.
Whitney grinned, flicking her bangs out of her face. “I think you’re going to like it. We’re waiting on a friend; he lives off campus but he wanted to swing by for this.”
“Any chance you’re going to tell me what this is?” Cloud asked.
“Maybe.” Whitney was flirtatious in a coy way she often didn’t intend, and this had the effect of spiking Cloud’s already considerable social anxiety. Suddenly, she was looking to the left and her face was brightening with recognition. “Cristobal,” she said to the upperclassman that was skating up to them, jangling with every movement. “You’re just in time.”
Cloud surveilled Cristobal, looking for the source of the jangling. He was tall, brown, and incredibly foxy, and Cloud was both instinctively drawn to and repulsed by foxy people, by people who made his stomach flip just by looking at them. He was also incredibly confused about his sexuality at the time, unsure whether he was gay, bisexual, or just plain not sexual at all (he had no terminology for asexuality in 2007), and Cristobal made him even more confused as he wrapped Whitney in a warm hug and his pretty face shone in the overhead light just outside the dorm. Eventually, Cristobal turned to him and said, “Hey, you must be Cloud.”
Cloud imagined what his face must have looked like, the bewilderment evident across his features. “How do you know what my name is?” he asked.
Cristobal smiled in a friendly, unfazed way. “Whitney likes to talk about you in class. You’re kind of a celebrity to me.”
Whitney was standing away from them, calling her friend who lived upstairs to come let them inside the dormitory. Cloud was surprised to be the subject of anyone else’s conversation; hoping Whitney hadn’t told Cristobal anything embarrassing from elementary or middle school, he forced a smile and asked, “Are you a fan?” Are you aware I’m a troll? he didn’t ask. Are you aware of the grilled cheese detente of the sixth grade? And the fact that I’m Japanese but hate sushi?
Cristobal’s expression became deathly serious. “But of course,” he said, then winked and went to the door just as it was coming open. Cloud shook himself and followed Whitney and Cristobal into Carrollton Hall, perpetually unsure of how he felt. They all got in the elevator and rode to the sixth floor, Whitney and Cristobal and Whitney’s unnamed friend (Cloud is sure if he asks Whitney nowadays she’ll say something like Jenny or Amber or some other unremarkable name he’ll forget immediately after hearing it), and Cloud listened to the chitchat and felt utterly left out until Cristobal looked at him as the doors opened on the sixth floor and said, “You like to observe, don’t you?”
Cloud made a sheepish face. “It’s actually mostly just not knowing what to say.”
“Ah, so you’re thoughtful.” They stepped out of the elevator and followed the girls down the hall to someone’s apartment. “You don’t like to speak before thinking.”
Cloud nodded with a wry smile. “That’s the way I was raised.”
“Good mom,” Cristobal remarked. “Mine never managed to get through to me. Maybe I should meet yours.” Then he laughed, and Cloud wondered for a moment if he was going crazy or, like earlier with Whitney, being flirted with.
When they all arrived at the apartment at the end of the hall, they found within upperclassmen with musical instruments and a jug of Merlot being poured into a variety of plastic Mardi Gras cups in lieu of true wine glasses. Whitney introduced Cloud to everyone, handed him the cup from the Endymion parade, and whispered something to him to the effect of, “Have fun and don’t be weird.” Then he was adrift in the corner of the room, watching all these cool people yak it up and tune their instruments and laugh at their inside jokes. This was how he spent most of his Loyola parties, to be fair – sitting alone beside everyone, unremarkable and unknown, with his own steady drink in his hand and a world of thoughts swirling in his mind – but during this first of parties, the loneliness felt especially extreme. He sipped at his red and looked on as the upperclassmen began their jam session – the electric guitar, drum set, and the sousaphone – and just as he thought he’d float away on an alternative jazz cloud, buzzing grapily all the while, Cristobal was sidling up to him, whispering, “Hola.”
Cloud wasn’t used to smiling, but he willed his face to do so for maybe the third time that night. He touched his Mardi Gras cup to Cristobal’s and allowed himself, for a moment, to stare at his strange hazel eyes – a bright, striking golden-green color that reminded him of the National Geographic cover that lived in everyone’s memory. This went on for longer than he realized and only ended when Cristobal narrowed his eyes and laughed, awakening Cloud to how weird he was being. He looked into his wine and murmured, “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” Cristobal replied in a low enough voice not to disturb the people around them listening to the music. “I was enjoying looking too. You have really intense eyes, wow.”
“They’re just black,” Cloud complained.
“They’re deep. I like them.” Cristobal took a long drink of wine, danced a little to the music, then asked, “What’s your major?”
“Psychology,” Cloud replied without thinking. “Strange how that’s like a monolithic part of my identity now.”
“Oh, I’m used to that.” Cristobal smiled with all his teeth. “This is my third year and every time I get the question of what my major is I want to run away.”
“Why?” Cloud asked.
“Because it’s a real mouthful,” Cristobal admitted.
Cloud said nothing for a moment, contemplating whether or not he was really going to ask. When his curiosity reached its peak, he said, like he was releasing breath for the first time in a long while, “I’m sorry, I have to know. What’s your major?”
Cristobal laughed a little, then steeled himself for his answer. “Languages and cultures with a concentration in Latin American studies. That’s ten words – trust me. I’ve said this enough times.”
“It’s pretty interesting though,” Cloud said in what he hoped was an encouraging voice. The sousaphone sang one long, brassy note out into the air and Cristobal danced some more, unrestrained like no one was watching. Whitney was smiling, which was kind of rare even for a girl as popular and well-liked as she was, and Cloud was three-fourths of the way through his cup of wine and definitely feeling it. The music played on, and everyone in the room listened with breath that was bated.
At some point near midnight, Cristobal tapped Cloud on the shoulder and said, “Follow me.” He took their cups into the kitchen, whispered something into Whitney’s ear, and then led Cloud out of the apartment and back down the hall to the elevator. It was then, while they waited for the sleek metal doors to come open, that Cloud finally spoke.
“Where are you taking me?”
“I really want a smoothie,” Cristobal announced by way of reply. He still jangled with every movement, and only at that moment did Cloud know why; pulling his lanyard (and keys) off of a carabiner that was clipped to his belt loop, Cristobal gave Cloud a conspiratorial look. “When I lived on campus, I used to pop out to the little grocery in the student union every night and buy a smoothie. I can buy you one too, if you want.”
As they stepped onto the elevator, Cloud grew curious again. “Did you ever live in Biever?”
Cristobal burst into laughter. “Ayy… I’m an Honors student, so I lived on the Honors floor in Buddig when I was a freshman. I never lived in Biever, but I’ve heard the horror stories and I’ve been inside there for parties, etcetera.”
A laugh played on Cloud’s mouth. Abruptly, self-consciousness swelled within him and he had to be so cool to this foxy guy he just met, so he fibbed a little. Just because. “I was going to be in Honors but I decided to take regular classes so college wouldn’t make me want to kill myself. Stress management, and all that.”
Cristobal looked at him strangely. “Honors is more than just being smarter. You get to take exclusive classes and work with the best professors at the school. You get a lounge in the library and you get to pick your room for the next year before anyone else.”
Cloud, floundering beneath the weight of this small lie, fibbed again. “I knew all that. It just wasn’t for me, you know?” Changing the subject as fast as he could, he asked, “Did you ever use the bathroom in Biever?”
Cristobal shuddered. “Please don’t remind me.”
They compared Loyola’s four dormitories all the way down to the first floor – the eldritch disgusting state of Biever, Buddig’s cold floors, the upperclassmen paradise of Carrollton, and Cabra’s sleek apartments. They walked to the student union and, at the stroke of twelve o’clock, Cristobal bought Cloud a strawberry smoothie that they watched the machine blend for them in the store. Together, they sat in the student union in the plush chairs near the then-closed Starbucks and slurped up fruity, frosty goodness that cut through the miniscule wine buzzes they’d had, and Cloud, who normally asked no questions at all, continued to ask Cristobal about himself – where he was from and why Loyola and, more than anything, why languages and cultures with a concentration in Latin American studies.
“That’s a really good question,” Cristobal observed around a mouthful of smoothie. He kicked his feet up on the table between him and Cloud and Cloud took note of his well-worn, paint-stained Vans and colorful, mismatched socks. “I really just want to know everything, I think, and I’m a no-good Costa Rican son of a teacher, so of course I specifically want to know more about my culture and my language, which I think I lost a little when I moved to the United States. I want to be a teacher like my old mother, too. I want to make a difference by teaching. Studying this now, here, gets me to that place in the future where I can do that.”
“What do you want to teach?” Cloud asked. “Not high school Spanish?”
“I actually wouldn’t mind teaching high school Spanish,” Cristobal said, brightening. “I’d make it fun. Cook food for my class and teach them culture, music, lifestyle. philosophy, politics. It would be out of this world. Really, though, I want to teach literature. Latin American, postcolonial lit – that sort of thing.”
Cloud tilted his head a little to the side, watching Cristobal pick at his smoothie with his straw. He spoke such clear, articulated collegese, knew so perfectly well who he was and what he wanted that it kind of frightened Cloud, that it awed him to be honest. Everyone else came across as so pale in comparison. “So what, you’re like a genius or something?” Because there was a part of him that always, always failed to talk to people any kind of nicely.
Cristobal, instead of being offended or put out by the kind of assholeish comment, grinned at Cloud. “Maybe so. That’s what my mother says.”
“Mother knows best,” Cloud quipped.
“Órale,” Cristobal said.
They drained their smoothies and talked some more.
Eventually, it was one o’clock and Cloud was acting like he was just now realizing he had an eight-thirty class in the morning that he wasn’t too keen on waking up to after a night of such unrepentant debauchery (secretly, he’d kept track of time all along and just wanted to seem more conscientious to Cristobal for having remembered his class and gone to bed like a good little boy). Cristobal laughed at him and told him he liked the way he talked, then, walked him all the way back to Biever, where they stood in front of the scan-to-enter door while Cloud dug around in his pockets for his ID.
“You have a cellphone, right?” Cristobal asked as Cloud pulled his phone, his keys, and his ID out of his pocket. “You should call me. You’re something else.”
“Is that a bad thing?” Cloud asked, thinking of what his mother said to him earlier, about how different was good or whatever. What he really wanted to know was whether he was being insulted or flirted with, as he’d been wanting to know all night.
Cristobal shook his head slowly. “Not at all.” He pulled his own phone out of his pocket. “Here, just tell me your number and I’ll call you – if you want me to.”
Cloud battled with the urge to be coy. He pronounced all ten digits of his number for Cristobal, then saluted him in a military fashion and swiped his ID to open the door. Cristobal was smiling at him – foxy, terrible, and so arresting it made Cloud want to run away.
“Sleep well,” he said, and then he was gone, disappearing into Uptown on his skateboard. Cloud looked at the girl at the front desk and she smiled at him.
“That guy was really cute,” she remarked, probably having seen Cristobal through the big windowed sliding door. Cloud shrugged.
“He was alright,” he lied again, his pants so clearly on fire, then took the stairs all the way up to his room.
It is a little after seven when Cloud gets home from the bar. Parking his Subaru on the curb behind Cristobal’s Mazda, he stashes his face mask in the glove compartment, grabs the bottle of moscato from the passenger’s seat, and exits the car, walking up the front steps to the porch and rifling through his keyring until he finds the key to the front door. Halfway through unlocking the door, he realizes it’s already unlocked. Rolling his eyes and muttering, “Cristobal…” he passes into the living room, which is fragrant with the scent of cooking food.
“¡Oye!” Cristobal cries from the back of the house. Cloud sees him standing all the way at the end of the hall, where the kitchen lies. “Cloud, my darling, you’ve come home to eat my puttanesca and kiss me until I go blind!”
Petting Mongkut where she’s perched on the cat tree right next to the door, Cloud makes sure to lock the door behind him and heads down the hall to the kitchen, where the aroma of garlic and herbs is stronger and the dogs are eating their own wet dinner. The line of Cristobal’s shoulders is bunched up tight where he’s puttering over the stove, and Cloud knows immediately that tonight, the love of his life is on some crazy manic upswing. Cristobal only makes experimental ethnic dishes when he’s manic.
“Baby,” Cloud says, coming to wrap his arms around Cristobal from behind. “I brought wine. Whitney says hello.”
Without speaking, Cristobal turns around with a forkful of spaghetti alla puttanesca and aims for Cloud’s mouth. As soon as Cloud is chewing, he is talking. “I was feeling Italian today. Angel from work recommended this great recipe to me, but it had anchovies in it and I was wondering where in New Orleans would I get anchovy fillets, so there’s no anchovies – I hope that’s okay – but I hope you like capers because there are lots of them here. Dios mío, I’m glad you’re home. My, you look so pretty with your roots growing out – I know that sounded like a backhanded compliment, but I mean it really, you look great. Have you eaten today? You should eat some more of this, it’s basically all for you. I had Sarita’s for lunch and you know they fill me up.” He suddenly makes a noise of extreme frustration. “I have to grade papers tonight. It’s Tuesday, right? Ugh, can you feel the rancid bad energies emanating off of my laptop in waves? I’m so scared. Do you like the puttanesca?”
Cloud neatly files away all of the information Cristobal has bombarded him with and focuses on the taste of the food. The sauce is acidic, tomato-heavy, and he can taste crushed red pepper along with the fresh zing of basil. “It’s pretty fucking good,” he replies, leaning in to kiss Cristobal on the mouth for the first time in ten hours.
“Mm,” Cristobal says into his mouth, kissing him back and sort of melting a little with every electric second that passes. It’s good just to be close together after a full day of being apart, but Cloud knows it’s not going to last for long – not with Cristobal ricocheting off the walls like he is.
Cristobal hands him his fork and turns off the stove. “Órale,” he says. “Have some pasta and shit, I’m going to grade papers and drink some bleach.”
“How about wine instead?” Cloud says, holding up the bottle of Moscato he’s had in his hands the whole time and making it dance in Cristobal’s face for a moment. “I’m sure this would be much more appetizing, though if you still want to use a wine glass for the bleach, you can knock yourself out.”
Cristobal shakes his head and heads out of the room. “I decant straight from the bottle,” he says, and Cloud listens to the sound of him and one of the dogs padding down the hallway into the living room, the sound of him slumping down with a great sigh in his armchair and reclining the seat back, the sound of one of the dogs jumping up onto the sofa and finding his spot. Cloud serves himself a bowl of pasta, pours a glass of wine, and makes his way to the living room as well to watch Cristobal grade papers in a holey T-shirt and old sweatpants, huffing and bitching and shaking his head all the while.
“Santo maldito Cristo, what are they teaching the kids in their high school English classes? In their freshman English classes? I know we all complained about writing essays back in our day, but we knew how to write them and write them well. Is the structure of an essay really so mystifying? I find it pretty fucking easy to work with. Tch! – and the random, easy grammar and usage errors. These are my favorite, I swear to God. ‘Did you catch my illusion to the Bible?’ If by illusion you mean the utter illusion that you know how to write, yes, I did!”
Cloud, for his part, just giggles a little and lets his eyes wander over Cristobal’s tall, broad form – his brown skin in the buttery light from the floor lamp; the sleeve tattoo on his left arm, angel wings and crying virgins; the streak of gray through his otherwise inky hair; the prominence of one pierced nipple beneath the thin fabric of his T-shirt. He slurps spaghetti into his mouth and wonders at his exceptionally intelligent, frustrated partner, who compensates for his extreme brilliance with an utter lack of common sense or ability to modulate his emotions. Eventually, Cristobal notices him laughing and watching him and asks, in a not very heated voice, “You’ve been waiting for this all day, haven’t you?”
Swallowing down a mouthful of puttanesca, Cloud replies, “It’s my favorite TV show.”
Cristobal makes a face at him, then turns back to his laptop. A moment of silence passes, then he says, apropos of nothing, “Ah, yes. ‘The film is an allergy for the story of Christ.’ Spellcheck strikes again.”
Cloud is tickled. He finishes his dinner and, passing back out of the room to put his dirty dish in the sink, puts his glass of wine on the end table next to Cristobal’s chair and leans in to kiss his old professor on the temple, saying, “Thank you for dinner, babe.”
Cristobal makes a sound of acknowledgment, but says nothing.
When Cloud first learned to drive, he wanted to get away from New Orleans. As soon as I get my license, he vowed, I’m going to drive to Colorado and live out my life there. Of course, it was a ridiculous teenage dream fueled by years of enduring the bullshit that living in New Orleans entailed – the illogical urban planning and the perpetual potholes in the eczematous streets, the crime and the poverty and the bureaucratic mess of the city and state government, which Cloud primarily experienced through his mother’s struggles with the Section 8, Social Security, and SNAP offices for money to put a roof over his head and food in his mouth. As Cloud drove through the Bywater and the Marigny in his mother’s Pontiac with STUDENT DRIVER stickered to the bumper, he imagined a city where the threat of a blown tire, a carjacking, or a hurricane wasn’t imminent. He imagined a city that didn’t smell perpetually of food and marijuana (not that he minded either) and whose buildings, fences, and overpasses weren’t marred by graffiti declaring ACHOO! and JOKER LIVES in bubble letters. He imagined a functioning government that cared for its citizens and considerate neighbors that didn’t play jazz music at maximum volume at 1:00 in the morning. Basically, he imagined the anti-New Orleans, so deep did his hatred for his hometown run.
It was hard to wake for school. Basically the only incentive he had was that his mother would let him drive her car to campus and he could be seen by all the cool kids pulling up before the act was ruined by his mother getting out of the passenger seat, kissing him goodbye in front of everyone, and driving off on a tire that was dangerously low on air. Sunset came to holler and bark at his door every ten minutes until it was clear that drastic measures had to be taken (i.e., she would have to forcibly remove the blankets or him from the bed with her godlike strength and motherly perseverance), and nobody in the house thought that maybe this was an early and clear manifestation of depression. To Sunset, it was just hormones and Cloud’s natural stubbornness rearing its head. Cloud, on the other hand, folded into himself and hated himself for his perpetual tiredness, for the lack of motivation and energy that seemed to dominate his days and that complicated his schoolwork and his relationship with his mother.
“What’s wrong with you?” Sunset asked him when he finally made an appearance outside of his bedroom to drink a glass of orange juice and strap on a will to live before heading out to school. “You’ve been so… moody lately.”
Cloud knew what she wanted to say. He saw it in her eyes every time she caught him vegging out in front of the television with his hand in a bag of chips or still fast asleep at 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon. She wanted to call him lazy, and maybe he was lazy. The word impressed itself like a brand on his brain, marking him for life. Why was he the way he was? When had he turned fifteen and launched himself into a permanent exhaustion that typically characterized the lives of the elderly and the very ill? He vaguely remembered a childhood spent playing (alone) for hours without end, remembered life, remembered boundless reserves of energy. He hated himself, and this hating slowly became terminal, suicidal.
In school, he didn’t answer questions even when he knew the answer and ate alone at lunch/recess, watching the all-American, all-white kids he’d known since kindergarten congregate beneath trees to munch on homemade tuna salad sandwiches and talk about Fall Out Boy and Kanye West. Sometimes, he hid in the bathroom in lieu of going to class to pool his thoughts and sometimes, if his frustration with New Orleans and the school system and his mother was so great, his tears in his hands. At night, his mother let him drive to McDonalds with a twenty dollar bill in his pocket and, wanting more than anything to feel asphalt beneath him, he took the long way down neighborhood roads where kids still lingered to play make believe games and drug dealers sat in their Honda Civics wondering if he would buy cannabis or crystal meth or, rarely, cocaine. He ached for Colorado, for somewhere where he would be high, happy, and awake during the daylight hours.
Then Katrina came. New Orleans (and the Onos) was no stranger to hurricanes (especially ones advertised by the weatherman as category 3 or above), so when the evacuation order from the federal government came, it’s no surprise that so many stayed in the city to drown after the levees broke and the flooding began in earnest. Cloud left behind his bed and books in the Bywater. A nice squat dining table on a tatami mat and a refrigerator with sandwich fixings and fruit juice in it. He and his mother drove two hours to Lafayette with duffel bags full of clothing and toiletries and stayed with an artist friend who once tended bar in New Orleans when Cloud was seven, slept in her hallway on comforters and quilts while the storm raged on outside and the electricity flickered ominously on and off. When the pictures and the video on the news broadcast to them the sheer extent of the devastation – images of stranded people on rooftops and stagnant brown-blue water flooding the neighborhoods, choking the city – Cloud was hit with strange pangs of guilt.
Why did he hate New Orleans so much? His hatred was nonsensical, selfish. The city, which he once thought of as ugly but strong – infallible even – was now a truly hideous bastion of death and it filled him to the brim with a bizarre, intense sadness that rivalled his suicidal self-hatred. What about all the French Quarter pedicabbers and the children that played in the streets and the drug dealers with family members now floating face-up in a saltwater sea that had appeared as if overnight? What about his house in the Bywater and all of the nice things he took for granted? Instead of wanting to leave New Orleans even more now that it was such a mess, he missed it with a renewed fervor. He wanted to go home and never leave.
His wish came true for Christmas, when the Onos finally drove back into New Orleans in December 2005 to find their house in the Bywater water-damaged but intact. A fridge full of rotting food and floors that were warped and stained by rainwater, their beds full of debris, graffiti declaring YAHWEH IS KING on their front door. Standing in this broken habitat, Cloud fell in love with New Orleans for the first time and was no longer as interested as he’d been before in flying away to snowy, liberal Colorado. He hated himself anew for hating his hometown, and he wondered idly what kind of a person he was.
Die die die die, his mind spit at him. Just die.
His mother came into the room and looked again at the floors and sighed. “Home sweet home, right?”
“Yeah,” Cloud said, full of love and poison. “Home sweet home.”
After dinner, they settle into the rhythms of a customary night. April rains down on the roof, providing a low soundtrack of wet pitter-patter alongside the medium-loud sound of Family Feud on the television. Cristobal wants to play some jazz, but Cloud is laughing at the inanity of the game show a little too much and he’s just happy the other man is happy. It’s cute, watching him smoke a joint and giggle at each silly answer, him nesting on the sofa with blankets and pillows and at least two of the cats. Cristobal shelves the music idea and watches Cloud until a commercial break, and then, when Cloud is taking a long drag off of his joint, says, “We should go on Family Feud.”
Cloud, holding in his hit, gives Cristobal a look of absolute incredulity. With a tight voice, he says, “What, us and the pets?”
Cristobal smiles. “We could do it with Whitney and the Silverfields.”
“A gay couple; their friend the bartender; and the infertile, borderline abusive married couple they know from the bar.” Cloud exhales a dragon of smoke and nods his head. “Oh yeah. That’s gonna go over well.”
“Has there ever been a gay couple on Family Feud, ever?” Cristobal wonders aloud. “I don’t think they’re very liberal on this show.”
“I believe you’re right.” Cloud pets Neruda the cat, fingers working through his thick black fur. The weed is good tonight; after only two hits, he is almost immediately high.
After Family Feud, they flip over to channel 12 and watch Antiques Roadshow on PBS for the next hour. Cristobal goes and gets whatever alcoholic beverage they have in the house (usually it’s some cerveza or another nice tangy beer from the bar, but sometimes they have wine, and sometimes they even have tequila) and makes a drinking game out of the show, taking a sip every time an item is worth less because it has been refinished or repaired, anyone says “veneer” or uses the word “provenance,” the collector found it in the attic or basement of their house when they moved in, and so on and so forth. By the time the hour is up, he’s usually a little sloshed and shooing the cats out of the way as he comes over to kiss Cloud with an open mouth.
“Mmm, you’re in the way,” Cloud says into his kiss as Cristobal crowds him against the back of the sofa, trailing his mouth across his jaw and down his neck.
“The roadshow is over,” Cristobal murmurs into his skin. Heedless of the remote in his hand, Cloud’s arms come up around his neck and hold him close, and it’s perfect. The rain still falls down soft on the roof.
They take a shower together. Because it’s always the most difficult part of any solitary bathing experience, they wash each other’s backs and Cloud helps Cristobal rinse his hair beneath the spray from the shower head that’s about six inches lower than his full height. As they towel off and Cloud openly admires Cristobal’s high, perky ass (“like two scoops of butter pecan ice cream,” as Whitney has said), Cristobal leans in to nuzzle the side of his head and asks, “What would I do without you?”
“Your hair would get so greasy and dirty and you would be so sad.” Cloud inspects the pimple at the corner of his lip in the dirty-ish mirror and frowns. “You wouldn’t be afforded the unique pleasure of kissing a thirtysomething who still pimples like a teenager.”
Cristobal pinches Cloud’s ass and passes out of the bathroom into the master bedroom, where he pulls on a pair of sweats and turns on the television.
In bed, after letting the dogs out for their final bathroom break and corralling all the animals back into the bedroom, Cristobal reads the Times-Picayune and a small indie publication called Endymion while Cloud peels a large mandarin orange and dives into his book of the night (in April 2021, it’s one of his old Lois-Ann Yamanaka favorites). Every now and then, Cristobal asks him a question about his day – “What did you have for lunch?”
“Fuck, what did I have for lunch? A tuna salad sandwich on sourdough and a glass of V8. I came home and made it and it was so good.”
“Did you see Gordon or Shera today?”
“Gordon dropped in around the time I was getting off. He looked pissed, but you know he always looks pissed. Maybe Whitney will know what he was mad about today.”
“Did you remember to run to the bank?”
“Yeah, of course. Your thirty-seven dollars and twenty cents have been deposited – don’t you worry.”
“Have I told you I love you today?”
“I’m pretty sure, yeah.”
And so on, and so forth. Season four of Frasier plays in the background and Mongkut and Neruda are nestled between their legs while Moon and Goose slumber together on the floor amongst their chew toys and Cristobal’s mangled slippers. After Cloud finishes his orange, licks the sticky residue from his fingers, and deposits the peel in the trash can directly next to the bed, he reaches over and snatches Cristobal’s reading glasses off of his face to use himself. Cristobal snorts.
“Young man, you need to get glasses,” he says.
“No I don’t,” Cloud retorts, cracking open his book where he’s marked his place with an old CVS receipt and intending to never spend money on a pair of his own glasses precisely because it’s just so much work. “I have yours.”
Knowing this and Cloud’s rather straightforward logic implicitly, Cristobal lets Cloud have the glasses for now. He puts down the Times and Endymion and grabs his phone off the nightstand to scroll mindlessly through his personal and professional emails, emails from his coworkers and students and his sisters about faculty lunches and midterm grades and wedding photographs that have finally been published on a personal website, and he smiles and writes back and patiently waits for Cloud to finish reading for the night. The moment Cloud puts his book down, Cristobal is wrestling him into the bed, pinning his wrists above his head and stealing his glasses back. The cats, disturbed from their slumber, scatter off the bed to find alternate places to sleep.
“Fuck you!” Cloud laughs, writhing in Cristobal’s grip.
“No, you,” Cristobal retorts, capturing Cloud in a kiss that melts him into the mattress, his legs coming open beneath Cristobal, a slow exhale escaping him. This part is the easiest part, where Cloud surrenders and lets down every ivory wall that surrounds him during the day (the sarcastic quips, the vaguely contrarian attitude, the silence) and just opens up and lets Cristobal have him.
Thunder rumbles in the distance. The rain is falling harder; it’s a genuine New Orleans thunderstorm. The light from the lamp beside the bed is soft and yellowy, and it’s pleasant on Cloud’s skin and his flaxen hair, his dark dark eyes and his Cupid’s-bow mouth. Not for lack of attraction, but Cloud doesn’t often initiate these encounters, him always having such a strange relationship with his sexuality and the way it manifests in his life. Cristobal, who is sort of like a wild animal in how unabashedly comfortable with every aspect of his life he is, his sexuality included, is much more adept at starting this late night touching, this petting Cloud through his underwear, this kissing down his body, this taking him into his mouth.
“Fuck,” Cloud utters, instinctively going to hide his face in his hands or in the pillow before stopping himself, knowing Cristobal hates that. Instead, he pushes his fingers into Cristobal’s hair and holds on for dear life, gasping and moaning at the other’s expert mouth. Cristobal has always been good at sex, to be certain – Cloud can always call up the first time, in the apartment at 1932 Broadway Avenue, when they took all night and played music and Cristobal kissed him all over and gave him his first everything: his first handjob, his first blowjob, the very first fingers and dick in his ass, and it was almost too much, too good – but after thirteen years of fucking nobody but each other, he’s gotten Cloud’s pleasure down to a science. The same swirl of his tongue along the underside of Cloud’s dick, particularly along the sensitive ridge just below the head. The consistent suction and pressure, and how to keep breathing through his nose so he doesn’t need to take breaks. How, when Cloud is getting really whiny and has got two great fistfuls of his hair, to break off from his dick to slip lower, past his scrotum and his perineum to press the tip of his tongue against Cloud’s tight entrance. He knows what Cloud needs, and every time Cloud needs it, he gets it.
He knows Cloud doesn’t like to be teased. He’s gotten Cloud to cry teasing him before (and what was just as hilarious as it was tragic). Humping the mattress like a teenager, he gets his fingers and his tongue into Cloud’s entrance in record time and massages him into a screaming, expletive-laden orgasm that is almost so hot to witness that Cristobal nearly comes just watching and listening to it. He is not a teenager anymore, though, but he doesn’t mind.
Cloud, looking down at himself and the mess Cristobal has made of him, blushes. “Ugh, and we took a shower…”
Cristobal laughs and licks the come off of Cloud’s stomach and chest. Cloud sighs, blissed out, and lets Cristobal crawl over him and turn the light off, and without warning they are cuddling in Cloud’s afterglow with the TV and the rain as their soundtrack.
They talk a little more into the night. Cristobal tells Cloud about his sister’s wedding photos (“We looked really good in them. Really gay, but, you know – we looked fucking awesome.”) and about the ridiculous correspondence between several professor friends in his emails (“They were openly propositioning each other for sex. I don’t know if I should forward the email to someone in Human Resources.”), and Cloud laughs and asks for clarification when appropriate, after which he laughs some more. Eventually, Cloud begins to doze and gives himself away by snoring a little – an oinky, piggy little snore that Cristobal has always found endearing. Cristobal eases him onto his side (better way to stave off the sleep paralysis demons, which come with increased frequency when Cloud sleeps supine), drops kisses along the side of his face, and murmurs, “Buenas noches, mi luna.” After awhile of getting lost in the rhythm of Frasier’s laugh track and Cloud’s singsongy snore, Cristobal is asleep too, snoring like a freight train.
At least the dogs don’t mind.
Sunset Ono calls once a week. It used to be once a day, when she was less comfortable with her living arrangement (that is, that she was living alone without her only child), but after Cloud passed into his late twenties and the healthy distance between mother and son increased, the phone calls decreased in frequency to a much more tolerable once a week. Cloud prefers it this way. He loves his mother, but adulthood has made him realize that he’s better off with just a little less of her in his life. It’s funny how living with another non-parent adult puts such things in such clear perspective.
In the middle of April, Sunset calls Cloud on his free day: Sunday, when he and Cristobal mostly spend the day smoking weed and zoning out in front of the television. Cloud is halfway through an episode of Botched on E! when his cellphone begins to vibrate and sing brassy trumpet sounds at him: the opening chords of a classic Cheryl Lynn song that notify him immediately of his caller before he’s even glanced at the caller ID. Steeling himself for what could be a patently ridiculous conversation, he turns the volume of the television down and answers his phone with his customary clear, “Hello?”
“Hello, my thundercloud.” This is always the greeting, has been ever since Cloud disappeared into Loyola and began trying very consciously to separate from his mother. “How are you today?”
Cloud takes stock of himself. He is fairly awake, having been up for the past four hours or so after a protracted night’s sleep. Nothing of note has happened today, and a nice heavy-bodied buzz is settling over him from the bowl of Chemdawg he’s been smoking for the past fifteen minutes. He shrugs, knowing his mother can’t see him. “I’ve been alright. Just trying to get high.”
Sunset laughs her honeysuckle laugh. The first time Cloud ever got high, he got high with his mother. “I taught you well, didn’t I?” she remarks playfully. “Staving off the depression, are you?”
“Yeah, pretty much.” Cloud eyes his pipe and thinks about repacking it. He puts his phone on speaker and sets to doing exactly that. “How are you, Mom?”
“Oh, exhausted.” Sunset breathes out a heavy sigh into the mouthpiece of her cellphone, and as Cloud grinds up a small nugget of weed to pack into his bowl, he listens to his mother’s spiel. “You know this new nursing home I’ve been working at has been throwing me for a loop. Making my head spin, so to speak. This really might be one of the most poorly managed homes I’ve ever worked at, and I used to work at Maison de Chevre on Magazine. Do you know that I was the only nurse working on Friday from five to eleven? I had to supervise breakfast for thirty-two patients by myself, and give sponge baths to all of them afterwards, and do checks every hour, all the while making phone calls trying to figure out where the hell Colette the other daytime nurse was – turns out she got in a car accident and was in the emergency room with no cell signal!” Sunset snorts. “I’m like, sorry for the accident, girl, but I’m drowning here!”
Cloud makes a soft sound of acknowledgment as he fills his pipe with ground-up herb. As always, he’s not quite sure what to say (even to his mother), so he makes do with a casual, “That’s really shitty, Mom.”
“It is!” Sunset cries. “Then there’s this one patient. Mr. Guidry. I call him the Supreme Asshole. He’s always giving the nurses a really hard time, you know. Cursing them out and throwing his urine on them. I feel like his family put him in a home because they couldn’t deal with him anymore.”
“That’s really fucked up,” Cloud intones. “I wouldn’t wish that or him on anybody.”
“I know!” Sunset scoffs. “He’s an old white man who hasn’t quite let go of the delusion that he’s in charge of everyone, and now that we’re in charge of him, he can’t stand it.”
Cloud repeats the noise of acknowledgement as he inhales hot cannabis smoke. Warmth fills his head and he feels that much more okay talking to his mom, who is like Cristobal in that she’s so much to deal with (but, unlike Cristobal, the dealing is not quite easy).
“He’s especially ugly to me,” Sunset continues. “Every time I come in the room, he starts hollering. ‘Get out of here, Jap! Don’t come speaking your moon language around me, you ching-chong bitch!’ It’s like he knows my parents were interned and he’s figured out just how to get me to cry.”
“Do you actually cry?” Cloud asks.
“In my car on the way home,” Sunset admits, which promptly breaks Cloud’s heart. He’s seen his mother cry only about two or three times in his life, and the thought of a racist old prick bringing her to such hard-earned tears with his bigotry cuts him in just the right way. “I just think to myself about what a bad world this is, full of horrible, hateful people.”
Cloud doesn’t know how to speak Japanese. It is one of his greatest sources of shame. He often recalls, before both of his grandparents passed away due to separate illnesses by the time he turned twelve years old, listening to his mother intermittently talk to her parents in the tongue of their homeland and being mystified by its strange vowels and its bizarre phonetics, so different from his American English. On his mother’s upper arm, kanji representing vague concepts like peace and family were tattooed – stark black lines that looked pretty more than they communicated anything. On tapestries and scrolls in their old Bywater and Marigny abodes, the Japanese language was printed in incomprehensible haiku, prayer, and single-word formations. What moon language, he often thought to himself as a stupid, unimaginative child. Hearing his own words echoed back to him through the mouth of a bigot makes him hate himself and his embarrassing disconnection with his own roots more than he ever has.
Swallowing back his self-contempt, he says, “I’m sorry, Mom. You know I love you.”
Maybe loving his Japanese mom matters more than being able to understand her, he reasons.
With a soft sigh, Sunset utters, “I love you too, my thundercloud. Where’s Cristobal? I haven’t heard his insane voice in the background of this call and we’ve been on the phone a full five minutes!”
“Oh, he’s walking the dogs,” Cloud explains. Fifteen minutes later, Cristobal comes back into the house and takes his offensively pink sunglasses off of his face to look at Cloud unadulterated and unrosy. He grins.
“Mi luna. I missed you,” comes his sweet voice as he ambles over to give Cloud a quick kiss on the mouth.
Still slightly disturbed by his phone call and trying not to show it, Cloud kisses Cristobal back. “Ditto.” He pushes the black lines and the bizarre vowels out of his mind.
Cristobal doesn’t need an alarm clock. He has two dogs who operate like clockwork and need to be let outside at precisely 7:00 each morning. At 7:00, give or take a few minutes, Moon and Goose begin to make whiny noises that increase in intensity until finally, they are in bed with Cristobal and Cloud and licking their owners’ faces until at least one of them (usually Cristobal, as Cloud would rather suffocate in the bed or gouge out his own eyeballs or suffer some similarly gruesome fate than get up and take his own dogs out) is crying out, “Okay, I get it!” and climbing out of bed to put a shirt and some shoes, leading the dogs to the back door in the kitchen, and letting them out into the backyard to sniff around and squat (in Moon’s case) or raise a leg against the tree in the far right corner of the yard (in Goose’s). Cristobal smokes a Marlboro in the doorway, ashing it in the ashtray set down on the first step on the stoop and enjoying the morning air, and after it appears that the dogs have relieved themselves and are now simply sniffing each other’s butts and running around the yard, he calls them back into the house and returns to the bedroom, where Cloud still slumbers beneath a quilt from Costa Rica.
“Sleepyhead,” Cristobal croons, slipping beneath the covers to tuck himself against Cloud’s back. Each morning is punctuated by kisses along the back of Cloud’s neck, down to the place between his shoulder blades; Cristobal nuzzles into this sweet crevice their and hums something silly while his hands wander down Cloud’s sides and to the small paunch of his stomach, which only appeared within the past two or three years. Cloud, for his part, just dozes and lets his dick get hard up until the point Cristobal starts nibbling on his earlobe, after which the situation becomes considerably more dire.
“Do we have time?” Cloud asks, cleverly grinding back against Cristobal’s groin and finding him pretty aroused as well.
“There is always time for this,” comes Cristobal’s answer. Cloud turns in Cristobal’s embrace and they are both holding each other, clinging to each other as if their lives depend upon it.
They move together. Neither of them requires supremacy of this situation; they only need to feel each other’s hardness pressed against each other and rock to a rhythm that is inaudible but that each of them hears clearly after years of moving to the same insistent beat, the same groovy bassline. There is the open-mouthed morning breath kissing, and the way Cloud flicks his thumb across the head of Cristobal’s dick to show ownership, and each needy little noise that comes out of either of them, until Cloud’s phone is buzzing on the nightstand, signaling the arrival of 7:30 AM and the morning proper. They look at each other, frustrated and in love, and Cristobal says, “I have to make coffee.”
Cloud laughs and reaches for his phone. “Where would our society be without hazelnut creme?”
Cristobal gives Cloud’s dick one last affectionate stroke and says, “Actually, it’s Italian dark roast this time.” He gets out of bed and starts to pull all his sleep clothes off, replacing them with some busy button-down and a pair of jeans that make his ass look good – the standard uniform for work at a Catholic university in New Orleans. All the while, Cloud peruses his phone notifications and admires Cristobal from the bed.
Cristobal goes to the kitchen. The animals generally follow him, as they know food is coming. In between taking calls from Angel and Akira from work and doling out the wet cat food and the dry dog food, Cristobal brews a really big pot of coffee and cooks eggs on the stove – this April, Cloud likes his eggs scrambled soft and seasoned with salt, black pepper, and dill. By the time breakfast is finished and Cristobal has had his huge mug of java, Cloud is just ambling out of the bedroom to sit at the kitchen table and dig in to his big plate of eggs. Cristobal dips to kiss Cloud’s temple, the bridge of his nose, and his mouth (twice) and says, “Buenos días, mi luna. I’m going to work.”
Cloud mmms. “Don’t kill anyone today.”
“Si lo hiciera, se lo merecerían,” Cristobal says back, jangling all the way down the hallway and out the front door. Moon and Goose look at Cloud expectantly, already ready for their morning walk, and Cloud absently wonders why they thought it was a good idea to spend all their money on a Samoyed and a Sibe, of all breeds – two dogs so patently active and so fucking smart that they drove Cloud in crazy little circles all day.
This is it – his fatal flaw.
He’s never been prepared to do the work, not really. Not for the dogs, not in life in general, not in anything but Cristobal, perhaps, who just demands that work be done.
He munches on his breakfast and ignores the dogs for the moment, content to float away on a light, eggy cloud.
Sometimes, Cloud has a bad night. It’s just one of those things that is bound to happen at least once a week to a bartender in a city like New Orleans. It’s noisy and hot in the Seventh Heaven Bar and Grill and people are being kind of rude to Whitney because they’re college students who don’t know who she is (i.e., co-owner of this joint), so Cloud is feeling decidedly less than good on this Saturday night. At least all the regulars are here, the regulars being Jimmy Wallace, Gordon and Shera Silverfield, Mordecai Mosconi, tand the old men of Uptown who like to frequent the bar on the weekends, consuming Bloody Marys and Moscow mules and Long Island ice teas with a fervor.
Today, Mordecai is getting plastered. He, Jimmy, and Gordon are manning one of the pool tables and over the course of the past hour, he’s drank his way through three quarters of a Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon. Currently, he’s very badly losing the game of pool, and Cloud is sympathetic as he comes floating darkly over to the bar and asks for another glass of red. Whitney elbows Cloud as he pours the glass.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t cut him off?” she asks into the side of his face, where only he can hear her. “Can he even afford to pay for a whole bottle of Cab Sav?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Cloud says to Whitney, then brings Mordecai his nth glass. He watches him take a thirsty sip and feels profoundly the same sort of desolation, the same Saturday brand of distress.
Shera and Gordon are fighting. They’re always fighting. They’ve only been in the bar for the past thirty minutes and already Gordon is on his third beer, which is what Cloud supposes the fight is about this time, and he guesses he should feel complicit in this being the peddler and the vendor of said beers, but how could he be faulted for selling his good friend a beer on Saturday? It’s thoughts like these and the incessant sound of Shera and Gordon bickering at the pool table that make the night bad.
Eventually, Jimmy wins the game of pool and puts his cue down in favor of coming over to the bar to talk with Whitney and Cloud. He, a hulking black man with the sweetest brown eyes Cloud has ever seen, orders a glass of Budweiser and makes a face in the direction of the rapidly escalating disagreement between the Silverfields. As Whitney pours him his glass, he looks at Cloud and says, “This is what being in Hell is like.”
Cloud nods and grabs his novel from behind the bar. He supposes he can get some reading in while everyone is drinking.
“Do you think they’re going to get a divorce?” Whitney asks in an undertone as she slides Jimmy his drink. Jimmy immediately shakes his head.
“Nah, son, they’re in love. Her especially. They ain’t never going to let go while they’re still in love.”
Whitney nods and Jimmy sips his beer. The darts tournament going on progresses into its next set of games and a few fresh, collegiate faces pop into the bar, seeking jello shots and rum and cokes. Whitney seems to sense the darkness of Cloud’s mood because instead of asking him to put away his book and take care of the students, she swoops in on them without a word. By the time Cloud looks up, she’s already mixed their rum and cokes and taken the Christmas-colored jello shots out of the freezer. This, unsurprisingly, just makes Cloud feel worse – stricken with guilt at his own sheer laziness, all his friends always picking up the slack. He turns to Jimmy.
“How’s Rose?” he asks just to have anything else to think about.
Jimmy looks up from his phone. “She’s, y’know. A little girl. She’s gettin’ ready to graduate from kindergarten in a few weeks and she’s all excited n’ shit – which is great to come home to when your career is breaking your back and you work with a crew of idiots from sun-up to sundown.” Shaking himself a little, Jimmy sips from his beer. “She’s sad you and Whitney couldn’t babysit tonight.”
Cloud frowns sheepishly behind his face mask. “Duty calls. I’m sure Cristobal would have watched her if he’d known you needed a sitter tonight.”
“I always forget about him,” Jimmy admits without shame. “He’s just the perfect kind’a crazy that just slips my ol’ marble brain.”
He laughs a little bit, glances at the door, and finds that Cristobal of all people is passing through it – unannounced and unexpected. Abruptly, Cloud is nervous like a schoolgirl; he always gets this way when Cristobal visits him at work for some reason.
“Oh my God,” Jimmy says when he sees Cristobal approaching with food in his hands. Throwing his own hand in the air: “Speak of the devil and he shall appear!”
Cristobal’s responding smile is breathtaking and big. He sidles up to the bar and places the paper bag of food and its accompanying beverage atop the mahogany, then says, winking at Cloud, “I hope you were only saying good things about me.”
“Oh no. We were being really mean,” Cloud says in a deadpan, thankful that his mask obscures the smile uncontrollably playing on his mouth.
Jimmy grins and gestures to Cloud. “My man says you’re a good babysitter.”
“Oh yes!” Cristobal is alive with his yes. “I love sitting on babies. The unique English portmanteau. Where did the word babysitting come from, I wonder? You know in Spanish it’s called niñero, which I think is much simpler, wouldn’t you guys agree?”
“What’s in the bag?” Cloud asks instead of answering, peering inside and finding a steaming, foil-wrapped burger and crisp French fries. His stomach aches and his mouth waters.
“Company Burger,” Cristobal replies with a big smirk, watching Cloud like he knows precisely how long he’s hungered for a good cheeseburger (and likely he has; he’s probably been listening to all of Cloud’s elaborate bitching over text message or while watching TV in the morning before work). Gesturing to the beverage, he says, “I sort of sipped at your milkshake. It’s strawberry, like you like it.”
Cloud is quietly mystified. “This is for me?”
“Well, duh, it’s for you. I didn’t bring this in here to eat myself.” Cristobal is grinning.
Cloud and Whitney don’t eat behind the bar while on the clock. When food comes out of the back and their friends eat at the bar, they might pick off of their plates as they are entitled to as friends and co-owners of the bar, but it looks unprofessional and sloppy for them to eat while they’re working. As soon as Cloud looks for Whitney to ask her if he can take a five minute break, she is at his side giving him a thumbs up and stealing a French fry from his bag, saying in her soft and sugary voice, “Hey, Cristobal. Long time no see.”
“And what a sad time it has been,” Cristobal retorts. While Cloud takes his food and goes to sit out on the front patio and eat, Cristobal stays inside and talks to Whitney about what she’s been blabbing on about to all of their friends and regulars all night long (i.e., the tattoo of Jimi Hendrix’s head she wants to get on her left tit and her mother’s recent stint in the psychiatric hospital).
It’s raining outside. April truly is the rainiest month. Cloud chows down on the succulent Company Burger burger – the two thin patties, dill pickle slices, red onions, and American cheese – and takes long, greedy sips from his milkshake, savoring the overwhelming heaviness of the meal; the basicness of meat, bread, and cheese with a side of milk. The stresses of the night seem to slip away beneath the awning of the front patio on a rainy night in late April, with good food in Cloud’s mouth and gut and the rest of the world so far away. Cloud is contemplating how much of his life revolves around these rituals and these exorcisms – stress-relief via food ingestion – when Cristobal comes out of the bar with a couple of jello shots in his hands. They look at each other for a while, unspeaking, then Cristobal smiles.
“Are you enjoying your meal, Mr. Ono?” he asks.
“It’s pretty fire,” Cloud drolly replies. He takes another healthy bite of cheeseburger. “I wish I could just come home with you,” he says with an impolite amount of food in his mouth.
Cristobal approaches him where he sits at one of the wrought iron tables on the patio. Extracting a Marlboro from the pack in his front pocket, he takes a seat next to Cloud and lights up with his trusty Zippo. “You should,” he says after his first puff. “Fuck it. Just leave with me. Whitney will understand.”
“That would be a shitty thing to do, and I’m generally trying not to be a bad person.” Cloud watches Cristobal blow smoke out of the side of his mouth and peer into the rain, and it would be so easy to get lost just in him. Lord knows he’s done it many times before. Instead, he rears back into himself and asks, “Do you think I’m a bad person, Cristobal?”
Cristobal’s expression becomes bemused. “What’s all this about? Of course you’re not.”
Cloud stares into the rain. Without thinking about it, he unleashes every thought that wars with what Cristobal has just said. “I’m lazy. Like, really lazy. Anything to avoid having to do hard work and I’m on it – you know this. Plus I lie to people. I just make up shit and tell it to people hoping they’ll think I’m cool or else leave me alone. And I don’t like people. And I don’t like myself, either. And I’m passive-aggressive and not very easy to understand, which I know you wouldn’t say is a flaw because you’re an expert in me, but I actually think being difficult to understand is one of the most horrible things a person can do because it complicates everyone else’s lives so much for no reason.” Pausing, he takes a long slurp from his milkshake and watches Cristobal’s expression change from bemused to a little sad to simply receptive. “Are you keeping up with this?”
“Yeah, I am,” Cristobal says. He ashes his cigarette in the glass tray on their little outdoor table and asks, “Where did all this come from?”
“It’s always been here,” Cloud replies simply. Staring into the night, he laughs. “You wanna talk about a festering wound? This thing is infected.”
Cristobal watches him silently for a long moment, nothing but the rain singing to them in the darkness of the evening. Eventually, Cristobal spreads his arms out wide and adopts a gentle, loving smile the likes of which Cloud has never seen before. “Cloud, you’re a human being,” he says. “I know it’s easy to self-examine and get lost in all the ways you feel you’re bad, but the truth is that everyone’s bad – even God is bad. You wanna talk about all the ways in which I’m bad? Because I keep that list extremely close to my heart and I’m ready to share it at all times.”
Cloud thinks he might cry. He finishes his burger and, licking his fingers clean of tasty grease, says, “No, thank you.”
Cristobal chuckles and takes a drag from his Marlboro, the cherry shining red in the dark. “Aprobado, mi luna.”
Cloud goes back inside. He and Cristobal linger in the amber doorway of the Seventh Heaven Bar and Grill, facing each other as Cloud prepares to march back into the trenches and Cristobal prepares to retreat to the comforts of home, to cerveza and the cats and a film on HBOMax. “I love you,” Cristobal says into his forehead as he kisses him goodbye.
“I love you, too,” Cloud replies.
“Do you want to take a walk to Bayou St. John when you get home? The dogs would love it.”
“Maybe, if I’m not feeling too acutely like dying.” At this point, the suicidality is only slightly ironic and has long stopped being cool.
They watch each other for a long moment. Cristobal smiles, then pulls away to let Cloud be brave. “I’ll talk to you later,” he says, giving Cloud one last wave before slipping into the rain, across the street where he’s parked the Mazda. Cloud stays in the doorway until the car lights shine through the rain like hollow beacons, and then he’s back inside with a strangely good feeling spinning around in his center.
One night, Cristobal comes to Cloud and watches him. Sits on the toilet with the seat down and just observes Cloud’s pre-bed routine, his brushing of his teeth and his scrubbing of his face with a wet washcloth. Cloud lets Cristobal get away with the wordless watching for a little while because this, after all, was what their relationship started with – with loving, silent observation and the quietly building affection that came trailing after it like a faithful dog – but when discomfort begins to creep over him like a fog, he turns to his love with a mouthful of toothpaste and asks, “What is it?”
Cristobal smiles and asks, as if he’d simply been waiting for the right prompt, “Do you know why I always call you mi luna?”
“Because it’s sweet?” Cloud guesses.
“Well, yes,” Cristobal replies with a laugh. “But there’s another reason. An infinitely more gay reason.”
“Something gayer than you calling me a pet name in your native language just because it’s sweet?”
“Believe it or not, yeah.” Cristobal grins. “Would you like to hear it?”
Spitting pinkish, cinnamon mint foam into the sink bowl, Cloud nods without a word.
“There’s this… little poem I like. Always made me think of you.” Cristobal’s smile softens. “It goes: Admit something. Everyone you see, you say to them, “love me.” Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops. Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect. Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye that is always saying, with that sweet moon language, what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?” Finishing with a flourish, Cristobal closes his eyes in an expression of pure bliss. “Did you hear that? ‘That sweet moon language.’ It always made me think about you, even when we’d just met. You with your full moon eyes.”
Cloud wrestles with the sort of nasty feeling in his gut. Rinsing his mouth out with cool, clear water, he turns to Cristobal and says, “You know, I’ve gotten hit with that moon language thing before by people who think I’m unintelligible just because I’m Japanese. I’ve hit myself with the moon language thing, before I knew it wasn’t okay. What kind of poem is that?”
Cristobal’s brow furrows in patent confusion. “It’s not about an actual language, Cloud,” he explains gently. “It’s a metaphor for like, love or whatever.”
Of course it is. Pregnant with emotion and so fucked up and saddled with baggage it’s unbearable, Cloud comes to stand between Cristobal’s legs and put his arms around his neck. “You’re so lucky,” he says in a soft, somewhat tortured voice. “You speak the moon language.”
“You do too, corazón.” Cristobal’s hands come up to bracket Cloud’s hips, and he speaks with his chin pressing into his stomach. “You just never knew you were doing it.”
Cloud doesn’t know what he would do without this man. Pressing his fingers into Cristobal’s hair, he exhales his shame and inhales pure love.
Cristobal’s favorite piece of furniture in the house is the armchair. A recliner in the La-Z-Boy style, embroidered with assorted wildlife and flora in odd, vivid colors on a striped background, it is positively the most interesting, hideous, misunderstood object in the known universe of their Mid-City abode. Cristobal fancies it more a concept and a conversation than a chair. The cats have learned not to scratch it, and Goose has never once raised his leg against it – not even in his difficult and anxious puppyhood. Cloud has named the chair the kaiju or, alternately, the beast, and he has regarded it with utter disdain ever since it first entered within their household.
It came their way in California. Cristobal was working on his doctorate in comparative literature at UCLA Berkeley and Cloud had finished up his bachelor’s at Loyola and moved across the country to be with him. This was the first time they lived together in any official capacity, though Cloud had spent tons of time at Cristobal’s Broadway apartment during Cristobal’s last year at Loyola – he’d even had his own drawer in Cristobal’s dresser, his own toothbrush in the cup on the bathroom counter, his own side of the bed that hugged the window. In Berkeley, Cloud had a job waiting tables at a small French bistro near the university and was often surprised to find some new object Cristobal had acquired on his travels through the day when he got off and came home at around 5:30 in the afternoon. The Friday before Christmas 2012, Cloud came home and saw the horrendous chair parked in the middle of their living room and felt an eldritch disturbance within himself.
“What the hell is this” He dropped his messenger bag on the floor and toed his shoes off. Cristobal came into the room from the kitchen, wearing an apron. The whole house smelled like beef stew, and Cristobal’s intense eyes were very wide and very beautiful.
“Cloud! Hi! Look at the beautiful chair someone was selling on Dwight Way! Look at it! ¡Perfección!”
Cloud inspected the chair, which he was already forming all kinds of nasty, kind of funny roasts about in his head. And from which dimension did this one come, his mind said in its snidest tone. He smartly chose to keep that one to himself and instead just gave the chair a wide berth as if he was a blind cat and this piece of furniture was some new unusual thing in his previously mundane, familiar world (which, in fact, it was). “I hope you didn’t pay too much for it,” was all he said, and for the rest of their relationship up until this day, the worst he has done has been to give the chair an ugly look every now and then.
He knew they were forever the moment he allowed the chair in their house. This knowledge was reinforced when they moved back to New Orleans and of all the possessions he allowed or demanded to be let go of like so much garbage, the chair remained safe, untouchable. Everything in him has always hated the chair – which is not even ugly in a cute way, which is not even particularly artistic or aesthetically valuable – but he has pushed aside his disgust for the monster simply because it makes Cristobal smile every time he sees it. Because Cristobal declared its perfection the moment he introduced Cloud to it. Cloud supposes this makes him magnanimous, which is something he never thought he’d be when he was just an angry teenager stretching his earlobes and practicing his middle finger salute on similarly belligerent drivers.
Cristobal can make miracles happen, Cloud learned a long time ago.
The dogs get their walk to Bayou St. John on the last day of April. It’s a Monday, therefore by the time both of the two-leggeds are home, they are just about at their wits end. Moon and Goose look at each other anxiously as Cristobal and Cloud congregate in the living room, talking loudly about work and dinner and passing the cats between each other.
They’re lucky they don’t have urges, Goose, full name Betelgeuse, seems to say to Moon with his hangdog look.
Our urges are perfectly healthy, Moon reassures in her gently bow-wowing way, putting her paw on her roommate/adopted brother’s paw and cocking her head from side to side.
Cristobal and Cloud look at the dogs. They’re acting shifty, the way the dogs act when they really want something but they’ve been trained out of acting a fool about it. Cristobal moves towards the door and watches the dogs’ hyperintelligent eyes follow him; grasping their leashes in his hand, he smiles as their tails immediately begin to wag and Goose starts to make a soft whining noise of anticipation. He says something to Cloud; Cloud rolls his eyes and takes one of the leashes out of his hand, and immediately the dogs are on their feet, ready for their journey to the mysterious bayou.
Bayou St. John is all the way down South Carrollton and two turns away. The sun has set and the processional of cars down the street in the after-work hours is almost celebratory this late in the day, everyone headed off home or to their favorite restaurant or bar on this early Monday evening. Cristobal and Cloud’s neighbors sit out on their front porches smoking marijuana and playing on their smartphones, and as they pass down the sidewalk with their dogs, the children and teenagers playing in their front yards and cursing in Cajun French come to pet the animals and say hi to their favorite gay New Orleans neighbors. Cristobal keeps his hand in Cloud’s back pocket while Cloud contents himself with hanging on to Cristobal’s belt loop. They chatter some more about work.
Can’t wait to get to the bridge, Goose projects to Moon as he walks in step with her down the sidewalk, him undisturbed by the steady passage of cars alongside their quartet. Can’t wait to get to the bridge. Can’t wait to get to the bridge.
I hear you, Moon snorts. The dank scent of weed mingles with the aromas of a mid-spring barbecue in the air, and somewhere down this street, someone is blasting music at maximum volume. It sounds like piano. It sounds like soul music.
Turning right onto Esplanade Avenue and then right again onto Moss Street, they all reach Bayou St. John. In the fluorescently-lit night, the shiny black waters of the bayou stretch out beside them; the dogs rejoice as they frolic in the grass alongside the water, as they chew on clovers and make their way to the Magnolia Bridge, where more often than not at this hour the gutterpunks, tarot card readers, poets, and other dogwalkers have gathered for their late night beer-drinking and story-swapping.
Make merry! A good group of six or seven is convened in the center of the bridge. Cristobal, Cloud, and the dogs make their way over, and while the two-leggeds converse with those of their own species, Moon and Goose familiarize themselves with the Cocker Spaniel and the Shi Tzu that are themselves leashed and having a ball on the bridge at 8:32 PM.
Can I sniff your butt? Goose asks the pretty Cocker. When she consents, he gives her anal glands a good whiff and determines that she’s a pretty young girl on a wet food diet and she’s in an altogether great mood. Meanwhile, Moon and the Shi Tzu discuss the weather and share stories about their homes.
The water is still and reflects the white crescent moon above. It smells like food, brine, and jasmine here on the bridge, the gutterpunks passing around a po-boy sandwich and the tarot card reader wearing jasmine flowers in her crazy kinky hair. Eventually, Cristobal and Cloud say goodbye and start to pull the dogs in the direction of home, promising to be back at the same time next Monday. As they leave, they kiss in the shadow of the bayou, and watching them the dogs figure what the hell? and just kiss too.