David and Tony, roommates on the freshman-only floor of their college dorm, make out in the common room at three AM. Tony is drunk and curious. David is infatuated and terrified. It goes poorly. Mouths mash. They scratch each other with their stubble, brown and black bristles that leave irritated red marks on their cheeks, neither yielding. Tony fists David’s hair. He smells of Jim Beam, his tongue sticky with alcohol. David smells cloyingly of hypoallergenic detergent. He winces as their teeth clack together, as the cheap carpet rubs against his jeans. Afterward they throw up: David in the men’s room, Tony in the men’s room two floors up because he can’t bear to be near David. They never speak of it again. Tony swallows caps of mouthwash, a mint scalding to erase the other man’s taste. He stops sleeping in their room and begins crashing on his friends’ couches. He explains that he doesn’t like his roommate. They buy it. The first time Tony does this David waits for him to return, to talk things out, but Tony doesn’t come back and David falls asleep at four in the morning. He loses his nerve. David switches dorm buildings to a private room. David is seized by the fear that he’s neither gay nor straight. If he doesn’t like girls and he can’t kiss boys, what’s left? Maybe he’s asexual. Maybe he’ll reproduce by budding like bacteria. It takes years after he graduates and settles into a job in IT to summon the courage to consult a counselor in Manhattan, longer before he realizes he’s gay after all. When he admits this to himself, late at night in his Brooklyn apartment after a bottle of wine, he cries. After graduation Tony moves to Boston and gets a cushy job in the financial district. Bored, he bloats and wears patchouli-scented cologne. He doesn’t date until he takes up extreme mountain biking and replaces fat with muscle. He keeps the patchouli. He has very few dates. David has even fewer. Neither minds this. Tony is too busy with his biking group. David considers singledom a relief, a release from a heavy burden of expectation, until one day he wakes up and the relief has mutated overnight into crushing disappointment. He makes an online dating profile but is too self-deprecating for success. Tony meets a woman with curly hair who likes to bike and doesn’t hate patchouli. She is marvelous; she is more than he hoped. They marry in a small church and have twin girls that look nothing like Tony. A seed of doubt is planted. Four years later they divorce. Late at night in his new studio apartment he thinks, What have I done? And the future is a chasm to swallow him whole. He makes an online dating profile. He abandons patchouli. David starts biking to work. He dates a male secretary. They have little in common and it fizzles out, but David marks it a success. Now he’s ready for something real; now he’s ready for his life to start. Neither attends their college’s fifteen-year reunion. Neither feels comfortable with that time of their lives, when all was confusion and error, youth and optimism. Neither thinks of the other often: only when trading stories of wild college days with strangers at the bar, a tale to top, or after the stray dream of sour mouths and dark rooms. After those dreams they wake and forget where they are, who they are, for a brief moment. By then the other has become faceless, muddled, and all they can recall of each other is scratchy facial hair, screen-printed tees, a rough floor and, as their faces moved closer together, their breath hot and alien, in their bellies thrilling excitement. The first step down dark paths. The tight coiling before the leap. A weightless moment of floating wonder before ordinary fear struck them down and made them human again.
Pebble in a Pool
art by Robinson Accola