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Prose Winter 2021

I Think of You Often and I Wonder if it Is Mutual.

by Justin Portela

One girl. Your hair is yellow like white wine. You are religious, but I don’t yet know this.

A college dorm is a normal place for 20 teenagers to gather in a dark room to watch a horror film. These movies are doltish. They are playthings for the mind. But this is ok.

The movie is about a mirror. It’s horrendous. You grab my shoulder during a jump scare. Jump scares are a cheap movie tactic. Grabbing onto people during them is even cheaper. But your hand gets the blood rushing through my body. I can feel you throughout me, my gut in my legs. The three Vicodin I took an hour ago are making their presence felt.

The movie drones on. You can really hear the static buzz beneath it all. I can’t decipher the language. My brain is in my belt.

You hold my hand. I take it as if I’ve been waiting for it. My hands are cold and shaking, unprepared for visitors. But yours are warm like good news.

Your hands and wrists are muscular. You impress me. I am nervously standing in the doorway of your body, but your hands invite me in.

You are in my arms, but I am not in control.

The movie ends, people disperse. They have things to do.

We find a couch in a common space. Your breath is cold, which I welcome. You tell me about your father. You tell me he is a nice man. You talk as though you mean it.

My father is not a nice man. I don’t tell you this. I tell you about the nice things in my life. I tell you about my grandmother’s cooking. You laugh. I try to be both sincere and tantalizing. I do an unremarkable job, but you do not demand more of me.

You talk more about yourself. About your god. About the things people don’t understand. About the obnoxious boys at your church.

Your brother was in rehab. To this, I can relate. I tell you this, but I pretend I am also talking about a sibling. We are silent. Addiction is an odd zone of emotions. It has no good vocabulary. This is silently acknowledged. We share this moment.

We talk into the night. You begin to look like somebody I know well. I allow myself the guilty pleasure of imagining our future together. Perhaps we will live in the way that I have, and each night we can tend to each other before we rush to sleep. Perhaps we continue in the way that you have, where we find god and live amongst good Americans who think about their pensions.

I wonder if I deserve this. Someone who believes in paradise will surely not believe in me. You tell me goodnight. The substances inside me begin to echo, expecting answers.

I find myself alone in my bed. I have a roommate, so I should not masturbate. But he is sleeping, so I do anyway. I think about your blonde hair in tight knots in my fists. I think about your body rocking against mine in the darkness. I think about your pale skin. I think about you smiling as you come free.

The next day you tell me we should watch another movie together. I am not naïve. I understand social contexts.

I agree. Of course I do. You are beautiful. You have a heroic color in your cheeks. You remind me of a rainstorm.

You arrive at my room. I’ve been preparing for hours, excited like a child boarding a rollercoaster. I cannot imagine anything else but the sight of your Neptune eyes.

You look around my room, inspecting my belongings, picking up mugs and putting them down. You do this silently. I stand in the corner, awaiting your approval. I want you to be proud of the life that I am living here.

You look at the fan in my room. Bad for the environment, you tell me. You motion me to unplug it. I quickly oblige. Of course I oblige. I want you to want me in the way that I want you.

Soon we are in my bed. This bed is too small for two persons. We giggle as we adjust, learning to cooperate our bodies. We are close to each other. We are interlocked like halves of a pretzel. Each motion from one of us begets motion from the other. We are intertwined, truly. I can feel each one of your coughs and twitches. I am studying the patterns of your skin. My thumbs are depressing into your curves and your valleys. We do not speak during this. This requires focus, this thing we are doing.

The movie is playing. I do not know the plot. I do not know the characters. The movie is not what is happening. Something else is unfolding here.

I try to kiss you. I would love to kiss you. I want nothing more than to kiss you, and I hope that you want the same. But you stop me. You place a hand gently on my chest. I understand. I tell you I don’t mean to presume. I am not trying to intrude, I explain.

No no no, you say, It’s not you. I want you, you tell me. You remind me you are religious. There are rules. You cannot kiss me. You would like to kiss me. But you cannot.

I do not understand, but this makes sense to you. I do not understand, but of course, I oblige. You are standing for something, you are capable of denying yourself pleasure, which only makes me more anxious to provide you with it. Perhaps I will wait for you, and you will come to me eventually. Perhaps I will spend the rest of my life imagining you. Either way, I am content.

I ask if you would like to leave. You squeeze my hand. You are happy here. This puts me at ease. I am adrift, longing for your shores, lost and confused, but I can relax because I know that you are happy.

We continue in this way. You come to my bed each night. I feel the waves of your body. You move with me in rhythm. We do not kiss. We never kiss.

We come close, once, while your head is on my shoulder. I have just smoked a cigarette. You hate these, but you understand. You are very understanding of my life as a sinner. Maybe that is because you think that the cigarettes are the extent of it. I don’t dare tell you about everything else I need to feel deserving of you. Maybe one day, once we have traversed the universes that exist between us, we can speak honestly about these things.

Your head is leaned towards mine. My face buoys against yours like a ship onshore. Our lips brush faintly. If you weren’t paying attention you might think they did not touch at all. But I am paying attention. I am tracking the points where our skin intersects. This is the movie I am watching. And this, this faint brush, this is enough for me.

I can feel the conflict inside of you. I do not mean to push you, but I would like you to be pushed.

We talk more about your father, who works in a bank or a firm or something of that sort. You have cliché stories of camping trips and I listen as if I’d never before heard of the concept. One night you ask me about where I come from. I tell you I grew up in the woods of Minnesota and that my parents died in a car accident, neither of which are true.

A week or so passes, under the clouds, I am walking to a class I haven’t been to in months. I get lost on the way to the building, but I still arrive early. You are in the room next door, looking as though you’ve gotten taller. Sitting, taking notes, checking your phone, living as if nothing is wrong. You are following the lecture, aware of what is happening around you. I can barely feel myself, for a moment it’s clear that I am not anywhere. But you are someone of constitution, and I know that I made the correct decision in loving you.

You walk out with a friend I have never met. You don’t introduce. You say hello to me and leave. Your hand grazes mine though I cannot tell if it was purposeful. Instead of going to class I swallow two more Vicodin and speak to nobody for the rest of the day.

I see you that night. No clothes come off, but our shoes do.

We speak like friends when you arrive. You tell me about your day. I am eager to hear about it. You speak of friendships and ambitions and the tedium of your degree requirements. A girl who bullied you in middle school texted you today to apologize.

When we talk, we sit apart from each other; you occupy one chair, I occupy the other. While this happens, we act as though the talking is all we are doing. Some nights you read to me, picking up random books from around the room. You read about math formulas and turn to random pages in a James Joyce novel my grandfather bought me. You tell me you like the way the Irish names roll off the tongue.

One day I rent a book of love poems from the library. The librarian is very helpful in this effort. I tell her I am celebrating my girlfriend’s birthday. Though nothing in that sentence is true, it feels nice to say. That night I read them to you, hoping to suggest something. You tell me they are beautiful. I tell you that you are. You say thank you but nothing more. I realize that you have a strength that I could never dream of.

You reveal yourself to me in important ways, in the way that lovers would.

I am depressed, you tell me one day. I understand this. I tell you I feel the same. This is the truth.

You tell me it came on gradually, that you were depressed long before you had a name for it. You were sleeping too often, your parents noticed, they were supportive. The guilt and the self-loathing followed. You wondered how it was possible for you to be so sad in a world so beautiful.

I tell you that mine came on suddenly, on a Thursday, that I was surprised that it took as long as it did. I don’t tell you that the depression became a good excuse for the descent that I was already planning.

If you could just have one good day, you tell me, then that would turn into two good days, and then you’d be back to normal. That is a word you use often — normal. What is happening to you is not normal, but soon you will recalibrate.

I ask if what we are doing is helping. You tell me that you don’t know yet.

We exist across from one another. There is nothing to be done. We are up against walls, in a way. But we are with each other.

I tell you that I have a hard time relating to other people. That they take for granted the things that haunt me — out of bed, on time, three meals. You touch my hair to calm me and this is when I know I love you. I love you as you tell me about seeing your brother collapse on the floor in front of you. I love you before the pills kick in and I love you even more afterwards.

I ask more about your god. You tell me that you love him, that he feels the same about you. You tell me about the meaning your life has been endowed with. How you know that something wonderful is waiting for you. How you are becoming a better person. I don’t know how to ask about what I want to know. About the rules. About why you can only love one of us.

You ask me if you can borrow a jacket. I motion to the closet. You slide the glass and peer inside. You take a brown one that I know has two Dilaudid in the pocket. I stiffen in resignation, fearing that I’ve reached the end of the road. That you will slip your warm hands in and wonder aloud about what you’ve found.

That I will have to explain it all. That it didn’t start because they made it feel better but because they made the pain make sense. That they made it feel like something important was going when I would sit in my bed for hours without moving. That I could tell myself that I was experimenting with the beauty of melancholy. That they gave me a reason for why it was all so awful. That one day I wondered if taking an Oxycontin through the nose would make it work faster and it did. That that was when the mixing started. That a week later I really did try to kick the stuff but that I gave myself back after 72 hours awake and a seizure in the dining hall.

But you say nothing. We do a crossword puzzle. The Roman counterpart of Eros is Cupid. Neither of us know the lead actress from Sixteen Candles.

I ask if you would like to watch a movie. You know what this means.

Sex moves in stages. There are checkpoints. There are benchmarks. This is not sex, but it acts like it.

At first, we are above the blankets. There is a laptop in front of us. It acts as a moderator in a debate. It prompts us, tells us our next lines.

This is the first stage. We are moviegoers. Our appearance is very important to you. Somebody is watching. That somebody, to you, is god. I do not understand this, but I no longer try to. I am content with your ridges and edges. I wish to know you, but I understand if I cannot.

The second stage is where we touch. This is deliberate. It is slow. It is purposeful. We advance in small bursts. Our hands will graze. This is a moment. We are aware of this moment. We pretend that we are not. That is the fun of it.

But they will graze. And soon they will touch. And soon our fingers will greet each other. And they will become acquainted. And they will reveal themselves to each other, under cover of blankets and darkness. And soon our hands are doing what we cannot. They are solidified as one, as close as two things can be.

We do not dare to let go of what we have formed in subtle nativity. This is a long time coming. Our hands are the product of our thankless labor.

We are under the blankets now. That was the third stage. We may rest.

I am with you. I am in love with you. I inquire further towards your body. Some nights you are hesitant to answer me, and I retreat to your hands, where I know I am safe.

But some nights I am welcomed to the small of your back, and other nights I am welcomed to your stomach. And so often I can interlock my legs with yours like shoelaces.

On special nights I am allowed to put my head into your neck like we are puzzle pieces. I always savor this moment. This means something that everything else did not.

This will be the moment I remember. I will remember my cheek against your collar bone. I will remember the small pimple under the left side of your chin. I will dream of kissing your neck and feeling your warm legs shudder. Later, after you have left, I will hold myself with this moment in my mind, the drugs will take over, and I will sleep the sleep of the dead.

My friends tell me I am wasting my time. Of course they say that. That is the masculine thing to say. They do not understand the nuances that I do.

But they are right. They know that I am not what I would like to be. They know that I can admire the power in your resolve but that I cannot replicate it.

I cannot help but imagine going missing inside of you. When I hold your waist in my hands, I am forced to think of your thighs caressing my head, of you telling me my own name in pants and laborious breaths. These thoughts invade the love I have for you.

I would be at peace if I didn’t think this way. I would be comfortable if I could accept you as you are. But of course I will demand more.

And I will try to kiss you again, soon enough.

And again, you will say no. This is important to you, you will tell me. I will reassure you that I know this. That I am sorry. That I am trying. You will tell me that you forgive me.

But soon you will be elsewhere, and I will not know where.

And soon I will be doing with them what I could not do with you.

But I think of you often, and I wonder if it is mutual.

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