Warren was sitting in the house he’d come to know so well the previous summer. Matt’s parents were hoarders. Junk mail for Sam, Matt’s older brother, sat piling up on a dinner table with cereal boxes, computer monitors, and the cores of empty paper towel rolls. Shopping bags from the local Giant supermarket formed a taupe plastic mountain in front of a sliding glass door to the outside that no one could possibly ever open again. Warren shifted his eyes between the table and Mount Plastic as he sat on the couch that was torn, tufts of white polyester stuffing bled out of the back cushions. Warren was waiting for Sam to come down from upstairs.
“Hey, Warren—can you tie this for me?”
Warren stood up and waited for Sam to stand in front of him—his navy blue suit a size too big. Sam stopped lifting a year ago after Matt, his younger brother, slipped two discs in his upper back, and another one lower. Warren grabbed the tie and stared at the forming knot, avoided looking into Sam’s eyes, which were staring out the window behind Warren, and the two young men, Sam twenty-five, Warren twenty-two, said nothing.
Warren looked into Sam’s eyes—focused on the lawn across the street—and thought, “He looks just like his brother.”
Sam didn’t know much about Warren, but he knew his brother cared about him—knew his brother trusted him, which was enough for Sam to trust Warren, too.
Sam shifted his gaze from the lawn, white and stiff with October frost, into Warren’s eyes.
“I know my brother loved you.”
There was no way Warren could stop himself from crying, but he could suppress the heft of sobs, the moans, the obvious sorrow—preserve his emotions. He tied the Windsor and looked back into Sam’s eyes.
“I always knew your brother’s timeline was very short. I tried…”
Warren sat back on the couch and stared at Mount Recyclethisshit remembering the previous summer of Fleetwood Mac, chicken nuggets, and chocolate martinis—remembering he was a shadow on the one who used to cry. Sam sat down next to Warren, put his left arm around him, pulled him close, and said his name.
Matt was on the phone with Warren. It was three-thirty in the morning and the sky was open—a harvest moon lording over Happy Valley. Warren was over a hundred miles away in Philadelphia sitting on the back porch of his parents’ house, staring up at the same dark sky with the moon draining all the light from the sun.
“I finished writing my letters. I would’ve written one to you, too, but I’d rather just tell you.”
“Tell me what?” Warren asked.
“Tell you… I wouldn’t have lasted this long without you. Tell you that I always kind of knew how I felt about you. Tell you that I can’t be here anymore.”
“Don’t go anywhere, Matt. Stay where you are. I—”
“I don’t have to go anywhere. I took all the Percs.”
Warren heard Matt drink, finishing his prescription with a bottle of Stoli.
“I can’t do this anymore, Warren. I can’t feel this pain.”
Matt paused. He was searching YouTube for something.
“Remember this song? Remember painting my room that navy blue color? My dad hated it. Said it made the room look like a tomb.”
Matt laughed, only because he was high, and climbing higher with each elapsing second.
“Matt, I’m going to call… Where are you right now?”
“I’m at a bar. The bar where we had the Moscow mules?”
“Stay there. I’m going to call you an ambulance.”
“I never had the guts to say it before, Warren, but I love you … I know that means nothing to both of us now.”
“Matt… I’m getting you help. I…”
“What do we do with this love? What can we do? But I wanted you to know. I wanted you to know because I wanted all this to be so much more.”
Warren was about to speak, but the battery in Matt’s iPhone died—white noise cut off—and even though Warren called the ambulance, and the cops by default, Matt was nowhere even close to Hudson’s Bar. His body, twisted like a rogue rubber band, was at the bottom of the stairwell in an apartment complex a mile away from his dorm. The local news couldn’t even find the respect to make sure Matt’s parents knew about his death before his body was positively identified.
They were standing in the parking lot of Senior Salsa’s. Matt had come down from State College to say good-bye to Warren who was commuting to Temple University. They had finished shared plates of nachos and chicken enchiladas, and each drained two pints of Corona. The semester was about to start and Warren wanted to head up to school with Matt.
“My roommate’s a good guy,” Matt said. “But I know you and I’d have more fun living together.”
Warren looked at the pavement, kicked a Dos Equis bottle cap underneath the squatting tire of a maroon Dodge Caravan, and couldn’t look Matt in the eyes.
“If I had the money, we’d both be up there right now. I hate seeing you leave. We—”
“We had a good summer together,” Matt interrupted. “But I’ll be back. I’m not leaving for good.”
“I want to be with you everywhere.”
Matt leaned in to give Warren a hug. Warren’s arms opened wide, trying to throw his arms around the world. Matt held Warren—Warren didn’t want him to let go—and both young men, for what seemed everlasting, but was not, felt they belonged together in some way.
Matt and Warren were sitting in the driveway of Matt’s parents’ house. The start of the new semester was a week away and they’d just come back from Chick-fil-A; the conversation stopped. They were listening to the music stream from Warren’s iPhone.
“And a memory is all that’s left for you now…”
“I don’t want to go back up there, Warren. I want to stay here with you.”
The silence singed something in the air. Warren looked at Matt and he lip-synched with the song—“Lightning strikes, maybe once, maybe twice”—and to Matt, Warren’s words were glowing green neon.
“Can I kiss you?”
Warren felt the blush in his cheeks, felt his blood rush in hyper propulsion, felt that something was going to happen, going to move. He closed his eyes and leaned in towards Matt whose eyes were also closed, Matt’s right hand reaching to pull Warren’s head closer.
This was a fireworks display ignited. It was the creation of a planet—calderas blowing earth into the atmosphere, earthquakes reshaping continents, and monster waves erasing dry lands from the globe. Lindsay Buckingham’s fretwork haloed over the young men who didn’t want the moment to move on. Warren reached over and ran his left hand down Matt’s back—felt his discs bulging at the bottom and wished he could push them back in to stop the pain. His hand hovered there hoping his emotions would heal Matt. He wanted this moment to last for always. But it didn’t, and when Matt jumped out of the car he said
“See you tomorrow?”
“Yes. Six again. The earlier the better.”
There was so much that Warren wished he could experience—over and over—now. He drove back to his house with the song on repeat.
There was a tango in the night. The two young men were wearing white t-shirts and black athletic shorts, both speckled with fine dots of navy blue eggshell paint. The slim Ikea single bed was pushed against the closet waiting for the body of a mattress to rest inside it. Matt’s jaw was tight and his eyes stared out the window to the back yard, his right arm stretched across his back, wrist pushing into his lower spine. The lights were off and Warren was wrapping a paintbrush with a damp paper towel, folding the edges so that they interlocked, even though they weren’t strong.
“Not feeling so good now?”
“Think I overdid it on the painting,” Matt said.
“Sit on your bed. I’ll finish cleaning up.”
Warren got to work rolling up the drop cloth, tamping the lids on the paint cans while Matt flicked through the music feed on his iPhone. He turned up the volume. Matt dropped the iPhone in a cup and started swaying, his silhouette in front of the dusk window a dark ballet.
Warren laughed and asked, “What are you doing?”
“Getting some exercise. Feeling the music… Come here. Stay with me a while.”
Warren walked over to Matt, who was reaching for Warren’s hands. Matt pulled Warren against his body, threw Warren’s arms over his shoulders, and wrapped his own arms around Warren’s mid-back. The energy exchanged between them a warming, a comfort. The young men swayed to the song but slowed steadily. Warren rested his head on Matt’s shoulder, moved his mouth next to his ear and sang to him:
“You said you’d give me light, but you never told me about the fire.”
They both stopped moving and stood there, embracing—bracing for something else to come that didn’t.
Checking into The Hotel Hershey was choppy, only because Matt and Warren had never done a thing like this, not without being with their respective families on vacation. Warren handed his $2,000-limit credit card to the clerk who welcomed them with two extra Hershey bars during check-in.
Warren pulled the suitcase packed for two. They were staying for two nights—one to enjoy themselves, the next because they had to be up at 4:30 a.m. for Matt’s spinal surgery. When they opened the door to the room they were glad to find they were given a king sized bed. The room was awash in gold wallpaper, the slight scent of chocolate beyond the dull cocoa smell of their complimentary bars in hand hung in the room.
“I’m hungry,” Matt said, diving into the bed.
“Want to eat al fresco?”
“What the hell does that mean?” Matt asked, bridging his back into jigsaw shapes.
“You English majors and your big words. Yeah, let’s eat outside.”
The patio of Trevi overlooked the front of the hotel, overlooked the entire Hershey area—the amusement park active in the distance with blinking lights visible even in the noon sun. Further back, two smokestacks blurred in the humidity. Warren relaxed in his chair with a chocolate kiss martini in his hand. Matt mirrored his image and was laughing.
“I’m freaking twenty-one and I have the back of an eighty-five year old.”
He rested his drink on the table next to the caprese salad they were sharing and leaned back in his chair. Warren admired the black stubble on Matt’s face, his longish black hair curling at the ends blown about by the breeze, and as he stared into Matt’s eyes he realized that this was it. This was the real thing—the real fucking thing—and there was no going back now. He didn’t expect this to happen, he was just trying to help an old friend not feel so much pain, and in his empathy, in his ability to breathe the sorrow and pain in from Matt, Warren found himself in love.
“Might be eighty-five, but you look pretty darn good.”
Matt smiled, ran his hand through his hair and flipped it back.
“You want to go to the pool?” Matt asked, popping mozzarella into his mouth.
“As long as you follow, bud.”
At the pool the two young men dropped their towels onto lounge chairs. Instead of diving into the pool filled with toddlers and nuclear families, Matt wanted to hit the outdoor hot tub—ninety-seven degree water in hundred-and-five degree heat.
Matt took off his shirt—Warren scanned the hair on Warren’s chest and stomach.
They had the hot tub to themselves. Warren sat against the side, arms stretched out, head thrown back. Matt was doing stretches. The sound of the boiling and trickling water eased Warren who was trying to figure out what the hell to do—to tell Matt, or just keep doing what they were doing? Warren felt a foot rub against his belly. He opened his eyes and brought up his head.
“Hey, grab my foot and help me stretch.”
Warren took hold. Matt bent and buckled, twisted, turned, writhed in every way while Warren anchored Matt’s foot and lower leg. He wasn’t going to let go, especially if it was making Matt feel better.
“You can let go now,” Matt said.
“Do I have to?”
Matt shifted his eyes quickly to the left, then back again into Warren’s eyes. Warren turned around. He saw an elderly man staring at the boys as if they had tainted the pool, spoiled the water, dechristened its purity. They stood up, draped their shoulders with towels, and headed back to their room where housekeeping turned down the sheets, left Kisses on the pillows.
“Fancy,” Matt said.
“Let’s change and get drinks at The Iberian Lounge,” Warren said, dropping his pool towel and heading to the bathroom.
After both had showered, both had buttoned up their short-sleeved shirts, both had their shoes tied by Warren, they grabbed the leather couch—both men on opposite sides—and ordered a beer and a long island iced tea. They went through three rounds, and when the fourth was delivered they were inches apart in the middle of the couch.
“Warren, can you grab the back of my neck and hold it tight for a few minutes? Feels tense.”
Warren looked at Matt, smelled his Wolfthorn Old Spice deodorant, and blurted out, “Can it be this feeling follows you wherever you go, Matt?”
Warren reached over and grabbed Matt’s neck. Matt dropped his head back, his hair brushed against Warren’s hand.
“I love you, Matt. I’m in love with you.”
Matt lifted his head and said, “We’re friends. Don’t break the spell. It would be different.”
Matt bent his head backwards and shook it, continued to rub his hair and head on Warren’s hand. He smiled and said, “Let’s go back to the room. Get some sleep. We can wake up super early and eat a huge freaking breakfast.”
After two more drinks they went back to the room. Matt stripped down to his red Hanes boxer-briefs, Warren in a pair of shorts. Matt lay in the center of the bed and Warren lay on his side on the edge of the bed. Warren heard Matt crying; it was the familiar sound of muffled air slowly eking out of a tightened throat. Warren turned, rolled over so he was up against Matt’s body. He threw out his left arm and wrapped it around Matt’s chest, pulled him close.
“My dad caught me. When I was fifteen. Looked at my Internet history. He knew. He always knew.”
Warren reached up to wipe tears off of the sides of Matt’s face. He leaned in and kissed his cheek, saying nothing, doing nothing else.
The man behind the counter at the paint store tried more than three times to convince Matt that the paint wasn’t going to look good on the walls of such a small bedroom, and that the choice of black trim was even worse.
“I want my room to look like, feel like a cave,” he said.
Warren knew the colors didn’t marry up, but this was Matt’s room and he made the decision. Warren handed his credit card to the clerk and then gathered the cans and the bag of rollers and paint pans to carry to the car.
They stopped at Chick-fil-A on the way back to Matt’s house. Warren stirred the paint while Matt looked out the window of his room, stretching his back to the left and right. He then looked over at Warren. He started to cry.
“I can’t do this anymore, Warren. I can’t hurt this much. I don’t wanna know what this pain feels like anymore.”
Warren stood up and walked behind Matt, placing his hands on his shoulders. He started massaging his neck and worked his way down his back. Matt continued to cry, stifling his sobs into a white noise stream of air leaking out of his throat.
“I don’t know what I can do for you, Matt. Hell, I’d switch spines with you, if I could.”
Matt turned around and hugged Warren.
“I just know this can’t keep up. Seriously, I can’t live with a pain like this.”
Warren had taken a Greyhound up to University Park from Philadelphia to help Matt clean his apartment and to give him some company while his roommate was away on an internship. He rented a room at The Nittany Lion Inn—might as well make a mini vacation out of it. Disembarking the bus, he looked around State College—a mass of brick buildings with small signage and a street that seemed too dangerous to ever cross. He watched as Matt risked his life crossing Atherton Street in the distance. As he came closer, Warren’s heart beat into his throat.
“I’m over my head, here, Matt,” he said, throwing his arms open.
Matt walked into his arms and they embraced, for a while.
Matt pulled away and said, “Don’t worry about it, Warren. I can help you navigate the place. The campus is kind of confusing, but downtown is just a straight strip of bars and places to buy sweatshirts.”
They walked to The Inn and had lunch at Whiskers, sharing chickpea and kale stew and chicken quesadillas. They checked into the room with two queen beds and a whirlpool in the bathroom, but they didn’t stay long. Matt wanted to show Warren what he was missing when he transferred from the satellite school of Penn State to Temple University. They started drinking at The Corner Room, moved to Local Whiskey, Saffell’s Saloon, and then ended at Whiskers. They shared beers, martinis, Jack Roses, four glasses of Riesling wine, and Long Island iced teas.
They walked back to the room. Warren vomited a soup of acid and alcohol into the toilet. He heard Matt crying in the bedroom. He was lying on one of the beds and clutching a half-empty plastic bottle of water. He threw the bottle at the wall and stood up.
“I can’t do this anymore, man! The pain is ridiculous. You know what it’s like being twenty-one with a bad back? Did you know back pain brings on depression? I’m going fucking crazy. I’m seriously going crazy!”
Warren pulled himself off the floor from the toilet, grabbed a tissue, and stepped out to talk to Matt, who was leaning against a wall next to an armoire with an embedded flat-screen television and a mini-bar. Warren held a tissue to Matt’s nose and wiped away the clear snot. He balled up the tissue and dabbed away Matt’s tears.
“This will pass, Matt, I promise. I promise you that if it doesn’t I’ll take you to see the seven wonders—that’s how sure I am that it will be fixed.”
Matt hugged Warren and said, “Let’s go back to my dorm. I can’t sleep here tonight.”
They crossed the campus; both young men basked in the orange glow of sodium lights illuminating the library, the classrooms, and manicured greens with grazing rabbits. They passed all the bars, passed a closed Chipotle, and walked into Matt’s dorm. As Matt unlocked the door, Warren entered a living room glowing a dim blue.
“Who the hell put these up,” Warren said, pointing to the blue Christmas lights bordering the entire room.
“My roommate Charlie put them up. I hate them. The whole place looks like—“
“A fuckin’ horror movie has been filmed here. What was he thinking?”
“I know,” Matt said, looking down at his shoes.
“You shouldn’t live like this,” Warren said, and then he jumped, ripping the lights off the walls. Each tug and pull had the energy of anger, of violence.
When Warren was done with the living room he moved to the kitchen area, then the shared bedroom. Matt found the destruction hysterical. His laugh was guttural and he fell to the floor. He pulled his shirt off, then his pants, and never once stopped laughing. Warren fell on the couch and stared up at the ceiling—spinning and all—and passed out to the baritone of Matt’s laugh.
The sun came up the next morning too damned fast. The lack of curtains in the living room revealed an angry sun to a hung-over Warren. He walked into the bedroom and saw Matt in his bed sleeping on his back, mouth open, snoring. He wanted to wake him up to get breakfast but knew more sleep was better for Matt.
At nine o’clock Matt nudged Warren awake.
“What the hell happened last night?” Matt asked.
“I think we changed your life for the better.”
Matt pulled on a pair of tan jeans and a blue and gray hoodie and they walked to back to the hotel.
While Warren showered, Matt crawled into bed and fell back asleep. Warren took the other bed and in less than two minutes passed out. An hour later, Matt was sitting next to Warren on the bed. He was shaking Warren’s back to wake him.
“I don’t think I’m going to stay in my dorm this summer. After my back surgery I’m going to come home to heal.”
Warren smiled, happy to have Matt closer to home.
The boys went to Whiskers for lunch and a few drinks, which ended at four o’clock. They walked off campus to Hudson’s Bar and sat outside with Moscow Mules until they closed the bar.
The next morning, Warren checked out and Matt walked him to the bus station.
“I’m going to miss you, but it won’t be for long. I’ll take the bus home on Wednesday. We gotta get my bedroom together. Make it my own space.”
They hugged each other, a little too long, Warren thought, because the bus driver had given them both a sneer, and a too skinny man with sunken-in cheeks and a grey hoodie that looked as if it had been pulled out of a dumpster asked him, when he got on the bus,
“You two queer?”
The phone went off at three-thirteen in the morning. Warren was in his bedroom at his parents’ house and had just come home after working a double shift at Outback Steakhouse. His hair smelled of bloomin’ onion and his back was sore.
“Hey,” Matt said.
“Hey, what’s going on?”
“My back. It’s killing me. Thought I’d take you up on the offer to call you whenever I couldn’t sleep. Is this O.K.?”
“Yeah! Yeah, it’s fine,” Warren replied, not even trying to open his eyes.
“I’ve been awake for three days straight. Gets to you, you know what I’m saying? And the pain? It’s worse now than it’s ever been. I think my roommate wants to kill me. He’s tired of me complaining about my back. Says I need to deal.”
“I don’t think any of us can understand what’s going on inside you, Matt.”
“I wish you were here. If I had you here…”
“I gotta get my ass up there,” Warren said.
“I get like this; I just want to throw myself in front of a bus, or, if I had a gun…”
“Don’t, Matt. This distance between us, it’s small.”
“What,” Warren replied, and then heard the sound of Matt’s iPhone go silent from a dead battery.
Warren had to go to University Park with fellow students for an event the first weekend in February—a mandatory English conference needed to complete his degree for next year. He didn’t know any of the other English majors and thought it’d be a good way to finally make friends. But once they got up there, they all dispersed like focused travelers. Warren found himself in Hudson’s Bar drinking a vodka martini. He felt a hand fall on his back and gently squeeze his neck.
Matt opened his arms and leaned in for a hug.
“I haven’t seen you since last April during our sociology final. I didn’t know you came up to the main campus.”
“I didn’t. Here for a conference. I actually transferred to Temple.”
Matt sat in the stool next to Warren and told him about his lifting accident, his classes that he had to withdraw from, his worry about his identity. Warren listened patiently, remembered what a good guy Matt was when they had talked in class, and he wondered why Matt was so open with him.
“It’s hard to make friends up here. My roommate is kind of a fuckwad, too. And this pain in my back is kind of making me crazy.”
Warren listened to Matt continue to talk, continue to tell him everything about himself—his popped discs, the isolation he felt, the abuse from his father, and Warren realized that Matt might’ve been one of the bravest people he ever met. Might’ve been one of the kindest people he ever met. Might’ve been flirting with him, too.
“Damn, man! You’d be better off coming back to Philly. Sounds like this place drives you mad.”
The boys continued talking until the bar closed. They exchanged cell phone numbers and Warren told Matt if he ever needed anything, no matter what time of day it was, to call him any time.
Three of the discs in Matt O’Connell’s lower back protruded through his skin like an overstuffed laundry bag—nothing about it looked right. The physical therapist recommended stretches and yoga—neither of which worked. Matt received two cortisone injections—neither of which worked. He couldn’t focus on his homework, his classes, couldn’t even get an erection, especially when he was with Cathy who wasn’t even sure Matt liked women, and also knew Matt hated being alone, feeling alone. She knew the only connection he had made his first semester up there was her, and that all she had to do was avoid him for a little while and he would do whatever she wanted.
She put Dave Matthews on her iPod and told Matt she needed someone to crash into her. Matt wanted the closeness she was asking for—but not the sex. To him it was a trade off. She did everything she could to make it work. He wanted it to work, but instead they fell asleep, Matt’s body warmed in Cathy’s arms, even though in his dreams he was being held by a guy he knew back at his satellite campus that sat next to him in sociology—a guy he had thought of sometimes when he was alone.
The next night, Cathy asked Matt to come back. She got him drunk on peach rum, had him smoke a little, and pulled him into bed with her. Matt told her he didn’t want to do it; he didn’t want to be with her. That he was sure, at some point, he’d be with a woman, but not now, and when she threw him out of her bed, out of her apartment, wearing only his boxer briefs and a t-shirt, he passed out on the floor of her hallway.
Three guys walked by—mind-blown-drunk fratboys with blue balls—and they took photos of Matt with their privates in his mouth, fingers inside of him. The photos made the Snapchat rounds, the email rounds, Tumblr blogs—they even made it to Matt who thought of killing himself after he saw the linked images that Cathy had emailed him.
But while on the Internet, his Facebook friend list popped up. And there he was—Warren Williams—a guy who’d always been nice to him. A cute guy who once asked him to grab a coffee. A nice guy that was all Matt ever wanted.