He watches a couple sitting at one of the corner tables facing the whispering room. The older of the couple is dressed too carefully, in matching boots and scarf. The other has a laser gaze that for all its wandering, will land for a moment, burn. The matched set watches as carefully as pride allows, following the watcher’s gaze, trick to trick, willing it back. Even as the gaze returns to treat and throw out smiles. Even as it moves on.
He comes here more than the straight bars, and to this one in particular. He can’t say why. It’s not just because it’s in Berkeley, close to home. He hasn’t made a move yet, nor is he sure what he’ll do if someone moves first. Night after night, and nothing but his sense of time is tested. At least the bar is clean, if not the bathrooms. He usually leaves before he has to use them. Home is a dead sprint away.
In the straight bars, it’s easy. He hones in and hits up his target within minutes. High blonde to low bronze. He is as loose as they look, looser. If they come close to Cruz, he goes home with them. If they don’t, he takes them home. Either way, he is alone in his bedroom before dawn. That’s the most important part. That he begins his day with Oola.
After all the mornings he has slept through, dazed or disdainful, he springs for them now. It is something else to watch the light change on Oola’s skin as the small hand edges left from six to seven and higher. She sleeps through to the end of the vampire night. He looks quickly in her room just to make sure, before going downstairs to make her food. Sometimes crunched like a crab, other times spread like an eagle, she looks cadaverous and creamy in the white blue of that earliest light.
Over the ensuing hours, gold seeps in like a stain, so slowly he can’t pinpoint when she goes from pale to primrose. She watches him, standing in her crib as he readies her clothes, packs her toys and diapers, rechecks her snacks. Each time he comes over to kiss her, dress her, take her away, her skin is a different palette, the range of colors ever brighter and deeper.
He needs them, these rituals, and not just because he has no idea how long they’ll last. Maybe Oola will start turning her back on the dawn, sleeping til just before it’s time. Maybe Cruz will change her mind about dual parenting and take her away. Maybe he’ll forget he wants these rituals. In the meantime, he is going to learn something from habit and hold, from the very repeating.
There are so many ways for chaos to sift in, sweep everything off the table. He doesn’t know how people spend their whole lives in ruts, the dirt hard around their bodies like old graves, breadcrumb paths marked from the beginning. It seems so safe, so impossible. He’d give his right arm for one fate, just one day where the night will follow in lockstep.
He is at the Maneater the first time he thinks he sees the boy, leaning against the bar, drinking a beer. It is some months after he’s started going there, maybe longer. The years, they blur and coalesce. The bar is noisy because the rock jukebox has started serving up earlier than usual. Glam rock on the menu tonight, big hair tossing, mascara smudging. How had this been the herald for straight music, he wonders? All that lipstick and eyeliner and leather and lithe.
The boy’s palm is flat against the label of the bottle, like he’s sending a warning or giving protection. He watches as the hand curls, lifts the bottle by the thinnest part of its neck, tips its mouth to his own.
Pour some sugar on me.
It isn’t him. Not even close. Nothing about him is similar, not his hair, not his form, not his coloring. Only the angle, from his head to his elbow to his hand, that is exactly right.
He speaks to him anyway, to hear his voice, dispel all doubt. “How you traveling?”
The man turns to him, unangling his elbow, and all the afterimages of the boy vanish. He smiles, feral. “I see you’ve found me.”
There is not a trace of dialect, no surfer boy drawl, no immigrant echo. His sense of grief and relief is so overwhelming, he doesn’t disagree.
Love is like a bomb, baby.
The park where he and Oola have breakfast in the mornings has one bench facing east, beside a battalion of trees, squaring the hills, where the sun will finally haul itself over the ridgetop, long after sending its first missionaries of light. By the time the silver hair on the twigs above them catch on mock fire, the morning will have aged, wattles in their prime.
By 9am, the colors will have settled into themselves, and will only flatten as noon comes and goes. He waits as late as he dares, even though Oola’s daycare will have long since started, will start even before they have their breakfast of fruit, strawberries, blueberries, mixed with yogurt, heavy as cream. He waits because he wants to remind himself that everything changes, with or without the coming day.
“You see, Oola, even if it’s bad now, it’s better than what will come.”
Oola is standing, unsteady, on the sidewalk, wearing brown pants and a red batik print dress Cruz had bought her from the swank baby shop on Fourth Street. He notices creases across the bodice of the dress that he should have ironed out.
She wants to get to the grass, but the curb is shin high, insurmountable. Blades of green gleam on the other side.
“Don’t look ahead, my prettyling.”
As if she understands every word, she looks back at him, hair swinging. Her hair isn’t as dark as her mother’s, nor as thin as his. Rainfall to her jaw, and then folding coyly, chucking her disappearing double chin.
“Ja!” she calls, as if to an army.
He nods in encouragement. She turns back, puts dimpled arms out in front of her, and folds into the green, a flower in the world.
He tells her, “Nothing stays the same.”
The next boy comes closer, though he still can’t say what close means. He is further afield that night, in a basement joint in the Castro which is pumping drum and bass into the dark and glittering air. The boy is dancing, languid and libertine, among a knot of friends. They know each other well, the friends. He can see it in the way they don’t have to look at each other to know where they are. Because of the music, they are dancing to different beats. Because of the music, their flail comes into sync when the beats merge.
He watches the boy dancer for a while, seeing only what he wants to. Is this a safe way to remember? Does it ape the original enough but without altering it? He won’t be sure until the next time.
When he has had his fill, he walks away. But his fill follows him.
“I know you.” The dancer has come up to him at the bar, glistening, grinning. The shine of his skin catches the strobe light each sweep.
He says nothing.
“You go to the Maneater. I barback there some nights. But you’re into looking, not touching. What’s the story?”
It’s true nightcrawlers know their game.
He shrugs, gives the old answer. “Don’t know.”
The dancer waits. He can’t remember what happens next. Maybe it’s because he says the wrong thing and wants to right it so much he remembers it wrong. Or maybe because he says the right thing and it turns out wrong. Regret presses him on both sides, wiping the slate clean. Except the evidence remains, waiting, and then shaking his head, about to let it go.
He sees this tiny motion, and he gives in, a little. “I keep thinking I see someone I know but…”
The dancer nods. “Did you meet him at the Maneater?”
“No. He wouldn’t…” He knows how lame it sounds, how many wrong ways there are to interpret half sentences. But these empty truisms are better than the truth. “It’s complicated.”
“Let me guess.” The dancer up nods the bartender who has set a pink martini on the counter for him. “He’s not a fag, or he’s taken. And maybe you neither. But you had something, the two of you, something fly, something free. Without labels. Like love.” He winks to ice the cake.
The music is rising again, pulling at the dancer’s body. His martini glass sits on the counter, full and frosted like a prom dress. He sips from it without touching it and continues.
“But then he left. Maybe went back to his lover, or another one. Or just plain cut out.” He reads his blank face perfectly. “Yeah. That’s what he did. He cut out. And you’re there high and not so dry.”
As he speaks, the air shakes off its glitz, closes in tight, not because every word is true, but because the story didn’t start there. It started before, somewhere he can’t think about, because that was when it was simple, before he knew about God, before he met the boy.
Oola has righted herself on the grass. She takes a step and the earth wobbles towards her and away. He lies down, stomach on the cement curb, heart on the ground beside her. He watches through her eyes. She grasps a dandelion, and tiny David to her Goliath, it pulls her to the ground.
He says, “It’s a gift, little giantess. But only if you know how to hold it.”
She lets go, but her hand remains in the shape of holding. He uncurls her sticky fingers, recurls them around his own. It has been so long already, Oola and he, a legion of mornings to fall back on, today alone a lifetime’s worth. Godknows he has taken what he needed from it.
One by one, the clouds fix into place, and then piece apart, the sky a puzzle never meant for solving. They race after each other, lonely in a playground. In another time, they were slaves to the wind, trailing between the sky and the earth. In still another time, one even earlier, they were heralds of glad tidings, going before mercy.
He says, “Right now, the center is whole.”
He wants her to look at him, so she looks at him.
“Right now, dandelion hunter, the center is always whole.”
She turns away back to the grass, her back to the growing sun. He can’t help himself. He takes her out of her element, sweeps her up into the sky, falls her into his arms. Godknows he needs it too. The dawn, the cream puff light, his Mona Lisa girl, the Oola effect. This morning alone is his salvation.