We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.
-- What the Living Do, Marie Howe
Alex is seventeen. He has long hair Liz says she’d kill for, a middling GPA, and a dead mom.
The thing about having a dead mom is that it’s not like having other things, because the having is about the absence of the thing. He has something that no longer exists, he has what he doesn’t have, his mom somehow is and isn’t at the same time. Schrodinger's mom, except in this case, his mom is definitely dead in the box, a plain pine casket that was too big for her withered body, burned out and shrunken from chemo. She went from a healthy alive mom who sighed about his hair and his too-loud music to a dead one in a matter of months. The end, when it came, was so sudden his brothers didn’t make it home. His dad was was circling baggage claim when Alex was at home watching her take her last breaths. The hospice nurses told them it would likely be days, but in the end even that was stolen from him. She went out like a light, like a heavy stone, a heaving death rattle, frightened.
Being a cliche doesn’t feel cliche when it’s you. He waits for the irony and humor to kick in, but mostly he just feels broken down and sad, like there’s a tiny hidden puncture somewhere and everything is leaking out him slowly until he’s empty. His dad puts all her jewelry in a safety deposit box for when he and his brothers are old enough. Old enough for what, Alex doesn’t know. His dad’s military buddies come by with bottles of expensive whiskey. Alex’s dad doesn’t drink anymore, so they drink iced tea in the living room and talk in low voices. The whiskey bottles fill up the liquor cabinet and collect dust. Alex sits on his bed playing guitar until his dad threatens to break it into pieces, and then he goes outside and plays guitar.
Roswell isn’t big, so everyone knows, and tells him they’re sorry for his loss, to hear his mother passed, moved on, passed away, whatever, everything except that she died. The ladies at the taco truck stop hold his hand in theirs, pressing their fingers into the tender skin at the base of his thumb. Worse than the condolences are when it ends, when the world goes back to normal for everyone else, and he’s still stuck with a dead mom. He can’t bear the kids at school, not Liz, whose mom flaked out over the summer, up and disappeared, like Alex’s but in a way that is still alive, and not Maria, whose mom keeps them at the table on Friday nights so she can listen to their gossip and tells stories about all the drugs she did when she was their age. It’s not fair that his mom, who wanted desperately to stay and never fed alcohol to minors, is dead and theirs are alive.
The whole being down on moms thing is why he’s hanging out with Michael Guerin, who is so far removed from moms that he doesn’t have any family at all, only a foster dad who he hates. Michael is tall and gangly, with huge features and hands and hair, which on anyone else would make him look like a puppy, but on Michael come together to resemble a praying mantis. He stumbled over Michael in the school library after hours -- Alex was loitering to avoid going home, because going home meant there was a chance his dad would be there. Nothing is as painful as watching someone die who obviously wanted to live, but watching someone live who clearly wants to die is horrifying in its own special way. His brothers tally-hoed back their lives -- Air Force, Air Force and a new fiancee, Air Force and a new wife -- as soon as humanly possible and now Alex lives with a ghost except in rare moments when he’ll snap back to himself to lay into Alex about something. He almost misses his old dad, who used to go on and on about how aimless, wasted, and soft his youngest son was, except he’s used up all his missing on his mom.
It was clear Michael didn’t want to go home either, so they drove out 285 and Alex smoked a joint in Michael’s beat up piece of shit truck, feeling like an impostor had inhabited his body. “It’s nice out here,” he told Michael once he stopped coughing. “The sky is bluer.” Alex had never smoked before or done anything else, just a few sips of beer when his brothers were home on leave and one time he drank a bottle of wine with Maria that made them both vomit and her mom judged them while she cooked breakfast the next morning. The next day Michael ignored him, but a few days later he found Alex and extorted twenty bucks for drugs Alex hadn’t even asked for. Until this year, the highlight of Alex’s social life was hanging out with Liz and Maria and Maria’s mom getting his tarot read, so it’s weird that Alex is a person who has a weed guy now.
Michael doesn’t expect anything from Alex except that he continue to pay for weed, and he’s willing enough to keep Alex company when he smokes. He takes Alex out to an old ranch that’s covered with trash -- empty beer cans, rusted-out car parts, plastic bags rolling like tumbleweeds -- and they get high and look at the stars. Michael almost never talks in school, but when it’s just them he fills the silences, mostly with weird facts he read on the internet, pointing out constellations that look like dicks, and conspiracy theories.
“You know it was just an Air Force balloon, right?” says Alex one night early on.
Michael smirks, his eyes glittering by the light of their extremely illegal fire. “That’s what they want you to think,” he says, with a wink. Alex wants to kiss him so badly he stops breathing, almost willing to overlook the disappointment of discovering that Michael Guerin maybe (probably) believes in aliens.
When Alex’s mom learned she was dying, but before she was really dying, she contacted the tribal council at the reservation about healing, even though all his life she’d stayed as far away from Indian traditions as possible. She started telling him all these stories about the making of the desert and the four mountains, but they never made sense because she was so tired and didn’t really understand them herself. He had the feeling of hearing something through a game of telephone, the basic building blocks were there but rearranged and stripped of all meaning. Like when someone tells a joke and then at a very end realizes they’ve left out a crucial piece. His dad was furious and they had these drawn out whisper-fights that Alex drowned out with his headphones and guitar. She’d gone to some meetings and met a medicine man, but in the end none of it could save her. After she died, his dad swept the house clean of all her Indian stuff, which made Alex feel like she was losing her all over again, like his dad was trying to scrub Alex’s connection to her, even though he didn’t really know what any of it was for. Alex is ashamed he doesn’t know and ashamed for wanting to know.
Michael eats lunch every day with Max and Isobel Evans at the same table in the school courtyard. Max and Isobel are type-A, quiet nerds who dressed alike until middle school and Michael is a like a slovenly hawk wandering around judgmentally, somehow above it all. Alex has never spared a second thought for Max Evans, whose superpower seems to be fading into the background, but Michael has some beef with him that’s both nebulous and specific, relating not to something that Max did but simply how he is. Alex finds himself rolling his eyes when Max raises his hand in class. Their relationship is almost as incongruous and inexplicable as Alex’s lifelong friendship with Kyle Valenti, which is based solely on the fact that Kyle’s dad (alive) and Alex’s mom (dead) knew each other a million years ago. Kyle and Alex have nothing to say to each other because they operate on polar opposites of the social sphere, but they still hang out sometimes.
Michael brings a guitar one night. “You said you play, right?” he says, like it’s no big deal that he listens to the words that come out of Alex’s mouth. Michael does not seem like the type of guy who serenades his weed buddies with an acoustic guitar under the stars. Alex, who has spent the last four years realizing exactly what type of guy he is, looks at him open-mouthed before taking the guitar. He immediately forgets every song he’s ever known except Love Shack, which blares in his brain on a loop. Alex plays with Maria often -- her mom will “keep time” on the tambourine -- but having Michael sit across from him in the dark watching him makes every hair on Alex’s body stand up.
“Stage fright,” he says, his voice cracking. Michael’s face falls for a half second before it smooths out. For some reason, that makes it easier. “What do you wanna hear?”
“Whatever,” says Michael. Then, “Anything,” which is a different thing entirely.
Michael never looks at Alex or acknowledges him during school, even though they’ve been in the same English and history classes for years, but he finds Alex unfailingly. It’s as though Alex is living two simultaneous existences that can never intersect: heads Alex and tails Alex. Alive and dead. Alex dreams about Michael sometimes, the sharp planes of his face in the firelight and the sound of his voice and his huge hands, and wakes up sweating. In the harsh light of morning, Alex is being monumentally stupid: at best he’ll continue to lust after his drug dealer and at worst he’ll get beaten up and left for dead in the middle of the desert. He promises himself some days that he’ll stop, but he’s never stupid enough to believe his own lies.
He has no idea what Michael thinks. They are not friends in any traditional sense of the term, but what they’re doing isn’t exactly bad or really that interesting. Despite Alex’s increasingly vivid dreams, they are not hooking up or standing too close or staring longingly at each other across the cafeteria. Sometimes Alex will catch up with Kyle to hear the play by play of various parties, and it seems like Michael could be doing that instead of sitting in the the desert with Alex watching the night sky. Mostly they sit in silence. Alex tells Michael about Schrodinger's mom. He appreciates that Michael doesn’t tell him he’s misunderstanding the thought experiment, even though he can tell a little bit that Michael is thinking it.
They talk about the future sometimes, because it’s safer and easier than talking about the past. Alex feels like his future has been totally blown open. For a long time he just thought of his life as an escalating series: elementary school, junior high, high school, college, adulthood. Now his life has two parts: alive mom (AM), dead mom (DM). It is inconceivable that there will be anything else after death. The thing he was looking forward to last year feels meaningless, a piece of trash on the highway of his life.
Michael wants to go out of state for school, somewhere far away from Roswell. He’s thinking about aerospace engineering, which is just a fancy name for rocket science. He reads books about physics and math and logic and then he tells Alex about them, and it actually sounds kind of cool. He finds himself interested because Michael makes it sound interesting, although he admits to himself that if Michael’s passion were watching paint dry, Alex would become a Sherwin Williams expert. Alex isn’t sure he’s really college material, which his dad reminds him of constantly, but Michael is a college admissions dream: genius orphan triumphs against all odds.
Alex has no intention of joining the Air Force, a decision he hasn’t gotten around to sharing with his dad. Michael nods, easy, like it never even occurred to him that Alex might go to the Air Force Academy, even though it only just struck Alex recently that he had a choice in the matter. “What’re you gonna do?” asks Michael. Alex shrugs. The truth is he doesn’t care as long as he can play guitar and feed himself. He has a dream of just wandering aimlessly for a little while, trickster-like, getting by on music and odd jobs. “Like a traveling troubadour,” says Michael. Alex’s whole spine contracts. It sounds even dumber said aloud. “No, it’s cool,” says Michael, leaning across the fire. “I like it. Maybe…” Michael picks up a jagged shard of rock shaped like a shark’s tooth and holds it between his thumb and index finger. “Maybe we can go together,” he says.
“Like a band,” says Alex, a pit of vertigo developing in his stomach. His face feels hot and his throat is bone dry.
“Yeah,” says Michael, watching him. “Off the grid.” If Alex were braver, he would lean over and kiss Michael right there, he can see it in his mind’s eye so clearly it’s almost as if it actually happens, but instead he stays stock still like a trapped animal and Michael looks away.
His mom stands in the kitchen one morning slicing a pile of oranges into a giant bowl. When Alex was in Little League, she used to freeze the oranges and hand them out as each kid struck out (Alex) or rounded home plate (Kyle, damn him). After each game they’d take a photo, each kid with an orange peel tucked in front of their teeth. “Where have you been?” he asks her. “I’ve been looking everywhere.” She smiles at him a little sadly and waves her hand, like around. Outside, the sun is the yellow-white of high noon.
In real life, he always knows she’s dead. He only forgot because he was dreaming.
Michael tells him a story one night, like a fable, about an alien who crash lands on earth and gets stuck. He looks human but has powers, like Superman, although they’re not as good and he has to keep them a secret so the government doesn’t kill him. He discovers humanity is disappointing: petty, careless, and cruel. Every day he waits, Sisyphean, for his alien friends to come pick him up, but they never come, and then he dies, all alone. The story ends there, abruptly, and Michael is breathing very fast.
You don’t need to have a dead mom to understand the alien in the story is Michael. Alex is no stranger to aliens, because a being gay with a dead mom in Roswell is pretty much the same as being from another planet. He’s not sure if he’s the alien friend who never comes, or if it’s Michael’s birth parents, or the family that never adopted him. It pisses Alex off that Michael has to be dumped in this world where basically everyone is out to get him and he’s left at the mercy of assholes. It’s upsetting that someone like Michael is disappointed and let down by everyone around him, that he’s so lonely he’d befriend Alex of all people. He cannot imagine abandoning Michael, which seems like a very normal feeling until his eyes well up and he’s abruptly terrified and can’t breathe.
The best answer to a story like that is the same as the response to Alex’s dead mom: there is nothing that will make it better because it is horrible and it shouldn’t have happened. He is paralyzed by the myriad of inane things that come to mind: all trite and horrible and euphemistic. The first thing he thinks is maybe the other aliens couldn’t find the lost one, because the desert is huge and empty. Maybe they’re looking in the wrong place. He wishes his mom would come pick him up, but she never will, and he's going to die, all alone with Michael. He touches Michael’s shoulder, his fingers catching on the baby soft strands of hair escaping under his cap. He listens until Michael is breathing normally again.
Alex wants to know where the alien was going, anyway and why. Maybe he was going home or maybe he was running away, but Michael won’t tell him and looks troubled when Alex asks. Alex kind of likes the idea of the earth as just some flyover state in the intergalactic thoroughfare. Roswell is the ultimate nowhere, so uninteresting that the most notable thing about it never even happened. The idea that aliens would look anything like humans and crash land on earth while humans are occupying it is so statistically unlikely as to be impossible, which makes Michael laugh and Alex’s chest blossom in warmth.
It is bizarre and a little unsettling that Alex can go from dead moms to what Michael Guerin might taste like in the space of a single thought. He does not understand how two things can be true: that nothing will ever fill the space his mom left and that it feels like Michael is stepping into a space made just for him that Alex never even noticed. He dreams he’s in a cave somewhere filled with wombs, like something out The Matrix. Michael is not anywhere that Alex can see, but Alex is aware of him like he’s aware of his own body. When he wakes up he jerks off immediately, furiously, and gasps when he comes, grimacing at what Freud would say about dreaming about wombs and Michael at the same time.
“I never see you anymore,” Maria tells him. “Where are you hiding?” Alex looks at her and shrugs. He’s in plain sight.
He catches Michael with Rosa Ortecho one day in the parking lot after school. They look like they’re just talking, but it’s obvious from how immediately weird she is that Michael’s selling her something. It’s not Alex’s business, strictly speaking or even not-so-strictly, but he has spent many nights on the floor of Maria’s bedroom listening to Liz complain about her sister. It is deeply humiliating to realize he’s more jealous than concerned, which just makes him furious at both himself and Michael and they almost fight about it. It had occurred to Alex that Michael was probably selling drugs to other people, with his big out-of-state college plans that don’t include getting high in the desert with Alex, but he’d decided to ignore it, like blowing past a warning sign on a narrow mountain road.
“But I don’t hang out with them,” says Michael, frustrated and pained like Alex is dragging a deeply embedded fishing hook out of his body. His face and neck turn red.
Alex breathes out, lightheaded. “Oh,” he says.
Michael tells him other alien fables that Alex pores over like ancient texts for clues. Is the fact that sometimes there’s a girl alien evidence that Michael is straight? Is the seemingly random choosing of superpowers -- flying, telepathy, telekinesis -- an allegory for control? Does it even mean anything that Michael is telling him these stories or is Michael so lonely Alex could just as easily be anyone? Is it normal for people to have exclusive weed friends? Is there a way to tell someone they’re not alone without actually saying the words aloud? Alex isn’t creative like Michael is, so he just tells him about his brothers and dad and sometimes about his mom, the parts that aren’t painful.
Alex has spent his entire life thinking the alien thing was ridiculous, but it makes a certain sort of sense for a lonely kid in a fucked-up situation to latch onto it. It doesn’t feel dumb for Michael, or it doesn’t feel dumb because it’s Michael. Alex has whole generations of family on his dad’s side and even though his mom wasn’t enrolled with a tribe, there’s a whole history there. He was never interested in roots before, but now he makes a note to start looking it up once school gets out. Maybe he can tell Michael some stories of his own. He wishes he’d asked his mom about it more when she was alive. They could’ve learned about it together. He goes down a rabbit hole of easy fantasy where they researched their lineage and they found the cancer earlier and she found some Indian miracle cure and she lived. He catches himself in moments like this, chasing alternate universes, constantly. The thing about the alternate universe is the further it gets from his own universe, the fuzzier it becomes. If his mom were still alive, he would definitely not be wearing Michael’s sweat-rank baseball cap in the middle of the night listening to Michael talk about aliens and play guitar. He would be… doing something else. He would be the same person he was last spring when his mom was alive. Michael would be sitting out here, probably alone. Impossible.
They’ve been talking about wandering through Appalachia in the summer because it’s cheap and easy to disappear. Michael’s barely left the desert and not being able to see the horizon makes him nervous. It would be fun to show Michael something new. To be the one he experiences something with for the first time, even if it’s just a bunch of sugar maple and beech trees.
“Does anyone know about this?” says Alex one day when the dark blue-black of night is just beginning to give way to to the deep azure of morning. He can see his breath and he’s lost all feeling in his fingers and toes.
Michael looks at him. His nose is pink from the cold. Alex never has any idea what he’s thinking and it’s insanity-inducing. “You do,” he says, finally.
“I mean this,” says Alex, waving his hand around, meaning maybe the ranch, maybe the unending pile of shit that Michael is served day in and out, maybe the two of them. He means all of it, but he can’t ask.
Michael swallows, so loudly that Alex can hear it over the crackle of the fire. “I like having something that’s just mine.”
They are both very still. He is certain that he could kiss Michael right now, lean over and touch his face and his hair and his skin. He could crawl into Michael’s lap and breathe him in, sink into him. His chest hurts with the knowledge that Michael would let him, that Michael is waiting for him to do just that. But he doesn’t.
They have a senior service day at the UFO Museum to help put on a science day for the grade school. Maria forces him to sign up. Alex didn’t like the event when he was at Roswell Elementary and he likes it even less now that he’s on the other side. Alex has always hated the UFO Museum, with its craft-store kitsch artifacts and dead-eyed rubber aliens everywhere. It's sad, a dying town holding onto its homegrown heroes. Maria and Liz are at the Crash Site, where kids dig around in sand looking for alien artifacts like an extraterrestrial CSI. Kyle is wearing an alien costume with a giant paper mache head that keeps rolling off and making all the kids scream. Alex has technically been assigned to the Safety Team, which is a like a hallway monitor with even less power. He’s wearing a safety vest that is alien green instead of orange. “No running,” he says over and over again in a monotone until the words cease to mean anything. When Michael appears behind him, he almost jumps out of his skin. He’s not even supposed to be here because Michael is above senior service days.
“Come on,” says Michael. His hands are damp against Alex’s. When Alex protests, Michael makes a big show of looking around at the all the screaming kids ignoring them. “Looks like you’re really needed here,” he agrees. Alex rolls his eyes and lets himself be led, not very far it turns out. Michael pulls him into a narrow room behind the theater marked NO ENTRY that’s stacked from floor to ceiling with video reels, cassettes, and AV equipment.
Alex stares at him. “Are you kidding,” he says. He takes a step back. “Please tell me it’s not the vest.”
“I’m very into safety.” Michael crowds close to him and then seems to get stuck, like a transmission in neutral. He kind of looms, uncertain and strangely oversized. “Don’t be afraid,” he says and his breath is warm on Alex’s face.
“I’m not afraid of you,” says Alex, half indignant -- he has three brothers -- and half terrified. Michael smiles, just before Alex kisses him. The earth moves. Michael’s cupping Alex’s face and touching his hair, gentle, like he’s afraid to break Alex. Michael is trembling with his whole body, shaking like a leaf. Alex passes his hands up Michael’s chest to his neck, to anchor him. He is very warm and alive under Alex’s hands. There’s a sound, like a roaring and a crash and then silence. Alex cannot breathe and he cannot stop kissing Michael, so the only viable alternative is to suffocate. Michael smells good. Not like objectively good, but like soap and sweat and nerves and if Alex stops smelling him at any point, he will die.
There’s a wailing and a strange hiss. Michael tips Alex's head back to kiss his jaw and cheek. He becomes aware that Michael is bathed in a red glow from emergency track lighting and the dim high-pitched whine is the back-up generator kicking in. “The lights went out,” he tells Michael, his voice high-pitched and breathless. He tells Michael’s neck and hair, really, because Michael has not backed off even a little bit. He can hear Kyle’s voice telling everyone to stay calm above the scream of the fire alarm.
“It’s a sign.”
“Not a good one.”
“The aliens want us to make out,” says Michael, rubbing his nose against Alex’s. “They crashed for this.” He’s laughing, because Michael is always amused when the world gives him a brief respite from misfortune. He has a nice laugh, warm and slow. He kisses Alex again like he has nothing else to do for the rest of today or this week or his life, his mouth open and searching against Alex’s. Alex’s heart beats insanely and his skin is tender where Michael touches him, sneaking under his shirt. His knees feel liquid and unsteady, so it’s nice that Michael is holding him up. A bunch of tapes fall off the shelves and go rattling all over the floor because Michael is pressing even closer against him. The fire alarm cuts out and is replaced by the patchy harsh sounds of their breath and their mouths. Michael shudders when Alex kisses his neck, his chin, the high apple of his cheek.
Water trickles in under the door and pools around their shoes. Alex catches his breath by burying his face in Michael’s shoulder and shivers when Michael rubs his hand over Alex’s spine. He can feel Michael's eyelashes fluttering against his ear. When they cross through the museum’s main exhibit, the entire thing is flooded from the sprinklers. A couple of the paper mache exhibits have collapsed into goo, craft paint streaked everywhere all over the floor. There are firefighters and cops swarming around, creating a maze of yellow police ribbon. They both get soaked up to their knees.
Students are milling around the parking lot outside and group together in spots of paltry shade under the high afternoon sun. It’s chaos. The principal, standing on the bed of a truck, yells at them through a megaphone, but the words to seem to fall on deaf ears. Alex is out of place and time, his skin hot, and his mouth puffy and bruised feeling. The world looks washed out, like an old movie. When he finds Maria, she’s laughing hysterically and her mascara is smeared all over her face. She is absolutely covered in mud.
Michael is standing with Max and Isobel, the three of them in deep conference. He’s taken off his hat and his hair is enormous, sticking up in all directions, like he’s put his finger in a light socket, and the weight of the water is pulling his jeans down low on his hips. Michael catches Alex’s eye. He’s smiling and trying very hard not to; Alex can tell that Max is giving him shit by the way he shakes his head and pulls a who, me? face.
“Where have you been?” Maria asks. “I’ve been looking everywhere.” She leans back on the hood of a car, waiting for her clothes to dry in the midday heat. Alex tips his head back and closes his eyes, lets the sun warm his face.
“Here,” he says. “I was waiting right here.”