“Say it. What are you afraid of? You’re not afraid of anything.”
Cliff’s spent a lot of time thinking about how they might have ended up here, catching their breath in Rick’s bed, but he didn't really expect it to go this far.
Here are some facts, mostly unspoken, to help explain Clifford Booth and Richard Dalton.
Yes, it's that Booth — a far descendant of Junius Brutus, he was always told — but Cliff hates the whole song-and-dance of questions about his family history and has gotten in the habit of laughing it off. So your whole family does acting? No. His father did. So you had an in, then. Not exactly. I bet you get this all the time from people. Yes, without fail, despite the fact it was over a hundred years ago that some goddamn Confederate put a bullet in a President’s head, something you can hardly get away with now. But no one wants what he thinks; they want to wonder about him, to leer from a distance.
After the movies dried up, Sharon Tate went to TV. She was always on the cop procedurals, always playing delicate, broken women, women who men did Bad Things to, women who cried and clutched styrofoam cups of coffee in grimly lit interrogation rooms. Sharon is a decent actress, Cliff thinks, and distinctly beautiful. That’s enough to make a star — that and luck. But she always knows she’s being watched. Always posing, staring, acting. The camera leers on her clavicles, her false eyelashes, the bruises and scars crusted on her cheeks by the makeup department. She sees us looking.
Rick wanted nothing more than to protect her. In his mind she was a guardian angel, the daughter he’d never had, the woman of his dreams, or somewhere in between.
Of course Francesca would leave Rick. It was just a matter of when. Cliff waited, patiently, until finally, one morning in 1972, she packed a suitcase and left for Reno. Oddly enough, Rick had not cheated, nor had Francesca, nor was there any obvious conflict; it was a gradual slide, like a piece of a giant iceberg breaking off into the ocean. Rick did not handle it well. He spent a month or so shuffling from the couch to the bed, and even then, it was Cliff making him get up; Rick would have stayed immobile if he let him. Cliff guarded him carefully, kept him away from booze, reminded him to shower and put on fresh clothes.
One afternoon in late summer Cliff catches a movie, some big-deal Italian gangster thing, where the hero goes to Sicily and finds a little wife, and halfway through, the car she’s in explodes into a column of fire. Cliff couldn’t concentrate on the movie itself; he was too busy thinking about how to keep Rick away from it. The part about the Italian wife dying violently wouldn’t upset him. What would upset Rick is he would think he could have played the hero part, could have cut up pasta opposite Diane Keaton or held his jaw tight in front of Brando, and he’d drive himself crazy why they hadn’t even asked him, the all-American with the Italian under his belt, instead of some total unknown.
“You know you’re my best friend, right?” asks Rick that same night, sprawled on the couch. Cliff sits opposite him, drinking a beer.
“Yeah, of course. You’re mine.” It’s not false. But it feels odd to say, too wholesome-sounding for the two of them, like they’re sanitizing their own thoughts.
“Do you think — do you think we even have a chance at loving someone? Of being completely understood? Or are we just fucked, Cliff?”
Cliff doesn’t like when Rick asks existential questions. It reminds him of his wife, or the awful two-penny soap operas Sharon keeps turning up on.
“No, buddy. No. Of course it’ll happen.” That was also bullshit. Cliff reaches over and gives Rick a pat on the chest, then gets up to take Brandy for a walk.
Rick is studying himself in the large wooden vanity, making that face he makes when he’s insecure. It’s the bloat. Now that he doesn’t drink, he eats more, and takes these pills: one big, chalky-white one, and another in a tiny blue capsule, and the aspirin he regularly bites in half and chews.
“What do you think of the hair?” Rick asks, meeting Cliff’s eyes through the mirror.
He hadn’t noticed. The shaggy, pseudo-Beatle cut is gone. He’s back to the old hairdo, slicked back, gentle waves along the part. It looks a little dated now. But maybe Rick doesn’t care about that anymore. Back before everything, it was always the latest hairstyle, new Nehru jackets, suits from Saint Laurent, cotton blazers and blocky wool cardigans from Pendleton. Now they all have cigarette holes and unidentifiable stains.
“Did Jay do it?” Cliff asks, slightly zoned out, as he gets himself a beer.
“Yeah, I went next door.” Rick wouldn’t be caught dead in a salon now. Too many questions.
“I think I prefer it.” That was true.
Cliff used to pick the clothes up for him at the department store, and put wads of cash in the shopgirl’s hand. Now he put everything on the credit card whenever he shopped. If Rick was in the habit of checking the statements, he’d know Cliff was in the habit buying things for himself on Rick’s dime. Maybe Rick did notice, but he just didn’t care. They were here and there, largely insignificant: a new shirt to replace an old one with cigarette holes, and a suitcase, the new kind that you can pull along on wheels. It hardly mattered. Cliff was a kept man, whether they admitted it or not.
Another fact: ever since Rick was born, could speak, could think, he had to be someone. His star alway had to shine the brightest. A psychic in the Valley said this was because of his natal placement. A shrink in Brentwood said it might have had to do with early neglect. Confusion about women often stems from a contentious relationship with the mother or other formative female figure. The associations with these painful relationships could cause an unconscious overlap.
That was the term she used, when she gently broached the subject — “unconscious overlap.” All Rick could picture was the faces of the women overlaid across each other, like a Venn diagram, or a religious triptych: his mother, Francesca, Sharon. He didn’t like imagining it for long.
“I’ve worked with many actors,” said the shrink as she adjusted her glasses, made of pink translucent plastic. “Do you think being perceived as a star has changed how you perceive the world?”
“I can’t deal with a woman shrink,” he’d said to Cliff, after three sessions. “I can feel her. Leering. Accusing. Asking all these goddamn questions that I don’t know the answer to.”
“No surprise there,” Cliff had said, merging onto the freeway.
When they first met in 1959, getting drunk at a bar after a table read, Rick did a monologue for him, something he’d prepared for an audition. It was from Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a play Cliff’s father had an almost religious obsession with. He probably saw something of himself in Tyrone, the father — the bitter, washed up actor, recovering from a life of going from theater to theater, bar to bar — so playing him wouldn’t have been that much of a stretch, really, but in the end not even the community playhouse in Palm Springs would pay him any mind. His father treated the play as a treatise, as if it held some secret key to life that Cliff had yet to unearth.
Rick had been the soused, bitter older brother Jamie, telling his younger brother he’d gone out of his way to ruin his life: You’re my Frankenstein, it went. I made you. Cliff knew the lines already. Now they're permanently burned into his brain as performed by Rick in a smoky bar, doing a drunk man’s slouch, spouting:
"Think of me as dead. Tell people, I had a brother, but he’s dead. And when you come back, look out for me. I’ll be waiting to welcome you with that my-old-pal stuff, and give you the glad hand, and at the first good chance I get stab you in the back.” Rick put a waver in his voice for this next part, like he was getting a little weepy. "Only don’t forget me. Remember I warned you—for your sake. Give me credit. Greater love hath no man than this, that he saveth his brother from himself.”
Cliff liked the fact he wanted to do the monologue for him; that he wanted to get his attention, and hold it. But the part he liked best was Rick slurring, that sad drunk mumble that suited the character perfectly, the tight short sentences as he pretended to fall into a stupor:
"Feel better now. Gone to confession. Know you absolve me, don’t you, Kid? You understand. You’re a damned fine kid. Ought to be. I made you. So go and get well. Don’t die on me. You’re all I’ve got left. God bless you, Kid. That last drink—the old K. O…"
Later, Cliff would find that he wasn’t acting. Rick was a real miserable drunk playing a real miserable drunk. He was perfect for theater, perfect for O’Neill; when he was on, really on, you could feel him shaking the room. Cliff wouldn’t have told him this. Rick would see it as an insult, a downgrade; he thought he was made for pictures, that the key light of God himself bounced onto his face in 35 millimeter.
“So did you get the part?” Cliff had asked. Rick was all but twenty-nine, a total ray of fucking light beaming right at him, and for the first time in a while Cliff was flustered.
“No. No. They gave me Edmund.”
“That’s pretty good.”
“He’s the worst part,” laughs Rick, lighting a cigarette. "Who gives a shit about old Edmund, anyway, all he does is cough and complain. ‘Stumbling on toward nowhere, for no good reason.'”
Rick was still too young and wholesome-looking to be Jamie, what with his wool suit and hair slicked back like he was Danny Kaye and those bright, bright eyes. He was better suited to play melancholic, dying Edmund — the less meaty role, more foil than character. But Cliff would have never told him that, either. From the first minute, he was hooked.
"It was a great mistake, being born a man,” Cliff quotes. “I would have been much more successful as a seagull or a fish.”
“Shit,” laughs Rick, “you’ve got a good memory, huh?”
“It’s a good line,” says Cliff.
“Would you rather have been a seagull, or a fish?”
“Ain’t sure about the fish,” says Cliff, “but I would have made a good seagull.”
“I don’t know. Always moving around, a little ruthless.”
“In love with death?”
“No,” says Cliff, only a little tipsy. “Fuck all those plays and their goddamn words and metaphors. We’re making pictures now. Pictures are about pictures. I drive the car. I do your fight choreography. You use what you’ve got, you hit your marks and your angles, and make them remember you. Don’t you forget it.”
“My Marx and my Engels? Be careful, Clifford, or you’ll end up on a list.”
Which was clever, cleverer than Cliff had expected from someone like him, but equally as stupid — a bit like Rick. Then they had had a laugh, and shook hands, and ordered another round.
Driving around in the Hills, sure, Cliff loves that. Peeling out like some badass, tires screeching, speeding through the back roads with the radio on. But being alone in Rick's house, surrounded by the canyons, is something else. In the dead of the summer, it’s never quiet. The sound carries differently up here. When the sun sets the coyotes will start going, which gets Brandy started — he can scold women, he can scold Rick, but he can’t scold his dog. Relatably, after saving her owner’s life Brandy developed a form of canine post-traumatic stress disorder, went berserk at the camera crews in the days after the incident, and still startles at unfamiliar shapes near the sliding glass doors.
They all try to stay away from any news about the trial. The way these newscasters talk about the Mansons you’d think it was the death of American innocence, as if people had just invented killing each other. That a van of hippies attempting to murder a celebrity reflected on us badly, as if America was any more than the sum of its parts, as if the violence wasn’t its backbone, the spinal tube that contained all the important stuff.
Cliff gets in the car and begins to drive aimlessly, tuning the radio from song to song. Brandy’s head lolls out the window, the wind flicking a large stalactite of spit back into the car.
Why do I hurt everyone? he thinks. What made him that way?
I don’t know, says a voice in his head, who he assumes is John Wilkes Booth.
“I love you, Cliff,” Rick says, one night in 1970, when Francesca’s asleep and the cicadas are all going. "I love you. You’re like a brother to me.”
“Shut the fuck up."
“It’s true. It really is true.”
Rome, June 1969:
He is at his worst, his absolute worst, the carafes of drinks and expensive bottles of grappa and new silk shirts and wallets from Gucci, drunk to the point where Cliff helps him out of his pants and into the hotel bed, plucks the burning cigarette out of his hand and tosses it in the ashtray or the melted remains of his drink. Usually he’s nodded off by the time he’s done, and Cliff sits on the bed, regains his breath, and goes to the adjoining room.
“Don’t go,” he hears Rick say, as he gets up. “Don’t go yet, Cliffy.”
“Sure.” Cliff stands over him, salvaging Rick’s half-finished cigarette and puffing on it.
“I couldn’t have gone to Italy without you,” Rick says, out of nowhere.
“Sure you could.”
“No I couldn’t. I can’t do fucking anything. I’m hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. I’m washed up.”
“Now don’t say that.” Cliff tries not to sound uninvested.
"The money’s tight, Cliff. But we’ll do it, we’ll manage, like always. You’ve always been so good to me. Always cleaning up my fucking mess.”
It’s rare he hears a thank you, but this is close. Cliff just smiles, stiffly. “Ain’t a big deal. We’ve always worked together.”
Standing there over the side of the bed, Cliff realizes how far they’ve actually come. A long way from slumming it in that barroom in Hollywood, trying to impress each other. He studies his face, looking for too long, until suddenly Rick's chin wrinkles and eyebrows knit together, and he’s crying, real tears, scrabbling for Cliff’s hand.
“What’s the matter?” Cliff asks. Goddamn crybaby.
“I love you,” says Rick. “You’re the only one who fuckin’ understands me, you know that? And you don’t ask for anything.”
“Rick.” His grip on his hand goes limp.
He reaches for Cliff’s T-shirt, rests his hand over his stomach, notably softer after five months of Italian food. No one else but Rick had touched him in ages, even in Rome, where catcalling seemed to be fair game. There were cafés on street corners where men called after women, and girls called after Cliff, waving their wine glasses: hey, hey Yankee, sei bellissimo. Bell’uomo. He never looked their way, not once. Cliff didn’t like being watched, didn’t like how they perceived him — some Yankee, some dumb old cowboy, sexually available, only interested in what was young and shallow.
“It’s true, god damn it,” Rick says. “I know you do. Ever since we first fucking saw each other, I knew.”
He grabs at Cliff's belt loop, feels over the front of his jeans. Arousal has faded in vaguely, in the way someone might suddenly feel an itch, or develop a cramp. Cliff doesn’t know why. This whole thing feels pathetic.
“Let me just take care of you,” Rick murmurs.
Cliff doesn’t think, doesn’t breathe. He just hears his belt buckle being undone, the clink of metal, then it’s as if someone’s wiped his mind like a chalkboard — then all he can feel is himself fucking Rick’s mouth, hot and slick, and his own mouth dry as drought.
That familiar feeling is back. Surely one of them had thought about this before, but when did the idea come first, and from who? Was it the first moment he saw him? Was it in that bar, watching Rick play Jamie, even when at heart, he was an Edmund? Or had it been festering unconsciously this whole time, waiting to bubble up to the surface? He doesn’t know. Suddenly he remembers to breathe again.
“Look at me,” says Cliff, and Rick does. His eyes are bright as ever. Less than half a second later he comes, like something primordial has woken up, and Rick swallows around him, carefully, dragging Cliff’s hand to his head, down his face.
Neither of them say anything. Rick watches with a strange detachment as Cliff moves on top of him, spits into his palm, and begins working his hand methodically, still looking at him. Cliff has spent all this time looking and he still doesn’t understand what’s going on in his eyes. It feels almost violent, the act of looking. Rick jerks and twists under him until he makes a soft, choked sort of sound from his throat, eyelids bolting shut, and with every aftershock he stutters out his name: “Cliff. Cliff. Jesus, Cliff.”
They pull away from each other, gasping and laughing, if you could call it that, neither quite sure of what they’d done. Rick nods off, slowly. That last drink — the old K.O. Cliff gets up, drains another beer, and goes to bed. A month later, they’re flying back to Hollywood with Francesca.
For a few weeks after the divorce papers go through and the news hits the tabloids, Sharon comes by almost every day, out of the kindness of her heart, Cliff guesses. Casseroles and pies go half-eaten, giant pitchers of iced tea or lemonade collecting flies on the counter. Cliff tries to imagine her in that kitchen, sweating over a Better Homes and Gardens. She must be bored, if she’s doing this. Poor Sharon. What’s it like when the auteur loses interest, when you’re no longer someone’s muse? When you’re stuck in the Hollywood Hills with Jay Sebring, watching yourself on television?
Cliff wonders if she and Rick are in the same boat, if that’s why they’ve hit it off. But then Rick goes to return the Tupperware and baking dishes and pitcher painted with daisies, and the house returns back to its regular disorder — ashtrays overflowing, kitchen smelling of dirty dishes and rotting produce. Cliff hardly sees Sharon at all anymore, except for the rare occasion they're both walking the dog or taking out the garbage.
“She’s good,” Rick says, staring at the TV one day, watching her cry beautifully. “She’s really good. I wonder what happened.”
There’s some other girl he was obsessed with too, a little actress who moved next door. She looks like Rosemary Clooney before she saw the almost-President get shot and gained all that weight. Rick notices Cliff tense whenever he brings her up.
“Are you jealous?” Rick asks him one time, just to needle him.
“Stop asking me questions just to piss me off.” It reminds him of his wife. Cliff refuses to fall for it.
“Well, does it?”
Cliff just looks at him.
“Well, it’ll never happen,” Rick mutters, wandering off to the pool. “I’m just screwing with you.”
“I’m sorry,” Rick had sobbed that night, with Francesca asleep in the next room, cicadas abuzz. “I’m sorry I did this to you.”
“Did what?” Cliff said, flatly, taking a drag on his cigarette.
“Don’t fucking pretend. You know. You know exactly what I did.”
Cliff pushed the decanter of whiskey across the coffee table, away from them, and let Rick rest his head in his lap, closing his eyes. Without much thought he strokes back his hair, traces over his nose and the lines of his cheeks. Rick’s grown older, his face more weary, more distinguished. He would make a fantastic Jamie now.
Cliff couldn't stop thinking about Francesca and her cold stare, how she’d look at him in the morning when he was still there, fingernails tapping accusingly on the counter. Why won’t he just go home to his trailer in Van Nuys, she’d think. And Cliff would think: why won’t she stop looking?
Rick couldn’t stop thinking about that night in Rome. He wondered if Cliff thinks he was blacked out, or if they both were. There were too many things he has to reconcile with, too many stupid mistakes. He stared at the paneled ceiling, feeling nothing except for Cliff’s hands carding through his hair. And his eyes. Rick can always feel him looking, with that total adoration, and it breaks his fucking heart.
Of course it’ll happen, buddy, Cliff says. Of course you’ll find someone who loves you, who understands you. There are thousands of narcissistic actors in the world, plenty of people who have seen and done terrible things, who have made reconcilable mistakes.
There’s only one Clifford Booth, Cliff thinks to himself while he’s walking the dog, and Clifford Booth is better off with no one. He hurts people. It is in his lineage, his upbringing, his natal chart.
After he goes to bed, Cliff flips through Rick’s awful, schmaltzy record collection, full of all these stupid, sentimental songs addressed to unspecified ‘yous.’ Can’t Get Used to Losing You. The Very Thought of You. These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You.)
Jesus. Does he listen to anything recorded after they shot Kennedy? Cliff has over a decade on Rick, and he’s somehow the one with younger tastes. He settles on an Ella Fitzgerald compilation and puts the volume on low, feeds Brandy, and sits down to roll a joint, crushing up the grass in the bag with his hands. He’d bought it on Sunset earlier that day. Hardly anyone tried to sell you drugs from a car window anymore — Los Angeles had really gone to shit.
For a minute, he fantasizes about splitting, driving up to Montana or something, working on a dude ranch. He knew it would have been impossible. He’s hardly been anywhere else in his life. Rick was the only reason he’d gotten anywhere, by being his glorified valet, by falling violently in love, swearing to himself he’d follow him as long as he could stand it.
One song ends, another starts. He sits there and smokes, staring out the glass doors. Then suddenly the muscles in his face begin to hurt, his throat tightens, and he realizes he’s crying. Crying harder than he’s ever cried. Not even when he killed his wife.
A man is a two-face, says Ella, a worrisome thing who’ll leave you to sing the blues in the night.
“Are you crying?” There’s Rick, standing there in that monogrammed fucking robe and silk boxers, looking ridiculous.
“No,” Cliff starts to say, but it’s obvious, just hearing his voice.
“You never cry,” says Rick, sitting next to him on the couch, as Cliff stubs out the joint. “What’s the matter?” He reaches out for his shoulder; Cliff pulls from his touch, but Rick just smiles. “It’s my fault. Isn’t it, old buddy?”
“Fuck off with the ‘old buddy’ stuff,” Cliff says, emboldened. “And your clueless fucking smile. Thinking you’re so fucking perfect.”
Rick’s voice drops down to that quiet Southern drawl, as he wipes Cliff's tears, brushes back his hair: “You think you’re perfect?”
“Yeah. Yeah, baby, I know.” Even as he slides into Cliff’s lap, Rick still keeps fucking smiling, eyes darting around, proud of himself somehow, proud that he can reduce someone to this.
“Stop,” Cliff whispers. “Stop doing this, stop acting, stop acting like —“
“Like I don’t belong to you?” he asks. “Like I haven’t belonged to you the second I met you?”
Cliff’s stomach twists. He grips Rick’s jaw, thumb resting on his chin. “Look at me.”
He does. Cliff studies him — the long eyelashes, the tendons of his neck in the light, his lovely mouth.
“Say something,” Rick says.
“I love looking at you,” says Cliff, his voice rough from the smoke. “I love looking at you look at me.”
“I know you do.”
There’s a feeling that creeps into Cliff’s chest, and, oddly enough, makes his armpits itch. But then Rick leans in and he feels nothing, like he’s been thrown into the water — or set on fire. He remembers this feeling now. Absolution.
Rick kisses him a few times, in a gentle, almost fluttery way, until Cliff can’t stand it and grips the back of his head, working his mouth open with his tongue. His mind is the opposite of blank. Rick is all that he can process, the only other person in the world that exists, and he puts his arms around him, gripping tight.
Rick pulls him to his feet, guides him down the hall, lets Cliff push him into the door and pin him to the dresser as they stumble into the bedroom. Cliff secretly loves it in here, the shag rug and the tacky posters and the gold poly-silk-blend sheets to match every other fabric Rick wore, soft and slippery and unbreathable. He practically tears off Rick’s stupid robe and boxers, lets him help peel off his own clothes.
“Don’t just gape,” Cliff says, teasing but firm. “Get on the bed.”
Rick sits down, and thumbs over Cliff’s bare hip, feeling the thick band of scar tissue from the jackknife. Somehow that girl had managed to stab clear through his the side of his left asscheek and miss anything crucial, but Cliff still dragged one leg a bit when he walked, still had to support himself on the mattress as he knelt down.
“That night in Rome.” Cliff kisses Rick's hip, the inside of his thigh. “I should have done this.”
He hears Rick start to say something, always trying to one-up him, but then Cliff takes him into his mouth, deliberately, agonizingly slow. Then it’s quiet, just Rick flopping back onto the bed, breathing hard. He sounds relieved, like a drink of water after hours in the desert. In the back of his head, Cliff wonders: who else has touched him, outside of his two or three sham marriages? Who else has sucked his cock on his unmade bed? Who has taken care of him?
“Cliff,” he starts to say, “Cliff—“
He pulls his mouth away, relishing the sound it made, how Rick twitches and gasps, ready to come, before Cliff grips his thigh and tells him, gently, “no."
“Top drawer,” Rick breathes. Cliff decides not to question it, walking to the nightstand. The bottle of lube is stuffed among old receipts and paperbacks, next to a silver flask. Cliff recognizes it as a souvenir from Rome, embossed with the crest of the hotel. He picks it up, shaking it for any sound of liquid.
“Sneaking drinks on me?”
“You promise?” Cliff asks, putting the flask away.
“You’ll do what I say?”
“Lift your hips.”
He slides a pillow under Rick’s ass, getting him comfortable, raking his hands up his torso. Cliff runs his two fingers along his bottom lip, probing into his mouth. Rick sucks on them, diligently, looking right at him, knowing exactly what he’s thinking about, exactly what he’s wanted, all this time.
“You trust me,” says Cliff, under his breath.
It’s more of a remark than a question, but Rick doesn’t miss a beat: “More than anyone.”
Cliff clicks the cap open on the bottle of lube. He doesn’t mind doing all the work; that’s nothing new. How many times had they slept in different beds, separated by fifty square feet of plush carpet and wood paneling, one of them pining after something like this? How many times had Cliff scolded himself before, for imagining something he shouldn't: Rick saying his name like that again, Rick with his head bowed in the pillow, Rick shivering at his touch. They all seem shallow, meaningless compared to now.
He squeezes another generous dab of lube into his hand, pumps himself a few times, and leans down. “This what you want?” he asks in Rick's ear, pressing against him.
“Don’t fuckin’ do that,” Rick says hoarsely. “You know what I want.”
“You want me to fuck you?”
In any other circumstance, Cliff would have rolled his eyes at this kind of stuff. His typical approach to sex was quick, wordless, methodical, usually obtained in the mens’ bathrooms of public parks and dimly lit bars in West Hollywood. But in this case he enjoyed hearing Rick answer him, all flustered and annoyed: “Please, Cliff.”
Cliff grips onto his shoulder, kneads the muscle with his hand as he eases into him. “Breathe, Ricky.”
Rick doesn’t speak. He can barely hold himself upright, so Cliff grabs onto his hips, angles him the right way, holds down his head. He keeps making these strained, muffled sounds as he fucks him, which Cliff realizes is him talking under his breath, praising him through gritted teeth: you’re so good, Cliff, you’re so fucking good. God. God—
Rick comes, hard, everything suspending in the air for a second. Then he's falling even harder, his breath ragged, body shaking. Cliff helps him through it, rough but tender, finishing quietly.
"You did beautiful," Cliff says. Just a kiss on the back of his neck, a slap on the thigh, and then he's gone.
Cliff stumbles to the bathroom and rinses off in the sink. It's dead quiet, except for the crickets, a coyote somewhere far off. When he gets back with a towel, Rick is lying there, face-up, still short of breath. Cliff wipes off his stomach, then leans down to kiss him.
“All right,” Cliff whispers, “now what’s wrong?”
"I mean, Jesus.” Rick laughs, but doesn't look away. “What are we doing?”
“Why do you need to put it into words?”
“I need words, Cliff.”
That’s all he does, anyway: hear words, respond to them, memorize them, discern meaning from the words, separate his mind from his body to turn the words into images.
Image: Rick being, just being, without an action or given circumstance, just existing.
Image: Cliff, looking.
Words do not translate.
“Say it.” Rick's still staring. “What are you afraid of? You’re not afraid of anything.”
There are plenty of things I’m afraid of, Cliff wants to say. But then and there, nothing comes to mind.
“I love you, Rick. I fucking love you” — and he kisses him again here, for measure — “more than fucking anything. Alright?”
“Good,” Rick says, fitting into his arms, resting his head on his shoulder. “Good.”
Cliff glances down at him, stroking back his hair. “That's all. All the words I got.”
Both of them sleep like the dead.
When Cliff wakes up, sheets clinging to his skin, he feels like George Bailey on Christmas fucking morning. The bed is empty except for Brandy snoring at his feet, but he smells coffee and slightly burnt toast, hears commercials running from the living room. He wonders why he'd leave the house empty, before he sees him through the glass door, clothes abandoned on the patio, wading into the chlorine-blue pool.
“What are you doing?” Cliff asks, as he steps outside.
Rick drags his hand through the water. “It’s nice. C'mere?”
With a shrug, Cliff steps out of his boxers and into the pool, opposite Rick. He’s right, the water is perfect, still cool in the morning sun. Rick steps backwards into the deeper end, until it's up to their shoulders, until Cliff nearly loses his footing and grabs around Rick’s waist, pulling him in.
Rick doesn’t kiss him right away. He throws his arms around his neck, meeting his lips as he sinks back into the water, and Cliff follows him down.