Remember that time you made the wish?
I make a lot of wishes.
The time I lied to you
about the butterfly. I always wondered
what you wished for.
What do you think I wished for?
I don't know. That I'd come back,
that we'd somehow be together in the end.
--Louise Gluck, The Wish
When he called his mom to ask about aliens, she was so loaded he could barely understand her. Classic mom: mixing up her Indian and alien stories, weaving in and out, tripping over her words, slurring into next week. It was his own fault for calling after sundown. He’d forgotten that she was best in the late morning, when the alcohol from the previous night had begun to recede and she was only beginning to dip into the day’s stash.
He visits her for the first time since high school after Caulfield, after the long morning dragging into afternoon in the junkyard, the painful conversation with Maria, and even more painful one with Michael. It goes better than expected, mostly because she’s not there. The reservation is a two-hour drive and her house a squat speck out in the empty desert. Floral tiles stretch across the floors and kitchen, a ribbon wrapping outside the adobe. Climbing roses trellised on the south wall, blooming. A glass, wet with condensation, sits on the counter. He sips it: vodka-water, her specialty. Cups litter countertops, fat flies float around. A picture of him and his brothers on a shelf behind stacks of yellowed papers: they’re just kids piled high with camping gear, Alex missing all four of his front teeth.
She kept a garden when he was a kid: papaya, guava and avocado, tomatoes and squash, ethereal orchids and lilies and finicky crocuses that Alex wasn’t allowed to touch. A garden of Eden in the middle of New Mexico, sucking up enough water for an entire reservation. She’d had to pump her water growing up, and once she got out, she went wild in all sorts of ways. Vases on every surface full of lush blossoms. The neighbors always used to admire it, until things got bad and then they complained about the waste. After she left, it went all brown and brittle, up and died. Eventually his dad called a landscaping crew to haul the dead things away, turned her greenhouse into a shed.
His mom hates cops and the military with the distrust of a reservation kid. She’s never liked anyone in uniform unless they’re delivering mail. Most of the records from the 40s and 50s haven’t been digitized, so he uses his mom’s name to spend an afternoon combing through tribal newspapers and records, looking for -- something. Little green men. A familiar face. The librarian says, “I wasn’t aware she had children,” peering at him through rimless glasses. Alex thinks most days they both try to forget.
He stands in Maria’s kitchen feeling fifteen again, propped up on the counter, heels striking the cupboards in a staccato rhythm. She asks about his dad. “The same,” says Alex, shoulders hiked around his ears. His father was on a ventilator for four days, then vanished into thin air, which is typical of Alex’s family. Alex finds himself feeling hunted like he hasn’t in nearly a decade, an uneasiness between his shoulder blades behind his heart. It’s not paranoia if you know the danger is real. His brothers are nowhere to be found. Once Alex knows to look it’s not hard to find Flint’s history: booze and guns and civilian deaths, a history of violent altercations. The family legacy. What did you do to us, he thinks of asking, but he doesn’t bother. His dad would never answer and, anyway, Alex already knows. “Mimi?”
Maria sighs. “Same.” She’s let her canvases and paints multiply across the house, paint-splattered drop cloths all over like she’s about to move out. Her new style is abstract: bright, aching blues and honeyed golds. It reminds him of the desert. She has a wing of yellow paint across her neck, smeared across the pendant. The necklace catches the light. There are no coincidences, except there are : life is a series of unrelated cataclysms and Alex is sifting through the rubble, trying to make sense of it all.
Alex hesitated when Maria raised the possibility that Mimi’s dementia is alien-related -- “Literal, not Will Smith,” she clarified. Not because things are uneasy (or not quite easy, at least) between them, but because Alex knows what it is to fool yourself into believing something is going to save you. “This is why I didn’t tell you about the faith healer -- that!” she said, pointing at him, almost touching his nose, even though Alex is positive his face didn’t move. Then, “It’s my mom,” she said.
“Okay,” Alex told her. He cannot watch another person he loves lose a mom.
He pores over the Caulfield files, first in the Project Shepherd bunker, then in his own once the paranoia overtakes him. He takes apart the creepy dollhouse room and installs monitors and a desk. He keeps everything sensitive in the carved out hollow where he found the glass and makes a rule to never take the files above ground. Kyle thinks he’s losing his mind. He makes jokes about Homeland and walls of crazy, but Kyle has issues of his own: a resurrected half-sister, Liz teetering on the brink of sleep-deprived collapse, Max Evans walking around like some kind of alien Jesus. “At least Jesus had a little humility,” Kyle says, like he personally witnessed the crucifixion. Alex isn’t sure what he’s looking for: a key or some kind of reason, an explanation, some note of humanity. A kind of restitution.
His mom used to say she drank because of the open wounds of her ancestors. That Indians passed along their trauma, that it was etched into her very cells, the way you might inherit blue eyes (his brother) or hypermobility (his other brother). Alex never believed it, but he’s starting to change his mind. Decades of horror, of captivity, and extermination have seeped into him.
What he has is a corner of a puzzle piece and even that he has to parcel out in increments when his stomach churns. He allows himself two beers a night, no more, sitting on the steps of the cabin, his slow, steady breaths blowing out in billowing white clouds. The files are written in opaque, passive governmentese where there is never any direct action taken and no real responsibility, just endless horror. The first time he comes across Mescalero he ignores it, but it eats away the corner of his mind until he combs through Jim Valenti’s coded death messages and there is. Bright as day.
When he can’t face the files, he sifts through the cabin’s other artifacts, which he has kept intact, museum-like, half afraid that if he settles in, it will be unbearable to leave again. He unearths photo albums: Kyle and Alex as kids, their hair long and shaggy. They rode their bikes off the Valentis’ roof into the pool, whooping. His mom caught it on camera: their silhouettes hovering weightless like something out of Spielberg, Kyle’s mom breaking into a run, Jim Valenti by the flaming grill with a beer, cucumber-cool. He puts it on the fridge along with a photo from his seventh birthday with Maria and Kyle on either side of him, Maria in a flower crown blowing out Alex’s candles.
The desert around Roswell is huge, barely inhabited, the sky cracking open overhead in fierce gulps of blue. He used to dream about that hallucinatory blue, the horizon unrolling for miles upon miles to the end of the earth. It’s the kind of place a person could disappear into. He feels calmest when he’s driving, looking out into the rusty orange haze where the earth meets the sky, the wind rushing over him.
He came out to Maria first. They were fifteen and she already knew. Pretty much the whole school knew. He used to wonder about it, what it was that people saw when they looked at him, if he could conceal it if he just tried hard enough. It was exhausting hiding all the time. It was terrifying, even though he knew she knew, had maybe known since that day in sixth grade when he kissed her and they never talked about it again. Her mouth was soft and dry. His first kiss. He was so nervous he thought he might vomit, bile rising in his throat, flushed, pulse racing. You stand in the doorway, one hand on the knob, because once the door closes it’s locked forever. He was sweating. “Okay,” she said. That was it.
Later, he told her about Michael -- or, about someone. She guessed, the way she always has; she needled him all through those last weeks of senior year. She teased that it was Kyle, which made him so angry he didn’t speak to her for two weeks, until Rosa died and he found her on her kitchen floor, knees drawn up to her chest, crying. She said, “Tell me something good,” and Alex said, “He kissed me. In the museum.” He couldn’t bear to tell her the rest.
The thing is, they’ve been friends for over twenty years. That counts for something, because it has to. It’s not like Alex has family to fall back on. Alex held Maria’s hand during Rosa’s funeral; their fingers laced together on Maria’s knee. He missed Liz, but understood: the people you love do terrible things. The town was dead then, still, an old western just before guns drawn, all the shops and restaurants closed for a day of mourning: competing funerals. His dad was gone on one of his absentee stretches where he disappeared for days at a time, maniacal. Alex heard him lingering outside Alex’s bedroom door around three or four in the morning, frozen, and Alex held his breath until he heard the master bedroom door swing shut. His own room was in shambles, his stuff dumped out all over the floor, posters torn down, CDs cracked in half. “You’re selfish,” his dad told him. “You always have been.”
The bar opens at eleven am for the lunch crowd. The sun is merciless when they step out of her house, the sky a cheerfully vacant dome above them. Maria’s place is four blocks from the Pony, across 380 right where it turns into east Second. As kids they were forbidden to cross the highway without supervision, a rule they ignored, hurtling down the road on bikes as semis howled past, horns blaring. There’s a lone Chevy in the Pony lot, passenger door ajar, limbs hanging out. “I’ll see you inside,” says Maria, terse, her face almost hawk-like in the bleaching sun. She strides off, suddenly taller, her boots leaving perfect tracks in the dirt.
“I wanted something easy,” she’d told him, running her finger around the rim of his glass, one clear note ringing out. “One easy thing.” She gave him a look that told him what he already knew: there’s nothing easy about Michael. Or -- there is, but not for Alex. Maria’s been pouring drinks long enough to know the difference between blowing off steam and careening heedlessly toward a precipice.
“It doesn’t have to be hard,” said Alex, but he’s not sure he believes it. Only the hard things are worth doing; it’s in his bones, dragging him across the dusty parking lot, inexorably toward Michael. The tailgate is starting to rust away, one jagged stripe lightning bolting down to the bumper. Years ago, that last summer in Roswell, they used to stretch out against each other in the truck bed, still breathless, sweat cooling, staring at each other. Alex used to want to climb inside Michael, safe. He still does, although he’s less convinced of the safety.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Alex once, ten years ago. It was the only time. Alex’s hand curled against Michael’s face and he could feel the words against his thumb, the way Michael swallowed, the way his eyes seemed fathomless and deep. He thought about driving through the country with Michael by his side, maybe down into Mexico or up into the Rockies. Just -- pick up their shit and go. Never look back.
Michael took his hands -- one mangled, still bandaged -- off Alex’s face, rolled away onto his back. Alex felt the loss of him, the desert chill creeping between them like a yawning chasm. Michael faced the night broken up with little pinpricks of light millions of lightyears away, some of them dead by now. “What for,” Michael said. He sounded exhausted. Alex couldn’t breathe; the tears welled up like pressure on a worn-down, decrepit dam. He spent so much time patching trickles and leaks, but one day the whole thing would collapse, wiping out towns, a great, crushing flood destroying everything in its path. He enlisted two months later, but in his mind that was it: the broken-down note in Michael’s voice, the feeling that they were both drowning, unable to save each other.
He feels that same tug of helplessness now, finding Michael stretched out across the seat, one leg propped up on the dash, the other trailing out the open door. He opens one eye, bleary and bloodshot, when Alex taps on the glass, and scrubs a hand through his hair. “Officer,” he says, jaunty, an asshole. There’s a fading yellow-green bruise on his cheek.
“Guerin,” says Alex, his breath feeling caught in his throat. “What--” he starts, but stops because the hazy glimmer in Michael’s eye is immediately familiar, the apple-red around his nose and cheeks. Notes from another lifetime.
“Early bird, worm,” says Michael. He’s smiling, the familiar, much-hated grin, made of sharp edges.
Alex opens his mouth, feeling the distance between them, desperate to be both anywhere else and to wrap his arms around Michael, bury his face against Michael’s neck, where he’s warm and smells familiar. There are always moments with Michael when he knows he should speak, or listen, and the silence echoes. “Do you -- need anything,” he says, stumbling, meaning: let me help you. Michael stares at him, searching Alex’s face with his expression broken open.
Michael swallows. “A drink,” he says, his voice faintly tremulous, the bitten-off words like a swing at odds with the way his gaze tracks over Alex.
Alex nods, blows out a breath. His lungs are going to collapse. He cannot understand why the two of them are always driving headlong into each other, dangerous like drunks speeding down the highway, why he cannot make himself understood to the one person he is desperate for. “I’m here,” he says. “If -- any time,” he finishes. Full stop.
Michael looks at Alex like he’s a mirage. He makes a quick, abortive gesture as though he’s considering reaching out and thinks better of it. “Thanks,” he says, soft.
It’s weird to be in the Wild Pony as an adult, like going back to your elementary school and marveling at how tiny everything is, only reversed. As a kid, he would ride his bike from school to Maria’s place. Alex and Maria would entertain themselves around the pool table or drawing pictures when his mom ordered another round, which was almost always. If they got too rowdy, Mimi would throw them out and they’d sit on the floor of Maria’s kitchen, the fridge hanging open in the midafternoon heat, melting all over the floor. His mom would materialize in the kitchen doorway, larger than life, keys jingling: dinnertime. Mimi wasn’t judgmental about kids in bars, but when Alex’s mom had had a few too many, which was a lot of the time, she’d let Alex stay over. Most days Alex’s mom used to tip her drink into a plastic cup: one for the road. Those were the days when his mom was circling the drain, before she was gone for good.
Tacked up behind the bar is a collage of postcards, nearly all from Alex, from all the places he visited when he was on leave -- Thailand, India, Turkey, Italy, Morocco -- all papered over each other, some peeling with age. He used to send Maria a postcard from every place he went, when he was able; sometimes she’d email him months later to say thanks. Most of them are hideously tacky, poorly printed and grainy, the landmarks overexposed. If he’d known she was going to keep them, he would’ve tried harder to get her something nice to look at. People buy him drinks, so many that Maria tells him he’s running a positive tab. “You and Guerin balance each other out,” she tells him and Alex thinks she might mean it, but it still steals his breath away.
“You deserve to be happy,” says Maria.
“You too,” says Alex.
When his grandmother’s mind started to go, he and his mom would ferry supplies out to reservation twice a month: bags of rice and canned beans, the car so heavy it dragged. She’d left to marry his dad under unclear circumstances, bad blood, but every two weeks, clockwork, she’d load the backseat up and station him in the front, her little helper. He remembers sharp scent of her breath beneath the mint of Listerine as she told him about matrilineal societies. “That means I’m in charge,” she said, combing her hand over his head. Her skin flushed in patches across her collar and throat the way it did after a bender. They hiked across a plateau strewn with sunbursts of wildflowers; she linked their arms to coax him down a rocky slope. It had been a weirdly wet winter and the wildflowers were in full bloom, a rainbow quilt stretching out into the horizon. She told him a story about a fire kicking across the edge of the plateau when hit by the setting sun, leaning down, her face next to his.
Later, his dad lined up all the vodka bottles on the counter and poured them down the kitchen sink; she chased him around the house with a kitchen knife. He remembers his dad’s voice, measured, as he listed out her litany of sins, and his mom yelling. It wasn’t all the same day, but the mind is tricky that way: memories bleed together, individual wounds coalescing into one terrible scar. It’s one of his last clear memories before his parents split for good.
He missed her in a way that wasn’t quite possible until she was beyond his reach. He found himself remembering the good times: the Wild Pony, Mimi, learning to play pool and poker, lazy afternoons in the the private sanctuary of her greenhouse, day trips out in the desert to the edge of the earth. When he thinks of his mom, he thinks of her driving, the windows open, her hair whipping around her face, wild. She wore her hair in a long heavy curtain and drove an El Camino that had been the height of cool when she was a teen. When she’d been drinking, she’d put him in the front seat, an adult privilege he relished as the baby. Late, when he was a teenager he’d sit in the shed and pretend he could feel her there, flowers bursting out of the shadows. He knows it’s an illness. She couldn’t help it. He repeats it to himself like a rosary. It doesn’t make him feel better. Sometimes it makes him feel worse.
She would swing him around and around by his arms so he could fly, bright, until suddenly she wasn’t; her mood would shift and she’d be sly and cruel. You never knew which mom were going to get. His brothers used to send Alex first, the canary in the coal mine, to see if it was safe or not. He learned early it rarely was. Later on, they did the same thing with their dad. When she was cornered, she’d lash out, like a wild animal. He gets that from her: that mean streak he tries to bite back, his tendency to go low when he feels trapped. He tries not to wonder what he gets from his dad.
His mom used to pull tarot cards at the Wild Pony as a party trick. She’d channel the ancestors or whatever, intoning low and slow, taking deep pulls of her vodka and water, and Mimi would laugh and laugh. Alex and Maria were always underfoot: running around, bogarting the pool table in the early afternoon, using the controls on the back of the jukebox to play songs they loved over and over again until Mimi threw them out into the parking lot. “No kids after five,” she’d tell them, which was at least one, maybe two hours until dinner.
Once his mom was gone, he’d sneak over to the Pony after school, but it was different somehow, sadder, his mom’s usual spot at the bar empty. They went to the bar less and to the Crashdown more, probably sending poor Arturo into bankruptcy in free fries and milkshakes. In the first early months he half-expected her to just reappear one day, as if by magic, he’d poke his head through the doors and there she’d be, sipping her usual, long hair falling around her face, swapping secrets with Mimi. She’d say, let’s go kiddo, and they’d ride off together. It wasn’t until the dream faded, dried up like a desert river, that he even realized he’d been secreting it away in his heart. Mimi would pass her hand through his hair and just for a second, he felt safer.
When he visits Mimi, she drifts between thinking he’s a total stranger or some kind of cross between his parents, which, in a way, he guesses he is. She seems to pass through multiple times at once, walking through the long hallway of her life with all the doors hanging wide open, bleeding into each other: now it’s twenty years ago, now she’s a child, now she’s saying, “The usual?” It’s comforting she’s never afraid of him, that even through the fog of her memory she trusts him. What a gift.
Liz scours the cave where Isobel’s husband kept his pod -- kept Rosa , Jesus -- and turns up very little. Silver needles, sachets of pollen, hastily scrawled notes cribbed from Michael’s research, a handful of receipts from a gas station down 380 out by Mescalero. Alex drives out with Kyle but they find nothing: two pumps, chips and bottom-rail liquor sold by an indifferent teenager. He stands at the edge of the highway, looking out where the foothills of the Sierras cowlick up out of the earth.
They steep the pollen into a tea, dissolve it into a salve for Mimi. Liz does it. She’s convinced it helps, but he’s not sure. She more lucid, but it’s brief. It’s worth it for the look on Maria’s face, luminous, burying her face in her mom’s neck. “My baby,” Mimi says, touching Maria’s hair. His mom leaned across the bar and grasped Mimi’s hand. “Keep this close,” she said, touching the necklace. “You’ll need it.” It’s funny the things you forget and they come to you, fully-formed, like a monstrous creature in shadow revealed to be just a lump of clothes.
Liz promises to look up import rules from Libya. Alex and Maria go back to Maria’s house to mix tequila and limeade on her living room floor, backs against the covered couch.They rent Independence Day for research (“Maybe there’s a hidden clue.” “Like a hell of a day to quit drinking?”) and take shots every time they trip over each other reciting the lines. He can almost imagine that Mimi will come home any minute and they’ll throw a frozen pizza in the oven. When he was seventeen, if he’d had to say what he’d thought he’d be doing in ten years, this would’ve been it.
Mimi was the mom he wished he’d had. He use to pretend that if his mom sobered up, she’d be like Mimi: generous, loving, instead of mercurial and furious. When he was in high school, he’d fantasize something bad happened to his dad -- not fatal, but serious like a coma (oh the irony) or a transfer to somewhere like Antarctica -- and Mimi would offer to take him in. He’d live in Maria’s house, he’d learn to fix the popcorn machine, and the two of them would play on weekends: Maria singing, Alex on guitar. They ended up doing that anyway. It was dumb; there’s no way she could’ve afforded it or probably even wanted an angry, prickly teenager full of mines just waiting to explode.
Maria’s eyes are wet. “I used to wish for that too,” she says. “Even when we were kids.” Liz had Rosa, and who needed three whole brothers when Maria only wanted one. She pulls her lip between her teeth. “And it kind of happened, right?” They watch Will Smith clock an alien in the face. Now that’s what I call a close encounter, they both say, and Alex grinds his teeth to keep from smiling. Maria watches him from the corner of her eye. He isn’t sure who cracks first, but then they’re both laughing, a little hysterically. Close encounters indeed. Maria puts her head on Alex’s shoulder. “I miss us,” she says.
“Me too,” says Alex. He got so caught up in all the alien crap, in the dumb horror of history, running away, he let himself forget: sometimes you have to be a person too. He can smell her shampoo, the warm scent of her skin. Sometimes home can be a person. A memory, the weight of Maria’s hand in his, riding their bikes alongside the highway, the dust and hot wind stinging his face. Playing guitar while she rinsed glasses in the early hours of weekend mornings and sang, clear, bell-like.
His mom fell asleep at the wheel as they roared down the highway in the midafternoon. They plowed through the barbed wire fence directly into a bull minding its own business. The bull rolled over the top of the car, crushing it. His mom was boneless the way drunks can be, but Alex cracked his head against the windshield, developing black rings around his eyes for weeks. He remembers Jim Valenti shining a flashlight into his eyes and the spider web fissures in the glass. He remembers very little else of that day or the months immediately after, as though someone has scooped his memories clean. “You knew me but didn’t remember,” Maria tells him.
Then his mom was gone, up and vanished except for irregular birthday cards and a handful of visits: it was like playing Russian roulette, except the gun was his mom and she was almost always loaded.
They, perhaps by family decree that Alex can’t remember, erased her from their lives, their memories, elided her from their collective family history so it almost seemed as though the four of them had sprung up fully formed through their dad’s sheer willpower, like some kind of mythic god. Year after year she grew less clear in his mind, as though the desert sun were bleaching her away, taking on the shadowed quality of a fable. Less of a mom and more of a cautionary tale. Sometimes childhood memories take on the form of an impressionist painting: quick, sketched, saturated less in form than in feeling.
He pulls into the junkyard at twilight, when the shadows are huge and long, the sun a sinking red disk on the horizon. Alex always lingered around the museum until Michael got off work and he’d be sticky with sweat, dirty from crawling around under the hoods of cars, mucked up engines. Alex would climb into the truck as the sun was setting, those blinding summer desert sunsets that drench everything golden-red, make it impossible to see. He would stare out the window at the long desert shadows, picking out rabbits and lizards, owls and hawks circling overhead, hyper aware of Michael next to him.
Alex lived in complete terror that summer, would turn corners with his breath held in case his dad was lurking on the other side. He jumped at shadows and his heart raced any time he couldn’t find an escape route. He lost weight. He stopped sleeping, existing in some dream state between exhaustion and adrenaline, which ended up being useful training for deployment. He felt selfish, just like his dad said he was, for keeping Michael back, for tying him to the worst and best day of Alex’s life, for being yet another shitty data point on the massive pile of bullshit that was Michael’s life. He told himself it was just the summer, his last summer, so they should enjoy it, and he tried to make it up to Michael, when Alex kissed him and held him, because he couldn’t bring himself to stop.
The airstream is claustrophobic. He’s much closer to Michael than he intended to be. Michael’s eyes are glassy; empty bottles line up on the bedside shelf, soldiers reporting for duty. Funny how the past echoes into the present, ghostlike. Alex pulls the space glass -- his own name for it; whatever it is, a console or a wing or whatever -- out of his backpack. It lights up under his hands, symbols chasing across the surface: the gorgeous, unearthly blue green. For the last few months Alex has stared at it almost every night, copying down the symbols, trying to decipher this piece of Michael, his heart aching. “This is yours,” says Alex. “I -- I should’ve given it to you before, but,” he forces himself to meet Michael’s gaze, even though he can feel his eyes stinging. “I wasn’t ready to let you go.”
Michael’s eyes don’t leave his face. He makes no move to take the glass. “And now?”
Alex blows out a breath slowly. No matter how hard he tries, how much he practices in the confines of his mind, he will never be able to flay his heart open like Michael. It will never come easily to him. “Still no,” he admits. “But It’s not up to me.”
He spends weekends at the cabin and weekdays at the old motel the Air Force has colonized, popping up trailers and temporary bunks, a mini settlement at the edge of town, on the invisible fault where the adobe houses and ranchland give way to open desert. On nights he doesn’t want to go to his aluminum trailer, standard issue and far larger than he’s used to, he lingers around the Wild Pony, nursing a light beer or two, maintaining one never-ending conversation with Maria.
It’s so easy to fall into old routines, as if the last decade can just be wiped away. In high school, Alex used to sleep on the floor of her bedroom two or three nights a week and when he first got back, he stayed there again for a few days while he got the cabin ready. He’s always been an early riser -- waking up with the sun was drilled into him as a kid -- and he felt safest in the early, watery light of the morning, Maria and her mom still asleep. He’d sit in Maria’s dark kitchen and watch light turn golden as the sun rose. He’s been on the move for almost ten years and somehow, Roswell is the only place where the world seems to stop spinning. When you’re aching to leave somewhere, to get on with your life, you never think about missing a place. It’s only now that he’s back, under the scorching desert light, the sheer vastness of the blue sky enveloping him, that he can breathe again. He wonders how Jim Valenti could’ve known.
When Alex first got back in town, he would stop for after-work beers at Saturn’s Ring, hiding shame-faced among the out-of-towners in their alien gear. I got probed in Roswell New Mexico. It’s closer to work and he told Maria that he didn’t want to deal with people who shoved him into lockers in high school falling all over themselves to thank him for getting blown up. It was half true, maybe a third. There were too many memories at the Pony, ghosts of the past hunched over the bar throwing back vodka-waters and tequila. He’s braver now, or maybe just a masochist.
He asks Michael about his project, aware every second of their audience, probably indifferent, maybe not. “Haven’t done much with it,” says Michael, running his finger around the rim of his glass. “Thought I’d take a break. Clear my head.” Climb some mountains, learn to dive. See the Grand Canyon. It’s a big planet out there. Spend time in the sun, see the deep aqua of the Carribean. Michael would look good out there, the hot sun on his face, sand caked around his calves, drinking out of a coconut.
“You’ve been?” says Michael. Alex nods, nodding to the altar of his travels papered behind the bar. He’s been a lot of places. You can run around the whole world looking for the thing you left behind. It’s weird, how he can know Michael, every perfect inch of his skin, the lines of his jaw and stomach, the beloved, familiar way he bites his lip and still be surprised.
“If you get stuck here,” says Alex, his throat thick, closing around the words, “I’ll show you around.”
Michael takes a breath as though the wind has been knocked out of him. “Yeah?” he says. His jaw almost trembles. When Michael looks at him, it can feel as if the rest of the world has fallen silent, the sounds of the bar, the pool balls scattering, as if cleaved away.
“Yeah,” says Alex. He pulls his hands into fists to keep from shaking. He could sit down now, they could have a drink, and probably at the end of the night he’d take Michael’s keys from him and they’d fall into each other like they always do, desperate. Alex will wake up in the airstream with the bitter taste of tequila in his mouth. How can you break out of a cycle that’s so predictable it’s settled like a second skin. “Hold me to it,” he tells Michael, as much of a promise as anything. More of a promise than anything else.
“I will,” says Michael. The future unfurls before them, empty, bright with possibility. Driving home through pitch black roads, with deer, armadillo, tiny mice illuminated by his highbeams, Alex can breathe. What a feeling.
There’s no service in the cabin; Alex has to walk out nearly fifty yards, where the ground falls away, a sheer drop down into a ravine. It’s blissful to be able to hide away sometimes. When they were kids, before the truth of mortality set in, he and Kyle would sit on the edge, dangling their legs out over nothing. Jim Valenti would tell them to beware of coyotes and Alex got a kick out of pretending to hear rustling, scaring Kyle to death. His fridge is blanketed in save-the-dates that go unanswered, announcements of fat, doe-eyed babies, calling cards from another life. Maria, a burst of violet blossoms half obscuring one eye, her mouth a perfect O.
He was twenty the first time he came back to Roswell. His dad had a work thing, so Alex took a cab from the airport, which was probably better. He took his brother’s ancient Corolla to Sanders’ because it gave a heaving gasp and shook every time he idled at a red light. It had always done that. Michael was there, just where Maria had said he would be, squinting into the afternoon sun, his shadow long behind him. Maria had finished up three years at UNM and was thinking of taking a sabbatical to focus on her art. Mimi must’ve been fading even then. Michael looked different in a way that Alex couldn’t place, and his gaze roved all over Alex’s face, taking in his clothes, his hair, everything. He was hyper aware of Michael, of his skin, the tense line of his body, his scarred hand. Alex was so stiff his entire spine hurt, staring out the window at the desert falling away. He’d forgotten the wide-open spaces, the horizon unfolding infinitely as they drove out west toward the edge of the world, the sunlight blinding him. He thought if he could stay away, he could save Michael, he could save both of them. The problem was he never could, so he didn’t. Everyone has their own addiction.
When he was a kid, his dad used to get them all up early for punishingly long, grueling hikes that would end in scrapes and cuts and bone-searing blisters. No one was allowed to fall behind; they set out seamlessly: his dad’s personal military outfit. Alex struggled to keep up with the rest of them. “You need to be able to take care of yourself,” his dad told them. At the end of every day, he and his brothers would build a fire and pass out all over each other in the desert, exhausted. Alex would wake up and his dad would be watching them, his face shadowed in the dying light of the fire, looking haunted.
Some days he goes to bed knowing he’s going to feel like shit in the morning, his lower back and hips tense up for no reason, mid-whatever he’s doing, a knife dug into the meaty part of his thigh and he stumbles, jerky and uneven, compensating with the sound leg, feeling that he may as well be trying to walk on water. Muscles deep in his hips and thighs, across his abs and flanks, that he didn’t even realize he had, ache, and the scars on his stump feel swollen and tender. He nurses a beer on his couch in the dark, feeling sorry for himself. Every time he thinks he’s used to it, something new happens, like climbing a ladder or running a race or getting out of bed in the morning, things that used to be easy, muscle memory, and he grieves all over again, mourning yet another loss. A thing that he may get back, but will never be as easy as it was. You can never truly get anything back.
Outside is the familiar purr of a Chevy pick-up, but the steps on the porch are heavy. Alex tips his head back on the couch to stare at the ceiling. It’s wild that Michael and Maria drive the same car, some cosmic joke where the punchline is him. He lets Michael knock, hears him shuffle around, walking back and forth, saying come on, Alex. The lock clicks and the door swings open, as if of its own accord.
“Don’t break into my house, Guerin.”
“Answer the door, then,” says Michael. He’s backlit: a villain, or a dashing hero, hovering over the threshold. It’s strange to realize that, as often as Alex has fantasized about reaching across the mattress to touch his golden shoulders or falling asleep in a heap with him on the couch, or drinking a sixer on the porch and staring out into the pitch-dark of the trees, listening to the sounds of him breathing, Michael’s never been here before. His very presence, vibrating with riotous energy, feels incongruous with the sleepy dark paneling of the cabin. Michael takes a deep breath, looking around, nervous.
The thing, says Michael, is he has no idea what’s gonna happen when he puts it together, like spontaneously take off on its own or open up a rift in space-time -- yes, like a wormhole but with maybe ninety percent less condescension (“Like a worm hole,” tries Alex again) -- and he’s a little busy with Max walking around like an undead timebomb and Isobel breaking down. It’s not like he could just leave , and even if he did, there’s maybe no home to go back to, just some desolate, war-torn hellscape, and, anyway, now they know there’s someone, somewhere out there just waiting for their opportunity to take it, so, “Hang on to it for me,” he tells Alex. The glass looks brighter in his hands, symbols chasing across it. Michael is ethereal in its light, otherworldly, miraculous. Like always. “Please hang on,” he says.
“Okay,” says Alex. He promises, just to himself. He cannot let Michael down again.
“Don’t give up on me,” says Michael, almost pleading. As if Alex could, in any iteration of any universe. Like he would even know where to start.
In July of that last summer in Roswell, his dad woke Alex before sunrise, drove him out into the desert with the headlights turned off, and left him there. He remembers the long drive, struggling to keep his breath under control, straining for familiar landmarks. The fear that he might actually die almost choking him, clawing at his throat. The scene played out in his mind in slow-motion, frame-for-frame: digging his own shallow grave, walking out fifty yards, the crack of the gunshot, oblivion. Realizing in the pre-dawn light that he was utterly sure what his father was capable of. When his dad told him to get out of the car, he did, mechanical, as through it was happening to someone else. He watched as if from a great distance as he unfolded from the passenger seat and stood staring at his dad through the open window. Run, he told his body. But he didn’t. He just stood there, waiting.
“See you at home,” his dad said. Alex had a pack that included two bottles of water and a book of matches. It seemed impossible that was all there was. He stood there, frozen, until his dad’s truck disappeared into the shimmering heat haze. He didn’t freak out. He walked until he found a road, and then until he found a gas station, and convinced the attendant to let him use the phone. He made Maria drop him off outside town, close to the autoyard. She almost refused and they fought about it. He remembers marveling over his own lack of panic as he trudged along the road in the mid-July heat, the skin of his neck so hot it felt like it was splitting. Michael held ice to the back of his neck in the bed of the truck, knees touching, the sun setting around them. He drowsed on Michael’s shoulder, worrying the blistered skin of his chapped lips. When Alex woke up, it was dark and Michael was curled up against him, warm, breathing against Alex’s cheek. They were the only people in the world.
You can outrun yourself for a long time. You can move around the world, bury yourself in work, spend your afternoons polishing off the Wild Pony’s bottom shelf vodka, volunteer for increasingly dangerous deployments until the adrenaline turns your brain off. But something always happens: you plow your car into a prize bull or you get your leg blown off and you’re thrust right back into the real world, watching the minutes tick by faster with each day and digging through a lifetime’s worth of your own shit.
He thought: well, fine. The mundane hallmarks of everyday life, of waking up with someone, of being touched and held, of taking up space in someone else’s heart: that was for other people. There was something loose in him, a wire knocked out of place. Other people could be happy, but he’d been making do for a long time. To survive was enough, because it had to be. He became used to the hole in his heart, like pressure leaking out, longing that seeped through his spine, into his bones, so it wasn’t just part of him: it was him. If he could have had it all along, when what was it all for: staring up at the sky in the green zone and thinking about Michael looking up too.
Alex sprawls out on the Pony’s pool table, which he was never allowed to do as a kid, staring at a shelf packed with saints’ candles. A huge glimmering spiderweb blooms up into the rafters. Mimi taught them to play but his mom taught them to hustle. Alex was never any good at it, too competitive to lose even for show, but Maria was a natural, her sweetness serving as less of a warning and more of a beacon. In the wild, you’d know anything as bright as Maria could be deadly, but humans lost that instinct ages ago. Maria crawls up next to him, shoulder warm against his, so close he can smell the tin-scent of her hair spray.
“Remember when you blew out my candles?” asks Alex.
“One time,” says Maria. Alex’s parents didn’t stand on ceremony, so they didn’t relight them. You missed your chance, his dad said in that jokey way he had when other parents were around. Kyle was outraged, Maria half penitent, half smug, having gotten away with a crime. She shared her cake with Alex, the best form of apology known to seven-year-olds. “My mom was pissed,” says Maria. She turns to look at Alex, her hair falling in wisps across her nose and mouth. “She said you can’t steal other people’s wishes.”
“You gave it back,” says Alex. Maria pulled Alex into the Pony’s back room and presented him with a mostly crumbled cookie and a candle, a white Bic lighter she’d liberated from the bar. She burned her fingers trying to light the candle, nearly set a stack of cardboard boxes on fire. Mimi caught them red-handed, furious -- or laughing and trying to hide it, it’s sometimes hard to tell with the benefit of twenty years. Maria resolutely defended Alex’s innocence. He got his wish anyway. In those days Alex always wished for the same thing: that he could be grown up, in charge of his own life. “Look how that turned out,” he says.
“Looks good to me,” says Maria. Then, halting, her voice timorous and reedy, “I used to wish for this. You, Liz, Rosa. All of us back together. And -- look: it came true.” She rises on one elbow, scanning his face, her lower lip tucked into her mouth. Looking for what? Everyone is the center of their own story, responsible for all its ills and triumphs. As if Alex would lay it down at Maria’s feet: here you deal with this.
“Maria,” he says. “That’s impossible.” Ridiculous. Imagine making yourself a god.
“You don’t know.”
“I do,” he tells her, because there is nothing in life that’s so easy as to wish into existence. He’s tried. No one is responsible for the whole world. They do the best they can, stumbling around, taking what meager solace life offers them. It’s no one’s fault, or maybe it’s a little bit everyone’s fault. There aren’t many heroes outside of myths and there are far fewer villains. “You should get your money back on this one,” he tells her. Later, when he’s picking up a six pack and some food, letting the cold air out of the ice cream case deciding between coffee toffee and mint chip, he thinks: maybe this wish didn’t turn out so badly.
He’s getting out, he’s so close he can taste it. There was another time when he thought he could see his life unrolling before him, light at the end of the tunnel, only to have it fade away, a mirage. It’s strange to feel that again, the hope he thought he’d never get back. He’s been in ten years. He lost part of a limb, part of a lifetime. It’s all he knows and, plus, the benefits, job security, health insurance. Practical things.Thank you Uncle Sam.
“Bullshit,” says Michael. He taps his empty bottle once, twice against the wooden steps into the cabin. The woods around them are dark, broken up by hooting owls, the occasional mad dash of predator and prey. The nights are getting shorter, warmer. “Jesus, you could do anything .” He sounds almost reproving, like Michael is any position to harangue Alex about wasting his potential.
Alex bristles. This is his life, from now until forever, unless Officer Miracle can grow back limbs in addition to throwing lightning and raising the dead. If he’s learned nothing else, he knows it’s not so dumb to be afraid. The monsters are real. He’s trying to open his heart or whatever.
“Hey,” says Michael. “It’s Deputy Miracle.” Michael tips his head back, looks up. It’s darker out here than in Roswell, the stars are brighter, closer somehow, which is a marvel with Michael sitting right there next to him, knees almost drawn up to his chest. Michael is always the brightest thing around to Alex.
He used to think that one day, he would look back and think it had all been worth it. He told himself stories, the same kind of fables she used to tell him, fantasies where she came back, she loved him, she left because she had to. Now he thinks: maybe she did. Maybe it doesn’t matter. He clung to them the way he clung to those stolen moments in that last summer, talismans tethering him. In some future he would reap the past, that one day he would move past simply enduring life and start to live it. His mind would skip ahead -- a day, weeks, a few months, maybe even years -- and she’d be back. He would be loved. He looks out across the horizon, the black hills of distant mountains lit by the stars.
Michael touches his neck along the column of his spine, unexpected, and Alex flinches, instinctively. Michael drops his hand. “Hey,” says Alex, reaching for him, pressing Michael’s hand back to his neck, closing his eyes when Michael’s fingers touch his hair. “Old habits are hard to break,” he says. He’s trying to be better about talking. Sometimes you just have to pretend; the belief comes later.
“Lucky me,” says Michael.
All through his teens he wondered if it was about him, specifically, that drove her through the fence, down the bottle, the way he wondered the same thing about his dad. That maybe if he’d been someone else, they would’ve been different. Better, in some sort of strange ouroborus. It’s impossible to imagine, the same way when he thinks about it, he cannot imagine any other life than the one he has. You can never really see the inside of someone else’s heart. He used to think -- he thought if she really loved him, she would’ve kept it together. It’s the kind of formless foundation a whole life can be built around, unless the pressure finally collapses it.
“I’m glad it was you,” says Michael. “If --” he swallows, jerky, they way he does when he’s desperate for words, choked by some nameless feeling bubbling up, threatening to escape. Alex will never cease marveling how when he drops his gaze it drifts back up, as if drawn back to Alex like a compass. Michael’s bravery fells him. “If it had to happen, I wasn’t alone.” When Michael breathes out, Alex can almost hear his bones rattling around. They are always one conversation from from falling into each other, orbiting each other like two stars spinning, deadly and magnetic. Say you go back to the root where it all started. Is it the shed? The accident? Seventy years into another lifetime? Or is it before that, on some distant planet long extinguished, the light of its star maybe not yet visible in the night sky.
“I’m glad I met you,” says Alex, sinking back into Michael’s fingers in his hair. He closes his eyes, focuses on the warmth of Michael’s skin. “You changed my life.” He hears Michael blow out a breath: deep, shaking; he feels it as though it’s drawn from his own lungs.
It comes suddenly, a lightning bolt, a meteor screaming through the atmosphere, code falling into place seamlessly. One minute he’s one thing and the next something else: musician/airman, mom/no mom, whole/partial. He stands in front of the fridge drinking stone cold coffee, staring aimlessly into space until Maria’s face resolves before him: the blue-flowered halo struck through with gold. Dusting her hair with pollen as she blows out Alex’s birthday candles. You wake up and realize what you were searching for was yours all along, right here in Roswell.
He stares at it for what feels like hours, as the light breaches the horizon. He walks out into the yard until his phone chirps into service, paces back into the relative safety of disconnection, until he drives down into town, the sunlight almost blinding through the windshield. The Wild Pony’s parking lot is empty, the sign unlit. Sunday is delayed opening, a deference to god or hangovers, he’s never been sure. For as long as he can remember, the bar has only closed one day a year on Christmas. At almost one, Maria is just careening into the lot, kicking up a fine curtain of dust in her wake.
Sometimes, when the truth comes, you wish you could unknow it. He isn’t sure he can bear the burden of another ruined family, a lost mother, when his very blood breeds misery, leaking out into the atmosphere like some kind of invisible, noxious force poisoning the people he loves.
“Who’s god now?” Maria says, squinting at the photo, her hand shading her eyes, sounding as though she’s speaking directly into his heart. Finding a way forward can be exhausting. “Not everything’s your fault,” Maria tells him. Maria wishing for him, all those years, when he was collecting postcards, sure they’d be unceremoniously shoved into the back of a drawer somewhere, forgotten.
She folds their fingers together, palms touching, prayer-like. Her hair catches the light, amber and honeyed; her hands are warm and dry against his. It feels like a balm, steadying him, drawing him close and quiet, a hush against the roaring of the voices until he can almost hear his own heart beating, true and steady. What a way to understand you’re loved: the ebbing tide of history pooling around him, sunlight hot on his skin. Luxuriating in the space of Maria’s heart. “Tell her hi from me. And Mom.”
“I will,” he says.
He takes Michael this time, up into the low foothills, because he gets no more than half an hour out before he’s turning around, second-guessing. He’s half afraid if he goes out alone she’ll disappear, again, like a mirage dissolving into deadening heat. Maybe there’s a crazy part of him that feels he owes Michael: a mom for a mom. Driving into the junkyard that morning with a purpose, there’s a pit of dread in his stomach, calculating how likely it is they’ll end up screaming at each other as the clock counts down. “I’m glad you came,” Michael says, sounding for all the world like he’s putting together a sentence for the very first time in his life. Saying what you mean when you need to say it is as task equal to crossing a galaxy.
His mom’s place is old New Mexico: adobe walls punctured by wooden vigas around a tiny tiled placita that lets in a single square of scorching sun. The roses are all dying, crimson petals dropping into the dirt. She ended up exactly where she started, in the very place she was dying to leave, just like he did. Bits of broken windchimes scatter in the dirt like shell casings; what’s left of the chimes billow in the breeze, silklike. Her doors and windows are flung wide open. The dog, some kind of hound, lies directly across the threshold, barely raising its head when Alex steps over it.
Michael keeps his hands stuffed in his pockets like he remembers what happened to him last time he was caught by one of Alex’s parents. He looks around, eyes wide; he’s taking everything in, the diaphanous cobwebs sprouting up in the corners near the ceiling, books cracked open everywhere stacked on top of each other, glasses stuffed with dried flowers.
Michael touches a bouquet of flowers dried out to royal purple, golden filaments sprinkling pollen into the air. “These are for me, I guess,” he says and she appears in the doorway behind him.
“Or maybe this is,” she says. His mom is holding a double-barrel shotgun trained directly on Michael. Michael takes a step back, puts up his hands. Just another day of fun with the Manes family. The endless repetition of history. The barrel drifts toward Alex as his mom takes them in. Michael looks at Alex and back at his mom and Alex sees it, the way he focuses on the spaces between the atoms themselves. He knows all of Michael’s expressions: hurt and smug and turned on and heartbroken, and now this. Still trying to protect Alex, after all these years. The hair on the back of Alex’s neck stands up. Nothing happens.
“Honey,” says his mom. “They’re just people.” The flowered tiles are very blue, shot through with goldenrod filaments and they’re everywhere : under his feet, on the walls, cheerfully sealing the squat adobe corners. Painstakingly dried and glued. Her face is flushed, but her eyes are very still.
“I know ,” he says, finally, almost yelling. She lowers the shotgun, like, well, in that case. Michael takes a shuddering breath.
“People just want to live,” she says. Maybe that’s all she wanted, back then. Maybe now. She’s smaller than he remembers, her features softer. Her hair mostly silver, shot through with streaks of dark.
“What’s all this then,” asks Alex, gesturing.
His mom runs her hand over the tiles. “Better safe than sorry,” she says, like she’s been sorry many times. Like she knows exactly what lies in the bunker beneath Alex’s house, those bloody files.
She fixes drinks for the three of them. Alex wants to warn Michael, against a witch in a fairy tale, Persephone in the underworld, but his mom’s hands shake when she’s pouring the sun tea. It’s strange to realize gods are just mortals.
She pulls a postcard, jaundiced with age and peeling the edges, from between the onionskin pages of his grandmother’s Bible. On one side is a picture of the Grand Tetons and on the other in sharp, cramped hand it says: The mountains remind us of home , signed with a spiral sun. It’s postmarked 1954 from Billings, Montana. A momento can be its own form of love. It was easy to disappear back then. “They’re probably all dead now,” his mom says, blunt, never one to spare feelings.
Her expression closes when he tells her about Mimi, as though she should know better. She calls Mimi soft-hearted, half-fond, half ridiculing. “She puts others first.” She looks away from Alex, crumbling some of the brittle crocuses in the palm of her hand into fine powder. Not his mom.
They tail her down the mountains into the absolute middle of nowhere. Alex has visions of her producing another gun from thin air, but she leads them out into the sun, sure-footed, strides so long they have to scramble to keep up. In a long greenhouse there are thousands of them: row after row of blue flowers, a football field, hand pollinated. A butterfly lands on Alex’s forearm: iridescent, thick whorls of teal on its wings two eyes staring up at him.
The air is hot and laden with gold dust falling around them in smoke-like plumes. She gives Michael a bandana to put over his mouth and nose and tells him the effects will wear off after a few hours, no hangover, lucky him. She tops up her thermos with a bottle of Absolut tucked under the seed trays. “Alex,” she says when she catches him watching, a warning.
“I know,” he tells her, blinking back the stinging in his eyes. If there is an age where you cease to let futile hopes spring up in your heart like long shadows climbing across the desert floor, he hasn’t reached it yet.
“I knew your father would take care of you,” she says to Alex, her hair gilded with pollen.
“He didn’t,” says Alex. For the first time she looks unsure, full of regret.
It’s night by the time they’re back on the highway, gallon-sized ziplocks stuffed with fistfulls of flowers tucked in the back of the cab, Michael holding them between the tips of his fingers like they might grow fangs and sink deep into the flesh of his forearm. He rubs a towel over his head and it comes away painted dandelion yellow. They’re both sticky with sweat, reeking, and shimmering gold with pollen; Alex’s back aches, but in a good way. They pull over on a plateau rising back across the ridge of the mountains, covered with wildflowers in Alex’s memory. He braces his hands on his knees, taking long steady breaths and Michael does him the favor of asking no questions.
“Wow,” says Michael, head back, staring up. The teeth of the Sierra foothills snap up from the earth at the stars.The sky is crystal clear and bright with millions, maybe billions of pinpricks of light. The Milky Way glimmers above them, a shimmering oil slick in the ink-black sky, a great crevice of light carved into the night. Andromeda a bright comma pinwheeling underneath.
“My mom used to take us out here,” says Alex. They used to stop on long car rides back from the reservation until Alex’s grandmother died. His mom would lie back in the driver’s seat and set them loose: go, go, run, scream as loud as you can until you hear the sun scream back. The four of them would go running off in all directions, yelling, tripping all over each other like puppies, delighted. Afterward, when they were exhausted, she’d pile them all on the hood of the car, exhausted, sweaty, their faces flushed and tell them stories about the constellations. Not white stories -- true ones, she used to say. Later he looked some of them up and realized she was just making it up as she went along.
“Mountains,” says Michael, awed and a little frightened, as though he’s whispering something holy, a prayer he’s afraid will come true. There’s a fine dust of yellow pollen across Michael’s shirt, goldenrod clinging to his hair. He reaches for Alex, a little blind, sliding their hands together.
“Yeah,” says Alex. Alex puts his chin on Michael’s shoulder, buries his nose in the smell of Michael’s skin. He could almost fall asleep here, against Michael’s heat. He skims his hands over Michael’s hips, his warm belly and chest. Michael cranes his neck to look at Alex. “Oh,” he says. His voice is warm. Alex’s face burns when Michael kisses him, heat chasing up his neck. It feels dumb to admit he wanted to do something nice for Michael, that he wanted to feel Michael’s happiness, his smile.
Michael kisses Alex, his mouth open. He rubs his forehead against Alex’s cheek. Alex cups Michael’s jaw with one hand, tracing his thumb against the bones of Michael’s cheek and jaw. They are too old to have sex in the back of a truck outside. “Too old or just old enough?” says Michael.
“Guerin,” says Alex. Michae’s breath hot and humid against his ear. “Michael,” he says.
They don’t have sex in the truck, much to Michael’s (and, admittedly, Alex’s) chagrin. Alex kisses Michael until they’re both breathless and Michael’s mouth is pliant and bruised under his. He can barely keep himself from jumping Michael once they’re on the highway, screaming back east. Michael keeps glancing over at him like he’s afraid Alex will duck and roll at ninety miles an hour, just up and disappear into a puff of smoke. They pull into a roadside motel with a blinking vacancy sign, Michael abruptly banking right, gravel flying everywhere. Michael is breathing hard like he’s been running and he turns to look at Alex, expectant. “Okay,” says Alex. He examines the vending machine (broken) while the kid behind the counter copies down his driver’s license number. Alex picks up a flyer for pizza delivery and hands it to Michael.
The room is terrible: a broken overhead light, threadbare carpet and orange polyester bedspread, a faint scent of decades of cigarette smoke. The fan makes a jerky click-click-click as it spins. Alex sinks into the middle of the bed as the springs give way under him. Michael’s on the phone ordering in Spanish with a terrible accent, like a gringo in a bad movie. Some genius. A brown watermark spreads across the ceiling. Alex lies on his back arms up over his head, trying to identify the shape of it.
He becomes aware his eyes are closed and he’s dozing when something touches the edge of his consciousness, by which he means when he opens his eyes, Michael stands at the foot of the bed, Alex’s knee trapped between his legs. He looks mildly guilty. “We can just--”
“Come here,” says Alex and Michael does, the bed springs squeaking away as Michael crawls over Alex’s body. Alex kind of loses the thread after that, the intent, letting his hands rove over Michael’s body, touching him, his shoulders and back and ribs, his soft skin, Michael’s tongue in his mouth, on his neck. Michael pants against Alex’s mouth, against his jaw and ear. “I -- you should--” says Michael, stumbling. Yeah, says Alex, stripping off Michael’s shirt, taking in the expanse of smooth, tanned skin, running his fingertips over the hair on his chest. Michael’s eyes flutter closed.
He kisses Michael, drawing his head down. Michael is hard against his thigh; Alex hikes his leg up to Michael’s hip for more leverage. They’re sprawled half-on-half-off the bed and every time one of them moves the whole bed jerks, squealing in protest, rhythmically, some kind of cheap porno soundtrack. “Oh my god,” says Michael and Alex laughs, thinking of the mostly empty parking lot, hoping their neighbors are nonexistent or dead.
He curves his hands around Michael’s neck, into his wild hair, where the strands are soft and silky at the base of his skull. Michael makes soft reedy noises, like he’s having trouble catching his breath, and quiet, steady moans. Alex opens his mouth and lets Michael do whatever he wants, Michael clutching him like he can’t possibly get close enough and --
There’s a knock on the door, someone slamming their fist: bang, bang, bang and they both freeze, before Alex remembers the pizza and Michael groans, dropping his head against Alex’s neck. “You’re gonna be grateful in like twenty minutes,” says Alex. Michael says, “twenty minutes,” as he’s staggering to the door, bowlegged, completely outraged that Alex has taken a direct shot at his sexual prowess. “Thirty, whatever,” says Alex. He lies back on the bed, wanton, his heart pounding, blood rushing in ears, watching Michael at the door, shoving money into the delivery guy’s hand, belt open, looking exactly like he’d been interrupted mid-fuck. The pizza guy stares through Michael, wooden: he’s seen everything.
“Okay,” announces Michael, dropping the pizza box onto the table with their jackets and Alex’s wallet without ceremony, and more or less stripping out of the rest of his clothes in the same moment. He’s right back on Alex in a second, all wet mouth and wandering hands, pushing at Alex’s shirt, kissing along Alex’s stomach and ribs. Alex can feel him thinking thirty minutes this.
Michael is everywhere, attention deficient, and the angle is shit. Alex scrabbles at the cheap, scratchy bedspread for more leverage until he just figures, fuck it, and flips Michael over onto his back. Michael looks surprised and then delighted in the space of a second, some of the frenetic energy goes out of him as he sprawls out loose and open beneath Alex. Trusting. Alex kisses him fiercely, his mouth and jaw and neck, across the ridge of his collarbone, ducking down to take Michael into his mouth and Michael groans, tipping his head back, neck arching. Alex missed this, missed his smell and taste and warmth, the heaviness of Michael in his mouth, on his body. He missed everything, the way Michael watches him, open and radiant. His dumb sex gasps when Alex swallows around him, not muffled at all, like someone who has spent ten years living out at the edge of civilization.
“Hey, hey,” Michael says, chanting Alex’s name and pulling him up, spreading his legs to make room for Alex kneeling, mostly still clothed. Alex rubs his hand over his mouth and Michael blows out a breath like: whew. “Main event,” says Michael, eyes dark, glittering, guiding Alex’s hand to his ass and Alex thinks: okay, okay, fuck , his heart somersaulting in his chest, all the air rushing out of him.
Alex backs off to remove his clothes and there’s a frozen few moments that he’s still not quite used to where he has to pull back entirely to take off his leg. He tries to be indifferent and straight-forward about it, like he doesn’t notice, just part of the unsexy mechanics of human bodies. Michael sits up, his knees mostly bracketing Alex, and hovers, rubbing his nose against Alex’s skin, kissing Alex’s bicep and shoulder, butterfly light, running his hand -- his perfect, beautiful hand -- across Alex’s spine, over his shoulder blades, down his arms.
He kisses Michael, lingering over his lush mouth, skimming his palms over Michael’s flank, the crest of his hip, between his legs. Alex slides his fingers into Michael, where he’s hot and wet and tight, listening to Michael breathing like it’s being pushed out of him. Michael tips his head back, reaches for Alex’s face as if blind. Alex kisses Michael’s cheek and jaw, like okay? because Michael always asks, checking in, it’s the pleaser in him. Michael hums; Alex feels it against his lips. He licks into Michael’s mouth, messy, keeping him close, inhale-exhale, feeling Michael press around him.They’ve done it this way less often, even though Alex forgets why when he’s inside Michael. It’s easier the other way, now -- you don’t think about how much your foot helps until you’re down one, and Michael’s a giver: he gets off on Alex shuddering around him, breathless.
Michael hitches a leg up around Alex’s hip. He touches Michael until he’s loose and flushed all over, pink across his chest and neck, making soft sounds, hot around Alex, his skin damp. He thinks of asking Michael to turn over for easier leverage, but he’s so pliant and kissable that Alex grounds down into the squeaking mattress and pushes into Michael, planting one hand over his heart. “I think they call this the reverse cowboy,” he tells Michael, trembling as he fucks him, his limbs close to buckling beneath him. Under the sheer force of Michael, who says, “I hate you,” meaning: I love you. Michael opens his eyes and Alex leans their foreheads together, breathing against Michael’s mouth. Michael’s fingers are steady on his neck, his jaw, holding them close, filling the negative space. He takes Michael’s dick in his hand and Michael’s head lolls back, eyes closed. Alex is an idiot, an absolute unconscionable moron for every minute he spent doing something else when he could’ve had Michael, sweet and eager and soft under him, around him, which is what he always thinks just before he comes.
Afterwards, when they’ve breathed each other’s air until there’s no oxygen left, when they’ve gone through the uncomfortable work of disentangling themselves, breaking out in gooseflesh and Alex is eating room temperature pizza, he clocks them at approximately twenty five minutes. Michael pretends to smother him with a pillow, but his hand strokes broad and soft across Alex’s shoulder, his neck, his face: just waiting to be kissed.
Michael gets up in the middle of the night. He’s sloppy about it, running into things, swearing, tripping over his own clothes, showering and shaking water all over the place. He lets the door close behind him, well, not with a bang exactly, but it’s not stealthy. Alex stares at the ceiling, counting, promising himself that if Michael’s not back in two more minutes he’ll get up, two more, two more -- and then he’s back, shouldering the door open, his arms stuffed full of papers. He looks guilty when he sees Alex awake, watching him, standing there like a kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar.
“Come here,” says Alex. “Let’s see.” Michael’s face lights up, irrepressible, dumping shit all over the bed, practically burying Alex alive. It’s mostly Greek to Alex, except not all of it. Michael spreads a map of the Rockies across the bed, blanketing it over Alex. Alex hasn’t been the only one working. They pass out mid sentence, Michael talking full speed, arms and legs tangled together.
He wakes up to his phone buzzing under his shoulder, his entire right arm useless and numb under Michael’s sweaty weight, dead to the world, mouth open, snoring. When Alex slides out from under him, he collapses into the black hole of the mattress. A tornado wouldn’t wake him. He pulls himself half together, sticks his face under the rusted faucet in the bathroom, his skin grimey with day-old sweat. His arm comes to life in a racket of pins and needles. When he calls Maria back, she picks up immediately, her voice broken-up and staticky, hold on, hold on, as she walks out of his cabin back to the drive.
“So you’re not here,” she says, then, “oh lord,” when he takes too long to answer.
“I have a life you know,” he says. She makes a disbelieving sound over the line. He stands in the motel parking lot, squinting into the morning sun, the air redolent with the verdant smell of flowers over the motor oil and acetone and dust. “She said hi back.” She also told him she’d see him soon, which he knows better than to believe. Still, the hope creeps in like a persistent weed: tiny, unnoticeable, springing to life quietly until it’s carpeted everything.
“What if it doesn’t work?” says Maria, sounding small, her voice very nearly trembling.
“We try something else,” he tells her.
Alex turns around. Michael is standing in the motel room doorway, apprehensive and tense, his shoulders held in a rigid line, a divot between his brows, like he both did and didn’t expect to wake up alone. He’s barefoot in his jeans, belt hanging open, and his hair is wild, sticking up all over the place, insane cowlicks poking up everywhere. Michael’s face smooths out, a wave cascading over the shore, wariness replaced with a smirk, like bright ray of light piercing a shadow. It’s easy to forget to be careful with Michael.
Michael comes toward him, looking suddenly delighted, all loose-limbed and nonchalant, right up in Alex’s space, so he can feel the heat of Michael’s body. Michael skims his hands up Alex’s chest rubs his nose against Alex’s jaw. Alex can smell him, the sex and day-old sweat. It’s the best smell in the world.
“Um, I have to go,” he says into the phone.
“I bet,” says Maria, laughing. Alex hangs up on her. He puts his forearms on Michael’s shoulders. Alex lets himself be kissed, open-mouthed and soft.
“It’s good you have people looking out for you,” says Michael.
“Yeah,” says Alex. “It is.”