Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks.
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.
-- Wallace Stevens, Domination of Black
Acting people is an act of faith.
-- Richard Schiff
Richard finds the streets comforting when they are almost empty, which in Los Angeles is seldom. They are dusty and crowded and sun-beaten, and the billowing of gas fumes and tire prints crowd up to the edges of the sidewalk. He has found himself wishing for trees lately: new trees, trees that aren't the massive and incongruous palms that line the highways here. He feels the absence desperately, and is confused by that: when he lived in New York he hardly noticed the damn trees.
He supposes he is lonely. He's sure he only starts noticing the flora and fauna when he's lonely.
And Richard thinks that would make sense (long days and so many words that aren't his own and yet seem so familiar trailing around his head like a pack of lost dogs set against the nights when he comes home to an echoing house and already-sleeping children) if he weren't wandering the streets with his co-worker's fingerprints all over his skin.
Richard has an idea that all this comes out of his character's palpable, layered disdain for Rob's character. That all the implications of Toby Ziegler's attitudes are revealing their secrets in his own life; that this is all about subtext barrelling forward into text, showing them both up liars. The mirror image too, seems to work this way: he feels Sam Seaborn's bright, Californian eyes on his back sometimes, hot with adoration, and turns around to see Rob standing there, out of costume, his sunglasses resting in the v of his white t-shirt, just looking at him. But, standing with his shoulder resting against one of the pillars in their lobby that are not as sturdy as they look on television, his stiff hips are a little looser and his mouth is a little looser too: quicker to give him a smile that has nothing submissive in it, that has something that is almost taunting in it. As though he is daring Richard to do something, maybe reckless, maybe stupid, maybe something that will burst in his mouth with pleasure like a lemon-flavoured candy.
So something in his life that enjoys a laugh decided to have Richard say yes one night when Rob asked if he felt like going for a beer somewhere. And say yes again when Rob offered him a ride. And yes again -- invisible and silent, the yes in his eyes and the sudden tightness inside his jeans -- when Rob kissed him, unbuttoned halfway then put his hand inside Richard's shirt and squeezed a nipple between his thumb and forefinger, then slipped the same hand to Richard's left thigh, then between his legs, nudging that closed space open with the sharp point of his wrist to meet a twisted spot of willingness, like something done in the back of a New York City cab. All this Richard said yes to, apologetically as well as willingly, as though it was owing somehow, as punishment, as something left undone; something he started years ago and left dumbly unfinished, as many years into his past as gape now between him and Rob. All thirteen of them.
From then on it was done between them. No further negotiations, because Rob has a way of making things seem more wonderful than they actually are and Richard feels whatever energy he had left to argue dissipate as soon as the door closes behind them. Moments unfurl around him, and rustle in the breeze that enters through the window they always leave open in the motel rooms where they fuck. Where Richard gets fucked.
Like the boughs and canopy of a great tree -- Rob's shoulders, his arms, the huge sad inflexibility of his trunk swaying slightly as he kneels on the bed between Richard's open legs. Richard thinks of his hipbones as the scars of old cuts in a rubber tree and touches them tentatively with his fingers, feels them jut like polished stone into the centres of his palms when he holds on to Rob's hips. His mouth fits well around them and he presses his tongue against their hardness.
He remembers these things because he can't help it, he thinks. It takes weeks of the slow accumulation of this knowledge, piling up in his head like a drift of leaves, for Richard to consider that he might be remembering for a different reason.
He thinks Rob is puzzled by this effort to catalogue: he is a man of the moment, something they do not really have in common. Richard suspects that, for Rob, this is just the preoccupation of this particular collection of moments; Rob's newest toy, to be grown out of in time. It shames him that the fact that he is sure of this has created a little knot of sadness in his belly, waiting for the time when it will be untied and free to curl around Richard's insides, cutting off oxygen and light and making him feel whatever is the opposite of this feeling, this magnetising of his body to the opposite pole from Rob's. But since it won't be the first time and since 'love' is still a word that is sacred and sacrificed to in his wife's name every night after he has wiped prints and kisses and cum from himself, Richard figures he will get over it. Rob just smiles at him, glorious in the bed, sated for now.
But eventually, in the small, locked-in time between the first and second seasons, when their calendars seem both free and not, they gather up disguises (Richard's extensive collection of baseball caps, Rob's menagerie of shades; Richard clips his beard back a little, Rob lets his stubble get a real hold; jeans and tee-shirts and nothing that even admits of the existence of network television or the people who make their living in it) and Rob takes his car (a black Chrysler SUV) and drives a little way, parks at previously arranged co-ordinates and waits for Richard, who gets in the passenger side without saying anything. Then, they leave: anywhere but here.
Why he chooses to do this rather than, say, go home and spend some time with his children, with his new daughter, Richard couldn't say. His wife, accustomed to the times when he wanders, chooses not to comment. He promises her that he'll call, call the kids every day, and she says okay, honey like she knows, of course he will, and kisses him goodbye at the door.
Why they decide (unspoken, so quiet in thought and suggestion that Richard doesn't even remember the moment where no plan turned into game plan) to drive instead of getting on a plane or catching a bus or a train, Richard couldn't say either. He suspects it has to do with the kind of romantic notions Rob carries around in his head, that cotton-candy up his thought processes and make this kind of thing seem desirable instead of idiotic. That the journey is the thing, not the destination. Richard doesn't know about that, only that he has agreed to go along and be kept in a series of motels with Rob; sleep not alone in the second single bed on the left side of the room but in the right-hand one, pushed up against a man who seems both smaller and greater than himself, taking up a constantly changing, quixotic amount of space. This is what he has promised to do, for at least a week, probably two. Richard knows without knowing why that the time too will follow these same elastic rules and be malleable and disobedient towards the usual logic; unstable, like plutonium that way. It will stick to him like the cotton candy in Rob's head. It will be sickly after a little while, but he will keep on eating it anyway.
It is a big car but Richard thinks the air feels close and the space too small for his limbs, like a very tall man folded into a bumper car. He keeps looking behind him, into the back seat where his bag is stashed, lying half-underneath Rob's. This movement hooks Rob's eye away from the road: he gives Richard a second's worth of once-over.
"It's okay. We won't be sleeping in here or anything."
Richard looks at him. He is smiling, creases at the corners of his eyes, making them seem softer; more honest.
"Yeah. I know."
"Good motels, man, I promise."
"On your salary I guess we can afford it," Richard says, nearly under his breath, before he has a chance to think about the words in question.
Rob gives him the look, the Seaborn Look: sweet, slightly reproachful, the young man complaining gently at the cruelty of an older one whom he loves. Richard looks away, through the window, at the highway disappearing into dust. A small part of him wants to apologise; the greater part refuses to -- to this kid, this ex-star now pulsing again, in the tender space beside Richard's heart. But Rob just keeps on driving, saying nothing, the space in the car larger now but not cold, nor hostile. Rob can wait out this little sandstorm of finer feeling whirling around Richard. He seems pretty sure that it will pass.
They drive for a while. Richard falls asleep with his head against the window, the vibrations of the vehicle and the road communing in his ear like a hundred tiny drills. When he wakes up again, now on the edges of California seemingly, he has a headache to go with his sour mood.
"Hey," Rob says, in a gentle voice that sounds unfamiliar to Richard, "Tell me a story?"
He asks like a little boy would, the vulnerable twist over the question mark, asking for something more reciprocal than anything they have ever done with each other's bodies; a little parcel of knowledge, his forever once Richard has surrendered it. Richard clears his throat, pulls at his collar with his fingertips.
"What d'you want to know?"
"You ever do this before?"
"A road trip?"
"C'mon, you've told me -- us -- stories before. You're good at telling us stories. Yours are better than everyone else's. 'Cept Martin's. But I've, ah, really heard all of those at least a hundred times."
"Some block you grew up on," Richard says, more or less to himself.
"So tell me about your block. New York. The cabbie thing. The meanstreets. The commune. You never said enough about the commune."
Richard smiles, semi-defeated. He has wished every day since the day he mentioned the stupid commune that that particular story had stayed buried. It seems to catch, for reasons he cannot get hold of, in everyone else's imaginations -- so desperate to imagine him as a skinny dropout with his first beard and two shirts in the whole world, holes in his jeans but none in his heart, something made of air and earth. Suffice to say: something a lot more romantic than what Richard remembers.
"It's not the story you think it is."
"What, you didn't ... what? Feel at one with nature? Find some great new recipes involving beets and ... I don't know, earthworms or something?" A little pause. "Fall in love?"
"You left out the drugs and acoustic guitar recitals."
"Well, throw those in too, if it livens up the story."
They almost smile at each other. Richard gets the feeling that Rob wants to stop the car and do something unspeakable with Richard's body. Rob is gazing at a point at the base of Richard's neck, looking hungry.
"You want a story about me falling in love?"
"Yeah," he says quietly.
"You want a story about me falling in love with another man."
"Do you have a story like that?"
His voice is not its usual light self, gone husky with an interest he would rather not admit to directly. Richard looks up at him, manages to fix on him, pin through butterfly, for a second.
"Stranger things happen in communes."
Rob laughs, soundlessly. "Yeah?"
"Though not this thing."
He sounds disappointed: "This isn't going to be a commune story?"
"By the end of two weeks I think you'll probably get to hear all the commune stories as well. Bumperpack edition."
"This is ... kind of an interim story."
"Long way back to New York."
Rob catches the tail-end of the emotion Richard had wanted to hide underneath the carapace of that name. "That's home, for you, isn't it? New York."
Rob sighs, just a little. Richard wonders if he is thinking about the impossible breadth of America, the continent between their experiences. But Richard can't help that.
"So, a New York story."
"The boroughs anyway," Richard says. "The Staten Island ferry," he ventures, looking at the gearstick, the edge of Rob's knee in his peripheral vision, trying not to let anything twinkle in his face.
"Fuck off, man," Rob says, the laugh rippling over his vowels.
He smiles. "Yeah."
"So, where? What? Who? Tell me everything."
Richard nods, at the inevitability; the narrowing down of the options in his own life that the last few months seem to have made so much easier for him to take.
"Sitting comfortably?" he says, and doesn't wait for the answer. "Then I'll begin."
That night it is a little bit different: a shadow between their bodies. Rob asks before he takes, as though some kind of bartering of respect has taken place, as though his own desire for Richard, revealed not unique among the rest of the male sex, now comes with terms and conditions which, as the buyer of Richard's physical affections, he is obliged to fulfil -- the sales tax appended to the bill. They kiss for longer than they usually do, and Richard is gifted enough time to realise that Rob has a sweet, indefinite mouth that appears to have no distinct shape and leaves small scorch marks on his skin; to notice that he is the kind of man who looks broader, fuller of muscle and bone, with his clothes off; to discover that the tender spot under the last of his ribs on the left side is throbbing, a sharp pain when he raises his heavy arms around Rob's neck.
Rob presses the same insouciant this-is-a-peck-from-a-straight-guy kiss he gave away at the Emmys to Richard's cheek when they're done, then another, rather more honest, kiss to Richard's mouth.
"What was his name?" Rob asks, as he stares at Richard.
Richard smiles at the ceiling, aware of the sweat pooling at the base of his own neck more than he is the serious look on Rob's face. He turns away when Rob puts one hot palm against the side of his face, rubs his thumb across Richard's chin. There is a mute suggestion of violence in his hand, though it is absurdly small and feminine next to Richard's blunted paws, but which could twist like a small knife in dark, wet places. Richard doesn't flinch, but he does allow his gaze to move back towards Rob's eyes.
"What was his name?" Richard repeats the words, as though trying to dissolve the question mark at the end of the sentence.
"He must have had one."
"Unless you found him on the streets," Rob says, moving so that his weight is balanced between Richard's thighs, a worn-smooth spot at Richard's hips now comfortable and warm. "Did you find him on the streets?"
"He found me."
"You don't tell stories the way you should, Schiff."
"Backwards with the logic left out."
"I keep you on your toes."
Richard smiles, catches Rob's freshest kiss in his mouth, open lips, his own tongue feeling voluptuously fat and Rob's almost shy with the surprise.
"Don't think that this is enough to change the subject," Rob says, words swollen. Richard can feel him getting hard again and shifts his own hips to accommodate the diminishing space.
"Avram," Richard says, giving up the name, giving weight to the m, and letting the vowels stick at the back of his throat. He turns away, swallows. Rob sits up a little, propped on one elbow now.
"Jewish fella," he says, quietly, quoting a line that was never his. "Huh."
"Yes, I never slept with Presbyterians in my youth. I've become a broader-minded man with age."
Rob's smile is taut. "Right."
"So you have your name."
"You wanna know my kids' middle names, Rob?"
"Can we ... can we maybe not bring kids into this?"
Because Richard is angry now he swops avoidance for a steady gaze straight into Rob's baby blues, presses his shoulders hard down into the mattress to make wider the spread of air between them.
"Wives, maybe?" Richard says. Waits a minute. "Maybe not."
"You're here too," he says, whispers. "You got into the car, you signed your own alias on the register. I'm not the only one here in this bed. My powers of persuasion are not that impressive, Richard."
"I think you sell yourself a little short, actually."
Richard thinks he knows the rehearsed question perched on Rob's lips: why are you even here? Richard's line, highlighted in Toby-Ziegler-yellow as in the script of their other life: I don't know.
A second, a fissile moment. Exploding in the next -- Richard pushing both hands against Rob's chest, a clunk and a cloud of dust rising from Rob's fall, a crack in his voice when he lets out a Seaborn-like ow, Richard hooking an arm under Rob's thigh and pulling, wide, broad, blindsided -- an ocean's worth of crappy motel bed between them, sky and water and no big white cloud, Richard can even see some kind of horizon above the sweat-soaked tails of Rob's hair.
Possibilities wave, then drown. He lowers himself to kiss Rob, not gently. He pulls Rob's left leg up around his own waist, lays their bellies together, breathes out deliberately, expanding his chest to double or nothing size. Rob lies on his back like a startled and upended spider, his remaining three limbs not yet coalescing around Richard until, tide in and tide out, Richard's cock sliding smooth and slick over his stomach, he realises what is about to happen next. Then he clings on to his lifeboat. The undersides of his thighs, Richard finds out, are soft like a girl's, and when he is being fucked it isn't at all like he is in the movies (not choreographed, no foreshadowing of desire easily played out, no by-the-numbers love-making) but raw, gritting his teeth like a little kid getting beat up. Richard almost wants to slow it down, take it tenderly, but he's too close to coming by that point and it is only so glorious, when it does arrive, because it is cruel.
"I think that makes us even," Rob whispers, in the dark, afterwards, when Richard thinks he has fallen asleep.
"Call it sixty-forty," Richard says, turning over but towards him. He ventures a hand into the night, finds his fingers in Rob's hair. He feels clumsy, swollen-fisted, but Rob leans into the touch like that's all he's wanted, all along. He falls asleep with his head snucked under Richard's cheek, silent as a child. Richard lies on his back, eyes on the ceiling, dazzled by how easy it was to make him docile; speak past the man, put your arm around the little boy that never died, throw him a nickel's worth of love.
The next morning, Richard wakes up to the sun in his eyes, turning all the white things in the room light-flare blue. Rob is in the shower already, taking his time, flossing and so on. Richard turns over and closes his eyes again after pulling the covers over his head. Daddy waking too early. Never a morning person, not even in the commune. He sleeps again, managing in dreams to forget that they are in California-bordering-New-Mexico; his subconscious prefers New York, home. He isn't sure whether it is himself and Rob or Toby and Sam he is seeing, indistinct like dailies so that he half-expects to see a running total of seconds and minutes in the lower left-hand corner, at sidewalk level. It's snowing. Rob-Sam is wearing a red scarf that doesn't suit him. His lips are red too, and Richard knows it's a dream from the way he doesn't question the impulse he has to kiss Rob in the middle of the street --
"Hey -- are you awake?" A little shake on his shoulder. "Richard?" He pulls on the covers. His fingertips are cold. "We gotta split."
Richard winces. For a starlet, the kid is desperately lacking in cool. The desperation stinks like last night's takeout pizza.
"Yeah. I'm awake. I'm up."
"We have to go," he says. "I don't know why but staying in hotels too long in the mornings makes me nervous."
Richard stops a minute to note the confidence, then another minute to silently supply his own reasoning: a tricky PR battle following an ill-advised convention hook-up with a minor will leave these lasting scars, Mister Lowe. But he doesn't say anything.
"So take a shower, okay?"
"Sure," Richard says, getting out of the bed, not bothering to be self-conscious about his own nakedness. Rob can call the shots in the daylight, if he likes; Richard can pull the dark strings come night time. He can feel Rob looking at him, wondering what's become of the guy who can look uncomfortable in every single frame of a day's shoot. Richard isn't really sure either, which is why he makes sure not to turn around.
They drive through somebody's vineyard, then past it. Into the dusty places Rob is taking his car, finally letting it loose on some territory it can get its treads into. Richard feels the death of a thousand tiny stones under their combined weight. Rob drives like an idiot, like a West coast man drives having been let off the actual roads. Richard's fingers itch to take over the wheel -- steer in tight lines, measuring space in inches rather than acres, like a New Yorker should. Instead he watches the horizon, which never changes and thereby puts the brakes on his feelings of nausea and disorientation. In the distance, maybe an hour gone by, a building appears. The same colour as the sand but for the neon signage. Diner.
"Breakfast," Rob says, pointing.
The dusty places are a disguise, of course. But even if they are recognised, Richard doubts the people out here will care to call their choice of media outlet. They live smaller, deeper lives than that. He almost envies them.
At the diner Rob orders a breakfast for himself that reflects the number of calories Richard beat out of him last night. Richard sips OJ thoughtfully, watching him eat. It is a sight he has seen before of course: how Rob's mouth pulls to the right when he's chewing, expansive mastication, how he wears his appetites openly, just like always. The pancakes disappear in the time it takes Richard to stare out of the window and locate a few birds, a distant tree, the suggestion of civilisation somewhere over there, ponder the effect such huge spaces might have on a person's psyche. He turns back and Rob is wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Richard catches himself wondering if he'd be able to taste the syrup on his unshaven skin if he leaned over right now --
"You aren't hungry?"
"Watching you eat is making me feel full."
He has the grace to blush, just a little. The tips of his ears. Richard is disgusted to realise that he finds this endearing.
"Sorry. I think my blood sugar took a hit last night," he says, with the last mouthful of a strip of bacon underlining the words. "M'hungry."
Richard stares at him, privately daring himself not to give any indication of amusement or gratification at this statement. He finds himself opening his mouth to ask whether Rob is sore this morning, then shuts it again. He thinks: I'd rather find out for myself, later.
"The coffee's fine," is all he says.
"So," Rob begins again, after a few more silent minutes in which the wideness of the sky and the indistinctness of the horizon between sky and dusty highway occupies Richard's brain like the exploding of a bullet. "Where d'you want to go today?"
Richard looks up at him, blinks. "I get a say?"
Rob frowns at him, looking genuinely confused. Richard blinks again and sees in the sliver of a second after he first opens his eyes a picture of Rob in a stark white shirt and a tie which is slightly off-centre. He almost reaches out to straighten it. Sam Seaborn again.
"Of course," he says.
Any amount of answers, the most obvious of which being home, crowd into Richard's head. What he actually says is: "You ever go to Mexico?"
Rob nods, deftly. "A few times. Tijuana."
Richard nods back, letting his eyebrows raise just a little bit at he looks back down at the table. He imagines the usual thing: a younger Rob, impossibly ripe -- skin glowing, lips red -- hiked up on alcohol, some of the sweeter drugs. He isn't, this time, surprised by the desire this sparks in him, though it is almost entirely unlike what he would expect of himself. He would like this younger version of the man sitting across from him now to visit him one night this week: pliant, cocaine-crazy, eyes like little pools of wet starlight, to drape himself across Richard's body and allow himself to be fucked out of whatever senses are still left to him. He is not proud of this vision, or of what it appears to reveal to him about himself, but the desire for some kind of iteration of the fantasy still remains. He looks back up at Rob.
"Would that take long?"
"To TJ? No, not really."
Richard lets his mouth shrug to the side a little, as if to suggest that he wouldn't object to the idea. "And," he says, probably just to alleviate the pressure of the guilt building up around the space tenderness has carved out in his heart, "Then afterward you pick. Somewhere ... somewhere nice."
Rob frowns again. Then nods. "Okay."
The road to Tijuana seems longer than it actually is. This is mostly because Richard spends it trying to ignore a series of slow-burning arousals. The need to keep his hands out of his lap makes him more fidgety even than usual and Rob notices and chuckles at him, letting his eyes slip downward and then back up. He suggests that Richard maybe sleep a little. I know you didn't get much sleep last night, he says. I'll pull over. You curl up in back. So Richard does because, by then he's looking for any out that's available to him and he can live with the shame attendant on rubbing himself off quietly and discreetly in the back of Rob's Chrysler. But in the end he doesn't do that, only lies down and is lulled by the rhythms of the car. Rob's driving seems less erratic today, quieter for lacking Richard as a co-pilot. He is just on the point of wondering whether that means anything when he falls asleep.
Again, Rob's hand on his shoulder, gentle. "Hey. We're here. Well, the border. So you have to wake up. Sorry."
Richard nods and rubs his eyes with his knuckles, clears his throat. The door opens quietly (about the only thing about this car besides its colour that is in any way quiet) and he steps out. Then he gets in the passenger side, next to Rob, and is surprised to realise that, in the face of the border police who unsettle him slightly because they are Authorities and therefore oppressive, he is glad to have Rob there, being quietly starry -- sunglasses at dusk and a bright blue t-shirt that he wasn't wearing when Richard got in the back. It's Rob who passes across documents, grins at the right places and isn't discouraged by the guards' complete inability to be charmed by his Hollywood smile. Richard sits and watches, and hopes that they don't say anything to him. They do not and, but for a suggestion of a raised eyebrow (two guys in a big car and both probably stinking of sex?) and the glimmer of recognition (accorded to Rob and not to him), they are waved through.
Rob turns to him, grinning. He laughs. "Fuck. That kinda gives me a high, you know?"
Richard looks at him. "Hmm."
"You don't agree?"
"I don't really ... like lots of police all in one place."
Rob laughs again. "Tell me that story later on, okay?"
Richard lets him have a smile. "Sure."
As they get into Tijuana, Rob negotiating the tiny roads with unusual care, Richard gets his cellphone out and calls home. He speaks to his wife, his son, he hears his daughter's laughter in the background. The sound hurts his heart like the colours of a thousand rubies chinking together, so much wealth in so small a thing. That was where the idea for her name, like a slap to his face -- shock, awe, abjection, devotion, love -- the first time he saw her. I miss you, he says to his wife. She laughs, not because it's not the kind of thing he would say (he says much more sentimental things to her all the time) but because she's happy to hear from him; because she misses him too. He can see her cradling the phone on her shoulder, curled around his voice. God, I miss you, he whispers, digging his fingers into his knee. And that he says all this in front of Rob is part of the bargain whose unwritten terms they agreed upon back in L.A. No crazy stuff, no risky stuff, no love. Something between men that is silent and undefined. Richard thinks maybe he misses his wife so much, right that second, listening to her speak, because she is not chaotic. He understands where he fits: in their bed, smooth skin, clean hair, some joke he doesn't mind her making at his expense, her shape fitted to his in the night, and that's love.
They say goodnight and he whispers I love you like it's the first time; she doesn't pick up the cadence, and the beep of the phone being hung up is desolate to him.
"Everything okay at home?" Rob asks. His eyes, and it might only be the gathering night in the car and the brightness of the coloured lights outside in the town, naked without the shades, but his eyes look unhappy, un-blued.
Richard nods, "Yeah," and doesn't elaborate. Rob turns away to the road, and Richard observes the tiny lines around his eyes that disappear when he's happy, return, as though someone just drew them on with a child's pencil.
Rob knows the places where the good drugs are; the drugs para los Americanos. Once they've hauled the bags into the inconsequential and significantly un-tourist-y bar-plus-rooms-in-back where he's decided they'll stay, he pulls on a black jacket and slips back out, closing the door without any sound at all. Richard stands in front of the door for a minute or two, then goes back to their bags and gets out the bottle of whiskey he bought in the bar and pours himself a three-man measure.
"Fuck," he says, to no-one in particular.
He has no intention of doing any cocaine himself; beyond marijuana drugs have never interested him particularly and something in him, in this room, is fearful of what his brain under the influence of a new stimulant might decide is acceptable behaviour. He'd really rather Rob was the one who is loaded. He'll stick to the whiskey. But when Rob returns with the night painted on him and something frenzied in his face, he insists. He strips his jacket off and throws it on the bed and retrieves from the front left pocket of his jeans a small baggie that he takes into his palm, holds like an egg as he walks up to Richard, each step like the mid-part of a dance -- the part between the seduction and the curtain call. Richard backs away a little but Rob leans in close and opens his palm over the hollow of Richard's neck, presses the baggie into it while he presses his mouth against Richard's cheek.
"You got a headstart," Richard whispers, hooking his fingers in the collar of Rob's t-shirt and pulling him back a little. "How much?"
Rob chuckles. "Just a little. But it works fast." He sucks on the side of Richard's neck. "I want to do some off you -- just off your skin. Fuck."
"Yeah, I can tell." He can too; Rob's erection is pressing against Richard's thigh, hot through denim. "Look -- are you sure you want ... all this?"
"It's what you wanted," he says, staring straight ahead as steadily as he can manage, his eyes blue again, but tinged, purple; stormclouds. "Your fantasy. Get me high, get me naked, get me laid. I don't mind. I want to. I want to do it for you."
It hurts, his earnestness. Richard can't meet his eyes. "I'm gonna get a call from your rehab people, aren't I?"
He laughs. "Nah, I'm a respectable guy now, man. I don't have a drug problem, an alcohol problem. A sex problem?" He grins, then leans in for a kiss. Richard slips out of the asking.
"We do, I think," he says, quietly.
"Two married and apparently heterosexual men fucking each other in a shitty motel in Tijuana? Why would you think that was a problem?"
"It's good, no, it's great that you keep on bringing this up right at the moment when you're about to get exactly what you want, Richard. It's really flattering for me."
"What if I said I was worried about you?"
"I'd say I didn't think this was a really good time for a serious conversation. I am loaded, after all." He grins, then lunges in to take hold of Richard's earlobe between his teeth, fingers clawing at Richard's shirt.
He sighs down close to Richard's neck, then detaches his fingers. He looks up, smiles. "What?"
"What if I said I was worried."
He smiles again, his fever gone cold. "I'd wonder about maybe, just between friends, how full of shit you were."
"You don't think this is destructive?"
"Somewhere nice afterward, you said. Somewhere we can pretend that we don't do these things to each other, have some good, heartfelt sex and talk about our feelings. Somewhere you can convince yourself you never wanted this in the first place. So we get all the damaging shit out of the way first, then -- "
"You're kinda extrapolating, don't you think?"
His mouth shrugs. Richard thinks it makes his face ugly, for a second. "No, not really."
"This is all because I called my wife?"
"I sound really jealous, huh?"
"You just look to me like a guy who is ... spiralling."
Richard nods. "Yeah."
"So can't you just let me do that? And believe me if I say that it'll be okay, when we get back. Home. L.A. Sixteen hour days. Sam Seaborn keeping me honest. Can't you just believe in that?"
"Even if it seems like a lie? Or, a ... a plea?"
"You want me to beg you?"
"No, not really."
"See, if it was you, saying this, I'd believe you. Because you'd be better at lying."
Richard looks at him. There is sweat on his forehead, a few trickles have run down his cheek. He is breathing heavily. He takes a step forward again. A quarter-inch between their bodies and when Richard exhales (he's been holding his breath since Rob said believe like it was part of some secret credo), even less than that. Richard's shirt button, the one situated at the fattest point of the curve of his belly, touches Rob's t-shirt. Richard can feel all the hairs on his arms begin to rise though there is not a particle's worth of cold air in the entire town. Rob leans in, rests the side of his face against Richard's. He has his eyes closed, tight, his lips pressed shut, his throat vibrating with muted sounds like the last notes on a violin. Richard is aware of warm moisture transferring to his face, that Rob is rocking his head to the side, his cheekbone against Richard's cheek, again and again; a man trying to bash his brains out against a pillow. When Richard raises them up from his sides he isn't surprised that his hands are shaking, so he puts them tight around the curve of Rob's head to give them something to do.
"Can't you lie to me?" Rob says. "Pretend there's a camera, say the lines? Make me believe it? Then we can go home."
Richard kisses him, lips against the short hair at his temple. "Okay," he whispers. "All right."
He does some lines of coke in the end. I can't waste it, man. Richard wants to ask him since when is he so fucking thrifty but since he can still see the places where the tears were, says nothing. Rob says the coke makes it all feel better, for a while, and Richard figures he has enough money to see off the times when all it will do is make everything brighter and more painful. He does withhold the bottle of whiskey though. No mixing your poisons. Rob looks at him, then strips off his shirt and undoes the top button of his jeans. They are thin enough to show a relief map of his cock. He gives Richard a look that means something slightly less poetic than: that ship has sailed, my friend, my poisonous friend.
Fucking under the influence isn't quite as good as Richard imagined it, but he figured it wouldn't be. The cocaine does make Rob more beautiful, or the wet, drowning ecstasy does: deliquescing all over the bed, like diluted oil paint, dripping off some canvas, creating on the bare bed something compellingly abstract that Richard cannot get hold of in his head, every adjective slipping out of his fingers as he reaches for it. When Richard straddles his chest, with Rob's sharp ribs poking into his own thin thighs, and strokes himself off he can't help thinking of the spurts of cum as finishing touches to the masterpiece. Rob just lies there, eyes closed with three white stripes on chest and shoulders and one spot at the end of his chin. His cock is still hard, nothing Richard has done to him having been able to evaporate the ecstasy. Richard sighs and pushes Rob's legs up and out, then lies down and fills his mouth up.
Rob sleeps, same as before, with his head nudged up into Richard's shoulder. Only this time Richard holds him closer. The guy stinks of sweat, semen, and, Richard imagines, the particles of cocaine that fizz sweetly on his skin, acid in chalk. He kisses Rob's forehead then runs his tongue over his lips trying to work out whether he can taste the drugs. Only sweat, possibly tears. Rob sleeps easily, deeply. His breathing is hardly audible even in the stillness of the night. Richard pulls him a little closer.
The next day Richard wakes first and, washing in the tiny sink in the bathroom, realises that his hands are still shaking, sending tremors up his arms, disarraying his shoulders. He fills the sink to the rim then ducks his head, or as much of it as the dimensions of the basin will allow, into the lukewarm water. It stings his eyes but he blinks a few times, opens his mouth and lets the bubbles of oxygen escape. When it is all gone he pulls his head back out of the water and shakes it back and forth, eyes closed, grimacing against the sting, and listens to the sound of the water hitting the plaster on the walls. He opens his eyes, stares at himself in the mirror -- beard dripping, a flush from the heat, water soaking through his undershirt, able to recognise his expression for what it is: confusion.
He almost jumps when Rob asks: "If I told you you're beautiful, you'd just laugh, wouldn't you?"
Rob leans at a shallow angle to the doorjamb. His boxers are a smudge of white paint around his loins to Richard, like an unfinished section of a canvas next to the polished smoothness of his belly. They make no sense to Richard's eyes. He blinks back the last of the stinging and trying for the confusion as well, and pretends he didn't hear.
Rob smiles. He looks tired, in disarray. "Don't worry about it."
"You want this?" Richard asks, throwing his hand around to indicate the bathroom.
"Yeah. Sure. I could wash."
Richard slips past him, their bare arms touching. "Yes," he says gently, "You could."
Rob drops his gaze, but smilingly. "Sorry, man."
"Just scrub behind your ears, could ya? And any other places you feel need, ah, attention."
Rob is grinning, "Sure." Richard gives him a little push, hand on his back, into the bathroom and then shuts the door.
It takes Rob another half hour to re-emerge, naked now, the incongruous boxer shorts balled up in his fist. He throws them at Richard's head.
"Clean. Fresh. Behold my purity and weep."
Richard winces, picking the shorts off his face. "Thanks for that."
"I kinda like it here," he says, sitting on the side of the bed, reaching into his pack for some socks and a clean shirt. "It's ... I don't know. Kinda peaceful."
"And top-quality drug cartels."
"That's not what I mean."
"You like being invisible, don't you?" Richard says, before he realises he is going to say anything.
Rob looks at him, impassive. Just this once. "Kinda weird for a movie star, right?"
Richard shrugs. "I don't know that many."
"Aren't you going to ask why I'm not denying it?"
"I assumed you'd admitted defeat in the face of my superior powers of perception."
"You want to be invisible?"
"I ... I like being looked at. Just. It makes me think about things I'd rather not think about. The job does that too, this one. Sam, I mean."
"So, you're saying you're a masochist?"
"Maybe," he says, quietly, not smiling.
"I don't think that's entirely uncommon in our profession, man."
"This helps, this ... being here?"
Their eyes meet, glancingly, light bouncing off water.
"Last night you said I looked like someone who was spiralling."
"Yes, I did."
"Do I still look that way, Richard?"
"I-I can't do this."
"C'mon, Richard, be my therapist."
"You know, maybe you should -- "
"What? Talk to somebody? Confront my demons? Deal with my inner pain? I'd rather drink paint."
"Or do coke."
"I guess we'll just carry on doing what we're doing then."
"You have some problem with that? Because, once again, I can't help noticing that you're getting a pretty good deal out of my ... whatever this is. It's a rare friend who will hold your hand through your mid-life crisis at the same time as he fucks you into the mattress, am I right, Richard?"
"Yes," Richard says, his lips smudging the word that he does not want to say. "Yes, you are."
Rob looks colder when he's angry, more glacier in the blue of his eyes, more red than tan in his cheeks.
"So I guess what I'm trying to say, man, is maybe I'm not the only one spiralling. Maybe you're experiencing a little flight turbulence of your own now. I mean, honestly, do you even like me?"
Richard looks at him: fury ruby-red in his skin, shirt unbuttoned, the boxer shorts in pink stripes now, never got around to putting on any pants; looks at the big muscles in his thighs and the shadows of the landscapes of his chest; looks for the boy, the glimmer of Sam, the thing that takes the cruelty out of his eyes. There are feathers of softness in him, Richard knows that much for sure, has seen them and felt them pressed up against his own inadequacies and inability to be equally tender. This is not only the reflected light of a scripted man. So he says, honestly, "Yes."
Later, in the car, buttoned and zipped up, Rob's sleeves rolled up and one arm braced as he waits in the traffic with his left hand at the apex of the steering wheel, Richard says, "You ever read any Shakespeare?"
Rob shoots at look at him, then back at the road. "Some. Not really."
"Because if you had I'd be able to talk about public and private faces now. I'd be able to draw you out some examples, possibly quote a line or two."
"You couldn't just maybe talk to me in English? The non-Elizabethan kind?"
"Drawing on Shakespeare and his unparalleled grasp of human psychology, I might be able to theorise," Richard continues, "In a purely amateur way of course, that pretending to be a stand-up guy for sixteen hours a day, eleven months out of the year is creating some kind of screw-up in your screwy fucking head. Making you black and white, at the same time. Split in two. Making you feel a much less honourable, much less virtuous person than the guy you play on t.v. There's a lot of that kind of thing in Shakespeare."
"Public and private faces. The people we keep for best and the ones we are when the doors are locked. Having a life that's written out for you, and then coming home and having to figure it all out for yourself."
"I don't remember him branching out into the world of network television, actually."
"Sure he did. You never saw Masterpiece Theatre?"
Rob smiles, the way he does when he's allowing you a point. He bows his head and his eyes close for one beat of the tick of the car's indicator lights, still waiting for the corner. Richard holds out his hand to where Rob can't fail to notice or convincingly pretend to ignore it.
"Richard Schiff, your new psychiatrist. Nice to meet you."
Rob laughs, then shakes Richard's hand. Their fingers clasp together for longer than they need to, but Richard figures that's only to be expected at this point. Rob says, "Good to meet you, doctor. You are a doctor, right?"
Richard adopts the accent that is labelled in his head (and on his resumé) as 'Eastern European Jewish non-specific', "Of the very highest quality, sir."
Rob smiles at him and once again Richard is struck by the blueness of his eyes and his own inability to find an accurate parallel of the colour in nature or the best of American manufacturing. Sapphire isn't right, nor is sky nor water nor the tiny fingerprints of blue flowers in the middle of green grass. The colour changes with the texture of the light and the quality of the air. And with Richard's changes of heart. He redefines the use of the colour, in Richard's head anyway. He's smiling now like he has a secret, or something he wishes he could tell the other guy in the car with him.
"I'm not telling you my dreams or any of that crap," Rob says, turning as the traffic opens.
"That's good, because I really wouldn't be listening if you did."
Rob hits the gas as they finally make it onto the main road out, slipping onto plain black highway, so he keeps his eyes front and centre when he says, "Yeah, I almost wish I believed that." He keeps driving, in silence. Richard watches him for a while then turns out towards the road, watches the dust rise up around them.
When the sun is setting, hours later, Richard decides he will ask the obvious question: "Where are we going?"
"Somewhere nice," Rob says. "Somewhere I get to pick."
"So keep me in suspense, why don't you."
"How about home?"
"Aren't we going ... south?"
"You have a really crappy sense of direction, my friend."
"And I wouldn't be surprised to find out you have merit badges for Boy Scouting hidden in your closet."
"More embarrassing things than that in my closet, man. But yes, actually." He grins. "You didn't notice, you know, the lights, the traffic, all the signs in English?"
"I didn't factor in napping time, of course. I know it's hard, at your age."
Rob laughs, then a little silence before he clears his throat into the space between the two of them. "I'll take you back to your place. Maybe forty minutes."
Richard looks straight ahead, into the growing dusk, and says, "No, not yet."
"Sure," he says, as though he can't tell one way or the other.
No lines for this part of the show, Richard thinks. He says: "Somewhere you like."
Rob's taste in eating places turns out to be a little burger joint that Richard has never noticed tucked a block off Wilshire Boulevard. The fluorescents inside the place make Rob's skin look jaundiced and the smell of the meat turns Richard back onto the sidewalk, but when Rob comes out with two hotdogs for each of them, both loaded up with mustard and pickle exactly the way Richard has never told him he likes them, Richard laughs.
"Okay, I am honestly disturbed now."
"What? You don't want a dog?"
"This whole thing where you intuit preferences I've never said a single word about."
"Special gift, man. Though as yet sadly limited to street food and clandestine sexual practices."
Richard finishes the first hotdog with the third bite, licks the mustard from his fingers. "You're doing very well with your limited supply of knowledge."
"Yeah?" He's staring, black-eyed, one untouched hotdog erect and obscene in each hand.
"Pretty well, yeah."
"I guess we should really quit the second part of the lesson plan," Rob says quietly, as though the entire time they've spent fucking each other, these heavy months between them and the last three days, are just some movie they both decided they weren't crazy about or a golf course where neither of them can get ahead of the curve, "But ... d'you think, maybe. Could we do this more often?"
"Take-out food in the street at midnight?"
"Yeah," he says. "Sure. We can do this part more often."
"You are so exactly like a woman."
"Shut up," he says, around a mouthful of dog.
It's a dark-ish alleyway. It's off the main streets. There are no footsteps. The light above their heads is out, but the two nearest ones are bright and orange and casting chasms onto the sidewalk that flood the stones with a glow that grazes the cuffs of their jeans and tips of their jackets, but Richard still kisses him. Mustard on his lips. Richard's hands hot and curled at the opening of Rob's collar, his fingers unfurling, unfurling.
"I'm sorry," Rob says. Millimetres between their mouths. "I played you. I'm sorry."
"Two of us in that car."
"I ... t-took advantage."
"I'm a grown man. I was reasonably sure you were too until today."
Rob grins. Their foreheads touch. "Fuck you," he says, kisses Richard's open mouth, sucks his bottom lip gently. Eyes close. Ponderings that take place on the collar of Richard's shirt. A hangnail makes him shiver. An invisible graze one centimetre long on his neck. Then the slow colonising of every particle of air that is not already hot with their intimacy. One hotdog dropped to the sidewalk as a precursor to Rob's fingers in the pockets of Richard's pants, pulling.
"You gonna eat that?" Richard asks, tipping his head back, making Rob blur and shimmer.
"The other one. I think we have to sacrifice this guy on the floor here."
"I could eat yours."
Richard exhales, somewhat like a laugh. "Your innuendo could use a little work."
Rob smiles. "I wasn't even thinking."
"Just thinking with your hands."
Hands in pockets. The change in Richard's jeans getting hotter in Rob's palms.
"The subconscious is a scary thing."
His eyes smiling, blue as remembered skies. He contains mountains. His heart full of caverns. Hands over hands. It feels different with another man: hotter skin, thicker veins, fingernails cut in rough triangles. Watching him shape-shifting.
"So, shall I take you home, honey?"
"You know, if this all falls through I'm seeing a career in comedy for you. Late night, the edgy stuff."
"What, I can't make jokes?"
"No, not really."
"You wanna go home?"
"I want to see my kids."
Rob nods, head bowed. "Yeah. Me too."
"Mustard on your collar,"Richard murmurs, as they break apart -- cold air slicing between thighs, light breaking between their forearms, and the unsticking, like pulling a foot out of the mud, of their fingertips.
Richard shakes his head. "Nothing. Doesn't matter."
They drive in silence. Rob pulls up out of sight of the house and when the engine is silenced he turns and smiles at Richard. Two friends, two guys.
"See you in a few weeks," he says.
He's climbing out of the SUV, as the toe of his shoe hits the sidewalk and night hits his face again, sweeter. He breathes in once before he turns around and is aware, for the first time, like the moment you realise that the painkillers have started to work, that the tender spot under his ribs has eased. Just the remembrance of an ache now.
Considering answers, they float down like falling leaves. The colour of taxicabs and clouds of autumn on the trees in Central Park. He is easier to look at framed by the door of a car that is about to drive away.
Richard nods. "Yeah."
The engine roars in the valley and Richard doesn't turn to look. He stands at his own door for a few seconds, listening for something that is disappearing, swallowed up in the gathering silence. Then he turns his key in the lock.
Richard finds the letters, lost leaves of thought, a kind of diary, in the smallest front pocket of his own backpack, folded into quarters. It takes him the whole weekend and then some to be able to face unpacking his small collection of things. He wonders to himself if it's because he couldn't bear the smell of Rob's cologne, his skin, the rubbing off of the traces of his body on the inside of Richard's life, glowing quietly by the his side of the bed, invisible to everyone but him. But, with his back pressed up against the bed base and the peak of his cap pulled low over his face, he opened up the bag. Into his hands like a falling planet, heavy light and gatherings of dust in orbit, the thick sheaf of papers. Inexplicable. The effort to catalogue.
There is no note; there is a small novella's worth of notes. All in Rob's small, even cursive. The one that shows off a better education than Richard's.
The word 'Richard' occurs about twenty times a page. Beside that it is a song in 'he' and 'I', a duet.
A diary of movement, first of all -- the differences between takes that he was watching, off-set; notes on costume, a list of ties; an amused paragraph on the only time that Richard ever forgot his lines and a lot more paragraphs on all the times he corpsed or caused one of the other's to corpse, and the laughter in written there in between the paper and the ink; essays on the subtexts, on the interpretations and the logic and the reasons, on all the ways and means of Toby Ziegler, and as Richard turns the page, the guts and the blood and the heart; the evidence that Rob fell in love with a scripted man.
And that's method acting, friends, Richard thinks.
And then a record of bodies and entanglement. A kiss that Rob remembers as something he stole; a depredation from Richard's body rendered in gifts of proximity, of time spent, making away with friendship quietly, touch by touch. Rob describes Richard's body as he would have liked to touch it: slow, measured in fingerprints circling around his chest and belly pulled tight like a ribbon, the intimacy that comes with time and only as a by-product of propinquity: waking up tangled in Richard's life, and inextricable; each atom of air they exhaled while they belonged to each other slowly replacing for Rob the air he breathed in the rest of his life, black for light. Becoming tender with that cancer, eating it up like hotdogs and cocaine.
Richard sighs. He turns the pages face-down on the carpet for a little while and sits staring through his window, at the blue of the sky.
And then the story of three days, told from the opposite side.
I asked him to tell me a story. I think what I really wanted was a life history, from embryo onwards. I know about the lawyer father. Two brothers. The commune. The taxicab-driving phase. And I've imagined Richard Schiff, the young director, too often. I think I want that man as my mentor, in fact, and the little kernel of hurt in my chest that I didn't get to be there and know him then hasn't gone away since I realised. I know the date of his wedding and his kids' birthdays. I've played catch with his son. What I really wanted was to have his whole existence drawn around me, disappear into it. A Schiff-shaped black hole. Because that's how infatuations work, isn't it? You want to leap into that person, like a boy into a pool. He told me some stories. He thinks it's all about sex. I guess at the moment, it is. But that isn't all it is, not by a long way.
Morning now. Richard's asleep. It's strange getting fucked by someone. Maybe I should ask him how it was, all those other times. But at the same time, even between the desperation and the pain, he is ... What he actually is is indescribable. But in a way that makes a space in my head that feels totally familiar, like he's always been my friend, like he'll always be there. Even though I'm pretty sure he doesn't actually like me. Collateral from stardom, I guess. Strangers want to fuck you and don't get to (thank you, lawsuits!) and your friends don't want to fuck you, but keep on not being able to say no.
He looks peaceful. A man after his conquest. He sleeps with his face tucked into the pillow, like a little kid. A little like John Owen when he was small. I guess I get to keep that. That's mine now.
Tijuana. I know what he wants, that's the craziest thing. That he doesn't even need to say that he wants to see me for what I am: needy and crazy and high, selfish but happy to be used, for a price. Pretty boy. I can see it in his eyes.
No, that's not the craziest thing. The craziest thing is that if it wasn't so schizophrenic, if he didn't need to call his wife to get the strength to see me exactly the way he wants me, I wouldn't even notice how fucked up it is.
Just a quick note, dear diary, to say that you never forget the fizz of coke on your gums. Driving back to him, feeling like I'm flying back to him. Back to his darkness, where I can ...?
Listening to him wash. In a second I have to get up because sitting here and thinking, dreaming, trying to sleep with his fingerprints on my skin, is a time-limited activity. How can I miss him when he's in the other room? It's not only sickening, it's ridiculous and stupid. But I do.
Water running. And now he's clearing his throat.
My heart feels like it's being pulled, stretched. Blown up like a balloon. It's hard to breathe because it doesn't fit in my chest anymore.
Last note, diary.
'My friend', I keep calling him that in my head, in this diary. He isn't. Not really. I don't think any effort to define what we are to each other is anything other than stupid. So, even though Sam would never approve, I'm going to throw out the nouns. And the adjectives. (Of course. Maybe I'll even get a tick from Toby's side of the argument for that.) But I still get the verbs. I understand those. I don't understand much of anything, but I have managed to wrangle some definition of my feelings.
I do love him. Whys, hows, anything adjectival -- I don't know. I don't care.
It's a gift. All of this. A gift I never thought to expect.
He is, too.
It's a cold day, when they begin again. The drop in temperature makes Rob's tan look all the richer against the usual white shirt. They don't have any scenes together that aren't also scenes with Allison, Janel, Brad joking it up from a hospital gurney with fake blood droplets on his face. So Richard doesn't get a chance to say much to him that isn't off the page or spoken into the edges of Allison's new stories.
Over lunch, across the room, Rob is drinking iced tea. Shirt unbuttoned and Sam's new tie on the table in front of him. His fingers tap against the side of the glass, delicate, so much whiter than the skin at his neck, his cheeks. Martin comes by (in sweats, and not the hospital gown, thank God), pats him on the shoulder, says hi. Richard can hear the timbre of Rob's voice from his own table, and it burrs in his chest. He's laughing. His eyes, perfectly blue. Richard smiles, to himself, down into his sandwich.
"How you doing?"
"You feel rested?"
"You did good today."
Hand on his shoulder, the shape of the bones held in his palm like stepping into a photograph, finding a memory exactly as you left it.
Richard kisses his cheek. Symmetry makes two of them. Words are swallowed -- Rob's in his mouth tasting like burnt sugar, dissolving on Richard's tongue. When Richard hugs him it feels weird, sharp and unwieldy, remembering that he is an inch or two taller, that it takes effort to keep still around another person who isn't his wife. Richard's tongue grazes over Rob's stubble, just for a second. Sharp, salt. Then, his mouth a segment of ripe fruit in Richard's mouth.
Disconnect, then, step back. Hands on his shoulders, holding him steady, still trying to pick out the right word for 'blue'.
"Thank you," Richard says.
Rob nods. Then he smiles. "We should go back."
"Okay. Let's go."