“I’m serious,” Nick said. They were gathered in Rafael’s office, distracted from the case by the news of Sandy. The mayor was talking about evacuations, flooding. “If any of you guys need a place to go, I’ve got a lot of candles and a gas stove.”
Never did Rafael think he would actually take him up on it. Everyone had panicked about Irene, too, and that hadn’t amounted to much. His mother had tried to convince him to go stay upstate for a few days with her and Abuelita but he’d declined (politely at first, and then more forcefully when his mother wouldn’t relent, treating him like one of her unruly middle schoolers). But as the storm moved up the country, it became clear he’d made a mistake. He was right in the middle of an evacuation zone, with nowhere to go. Except Amaro’s.
So after a short text conversation to make sure Amaro really, really did mean it, Rafael packed a bag, said a prayer, and headed out.
The wind was picking up when he got there. There was a slight drizzle, the very outskirts of the storm catching up to them. He tipped his head back to look at the soft gray sky while he waited for Amaro to answer the door. It was an omen for something, he was certain.
Nick was dressed casually. Sloppily. Sweats that were too big for him, undershirt, no socks. He wasn’t the sharpest dresser, but Rafael had only ever seen him in suits at work, and it was disconcerting to see him at the opposite of the spectrum. He found himself staring a bit. It was like seeing a teacher outside of school. Rafael gripped his duffel bag a little harder, thought about the clothes he’d packed. Would he look ridiculous in his button down shirts and slacks next to Amaro? Who clearly didn’t care what he looked like when he had company?
“You coming in or what?”
“Yes, yeah.” Rafael moved past Amaro into the living room. He hadn’t realized how biting the wind was until he was enveloped in the warmth of the house. Amaro took his coat and scarf from him and hung them on the hook on the wall. Rafael tried not to stare at the family photos on the wall; they were mostly of his daughter, some of him and his wife. Ex-wife. Just-seperated-from-because-she-took-their-daughter-and-moved-out-wife.
There was still evidence of what Amaro’s life had been. A small plastic table still set with plastic teacups. Toys in a basket by the tv. Covers on the outlets. Hand drawn pictures tacked up on the walls, hanging on the fridge.
“Yeah, sorry, I was still picking up when you got here,” Amaro said as he moved a pillow on the couch and looked around the room. “I was gonna vacuum.”
“It’s fine,” Rafael said.
“I’m surprised you’re here, actually. Don’t have some fancy hotel to go to?” He said it with a smirk that should have made Rafael angry but it only made him embarrassed, shame he didn’t usually feel outside of getting a talking to from a nun or his mother. They’d grown up in the same life, fighting with all their strength to get somewhere else where the grass was greener.
“All the nice ones are in a flood zone,” he said. Amaro laughed easily and clapped him on the shoulder and Rafael wondered if Amaro had ever touched him before. The wind was howling outside. He’d entered the Twilight Zone.
Amaro made chicken for dinner. They ate on the couch, plates on their knees, watching some poor weatherman on the Jersey shore try to stay upright in the wind to give his report. The rain was pelting the front window hard already. Rafael wished he’d listened to his mother and gone upstate. If he had, he wouldn’t be helping Amaro smooth a bedsheet over the couch cushions because his daughter’s bed was too small; he wouldn’t be awkwardly waiting his turn for the bathroom to brush his teeth, trying not analyze Amaro’s bedroom; he wouldn’t be listening to the wind shake the glass in the frames, thinking about a branch breaking the glass while he slept.
He couldn’t sleep. The storm was loud, incredibly, unbelievably loud. He was certain the windows would break, showering him with glass. Why hadn’t Amaro boarded them up? Rafael curled up facing the back of the couch so he wouldn’t see death coming. He’d get a shard of glass to the spine and be nice and paralyzed before he bled out.
There was click and then an odd quiet; he hadn’t noticed the hum of the refrigerator until it was gone. Rafael peeked his head out from under the blanket and squinted at the kitchen. The green glow of the oven clock was gone. Power was out. The wind gusted, and Rafael scrambled to get up, skin itching as he hurried to the interior of the house, like a child jumping onto the bed to avoid monsters.
He wrapped the afghan around his shoulders and used his phone to guide his way to the second bedroom. It was incredibly purple, even in the harsh blue light of the screen. He dumped stuffed animals off the bed and climbed in. He didn’t fit. Not even remotely. It was too short, too narrow, and he was better off on the couch but Rafael Barba never claimed to be a brave man, and he was not going back to the living room.
He tried to roll over onto his side but only succeeded in banging his knees against the wall. Maybe if he dangled his arms and legs off the side he’d be comfortable.
“Barba?” a rough voice said. Amaro was shining a flashlight into the room. “What are you doing?”
“Sorry,” Rafael said as he scrambled to get up. He accidently rolled clean off the mattress. Amaro pulled him to his feet, eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Not the usual paranoid, I-don’t-know-what’s-going-on-and-I-don’t-trust-it look; this one was gentler, his head cocking to the side like a damn puppy. “I, uh, couldn’t get to sleep on the couch so.” Rafael didn’t bother with any more explanation. Nothing about falling out of toddler bed with Disney princess sheets because the damn wind was freaking him out was dignified.
“Sorry, didn’t think it’d be that uncomfortable,” Amaro said, and then he put a hand on Rafael’s shoulder and led him out to the hall, into the master bedroom. And then he just climbed into bed and turned off the flashlight, fully expecting Rafael to get in after him.
Well he needed to lower his expectations. The last time he’d shared a bed (platonically) was when he was a child, sleeping over at his cousin’s. He wasn’t going to spend the night with tense muscles trying to make sure he kept to his side and didn’t disturb Amaro while he shifted around. Rafael would take his chances with the windows.
A gust surged, practically shaking the whole house on its foundation.
Rafael got in the bed.
He pulled the covers tight under his chin and prayed with more sincerity than he usually did.
The bed was empty when Rafael woke up. Rafael squinted at the wrinkled sheets for a minute, not quite remembering where he was. Bed, queen sized, generic cream sheets, contrasting generic beige walls. Amaro’s bed, Amaro’s room.
Amaro could be a dick, liked to push buttons; Rafael hoped this was the one thing he let slide and never ever mentioned or alluded to. No sly comment in the squad room, hands on hips, watching Rafael out of the corner of his eye. No licking his lips before turning his head and saying something cutting about Rafael’s morality (“I’d ask how you sleep at night, counselor, but I already know”). The sound and smell of breakfast started filtering through Rafael’s thoughts. His anxiety could wait until after coffee.
He made his way to the kitchen and found Amaro in sleep pants and a sweatshirt, making omelets.
“Hey. How’s a ‘everything that’s gonna spoil in the fridge’ omelet sound?”
Amaro laughed. “Sorry, Barba. You’re gonna have to go through withdrawals. No power, no coffee. You could have tea, if you can find any. Maria drank it sometimes, there might be some in the cabinet…”
Rafael wasn’t listening. There was no coffee. When was the last time he’d gone a day without coffee? Childhood. Infanthood. He was going to die.
“Barba,” Amaro cut in. “You gonna make it?”
Rafael wanted to say something back but without coffee, it was impossible. He just took his plate and sat at the kitchen counter.
“You check on your family yet?” Amaro asked as he sat.
“No. My mother and abuela evacuated. They’re fine.”
“Yeah, but they’re probably worried about you. Call ‘em while your phone still has battery.”
“Mm, I’ll do it when I get back home.”
Amaro shook his head. “You didn’t look outside yet.”
Rafael put his fork down. “Is it bad?”
“See for yourself.”
Rafael got up and cautiously made his way to the big living room window. The glass had stayed intact. He almost wished it had shattered to make his fearful retreat to Amaro’s bed seem justified.
He pulled back the curtain and sucked in a harsh breath when he saw the street. Almost every tree was down; big trees, trees that had been there for fifty, sixty years. Large clusters of roots caked in dirt were reaching to the sky, slabs of sidewalk ripped up with them. The trunks crisscrossed the street, the spray of leaves covering every inch of pavement. One had fallen on a van parked at the curb, its heavy trunk practically folding it in half. There were smaller branches, pieces of torn leaves like confetti strewn everywhere else.
“Jesus Christ,” Rafael whispered.
“Hey, come here. News finally loaded.”
Rafael turned to go back to the kitchen to find Amaro was already standing by the couch. And then instead of handing the phone over, he came even closer, his shoulder touching Rafael’s, so they could both look at it. It surprised him how warm Amaro was, even through the thick layer of his sweatshirt. It reminded him how cold he was in his t shirt.
“Ever heard of personal space, detective?”
Amaro rolled his eyes and huffed, but gave Rafael the phone and stepped back.
There was headline after headline, how many injured, how many dead, estimates of the cost of damage, flooded subways and streets, a photo of a mangled roller coaster ripped from the boardwalk sitting dejectedly and uselessly in the ocean. All of it gave off the feeling of the uncanny, made Rafael feel dissonant in a neutral-on-neutral house, an island of order while outside the world had been blown and washed away. Where the rivers had surged up, spreading into the streets like tendrils of smoke or ink, weaving between building, spilling underground, lapping against brick and concrete, trying to take Manhattan back and claim it once again as a part of nature. Where Rafael was trapped and powerless and at the mercy of river tides, fallen trees, and Nick Amaro.
“So,” Amaro said, “you wanna play cards?”
Amaro was fucking with him. It was psychological warfare.
They were on the couch, Rafael sitting like an adult and Amaro sitting cross-legged on the cushion, playing Old Maid. Amaro had one card in his hand pushed up higher than the rest. Obviously it wasn’t the old maid because he had to know Rafael wouldn’t fall for that. So the old maid was somewhere in his hand, but where? Next to the pushed up card? – because he thought Rafael would deliberately pick the one next to it to piss him off? Or on the edge? – farthest away from the obvious choice, a chance at security? Or was it a double bluff? Rafael knew it wouldn’t be the old maid, so he would pick it, only to see he had been tricked, fallen for a strategy he probably used on his daughter. If he got the old maid now, what were his chances of getting rid of it?
“Barba, just pick a damn card,” Amaro snapped. He switched his cards to his other hand to slip his fingers into the sleeve of his sweatshirt to warm them up. The hood to his sweatshirt was up, and he had a blanket over his lap. Rafael, too, had a blanket. Bright blue and purple stripes, hand made by Amaro’s abuela. He had on a borrowed pair of Amaro’s socks over his own. He didn’t remember October ever being so cold.
Rafael huffed but took a card, second from the edge. Seven of hearts.
Amaro easily plucked a card from Rafael’s hand and set his pair aside. “You got ten seconds to pick a card,” he said.
“Or what, you’ll arrest me?”
“I’ll make you play Pretty Pretty Princess.”
When Amaro had gone looking for a deck of cards, he’d emerged from his daughter’s room with a stack of games. “Ok, we got regular cards, Uno, checker board with no pieces, Guess Who, and Pretty Pretty Princess.”
“What the hell is that?” Rafael had asked.
Amaro showed him the box.
“I’ll stick to cards.”
Amaro grinned, shifting his hips in a way Rafael had come to recognize from work as I’m about to say something I think is funny. “You sure, Barba? Comes with a crown and everything.”
Rafael had only given him a look and told him to deal. Then Amaro had admitted he hadn’t played cards with anyone other than Zara in years and could only remember how to play Go Fish and Old Maid.
“You can’t compel me to play,” Rafael said. Amaro shifted, their knees knocking. It had been like that since they sat down. Too close, old couch sagging in the middle and making them slide closer together, fingertips brushing as they played, in each other’s space as if they were friends or something other than colleagues.
“I could always put you in handcuffs.”
Rafael felt heat spread through him, his skin feeling tight. Because he was what, embarrassed? At the thought of Amaro laughing as he tackled and pinned Rafael, restraining him with the cuffs before putting the cheap plastic crown on him. And Rafael would be mad, but laughing. A scene from a movie, friends goofing off, teasing and having fun. “That’d be excessive force,” he said. He picked a card quickly. The Old Maid.
Amaro called him a sore loser. He had won three games in a row, and after the last one, Rafael had announced clearly and sternly that he wasn’t playing any more games. Except there was nothing else to do.
He texted his mother, checked his emails, but put his phone away after a few minutes so he didn’t drain the battery. He played solitaire. Wished for paperwork. Amaro disappeared for a while and came back with a battery powered radio and a book.
He sat in the armchair, twisted so his legs dangled off the armrest, one hand behind his head, the other propping up the book on his chest. The radio was on low. Gold autumn sun came through the windows and made the room marginally warmer, though they both stayed wrapped in the afghans. Rafael was viscerally reminded that this was a home. Where Amaro was most comfortable, where he had a family. The pictures on the wall were mocking him. He was an intruder, an imposter in the domestic scene they made.
“What are you reading?” he said to break the tranquility.
“Gertrude Stein,” Amaro said without looking up.
“Right.” The name was vaguely familiar, as if he had to write a short answer response in his undergrad literature course about her. “What’s it about?”
“It’s uh, not really about anything. I mean, they’re poems. So they’re all about different things.”
“I didn’t know you read… poetry.” But then, the first case they worked together, Amaro had come to his office with a copy of 25 Acts annotated to hell and back, highlighted and flagged with post-its, going on about classical references.
Amaro shrugged, and Rafael thought maybe if the lights were on he would have seen him turning pink. “I like to read,” he said.
Rafael wanted to ask Amaro what the name of the poem was, to read one out loud. But that would be crossing a line. Crossing over to what he didn’t know, but he knew he couldn’t.
“I don’t really get the chance to read anything but casefiles,” he said instead.
Amaro gave a humorless laugh. “I hear that. With work and Zara… haven’t finished a book in months. You can borrow one to read while you’re here.”
Rafael looked down at his game of solitaire. He was losing. “Sure,” he said.
Amaro led him to the bedroom where the bookcase was. Rafael hadn’t done more than glance at it while he was in the room the night before. Now he saw that it was crammed full of books, old ones, with faded covers and yellow pages. They all looked used, like Amaro had gotten them from garage sales and thrift shops. Books of poetry, anthologies, novels, thick and thin. Four shelves full. “I like to read” seemed to be understatement.
“What do you like?” Amaro asked.
Rafael shook his head. He hadn’t read for pleasure in a long time. “Pick for me,” he said.
Amaro looked at him and licked his lips before turning his full attention on the bookcase. Rafael was suddenly hit with the feeling that he’d asked something very intimate of him. Amaro ran his fingers across the spines, ghost of touches, like it should leave goosebumps in its wake. He paused at one, thumb stroking the lettering. Rafael could feel his skin pricking. Amaro pulled the book out, rubbed his palm over the cover (to dust it off or to feel the words through his skin as if it were sacrosanct?), and handed it to Rafael.
“A Moveable Feast.”
“Yeah, it’s good.” Amaro cleared his throat. And then – he reached out and put his hand on Rafael’s shoulder, let his hand slide down the sleeve of his shirt before pulling away and going back to the living room.
They read for the rest of the day. Rafael had made it through half the novel, and couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that Amaro had chosen it for him. It was an autobiography by Hemingway, nothing particularly interesting in the plot but full of homoerotic subtext. Gertrude Stein kept popping up; a thin wire of connection between him and Amaro as they read. Amaro had chosen it for a reason, and Rafael couldn’t figure out what that reason was, what he was trying to tell him.
When the sun went down, Amaro lit all the candles he had. It made the whole house flicker with orange light and shadows. Rafael shut the book; he couldn’t read about Hemingway measuring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dick while Amaro was bathed in candlelight like they were in fucking Pride and Prejudice.
They ate grilled cheese for dinner. Rafael carefully led the conversation so Amaro wouldn’t have the chance to ask about the book. And so he wouldn’t have the chance to ask just what kind of subliminal message Amaro was trying to send him. Because there wasn’t one.
They went to bed early. Rafael borrowed a sweatshirt to put over his t-shirt and piled two blankets over himself on the couch. He was still freezing, though, unable to find a pocket of warmth. Amaro probably had shitty caulking around his window and door. Rafael pulled the blanket over his nose and then shoved his hands in the pocket of the hoodie. With a growl, he finally gave up and tossed the blankets off. The air was even colder, so he wrapped them back around his shoulders as he made his way to the bedroom.
Only his hair was visible. It shifted around until a hand peeked out to pull the comforter down. “Yeah?”
“Do you have another blanket?”
“No, sorry. Are you cold?”
Was he cold. “Yes, I’m fucking cold.”
Amaro looked around the room like he was looking for the answer to write itself in the air. “Uh, you can sleep in here again.”
“Then freeze,” Amaro said, and dropped his head back onto the pillow. He curled up, tugging the comforter tight around his shoulders.
The floor was cold under Rafael’s feet. “Fuck,” he muttered, and tossed his blankets over the comforter and climbed in. “Jesus fuck,” he hissed. The sheets were ice.
“I know,” Amaro said.
Rafael shimmied closer, where Amaro’s body heat had warmed the bed. He was careful not to get too close, careful not to let there be any contact.
“Night,” Amaro mumbled. Rafael shut his eyes.
Rafael was a genius. Caffeine starved and manic but also genius.
Amaro’s hand was close to his face when he woke. Amaro’s face was close to his when he woke. They weren’t touching. Rafael could hear him breathing, soft sighs on every exhale. His face was relaxed, smoothed of the usual lines Rafael saw at work, the crease between his eyes as he looked something up, the angry set around his mouth as he was cross-examined. His hair was curling wildly, tousled by the pillow. Rafael rolled onto his back and rubbed his forehead where a headache was already forming. He needed coffee.
He had a tea kettle, coffee grounds, coffee filter, coffee cup, and a paperclip. And he was making coffee if it killed him.
He scooped the grounds into the filter and held it closed with the paper clip, let it seep in the hot water like a tea bag. It wasn’t the best cup he’d ever had, and he couldn’t find the sugar, but it was coffee. Each sip made him sigh or groan; he leaned against the stove with the mug in both hands, eyes closed, in picture of such bliss the company could have used the image for advertisements.
Amaro shuffled in. The hems to his pajama bottoms were too long, as were the sleeves to his sweatshirt. He rubbed at his eyes, looking cozy and peaceful. He fit in well with Rafael’s commercial; the husband that always wakes up late, blindly grabbing at the coffee, perking up after his first sip and kissing him sweetly.
Rafael put his mug down too hard and sloshed some coffee onto the counter. He busied himself with mopping it up.
Amaro put a hand on Rafael’s back. It was casual, a light touch. “Hey. You MacGyver some coffee?” And then – Amaro picked up Rafael’s cup and downed what was left. Rafael watched his throat bob in horror.
“That was mine,” he said.
Amaro shrugged. “Make more.”
“Fucker,” Rafael said under his breath. Amaro laughed as he made his way back to the bedroom to get dressed.
Rafael set another two cups brewing.
They were in the middle of a game of checkers when Amaro’s phone rang. “Thank God,” he said, and then brushed his hand across the board to mess up the pieces before standing to answer it. They had been arguing for the past fifteen minutes over who was winning. The board was a mess of coins, two stamps, bottle caps, and a binder clip. Rafael said, “King me,” and Amaro said, “No, that’s my piece; your nickel’s over there,” and it all went downhill from there.
“Yeah, I’m fine, Maria. The roof held out. I tried texting, but they wouldn’t go through.”
Rafael started picking up the pieces, trying not to listen to Amaro. He had only bothered walking three feet away, slowly pacing behind the couch.
“It’s probably gonna be out for the rest of the week. Yeah, the trees took the lines down.” Amaro paused, his hand on the back of the couch by Rafael’s head. Rafael tugged at the sleeve of his shirt where it had bunched up under the sweater and hoodie he had on over it. What was he supposed to do? Pretend not to listen? Set up a new game of checkers? Why couldn’t Amaro be a normal fucking person and take the call in a different room?
“Well, did they have flood insurance?”
Not that it was a particularly interesting conversation.
“No, I’m not… Maria, I was just asking, you don’t have to –”
Amaro finally had the sense to take his pacing elsewhere. It was a small house, though, and Rafael could still hear bits and pieces, even as he tried to focus on his book. Amaro’s cut off sentences, frustrated sighs, defeated sighs, another attempt at normal conversation. And then finally, a bright, eager, “Yeah,” and then “Hi, Zara.”
A few minutes later, Amaro came back out into the main room, still on the phone, but with a grin on his face. Rafael hadn’t seen him look so happy since he arrived. He didn’t think he’d ever seen Amaro this delighted. He had a lot of different smiles – ‘I’m being a smart ass,’ ‘I was right about a case,’ ‘I’m about to get a perp to admit to everything.’ This one was joyful, radiant.
“I would love that. You can make one for abuelita too, otherwise she’ll be jealous… okay, Zara, I have to go now… I miss you too, sweet pea. We can Skype when I get power back, okay? Te quiero.”
Amaro hung up and flopped onto the arm chair next to the couch with a loud exhale. He pulled his sweat jacket around himself tighter; Rafael had to bite his tongue so not to say, “Just fucking zip it, it has a zipper for a reason: so you don’t have to keep holding it closed.”
Instead, he said, “Your daughter?”
“Yeah. And Maria. My wife. Ex. Almost. It’s not official.”
Rafael wondered if the cold was making Amaro unusually open. Not that single word sentences where the height of candid conversation, but Amaro had always seemed especially guarded. Careful with his words around people he didn’t trust.
“Right,” Rafael said, because what else could he say? He tugged at his too-long sleeves. He’d had to borrow clothes from Amaro – a Henley, a sweater, a pullover, and two pairs of socks (getting dressed was torture: first he had to get undressed which meant letting the cold air touch his skin, and then he had to put on clothes that smelled like foreign detergent and made his skin hyper aware that these were Amaro’s).
Amaro pushed his sleeves up. The clothes were big on him too, as if he purposely bought the wrong size. “Her parents’ basement flooded, but otherwise they’re good.”
“And do they have flood insurance?”
Amaro looked, eyebrows drawn together in confusion until there was a spark of realization and he laughed. “It’s, uh…” he began and trailed off, looking away from Rafael, hand rubbing his mouth. “Everything starts a fight. We just can’t talk anymore.”
Rafael nodded, his fingers twitching over the pages of his book. He was ready for the conversation to be over; he didn’t want to hear about how much Amaro missed his wife, wanted to save the marriage.
“We didn’t really talk, before, though. It was always… scripted. I don’t know. We were never that honest with each other.”
“Really? I didn’t know holding your tongue was a skill you had. You should try it at work sometime,” Rafael said. He shouldn’t have been so cutting. His smart mouth always got him in trouble, got him beaten up, got him detention, threats of holding him in contempt. But he wanted Amaro to shut up, wanted his skin to stop feeling hot and jealous, wanted to get himself under control.
“Mm, fuck you,” he said. He was staring at his hands clasped in front of him. “I fucked up. She fucked up.” He gave a shrug. “We fucked it up and now it’s over.”
Rafael could have said they could always work out their problems. That if they realized what went wrong they could find solutions. That there was always time to start being honest. It would be the right thing to say, to be comforting, to give advice. But Rafael was selfish, and he kept his mouth shut.
Rafael got into bed that night, Amaro settling in next to him. He kept his back to him, ignored the sounds of fabric sliding softly, of his breathing. He kept his eyes on the dark room before him, forcing himself to look at nothing except the indistinct shadows of furniture so he would not think of anything else. So he would not think of that afternoon. Of Amaro’s voice as he read.
Amaro had moved on to a new book. Rafael had only asked what it was. He had not asked for Amaro to start reading. He had not asked for anything more than a title and could not be held responsible for whatever came next.
For the way Amaro’s voice slide easily over each line, the lilt in his words as he fell into the cadence of the poem. For the inflections, for the way his voice became louder and stronger as he went on and it made the words seem to mean something else, as if the dictionary could not define them because they were meaningless outside of the meaning Amaro gave them. For the way he hitched and took a deep breathe when the words became too much. For the way he explained nothing but made it clear. For the choice in poem, for the madness and love and helplessness of watching your lover decay in his depression. For the way he read the last line – “in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night” – and then lifted his head, looking wrecked and expectant and Rafael could do nothing because the whole process had broken him.
He would not think of every moment he and Nick Amaro had spent together the last three days, of all the details of Nick Amaro’s life he had seen come together. He would not think about the fact that Nick Amaro went to work and fought hard to bring justice and got angry and frustrated and pushed himself too far to find every shred of evidence because he was proving something or was that suicidal. He would not think about the fact that Nick Amaro did all that and then came home and read Allen Ginsberg, and slept on his left side and kept his arms close to his chest and looked completely different when he wasn’t tensing for a fight at any moment.
Rafael kept his eyes open and steady until exhaustion finally took him under.
Rafael was jarred out sleep by the sound of an engine. It sounded beautiful. He thought this must be what shipwrecked people feel like when they’re rescued; stuck in a quiet hell with no cars or sirens or dings from the elevator, oven, phone, printer – nothing that sounded like home, like the backdrop of the city’s white noise. Until finally – the roar of an engine and they were saved, humanity had come for them.
Nick too was awake, sitting up and rubbing his neck. Rafael squinted at him. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he had the vague memory of a sharp gulp for air followed by panting, the mattress creaking and bouncing as he turned over, making the gap between them wider.
“What time is it?”
“I don’t know,” Rafael said. He had obsessively checked his phone for the time the first few days. But his phone was draining fast, so he let himself be ruled by the sun like a fucking pioneer.
Amaro got out of bed; Rafael considered doing the same but instead flopped down onto the pillow with a grunt. He fumbled for his phone on the nightstand and waited with tense muscles for the internet to load. His phone was 12%. He scanned the news quickly. The bridges were still out. Only one subway line was running. He was still stuck.
Amaro came back in and went into the closet to pull on a hoodie (over the sweatshirt he already had on). “They have a chainsaw,” he said.
“My neighbor. They're cutting up the trees.”
Nick looked at him expectantly, like Rafael should be getting out of bed too, pulling more clothes on over his clothes so he could go outside where it was even colder. Rafael did not move. Watching strangers inexpertly hack up fallen trees was not his idea of entertainment. Going outside just to watch the spectacle would be admitting some sort of defeat; that the cold and boredom had killed the part of him that had dignity and standards.
“I'm going out. If you got something better to do you can stay here.”
“I'm going back to sleep,” Rafael said.
Amaro shrugged, and left.
Rafael rolled over and shut his eyes. The engine was still droning. It was no longer beautiful, just a reminder of what Rafael couldn’t have. The bed wasn't as warm. He could sleep for another hour, and then when he woke up the only thing to do would be read or play cards for hours at a time while the radio played the same songs as yesterday and Amaro tortured him with his presence. His phone was dead. Whatever was happening outside would be the only interesting thing to happen for days.
“Oh fuck,” Rafael said. He got out of bed and met Amaro by the door, where he was wrapping a scarf around his neck.
Amaro grinned, opened his mouth, but Rafael shut him up with a warning look. Nick just shook his head and waited for Rafael to get his shoes and coat on.
They weren't the only ones to be drawn out by the noise. A small crowd had gathered on the sidewalk in one of the only clear spots. Two men were standing in the road amid the fallen trees, nearly obscured by the branches. One cut the branches and the other dragged them away, toward the curb. Rafael didn't really see what the point of it was. There were too many trees; even if they cut them all up, there was nowhere to put them.
“Hey, Nick!” someone called out.
“Hey! Robby kill himself yet?”
The man with chainsaw heard him and shouted “Fuck you!” over the roar of the motor. Rafael wondered vaguely if he should have been wearing earplugs.
“Not yet, but we're taking bets. Who's that?”
“My friend Rafael. He had to evacuate and got stuck here.”
Rafael tried to give him a discreet look. Amaro could have just as easily said coworker. Or was Rafael's life really that ridiculous that no one would believe he would willingly go to a work acquaintance's house to literally weather out a storm?
“I'm Angelica,” the woman said, and held out her hand.
Rafael shook it but stayed mostly silent for the next few minutes. He didn't know these people. Amaro clearly did, which surprised him. He barely knew his own neighbors but Amaro knew all their names, asked how their relatives were, if they were missing much work.
Robby and the other man kept working, still with all their limbs. “Ay Amaro, you gonna help us?” Robby shouted. They hadn't make much of a dent in clearing the road.
“No way,” Nick laughed. “I should arrest you for endangering the public.”
The group all laughed while Robby scowled. Rafael couldn't help himself from sparing glances at Amaro. Hair shining in the early autumn sun, arms crossed as he stood with one hip popped, smiling easily as he joked with his neighbors. Relaxed.
He wished he had his phone or a case file to pretend he was reading. He was fucked.
“You know the bodega around the block is open?” someone said.
“Yeah, they got a generator, have it set up so people can charge their phones.”
Nick raised an eyebrow at Rafael. “Walk over after breakfast?”
Nick put a hand on his shoulder and called out his goodbyes and good luck to Robby (“Hey Robby, stay safe, man. Until three. Then cut your hand off so I can win the bet”). Rafael smiled and waved, said it was nice to meet them, pretended it was normal and not unexpected that Amaro was touching him, that they were close and friendly.
He debated whether to call Amaro out on it all through their breakfast of weak coffee and instant oatmeal. Normally he wouldn't hesitate. Normally he would tell Amaro very clearly that they were not friends, had only just become coworkers and please don't touch his suit. But normally he would not be wearing five layers of Amaro's clothes, would not have slept in bed with Amaro, would not have spent the last three days living with him and fixating on the way he looked and sounded as he read poetry. So he didn't bring it up.
They walked to the bodega. Rafael's fingers twitched, caught with the bizarre feeling they were meant to be holding hands. And really, he had to get back to Manhattan. He had to cut this out.
It was just cabin fever. Some new kind of Stockholm syndrome. They could name it after him, put it in the dictionary. Noun: feelings of attraction felt when someone is stranded at their coworker’s house without power. Exasperated by the level of attractiveness of the coworker and the last time you had sex.
Once he got back to his own apartment, went back to his regular life, working late and berating Nick and the squad for fucking up a search or confession, he would be fine. And he wouldn't stare at Amaro's mouth and he would forget what Nick's clothes smelled like and what his bedroom looked like.
The bodega was mostly empty when they arrived. They plugged their phones in to the power strip near the wall and then wandered around separately. For the first time in days, Rafael felt too hot. He took off his coat and his hoodie. He slowly made his way up the snack aisle and thought that if there was ever a time where he deserved to impulse buy, it was now. So he gathered up chips and Oreos and Goldfish and settled on the floor next to his phone to go through his emails and eat.
“We just had breakfast,” Amaro said above him. He had done some shopping too, but had been more responsible about it. He had a loaf of bread, instant coffee, peanut butter, and pasta. Rafael swallowed his Oreo and glared at his body, suddenly finding it more annoying than attractive.
Amaro settled in next to him and tried to grab a cookie. Rafael held it out of reach; “We just had breakfast,” he said.
“Yeah, alright, I'm sorry, just give me a cookie.”
Rafael took a cookie out of the package and ate it.
“Dios mio. Rafael, can I please have a cookie.”
“It's 'may I'“
Nick lunged at him, scrambling to get the Oreos out of Rafael's hand.
“Give me a damn cookie!”
“This is police brutality!”
Nick was on top of him, then, his torso pressed against Rafael's. He tried to keep the Oreo's away, darting his arm around but Nick was quick, snatched them away.
He sat back up and shoved a cookie in his mouth whole.
“You’re a dick,” Rafael panted as he sat up and rubbed at his elbow where he had knocked at it against the tile floor.
Amaro tried to toss a cookie in the air and catch in his mouth but it bounced of his nose instead.
They stayed for a few hours, sitting shoulder to shoulder on the hard floor. A few people joined them, made conversation (including one man who told them a lengthy story about the time he and his best friend got lost in cave upstate with one dying flashlight and a matchbook. “I lit up a match and he shouted, ‘Stop wastin’ ‘em; if we’re gonna die in here I wanna have a smoke!’”). When their phones were charged, Amaro got a bag of ice for his freezer, and they walked back home.
They’d fallen into a silence. Rafael had trouble discerning whether it was comfortable or not. Maybe they didn’t need to talk, or maybe they’d hit their terminal velocity and they’d used up all the conversations they could possibly have. Rafael was surprised four days hadn’t already lead to either constant fighting or strained small talk.
Nick didn’t turn on the radio when they settled in the living room with their books. The only sound was pages turning and the crinkling of Halloween candy being unwrapped. The sun was beginning to dip low on the horizon, making long tilted shadows fall across the room. Nick sat with a thick anthology in his lap, the pages thin and wispy as he flipped to a new piece. Rafael could see him moving his lips, just slightly, barely parting them. It was a poem, he could tell by the rhythm.
Nick suddenly furrowed his brows, made a frustrated sound. He glanced around the room while he bit his lip like he was trying to remember something.
“You good?” Rafael asked.
“Yeah. I remember reading this in college but I can't remember what we said about it.” He added under his breath, “I wonder if my old notebooks are still at Mom's?”
“What were you reading?” Rafael asked as if he could help.
“Oh, this poem by William Carlos Williams.”
Rafael couldn't even say he had ever heard of him. Or if he had, he hadn't bothered to commit it to memory (in his own defense, he did have a lot of case law to memorize and couldn't spare any room in his head).
Nick laughed lightly, looking embarrassed. “It doesn't really matter.”
Rafael leaned forward, his own book slipping out of his grasp. It mattered to Nick. It mattered to Nick, who had shelves sagging under the weight of all his books, who took such care to pick something for Rafael, who read lines with reverence, who cared what they meant, who looked like he was bracing himself for an insult.
But what was he supposed to say?
“No, it does.”
Nick looked at him strangely. Rafael supposed it was appropriate. It wasn't much of a sentence. What he meant wasn't coming through, like the meaning Nick found between each word on paper.
“You...” he trailed off. “It matters to you.”
“Well, it will be bugging me 'til I can really Google it,” Nick said. He had averted his gaze to the interior of the house.
“That's not what I meant,” Rafael said. He could have dropped it. But he'd always had a suicidal streak.
“No?” It was a challenge.
“I meant, I can see how much you like these poems. You like getting everything out of them.”
“Yeah,” Nick said quietly.
They should start lighting candles. The room was getting dimmer; Rafael kept thinking he should turn on a lamp. The sticky taste of chocolate and caramel was stuck to his teeth, the roof of his mouth.
“I always liked reading, but I never knew how to really read stuff until college, you know?” Nick said. “And then I took some lit class to fill my schedule and, all of a sudden books were something totally different.”
Rafael was silent. He needed to be. It was a dance he knew from court - when to press, when to let the witness babble until they said that one crucial sentence that had the defense shouting objections, when to look cold and when to look warm.
“Like reading wasn't just something to do to block everything out, it was like, a connection, I don't know. And these poems about flowers or a sunset were about love and sex and hidden feelings, and –” he cut himself off.
They were staring off again. They were both daring a forfeit.
And then Nick looked away sharply, rubbed his thumb against the pages, ruffling the corners. “It was what I needed then. You know, when you're 18 and don't shit about yourself.”
The sun was down. It was Halloween. There was magic and spirits outside. Energy swirling in the air, iridescent sparks like volatile lightning bugs.
Rafael pressed his lips to Nick’s. All he could think was how warm it was.
Rafael did not sleep. He thought about sleeping on the couch. He thought about going across the street and asking Robby's widow if he could stay there. But he got into the same bed as Nick like he had the last few days and did not admit any defeat, refused to show any cracks.
But he could not get himself to relax.
Every time he shifted the mattress creaked loudly in the darkness and the ripple of movement was exaggerated. He held himself stiffly at the edge of the mattress telling himself over and over that the subway lines and streets would be clear the next morning and he would be able to escape back to his office where he kept his best scotch and get drunk while catching up on all his paperwork.
He woke the next morning when the sun rose, though he couldn't remember falling asleep. He slipped out of bed as quietly as possible and retreated to the living room. But the living room was no more neutral ground than the bedroom, and the sight of the couch only made him relive his mistake. So he ate dry cereal leaning against the kitchen counter.
He checked his phone; transit was still down.
Rafael was willing to fucking walk.
Nick came out of the bedroom, hovered in the doorway. “Rafael,” he said. His voice was hoarse, but the syllables still bounced off his tongue, pronouncing his name perfectly, the hint of an accent that meant family.
Rafael jerked his head in a nod. He did not want to have this conversation.
“Did you make coffee?”
“I'll get you a cup,” he said. He could do this. He could ignore this forever.
Nick took the cup when it was ready, one hand on the handle, the other hovering in the air until finally he put it gently on Rafael's shoulder - just for a moment, a millisecond - and leaving the room.
Nick spent the morning reading the same poem as the other day. Rafael caught a glimpse of the page; it wasn't very long, each line only a few words. But Nick kept going over it, sometimes flipping to another book, staring at nothing, fingers stroking idly at his lip until he got a burst of understanding or inspiration and started rifling the paper again.
They had not said anything to each other past breakfast. Rafael stopped being grateful and became apprehensive. Tense, waiting for Nick to open his mouth at any moment.
Rafael had pulled back from the kiss and Nick had said nothing. His head was tilted slightly, subconsciously allowing Rafael better access. He was perfectly still; Rafael waited for him to blink, to shift. And then his lips parted and he said, “Um.”
And Rafael said “Fuck” and stood up. “Forget that happened,” he said. He was walking away, as if there were somewhere to go, as if there were an escape.
“Okay,” Nick said. His voice was strained. He still hadn't moved.
Now Rafael was watching his eyes darting, fingers flitting, lip caught between his teeth. And still waiting.
“Nick,” he said.
He had nothing else to say, no real plan of attack. He needed to be in his office with a pot of strong coffee and a legal pad before him to create his question tree, know exactly what he would say, what he could get Nick to say.
Nick looked up, hand keeping his place in his book. “We don't have to –”
“We're going to,” Rafael said sharply. Nick leaned back in the arm chair, chin lifted partly in challenge and partly in invitation. “I made a mistake, clearly. It was unprofessional. I apologize.”
“I don't know why I did it. We've been stuck inside for too long. I know you're not interested in men.”
At that Nick leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. Rafael had no idea why he said it like that, outing himself instead of denying, citing the cabin fever as cause for Spontaneous Homosexuality.
Nick turned his head away and huffed a laugh. “I've kissed men before.”
Rafael had been sandbagged plenty of times in his career. Victims changing their story, the defense stealing his witnesses, the judge overruling objections and letting whatever hack expert to tell the jury whatever pseudoscience they'd been paid to spurt. Whatever happened Rafael could keep a calm demeanor, narrow his eyes and go in for the kill. He was slightly less confident in Nick's house in Nick's clothes, but he managed to say, “I'm sure plenty of aspects of undercover work are trying.”
“That's not.” Nick shook his head and turned a hard stare on Rafael. “You know that's not what I meant.”
“Do I?” He hated himself for how mean he sounded, a harsh sneer.
“Yeah, you're just being an asshole. Stop being a fucking lawyer for one second. I'm trying to tell you – fuck, I said I've kissed men.”
Rafael's throat went dry. He was trying to tell him.
Nick rubbed his jaw. “Don't worry about last night, alright? I'm not mad.”
“Just shut up. Let's just... Let's just drop it, alright?” He put palms up in surrender.
“No,” Rafael said. “I’m stuck in your house for God knows how long because a fucking hurricane hit and after I leave we still have to fucking work together. It’s not something we can just fucking drop.”
“I don’t know what you want from me,” Nick said, his voice on the edge of shouting. “You said sorry, I said it was good, it’s over, just let it go for fuck’s sake.”
Rafael had the retorts ready on his tongue. “Is this what you did with your wife? Is this what you meant when you said everything starts a fight?” But Nick got up and stormed to the bedroom before he could say anything. Rafael rubbed his temples, tried not to analyze every mistake he’d just made. He peered over at the poem Nick had left open on the table, read the last stanza.
a splash quite unnoticed
Nick emerged a few hours later. Rafael was in the kitchen making a sandwich. He purposely kept his eyes down, didn’t have the energy to do any more. Nick came up to him, quickly invaded his space. Before Rafael could react more than raising an eyebrow Nick took his head in his hands and kissed him firmly.
“We’re even,” he said.
“Alright,” Rafael agreed.
Nick left him standing slightly confused and hot in the kitchen and sunk into his chair. Rafael put the peanut butter away and joined him, tuning the radio to a news station.
Nick leaned forward and turned it off. “Wait,” he said. “I wanted you to read this.”
Rafael objected; he was more interested in when the power company would be coming to Nick’s neighborhood than giving his shitty literary musings. Nick didn’t give him a choice.
Because it wasn’t enough that he’d just pressed his lips to Rafael’s again, let Rafael feel the sturdiness of his hands while he did it. He had to read out loud again, too.
It went quickly; it was a short poem, only one sentence. Rafael could only thank divine intervention that he’d read the poem hours ago because if Nick was about to ask him his opinion he would have been completely lost, completely obvious.
He was focused entirely on Nick’s lips. The sound that fell from them, yes, but he couldn’t process the words. Nick’s fingers were resting on his cheek, tips so close to his lips as if they were tingling (with the words or the phantom of Rafael?).
They were even. Rafael wanted to tip the scale.
Nick didn’t ask him what he thought it meant. He only held his gaze for heavy seconds after he was finished, daring him or begging him. And Rafael was Icarus, falling to the sea while the rest of the world turned. Crashing into the waves, rippling the currents, filling his lungs with water. The sun was hot when it melted his wings but the water cooled and harden the wax left on his skin, tugging at his skin as he tried to get to the surface again. And Nick, off in the distance with his back to the sea shore, not hearing not seeing the splash, the fine mist of saltwater that sprayed above Rafael.
He was drowning, salt burning his throat, his chest. Feathers soaked and weighing him farther down, the white circle of the sun's reflection on the surface getting smaller. And Nick, off in the distance but turning to admire the picture of nature, seeing the ripples, the evidence.
And Nick, dropping everything and running to the water's edge. Diving into the waves - did he know it was Rafael or did it not matter? Wrapping his arms around Rafael and dragging him up into the air and into the same hot sun that had killed him.
And Nick, his eyes unrelenting, unremitting. Murmuring something Rafael would always wish he had been able to decipher. Closing the distance and weighing down the scale until Rafael responded and made them even once more. Hands a gentle weight on Rafael's arm, his shoulder, cupping his jaw.
And Nick, when they finally retreated to bed, staying close to Rafael, an arm around his waist, ready to pull Rafael out of the water at any moment.
The subway lines were open, the main streets cleared. Rafael could finally go home.
Rafael put his bag by the door, ready to go. He was in his own clothes again. He would be leaving after lunch. He looked over at Nick, who was lounging in the arm chair reading something new.
They had moved in the night. Rafael had turned so they were facing each other, Nick's head tucked in, his hair brushing Rafael's chin. A hand was on the bed, partly curled into a fist as if he'd been holding onto Rafael's shirt but let go in his sleep. Nick woke up and took a deep breath, let it out as a sigh. He put his hand back on Rafael's waist, let his thumb stroke the fabric. Rafael could still feel it over three layers. Nick's eyes were watery from sleep, the shade of brown looking lighter and brighter. He kissed the underside of Rafael's jaw, shifted up so he could reach his lips.
Rafael sat next to him, hand dangling off the arm of the couch. He felt as if he were in the narrow vacuum of space between two worlds, two layers of glass. Between keeping a distance and touching. Nick turned a page and let his hand hang off the armrest, fingers finding Rafael's without looking. They were calloused in spots, soft and cool in others.
“What are you reading now?” he asked.
Rafael hummed, slowly turned his wrist to better fit Nick's fingers through his own. Still in a vacuum but determined to find air again.
“Read it to me?”
Nick looked up, rubbed his mouth his free hand to hide a smile, a twitch of his lips that betrayed him. “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men.”
Rafael kept the point of contact as he listened. The words themselves had shapes and sounds that were in themselves erotic. They captured fluidity and grace, something deep and poetic in the back of his mind. It wasn't overtly sexual. He could feel the energy and exuberance under his skin, in his bones, completely enveloped by Nick's voice, his words. It charged him, instilled want and confidence in his chest, behind his eyes.
He stood and moved so he was in front of Nick's chair. Nick looked at him, both hands now on the book.
“Keep reading,” Rafael said. His voice was low, a horse whisper. He could feel his pulse pushing at his skin. He knelt down, Nick shifting his legs to accommodate him between them. “Keep reading,” he said again.
Nick stared at him for a second that seemed to stick, refuse to tick away. Then his eyes went back to the page and he said, voice less steady, “Eyes I dare not meet in dreams...”
Rafael ran his hands up Nick's thighs, the denim of his jeans rough against his palms. He was going to wreck him. He could already feel the muscles tensing and shaking under him. He moved his hands higher and Nick sucked in a sharp breath.
“Keep reading. I want you to try to finish the poem before I make you come,” Rafael said.
“Fuck,” Nick croaked.
Rafael leaned forward and unbuttoned Nick's pants, opened the fly and shimmied them down enough to get access the soft cotton of his boxers. He pressed his lips to Nick's cock through the fabric, dampening it. Nick shivered, his cock twitching. “Keep reading,” murmured. Nick read a few more words and Rafael rewarded him by taking him out of his underwear and mouthing at the length of him as he hardened.
Rafael took him in his mouth, his hands still stroking Nick's thighs. There was a hand in his hair and words stuttering into his ears.
“The eyes are not here.... There are no eyes here / In this valley of dying stars, oh fuck, Rafael.”
Rafael was determined to go slowly, make Nick feel every nerve ending in his body. He tilted his head enough to look up at Nick who met his gave only for a moment. Nick quickly squeezed his eyes shut as if he couldn't bear to keep them open. The grip on Rafael's hair tightened, Nick's hips lifting slightly.
There was a click, a beep - the power turning back on, the appliances in the kitchen resetting. The lamp next to the chair turned on and made scene brighter, florescent.
Rafael sucked hard, pulled off sloppily. “Keep reading.” His voice was husky from the effort his throat was putting in.
They were nearing the end of the poem. Rafael was determined to win. He sped up marginally, one hand leaving Nick's thigh to stroke him. He could feel his chin getting wetter, tongue working and swirling. Nick was stammering his words now, only able to get one line out at a time. Rafael didn't think he'd ever heard a poem sound so sweet.
“F-for Thine is the Kingdom,” Nick grit out. He wasn't looking at the book any more. The fact that he had the lines memorized, had read the poem that many times made Rafael moan. He thought of Nick reading alone at night, finger following the words as he read them, one hand touching himself as he whispered the words. Finding the sensuality between the lines, in the metaphors and imagery. Feeling the words inside him as he came. He thought of Nick's first experience with sex in writing, stumbling upon a sex scene in a library book, turning red and snapping the book shut, hiding it under his bed as if somehow everyone would immediately know what he'd read. But taking out the book eventually, going to the library knowing books had the possibility to make his skin flush with excitement and shame. He thought of how pictures and videos would never be the same as words for Nick, never have the same swirl of emotion and meaning.
Rafael touched himself, grinding against the palm of his hand through his slacks. Nick rolled his hips, and Rafael encouraged him further, let him control the pace.
“This is the way the world ends,” Nick said, and Rafael thought, yes, the world was ending. It must be for this to be happening.
“This is the way the world ends.”
The world had been blown apart and blown them together. Tumbled them over and over until they didn't know which way was up and only had each other to orient themselves.
“This is the way the world ends.”
And Rafael was drowning, no fight left in him to try to swim to the surface but Nick had taken hold of him, because he was underwater too. The world was ending, there was no outside anymore and they would be together in this moment, Nick's house the only thing left for the rest of this moment which would last into infinity.
“This is the, fuck, the way the world -”
Nick curled in on himself, muscles contracting strongly under Rafael's touch, face tight as he came, Rafael's name barely on his lips as if he couldn't manage so many syllables. He panted and petted Rafael's hair, slumped in his seat.
Rafael lifted himself up, felt the stiffness in his knees. He crawled into the chair, kissed Nick wickedly, deeply, and was received just the same.
He reached down to move the book where it was digging into his side, looked at how far Nick had gotten.
Only one line left.
“Good job,” he said against Nick's lips, his own pulling into a smirk. Nick gripped his hair again, forced his head to the side to suck a kiss against his neck.
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper