The client lies slumped across my shoulders. I have an arm around his thigh, another around his upper arm. His immaculately tailored silk pajamas are soft against my hand. They must feel amazing on his body. Right now, the client may as well be a loaded barbell, except his body gives and his weight shifts more as I walk toward the bed. The company seems to assign me only the heaviest clients. Not only do the ultra-rich not appreciate being bruised, though, once they’re conscious again, they have the means to make sure you don’t appreciate it either. There’s a conversation drifting past on the side of the door, but the room is dark and silent. Slowly, I lower him then tuck him into the bed.
I do one final sweep of the hotel room to make sure everything is in order. His wallet, phone, and fountain pen are in the nightstand drawer. Check. His clothes have been unpacked and stowed in the dresser drawers or hanging in the closet. Check. His briefcase and business documents are sitting on the desk. Check. The hotel room is surprisingly small, but functional and tasteful. The wall art is abstract and modern. The furniture is all clean lines and rounded corners. The most garish thing in the room is the basket of champagne and caviar on the desk next to the briefcase. Whoever this client is, he came to work.
My job is to make sure that once he falls asleep in his bed in New York, he wakes up the next morning in this bed in Zurich. No airport security. No border security. No trace of travel at all. At no point does anyone produce a passport or have anything inspected. Whether bypassing all those layers of security is a necessity—say, he no longer has a passport and no other way to leave the country—or just a convenience is none of my business. Someone else in the company gets to make sure he wakes up in his own bed in New York after he falls asleep here in Zurich however many days from now. There are no short cuts here, just private jets and a lot of impeccably trained teammates doing the impossible. The company doesn’t really have a name. Internally, we’ve always called ourselves BedEx. I’m sure someone found that funny once and it stuck.
I peel the patches off his temple then tuck them into my pants pocket. They’ve been keeping him in REM sleep and adjusting his circadian rhythms. He’ll wake up in the morning—a few hours from now—already adjusted to UTC+1. I tap my earpiece and indicate the client has been installed. While I wait for the all-clear, I collapse the luggage bags—can’t expect the ultra-rich to pack for themselves—for ease of carry. The room’s key card slides under the door into the room. The process is more efficient if my teammates rectify the hotel’s records while I’m installing the client and I’ve been trained to break into places way tougher to crack than hotel rooms. The process is also more efficient if we hack into the hotel’s computers. So much faster than waiting for a hotel employee. Besides, our clients don’t always stay under their own names and, this way, not only do they not need a passport, they don’t need any ID at all. I place the key in the nightstand drawer next to the wallet, phone, and fountain pen. The all-clear arrives a matter of moments later and I dissolve into the night.
No one notices me sneaking out of the hotel and into a van in the parking lot. My two teammates nod at me as I enter then slide the door shut. Like me, they’re dressed in work blacks. There’s no substitute for actual physical access to computer systems when possible and we pride ourselves on making the impossible possible.
Our van speeds away. Of the three of us, one of us is going back to base for some sleep before her Zurich-Dublin job tonight. One of us has a few days off and he’s taking it in Zurich. I have re-arranged my work schedule so that I can be in Boston tonight to catch Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges with Thom. Our first stop is the airport.
We do not wear our gear off-site off-duty. That violates our NDA. I need to be in normal clothes before they drop me off at the airport. Stripping out of my work blacks and changing into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt in the van is always a special experience. There’s not a whole lot of room. It’s a lot of twisting and writhing to wrestle the work blacks off me. All things considered, I’d rather not be naked in front my co-workers so it’s sweater off, shirt off, T-shirt on, pants off, jeans on as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, the instant I pull off shirt or a pair of pants, someone always wolf whistles or cat calls.
Tonight, I get plenty of both from both of them. Since I’m going to Boston through Brussels then Toronto, there’s even the predictable unfunny rhyme about “hauling Charlie’s muscles to Brussels.” That said, I never get anything like say, “sending Charlie back to Chinatown” even though my name is Charlie—Tsai, not Chan, my parents were strict, not intentionally evil—and, in this case, Toronto actually has a Chinatown. A vaguely racist joke is always right there but no one ever goes for it.
If one of my teammates on a job is a big, muscular guy—and the male teammates tend to be—he’ll quip about my arms. Tonight’s no exception. The guy staying in Zurich goes on about how he’d like to build a set like mine and asks me about what I do in the gym. Since the guys who do this are invariably the sleeve-busting sort—more so than I am as far as I can tell—it took me months before I realized they were complimenting me, not mocking me. Their questions are genuine not sarcastic. Now, I just squirm and mutter something about curling with a full range of motion.
My body apparently deserves this sort of reaction now. I’m still not used to it. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I literally grew into this job. But the magic lightning that will change me into who I want to be hasn’t struck me yet. I’m still waiting. Maybe after, some guy can compliment me on my body and I won’t want to dissolve into the earth.
The only nice thing about the airport first thing in the morning is the lines are short. I always request the pat-down. Ironically, considering what I do for a living, what the company has done to my body means I will never make it through a body scan. The company does helpfully supply a note from a doctor should airport security somehow detect the pumps and other nanomachinery implanted in my body. Having some airport security guy get all handsy with me is annoying, but they do ask before they touch anything and none of them have ever prevented me from getting on a plane.
After that, my tiny backpack and I wait then sit in a plane whose seat is a little too narrow and has no leg room. I used to be the right size for airplane seats. It’s only when I have to sit in one again that I remember that I’m not anymore. Still, I never put the seat back. It doesn’t help me as much as it annoys whoever is behind me. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Some fourteen hours or so later, I’m at Logan and still waiting. This time for the Silver Line, then the Red Line.
It’d all be easier if I could fall asleep in Zurich and wake up in my bed in Boston. No lines, no waiting, and no convincing US Customs that I’m a US citizen even as the Customs official has my US passport in hand. Magically, I’d cross international boundaries without Customs even noticing. Someone ought to come up with a service that does that. The rich, of course, play by different rules than you and me.
Thom is waiting for me just outside the theater. I see him as I sprint down Mass Ave., past the fish place, ducking and weaving around the sidewalk crowd. The flight arrived in Boston with just enough time for me to get home, pound down thirty-two ounces of protein shake, change into a belted pair of chinos and the dress shirt that fits, then get back onto the T to Central Square. The sophisticated technology inside me is playing all sorts of interesting games to keep me awake and alert. It’ll be fine as long as I get some rest after the play.
He waves when he spots me. We met in grad school. In the university weight room, actually. I was the guy trapped between a loaded bar and the bench. He was the guy who set the bar on the rack then, rather than laughing, quoted Kander and Ebb at me. We may have bonded over the distinction between a cast album and a soundtrack. He showed me how to lift properly. We saw shows together. Sometimes, his boyfriend of the moment joined us. We kept in touch through texts after graduation. He moved here about a year ago for a residency at Mass General. Since I’m not in town a lot, we still text each other all the time.
Thom is this walking shard of sunshine, all warm and golden even on this winter night. He’s rocking the grizzled face, cargo pants, and broken-in leather work boots. Even the bulky winter coat looks good on him. It’s hard not to despair a little when I look at him. It’s hard to remember the rest of the world exists when he smiles. All of that company training must be good for something because even as I see nothing but him, I don’t crash into anyone. It’s only when I reach him that I realize he’s waiting by himself.
He hugs me. It’s still weird be able to look at him eye-to-eye. He’s never pointed out that I do that now. Maybe a few years apart are enough for him to forget that I used to be shorter than him.
“Where’s Andy?” I ask. Thom doesn’t have a type, as far as I can tell, except male. Short, tall, hulking, gaunt, light, dark, I’ve seen him date them all.
“Oh, we broke up. Turns out he smokes.” He shrugs. Thom is still built like an All-American wrestler and he’s impossibly charming when he wants to be. A steady supply of boyfriends has never been a problem for him. “Come on. The play’s about to start.”
The theater is a flight of stairs up from the entrance. The usher at the door scans our tickets.
“Do you want to go somewhere after the play?” I sit down and pull my arms in as Thom takes the seat next to mine. “I can run interference against the throng of guys you aren’t interested in.”
“Charlie,” Thom looks at me oddly for a moment. “You know that you scare people, right? You look dangerous. You’d also run interference against the guys I am interested in. But put you in a tight T-shirt and in the right bar—”
“You don’t think I’m dangerous, do you?” If anything, I think of myself as more cuddly than dangerous.
“I remember when you still had a neck.”
The lights go down and the play starts. Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges doesn’t get produced much. It’s a cycle of eight plays, each of which have two endings, or one play with four junctures where a character’s choice causes the play to go in one of two directions. Doing all eight plays in repertory would take up an entire theater season. In this production, five seconds into the play, Celia always decides to smoke the cigarette. Whether Lionel goes on a date with Sylvie depends on which performance you catch. The production makes the next choice itself then polls the audience to decide which of the two possible endings they perform. Not even the actors know which ending they’re heading towards until the end of the penultimate scene when dialogue from the ending they’re about to perform plays over the sound system. It’s not what Ayckbourn intended but this production has only a two-week run. Rehearsing and performing all the possibilities is impractical. As the audience applauds, I wonder about the choices we could have made and the choices we never had a chance to make.
We don’t hit any bars after the play. Thom hugs me and we go our separate ways. It’s weird how easily my arms reach around him now. Still not used to it.
On my days off, I eat, rest, work out, text Thom, and not much else. The three workouts and nine meals a day it takes to maintain my current shape doesn’t leave much time for anything else. And I want to be fitter than I am now. Stronger. Tougher. More muscular. When I’m not in Boston, I inevitably spend the whole day on base. Eating, resting, working out, and texting fills the days until the company needs me again.
I’ve been lifting since college, but it didn’t change my body the way the company did. It’s not that I didn’t get stronger in college. It’s just that I lifted believing it would transform me into someone else. The truth, of course, is that if you are short and slight and you don’t want to be, lifting doesn’t actually help. It may fill out your frame, but your frame is still short and slight. The company recruited me in part because I worked out so hard at the gym, but not Thom, even though he worked just as hard and was literally standing right over there making me look all of twelve years old in comparison. Then again, Thom wouldn’t have found the offer the company made to me appealing. He has probably never wanted to make his body anything other than what it already is.
They rebuilt me from the inside out. Molecular biologists rewrote my DNA. Surgeons cracked then extended most of my bones. They pulled out my shoulders, expanded my rib cage, stretched out my limbs to build me a taller, broader frame. I spent months of agony enduring metal frames jutting out of me, holding cracked halves of bone apart so they could knit together millimeter by millimeter. I looked like some sort of high tech porcupine. The nanomachinery implanted in me constructed and distributed chemicals through my body that sped my recovery and packed on mass. Over time, a flat chest began to bulge. Stick-like limbs thickened with sharp curves.
While the body was healing, they attached my mind to a virtual reality and taught me to fight. With my skeleton being stretched out, I could barely move in the real world, but, in the virtual world, my body was fluid, agile, and strong. Or it became that. At first, as in actual reality some months later, I spent a lot of time falling on my face. Time in the virtual world patterned my responses. They trained me in hand-to-hand combat and I lost count of how many weapons. I’m not the greatest fighter but I’m good enough. Or at least I hold my own sparring my workmates. I’ve never had to fight or use a weapon on a job yet, but I’m so prepared to do so.
I joined the company with the body I was born with but work for the company with the impossible body I was promised. As it turns out, this is not quite the body I want. Despite all the changes, I still feel like me, the scrawny grad student trapped under the bar. And the changes were drastic. Nothing the company did to build my body was approved for use on humans or even published as research. Laws, even the ones on what they can do to other people, don’t really apply to the rich.
It’s a few weeks later when, as Thom and I are texting each other, he asks when I’m free for coffee. There’s nothing he can’t say to me in a text, but I’ll always rearrange my work schedule to see him in person. I’m in Hong Kong but, of course, he doesn’t know that. A quick search of flights says I can fly home, have coffee with Thom, then fly back in time for my next job. Of course, if I could afford that, I wouldn’t need this job. I managed Zurich to Boston only because I arranged for my following job to start there. The company covered part of the flight cost. Anyone with a lifestyle where they can fly from Hong Kong to Boston just for the afternoon can afford and can pull the strings to have his body reconstructed.
Asking around on the base, I work out some job trades that get me to Boston in a couple days. We just need our supervisors’ approval. Mine agrees with a cryptic “Sure. You’re ready for those sorts of jobs now,” before she breaks the encrypted connection. The first job in the sequence that will take me back to Boston is innocuous. It’s the one I was already assigned to. I go into the briefing during the flight out for the next one wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.
This extraction is like all the other ones I’ve done, except the client doesn’t know we’re coming. And the site isn’t some expensive hotel or other piece of overpriced real estate. It’s a camp site in the middle of nowhere. And it turns out we’re not extracting the client. She’s a worried and, apparently, fabulously wealthy mother in California. She’s paid for a large crew of us to extract her teenage son. By the time the briefing is over, this extraction is nothing like any of the others I’ve done. Change a few of the details and we could be the kidnappers rather than the rescuers. Depending on the details of custody that we, the crew, aren’t privy to, we may still be the kidnappers.
We unlock and drive through the camp’s gate. I recognize the sign overhead and the buildings on the grounds. Conversion camps stay around as long as there are parents who want to make their son a Real Man, I guess.
The barracks are cold and dark. It stinks of sweat and urine. The kid is chained to his bed. Welts cover his body. The camp’s techniques haven’t changed and he’s apparently as bad at being a Real Man as I am. It’s hard to look at the rows of sleeping teenagers without being reminded that they are me when I was their age. A teammate hands me a set of keys and I snap to.
The patches that will keep him in REM sleep fit snugly against his temples. The manacles unlock with a soft click. I move the chains out of the way slowly to avoid making any more noise than I have to. He is too light. His body is a tree in winter, all thin and angular. I barely feel it across my shoulders. Several more of him wouldn’t weigh me down and there are a couple dozen here. I don’t free any more of them, though. It’s not in the plan. I tell myself that maybe they all have one rich parent who can steal them away from the machinations of the other rich parent. I know it’s not true.
His bedroom in his mother’s house is ostentatiously comfortable. The air is thick and warm. An overstuffed bed sits against one wall. Shelves of books line another. Dance gear litters the floor. It’s going to be a while before his body is tough enough and strong enough to dance again. He should be in a hospital, but I’m sure we advised against it when we booked the job. Her house has more layers of security should anyone want to steal her son back.
The next job is much more typical. High Powered Executive is extracted from her elegant high-rise condo. High Powered Executive is installed in her discreet but absurdly tasteful hotel suite. The hotel’s bottled water is thawing ice from a hundred thousand year old glacier. When you open the bottle, trapped air from a distant age attacks your senses. Or so I gather.
Several more flights and I’m headed to a coffee shop in Davis Square running on too little sleep. When the plane lands it’s such that I can hit Davis Square within a few minutes of when Thom says he’s free for lunch. This is either perfect or perfectly awful. I don’t get to choose how well flight schedules and Thom’s schedule play with each other or, rather, don’t play with each other. The nanomachinery inside me manufactures chemicals that force me awake. I’ve barely rested since the briefing for the conversion camp job. To line up jobs to get you where you need to be when you need to be there, something generally has to give. It’ll be all right as long as I rest eventually.
Thom hugs me when we meet. Somehow, I always manage to let go when he lets go. He orders some drink that takes a minute to describe. The clerk repeats it back to him perfectly. I stare at the drinks board for what feels like a millennium before I give up and order the gigantic herbal ice tea. There are already enough stimulants racing inside me. We get our drinks and go to a table next to the shop’s giant street side window. He seems to grow as he takes off his denim jacket. It obscured the way his chest and arms bulge, depriving the world of his perfection.
“How’s Jamal?” I sit across from him and clutch my iced tea like a giant sippy cup.
“It’s Aaron now.” Thom looks down before he meets my gaze again. “Charlie, what do you do for a living?”
“I’ve told you.” My brow furrows. “I’m a courier. Why?”
“How do you have a job and still be that broad and carry that much muscle.” He sips his drink. “It takes too much time and effort. No one is built like you unless they need to be. Like professionally or something.”
“So I’ve spent time picking up heavy things and setting them back down again.” I gesture at his arms and chest. “Nothing you’re not still doing.”
“I’d say that you’re also taking some of the more effective drugs—which I never have—except you’re also taller now. You used to be shorter than me. What are you doing to yourself? It can’t be healthy.”
The question punches the air out of my lungs. Thom won’t believe the truth. He’s not rich enough to have heard of the secretive company that specializes in extracting and installing people. Half of what they did to me are things no one outside the company know are even possible.
“You have a problem because I’m as big as you now?”
His eyebrows rise. His face writhes trying to stifle a laugh.
“As big as?” His gaze sweeps up and down my torso. He gets up and steps around to check out my legs. “You have maybe forty pounds of lean muscle on me. And, you know, if that’s the body you want, that’s great—”
He tries to put me into a joint lock. I slip out of it before I’ve even thought about what I’m doing. We’re not really sparring. There’s no follow through and I just manage to keep myself still rather than fight back. He’s just hugging me now, his grip like a drowning man on water-soaked shard of deadwood. Eventually, he pulls back, his hands still around my shoulders. His gaze narrows. We both know my reactions aren’t what they would have been when I was in grad school.
“What have you done to yourself, Charlie?” He goes back to his chair and he sits so far back I can’t tell if he’s trying to get comfortable or out of striking distance. “It’s not bad. It’s just… sooner or later, either it’ll kill you or your job will. Is whatever it is you really do for a living that important?”
“Look.” I set down the iced tea. “We’re not all you. Practically nobody is you. The rest of us need a little help.”
The idea of lying to him makes me sick so I violate my NDA for him and risk some of the truth. I don’t tell him about the gene resequencing but I do tell him about the surgery to stretch out my skeleton. Distraction osteogenesis. What they did to me is more involved than that, but close enough. I tell him about the cocktail of drugs rushing through me, but I leave out the implanted nanomachinery and I don’t mention my job at all. Throughout all of this, Thom just nods.
“God, Charlie, if you just wanted to be bigger, you got that with the surgery. I can see taking the drugs to help you fill out your expanded frame faster, but you don’t need them now. Not anymore.”
Thom can’t understand. He’s wrestled all his life. All-American in college. When I first met him, even now, he’s always been on the deadly side of handsome. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be towered over.
“What’s it to you, Thom? Just let me do what I want.” I’m still waiting for the magic lightning to strike. I’m still waiting to feel big, brave, and strong.
“Fine.” Thom pushes himself away from the table. “I can’t stick around and watch you kill yourself, Charlie. I’m sorry.”
He puts on his coat. It’s like watching a superhero bury himself in his mortal disguise. He nods at me, then leaves.
I text Thom between jobs. He never answers. The man goes through boyfriends like he changes shirts but we’ve been friends for over a decade so I hoped we’d be different. Guess not. I know what I have to text him to get him to text me back. All I have to do is tell him he’s right and that I’ll stop with the chemicals and I’ll quit this job. My hands freeze, my heart pounds too hard, and I can’t breathe whenever I try to text him the lie. I stop texting him instead. Not being able to talk to him tears me to pieces, though, and I can feel my life ebbing out through the wounds.
The next few months grind on. I pick people up. I set them back down. I pick up heavy weights. I set them back down. My body is its usual never not sore. I date a guy from work. Bad idea. I’ll never do that again. So little in my life has changed but everything is different. Thom is this palpable lack, a void that nothing can fill. The only thing pushing me from one day to the next is a concert production of The Golden Apple in New York City in May. I’m counting down the days. The show is almost never produced and who knows when I’ll have another chance to see it.
The company is assigning me to fewer hotels now and more campsites, hole-in-the-walls, and odd shacks in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes, we are chased extracting or installing the client. Most of the time, we aren’t. The job I swap into so that I can be in NYC in time for The Golden Apple almost doesn’t surprise me.
As with all of our operations, it’s the middle of the night. This one will take literally two dozen of us. In addition to mics and earpieces, we are outfitted with combat armor and a wide variety of weapons. It’s one thing to know the company has military-grade weaponry. It’s another to have it issued to you for a job. The nano-scale chemical factory inside me keeps my mind focused and my heart from pounding through my chest. We go through our obligatory checks then we load into the helicopters.
The helicopters have a stealth mode. They whisper towards the compound. High walls surround a two-story building. One helicopter lands just outside. My workmates stream out to secure the perimeter. The other hovers just inside the walls. Ropes drop. We slide into courtyard. One after another, we rush out of the way of the one above us as we hit the ground.
Unlike most of our operations, there’s no sneaking in and out of this one. Explosives blow out a house wall and door. We rush in then fan out through the house, looking for the hostage. Plan A, as always, is to find her and whisk her away before anyone can mount a response.
My partner and I sweep room by room down a hall on the second floor. The first few rooms are empty. The door to the next is blocked by something on the other side. I step back, aim just below the doorknob, then kick as hard as I can. The door splinters off its hinges. Something skids, thuds then crashes. Screams tear through the air. Except for the noise, that worked much better than I expected.
The splintered wreck of a dresser is scattered on the floor. My flashlight sprays the room. Four people huddle on a bed against the far wall. The fear carved into their faces deepens as I step through a mix of wood shards and clothes on the floor. My partner slides past me towards the bed. The glare she shoots me with on the way screams “You dumbass.”
We get the signal to leave over our earpieces as we examine the people on the bed. They’re neither dangerous at the moment or, obviously, the hostage, not that anyone expected to find the hostage just sitting in a bedroom. On the way back to the helicopter, the hostage is asleep, wrapped in a blanket. She’s a string draped over the woman carrying her. We all load into the helicopters with breathless precision. They take off. Dust bursts in silent plumes from the ground.
The client has obtained a bed for the hostage at a military hospital in the States. Again, the rules for the rich are different from the rest of us. You don’t even need to change any of the details of this job for us to be the ones taking her hostage rather than the ones rescuing her. We install her then the team breaks up, most of us headed off to the nearest base. In my case, I change my clothes in the van to the usual jeers and compliments then they drop me off at the bus station. It’s still the middle of the night and the bus to New York City won’t be for a few more hours.
Sleep isn’t really something I do any more. Too many drills where someone comes at me with a knife while I’m in bed means I rest but I don’t know that I ever really sleep. Right now, though, I can’t even rest. Knocking myself out or taking a little something to just to relax me is always an option. After all, there’s a complex and sophisticated chemical factory installed in my body essentially at my command. At the bus station, though, the former is a bad idea and I never do the latter. Maybe it’s odd considering the chemicals I do pump through my body, but there are lines I don’t cross.
While I wait for the bus, I close my eyes and the job replays in my imagination. It’s stupid what weighs my mind. Maybe I over-estimated how solid the door was. Or maybe assuming I always need to hit as hard as I can is not a good idea anymore. Mostly, though, my imagination is stuck on the faces of those huddled on the bed. Not that they were the epitome of calm before, but a couple shifted to panic and the rest to a flinty stoicism as I stepped into the room. Maybe strangers have been shifting to their “This is how I meet Death” face when they first see me for a while now, but I’ve only just noticed. There are too many scenarios where we all meet Death together. That is, if the chemicals that make me who I am don’t kill me first.
Is it even possible to quit this job? In theory, yes. They’ve always made it clear that I can hand in my resignation and walk away at any time. But do I want to? The company specializes in stealth extraction and installation. If I quit, I’ll wake up one day with a few days unaccounted for and mysterious scars across my body. They don’t need to leave scars but they will to make sure I know. The nano-scale chemical plant that makes me me or at least gives me the chance to become who I want to be will be gone.
Who I was in grad school is just a bad memory never to return. They’ve lengthened my limbs, pulled out my shoulders and expanded my rib cage. None of that will go away. If I survive the sudden, drastic shift removing the nanomachinery will inflict on body chemistry, I won’t regress to my old self. My chance to become who I want, though, will be gone. I’ll become this tallish, gaunt figure instead. Plenty of amazing people are tall and gaunt but, after years of being whatever I am now, it’s not what I want for myself. And I can’t make myself want that.
That’s why the company recruited me in the first place, I realize. And why they never recruited Thom. They spent who knows how much money on this body certain they’d make their investment back. Because, even if my rational mind understands becoming ever harder and more muscular won’t make the magic lightning strike me, I’d still rather die than quit.
I pull my cellphone out of my pant pocket. They are disallowed on-duty which makes me oddly addicted to mine off-duty. Messing with a nonogram app, though, can’t possibly fill the Thom shaped void in my life. It’s been months since I last texted Thom but I send him one last, possibly ill-advised, message:
“Thom, you’re right about everything. How people see me. What I’m doing to myself. What my job is doing to me. I know exactly how I’m going to die. I can see it happening and I can’t make myself stop it. I’m sorry.”
I stare at my sent message for who knows how long. People start to line up for the bus to New York and I join them.
Every city has its own tempo. New York City’s is allegro. It is so easy to become one with the crowds on the sidewalks of Manhattan. In short, swift steps, I dodge and weave around the pedestrians, a Quickstep against the Mambo of the city. I don’t know why I’m in such a hurry. When I get to City Center, Thom won’t be there. His empty seat next to mine is going to be this visible reminder of the gaping maw in my life. Maybe I’m rushing to that doom because almost no one ever produces The Golden Apple, a folk opera re-telling of The Iliad and The Odyssey re-set to the turn of 20th-century America. I can easily die before I have another chance to see it.
The usher hands me a program then points me to my seat. It’s empty, which is good. A broad, solid, ostentatiously grizzled man is in the seat next to mine, which is not. I recognize him instantly. There’s a hard elegance to him that’s obvious even when he’s seated a dozen feet away. The person behind me in line has to push at my back before I stumble down the aisle. The remaining steps to my seat feel like city blocks. Falling out of helicopter then charging into building to face the unknown was easier.
Thom smiles at me. Not a “well, how awkward is this?” smile but the real thing. If he keeps it up, this concert production won’t be able to go on because the house will be too bright. He doesn’t offer me a hug and I’m too scared he’ll refuse to spread my arms to ask for one. I just take the seat next to his.
“Charlie,” He lays his hand over mine on the arm rest. A thick vein arcs down the length of his bulging bicep. “Why can’t it be—”
“Are we quoting Sondheim at each other now?” I let out a long breath. “Not a blesséd day—How’s…”
I have no idea who he’s dating now. It’s been months since we last talked. He rolls his eyes.
“It’s still Aaron.” He shrugs. “I’m tired of relationships measured in hours. I tend to bug out the instant anything doesn’t go my way and I should stop doing that. Honestly, I’m even not sure I like Aaron, but I have no good reason to leave. If I have to be in a long-term relationship, it might as well be with him.”
“I don’t think I’d appreciate that if I were Aaron.”
“You’re not Aaron.” He gaze narrows. “Charlie, have you grown?”
The program is now this tightly wound, twisted stick in my hand. I’ve squeezed it so hard as we were talking, its pages are now crinkled and tattered. Slowly, I force my hand open and the program falls into my lap.
“No. I mean, yes. I mean…” I take deep breath. “It’s an optical illusion. More muscle. Less fat. I’m actually three-eighths of a pound lighter—Thom, why are you here? We both know where I’m headed. Did you want to see The Golden Apple that badly?”
“Well, that, too. But the world is round, Ulysses.” His hand squeezes mine. “You wander far enough away and you’ll find yourself coming home instead. Someone needs to yell at you when you get back and to make sure there’s still a home to wander back to. Not in that order.”
“Oh, I see.” Actually, I have no idea what he means, but I wonder at his faith in me.
“Nothing lasts, you know. A handsome face. A muscular body. It all goes away eventually. As they say, even the Rockies’ll crumble and Gibraltar’ll tumble.”
“Yeah, but they’re made of clay.” My hand pats his implacable upper arm, which gives as easily as marble. “Probably not a face or body, but maybe some things are here to stay.”
“That’s not how the Gershwin goes.”
My hand slides down to cover his on the arm rest. I want to feel a shock, as though his faith that I’ll eventually come around is enough to jolt me into strength and bravery. Life isn’t that simple though. His hand doesn’t turn to clasp mine, but it doesn’t pull away either.
“Hey, it’s not like you got the quote right either.” His hand is tight around the armrest and I lace my fingers between his. The tendons in his fingers give a little. “You know, it’d be easier for both of us you if pretended that I’m already dead.”
“Yeah, if I could, it would be.” He shrugs and smiles.
The house lights go down. The stage lights and curtain go up. The conductor walks onto the stage to the applause of the crowd. He raises his hands. The applause ends and the overture starts.
(Editors’ Note: John Chu is interviewed by Julia Rios in Issue Sixteen of Uncanny Magazine.)
© 2017 by John Chu