A Partial View
Storms foretell their coming: metal stings the air and there is the long vibration of distant thunder.
Brooks is standing outside of the library smoking in a cold, grey air. The courtyard is filled with food carts doing brisk business. People are darting in and out like swallows coming down to grab up crumbs. They think it will rain on them before they can make it back to their offices or to the museum up the street, but Brooks knows that there is no threat of rain. Storms foretell their coming: metal stings the air and there is the long vibration of distant thunder. The air changes, stiffens, and everywhere there is the sensation of waiting. His boyhood in the Deep South has left him with the sense for weather which is a perfectly useless skill for someone who wants to study medicine, which is what he has come to the Midwest to do. But on this lunch break, he is grateful that he isn’t swept up in their hurry and leans against the pillar of the main campus library to finish the last of his cigarette. He pulls the smoke to some deep place in his body and holds it there for as long as he can. It stings, expands, pushes against the taut muscle of his insides. His dark brown eyes go damp at the corners. He presses his full lips into a small smile, and then releases the smoke through his nose. It comes reluctantly, and his entire throat is raw by the time he gets all of it back out of him.
While he knows that there is no threat of rain, he is cold. He has made the mistake of not bringing his jacket out with him and is standing in slim jeans and a thin black sweater. There is something smudged about him, something hazy about his edges. He has erratic hair, dark brown that goes red at the edges and a longish face. He is not tall, but neither is he short. Exercise would do him a world of good, but he is a masterful procrastinator and there are so many websites to see and so little time. He has somehow managed not to fail out of his second year as a pre-med student, but halfway through organic chemistry, things are not looking so great. There is something about the way molecules spin in the dark air of his mind, something about piercing them with light to see which way the light rotates that baffles him. The chirality of it all, the handedness of molecules eludes his grasp. There is an exam soon. This exam will throw a long black line down their class beyond which the weakest cannot proceed toward medical school. But for now he is smoking outside in the cold on the verge of shivering, trying not to think about how much territory there is yet to cover in his notes. His thoughts turn instead toward the boy in his class who is white and tall and wonderful to look at.
Clark sits in the front row of their lecture course. He comes to class directly from the gym, smelling like sweat and the sweet scent of body wash. His hair is dark blond and fine, catching the light when it’s wet. At first, Brooks found him boring, another overgrown Midwestern boy, full and round, too much earnestness in his eyes and voice. Yet there is something whole and rich and warm about him. Clark is always the first person to volunteer to organize study materials for the class, the first to offer help during labs, the first to ask for an extension on problem sets. He volunteers himself readily for the teacher’s irritation, as if sensing that with a face like that, round and sweet, he will fare much better in absorbing anger. And it was Clark who, when no one else would work with Brooks during labs, volunteered to be Brooks’s lab partner. Brooks has been an abominable partner, commenting on Clark’s slowness, that dumb way he scrunches up his face when calculating molar ratios no matter how simple, the ridiculous insistence on measuring everything twice, three times even, his need to re-check the protocols in the workbook, his lack of familiarity with analytical techniques. Clark absorbs all of Brooks’s frustration and ugliness with a kind of amused smile.
It isn’t that Brooks hates Clark—in fact, he could hate him easily. He would certainly like to kiss him. When they work together, Brooks is acutely aware of Clark’s heat and his scent, which like a distant storm carries with it the threat of danger and something sublime. There are moments when their eyes meet that Brooks imagines that he can see something of himself in Clark’s eyes. But the moment he glimpses it, the mysterious thing vanishes and Clark gives him a smile and asks if he can copy the math one more time, just one more time. Clark will make an incredible doctor. He has it in him to forgive. He has it in him to be selfless. He is naturally kind.
Brooks bites his thumb and takes out his pack of American Spirits. He could smoke another easily. There is time, so much time. The courtyard is not quite empty, but the people who have normally stayed to eat their lunch on the benches have already fled. Some scraps of paper are blowing around on the breeze, which is stiff and cold. This same wind works its way through Brooks’s sweater and against his face, making him shiver and shut his eyes. When he blinks his eyes back open, he catches sight of Clark, or rather someone who might be Clark—Midwestern boys can be so very similar. They are all so broad and tall, blond and milky white with their thick thighs and hard eyes. But this is definitely Clark, red flannel shirt and dark jeans. He is walking hard and fast. Brooks vacillates between waving at him and saying nothing. As it is, Clark will likely pass by him without noticing because he is on the other side of the food carts.
Clark does stop, however, and pulls out his phone. It is a bizarre coincidence, and Brooks isn’t sure what to make of it when his phone rings. Clark is calling him. He answers in a bewildered voice:
“Hi, Brooks, it’s Clark.”
“Yes, I know—caller ID.”
“Right—anyway, do you maybe want to study for this test?”
“Hmm. That would be nice. I haven’t finished the problems yet though.”
“Me either…actually, I’m really stuck. I can’t…it’s really hard, which is why I’m calling.”
“Do you think you could help me? I’m really struggling with this shit.”
“Oh. Alright, if I can.”
“Don’t act like you don’t know how to do it.”
“I’m not acting—it’s hard for me too, you know.”
“I don’t believe that. You get an A on everything.”
“So. Do. You.”
“Not the last quiz. I bombed.”
“Ah, so that’s what this is about.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re worried you’ll get a—B.”
“I’m not! I’m not like that! I just want to do well.”
“What’s the matter? Wrestling scholarship running out?”
“Jesus, why did I even call you?”
“Because you need help.”
“Right, and I thought calling my lab partner would—“
“—would be a good idea since he’s so fucking smart.”
“Ah, am I smart? Am I the smartest lab partner in the world?”
“Brooks, you’re such a—wait, is that you?”
The line goes dead, and Brooks watches with growing anxiety as Clark stomps across the courtyard toward him. His face is bright red and the roundness of his face has hardened.
“I’m not using you, you know that, right?” His voice is a dull roar. His eyes are glossy and wet. He is on the verge of tears. Brooks feels a twinge of regret at having pushed his teasing too far. “I’m not. I just need help. I’ll pay you if you want.”
“Don’t be stupid, Clark. Of course I’ll help you.”
“Don’t call me stupid,” Clark says sharply, but the hardness is already going out of his face. He exhales, and his shoulders slump dramatically.
“Did I hit a nerve?”
“Are you going to help me or not?”
“Sure. I already have a study room upstairs.”
It is a surreal turn of events, and Brooks isn’t certain what to make of them. They’re riding up in the elevator together. He can smell the heat rolling off of Clark’s body. Yet again, he is coming from the gym. Perhaps he is a compulsive exerciser. He is also breathing heavily.
“Are you alright?”
“Me? I’m great.”
“You look like you’re going to barf.”
“You know, stress isn’t good for you.”
“Oh? Is that true? Hadn’t heard.”
“I’m just trying to look out for a friend—“
Clark rolls his eyes, but Brooks notices that he is also smiling. The tension abates marginally. The knot of heat in Brooks’s belly tightens. He wets his lips. The elevator slides open and the stale air rushes in on them.
“After you,” Clark says, motioning for Brooks to exit.
“As they say, beauty before age.”
“That isn’t what they say, actually.”
“I’m from the South,” Brooks drawls, “and we do things differently there.”
“No comment,” Clark adds, pressing his lips into a small, wry smile.
The study room is big enough for two people if they sit very close together. There is a small rectangular window that allows a partial view of the lake and the adjacent forest. Depending of your angle, the view switches between a dark grey and the brushing, pointed tips of cedars and oak trees. Brooks organizes his scattered notes and papers into a neat pile and slides them against the wall. Clark shyly takes out his notebooks. He has adjusted his chair to accommodate for the length of his legs. Brooks is vaguely disappointed that their thighs are not touching.
“Here, I’m stuck here.” Clark motions toward the page where he has gone in circles trying to untangle the synthesis of substituted hydrocarbon. His handwriting is ugly, over-sized and boyish. Brooks frowns and leans closer to the page. He sees in his mind the synthesis, the steps unfolding easily before him. He traces Clark’s approach and identifies the flaw in his logic. He is not taking resonance into account, the way electrons, when destabilized, redistribute themselves among the atoms in a compound until they find a suitable configuration. His approach is doomed because the subsequent steps do not provide enough enticement to budge the electrons out of their resonance-stabilized form. It is a fine knot as in fishing wire, imperceptible until you slide your fingers along its length and discern its bulge yourself.
“You fucked up the resonance,” Brooks says, tapping the page on the step where it all went wrong. Clark squints at him and then leans forward too, breathing heavily.
“I did? Goddamnit. Resonance, resonance, resonance.”
“Yep,” Brooks says and leans back because Clark’s body is too warm, too close, too much to bear, and that idiotic face he is making is unbearable.
“What about this one?” Clark’s finger slides down the page to another botched problem. Brooks doesn’t even have to lean down to study to know that Clark has forgotten to account for the difference invert configuration.
“You don’t know the difference between Sn1 and Sn2 reactions, do you?”
Clark inhales deeply and turns to Brooks with that same hard, red face from the courtyard, and Brooks leans back in his chair so that his back is against the wall. He’s let his mouth run too loose yet again, and this, what he wanted all along, is about to slip away from him.
“You are not a patient person, Brooks. You are not a patient person at all.” Clark says this with such direct and easy calm that for a moment Brooks is stunned. Anger. He had anticipated anger, but not this, which is gentle like forgiveness and kindness. He can see the anger and the hurt in Clark’s green eyes, but also something else, much softer like sadness.
“I’m sorry,” Brooks says.
“It’s okay,” Clark says brightly, his expression returning to one of placid easiness. “I know you don’t like me much. I just really needed help. I can go, though.”
“No, no, stay. It’s fine. I’ll stop being an ass.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to be an inconvenience.”
“You aren’t. I want to help,” Brooks says, and he is startled to find that it is the truth. Clark seems startled too, but he is nice enough to wipe the shock from his face and grin.
“Okay, so let’s go over this substitution reaction again, please.”
Brooks nods and draws on a line on the page beneath the mangled problems, a line beyond which they will proceed with caution toward an ideal solution.
It’s hours later when they emerge from the library into the milky twilight of early evening. Brooks’s neck and back are stiff, and his eyes feel gritty from the overhead lighting and their laptop screens. Clark seems refreshed and light—he’s hopping from foot to foot, clenching his fists in an attempt to contain his excitement.
“I can’t believe I’m finally getting this shit. It’s been driving me crazy.”
“Glad to help,” Brooks says and salutes him with the wrong hand. He lights another cigarette. Unlike before, he’s brought his jacket down with him, so he is able to take the cold with a braver face. The smoke feels good in his body, where there is suddenly so much cold emptiness.
“That’s going to kill you one day,” Clark says, his face twisting up in disgust.
“Not as quickly as the police,” slides out of Brooks so fast it’s like a thunderclap in the library courtyard. Clark goes suddenly very still. His face is frozen somewhere between shock and fear. Brooks realizes that he has done the unthinkable. He has cultivated a method for surviving as the sole black person in his courses: he vanishes into himself, leaving at his surface a perfect blankness. When people come up against him, they can see only themselves tinted dark. But he has shattered that mirror and revealed the smooth, brown belly below, and now he feels as though Clark is staring directly into his navel. Clark shuffles awkwardly and adjusts his backpack.
“Don’t joke around about that stuff.”
“It’s not really stuff, is it?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I don’t, actually, know what you mean.”
Clark takes a step toward him, and is suddenly standing over him, imposing and broad as ever. Brooks blows smoke up into his face, and Clark grabs his wrist.
“You do know what I mean. Don’t joke around about dying.”
“I’m from the South—we laugh instead of crying.”
“Are you crying, then? Why?”
“It’s an expression, Clark.”
“I’m aware that it’s an expression Brooks. I just don’t like talking about you dying.”
“Some doctor you’ll make,” Brooks says, exhaling the last of his smoke. “Can I have my cigarette back?”
“No,” Clark says, his eyes turning hard and distant. He shakes Brooks’s wrist, but Brooks won’t let the cigarette go. The heat from Clark’s hand closes tighter around him. The wind picks up again.
“You’re being unreasonable,” Brooks says. He looks away. He can’t stand to look at Clark’s face so close to his.
“You’re smart. You’re going to be a doctor. You’re going to fix people.”
“Doctors don’t fix people, Clark. Don’t be so naïve. Doctors practice medicine.”
“That’s fixing, isn’t it?”
“Medicine—“ Brooks is out of things to say. His mouth is dry. His eyes are stinging. He wants to go home. He wants to vanish back into himself. Clark comes closer, and their bodies are touching, everywhere touching. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“You definitely do not.”
“Try me.” Clark lets his wrist go and puts a hand above Brooks’s head on the pillar. “Try me.”
Brooks puts the cigarette to his lips, inhales deeply and flicks it away. He puts hand against the back Clark’s neck and pulls his face down lower. At first Clark resists, but then he gives in and Brooks presses their lips together. Clark’s lips are soft and warm as they part. Brooks passes him the smoke, giving it over slowly. When he’s given it all, Clark steps back and exhales through the corner of his mouth.
“Come on, for real this time,” Clark says. The next time they kiss, Brooks is more tentative. It’s the taste of smoke and cinnamon gum chewed too many hours ago. But Clark is not tentative. He is a shamefully earnest kisser, leaning down and giving it his all. He comes away from the kissing panting, his eyes blurry and wide. “Jesus.”
Brooks wipes his mouth with the back of hand and shrugs. He is flushed and hot. Clark’s eyes are roaming over his body. He can feel the weight of it.
“That’s enough of that, I guess.”
“Not what, Clark? Acceptable?”
“No…I mean, yes, but no.”
“You sound confused, which is why this whole thing is one big nope.”
“No, no, no—”
“—yes, yes, yes.”
“But it was so good.”
“Oh, was it?” Brooks is pushing at Clark’s chest to make space for himself because he cannot breathe and he doesn’t want to get sucked into a thing with this overgrown boy, but Clark is not moving, does not seem to want to move. Clark grabs at his wrists again and holds them to his chest. Brooks can feel his heart beating hard and fast.
“Yes,” Clark says. “Yes, it was good. Yes, I like you. Yes, I think you’re—“
“Just hush, Clark. Hush your mouth.”
“I think you’re great.”
“I think you’re trash.”
“You don’t mean that.
“You definitely do not,” Clark says, smiling weakly. His grip on Brooks’s hands is not hard, but it is persistent. "You like me too.”
“You think I’m good-looking.”
“And you want to be my boyfriend.”
Brooks’s breath goes out of him sharply and his eyes jerk up to Clark’s face, where there is an expression of tentative hope so clear that Brooks’s heart breaks. “Who told you that?”
“A little bird told me.”
“You shouldn’t listen to birds.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that—birds are smart.”
“You are insufferable,” Brooks says and he lets himself get pulled up against Clark’s chest into an embrace that is deep and warm and full of everything he has ever wanted, everything that he fled that southerly rim of Appalachia to find. He closes his eyes and slides his mind along the idea of giving in to Clark’s idea of the two of them together. He can feel it, that small, imperceptible knot: Brooks’s disappearing trick for surviving the unrelenting whiteness of his academic life is taxing. At home, he gets to slip his vulnerable black body out of its shell. How can he, if suddenly sharing that personal space with a white man, ever expose the places where he is softest with fear and worry? This is a doomed arrangement. Clark has not fallen for him. No, Clark has fallen for a projection that is a strategy against fear, a defensive barrier against the world and its friction. But this embrace is tender and sweet and full of so much goodness that he rests for just a moment on the belief that Clark is enough.
But Brooks can already smell it on the air. The scent of metal and that long vibration of distant thunder.
“I think a storm is coming,” Brooks says. Clark looks up into the empty, black sky, where a few stars are glinting down at them.
“Looks fine to me,” he says. “It’s perfectly clear.”
Brandon Taylor is a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s also currently the assistant editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. He’s been both a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction.