Malcolm preferred his coffee fresh, and so had no use for what his roommate had left behind on the counter. He dumped it out into the sink and ran water into the electric kettle. The stale coffee was his own fault—he had gotten up much later than usual, having gone to bed much later than usual, and the day was already getting away from him. Soon, it would be lunch time, and his roommate would return with a question in his eyes about how Malcolm had spent his day, and Malcolm would have to look away from him, revealing in the gesture all there was to say about his idleness.
A weak light was filling up the window through which Malcolm could see the red brick of the building next door. Their apartment had a view of the alley and not much else, and so the leasing agent had decided to lop thirty dollars off their rent to sweeten the deal. Oh, but they would have paid the whole price, being graduate students and therefore desperate for housing. It had been a moment of rare grace and luck for Malcolm, and he had come away from that meeting with a sense of purpose. Three years in the past now, and not much to show for it. Malcolm sat at the counter and poured the fresh coffee from the carafe into his mug. He glanced about the place, his eyes bleary and stiff, but finding nothing significant, he pulled out his phone and browsed the internet.
Malcolm’s graduate studies were at a standstill, like most of his life. He was in a chemical biology program, studying some the synthesis of an obscure compound with minor if any clinical or industrial application. He had wanted to be a doctor or perhaps, in moments of particular fancy, an accountant. But he feared blood and had no real talent for shaping money into great sums, and so he had ended up in graduate school. If there was any consolation to be had, it was that the rest of his cohort had also once harbored more practical or noble dreams. Among the ten of them, only one of them hadn’t dreamed of taking the LSAT or MCAT rather than the GRE, and that person was now working for a small nonprofit centered on water safety in Arizona.
The internet had its charms, yes, but this morning they were not forthcoming. Among the news of fires and floods, nestled in and around stories about aging sports stars caught in bed with young girls and/or boys (it was, after all, the post-gay marriage), tangled in political scandals, Malcolm still managed to find a sense of ennui. What he wanted was not to be shocked entirely, but to discover some spark of a feeling, something that might shake him loose and awake. But, finding none of that, he drank his coffee down, hot and bitter, then put on his clothes to go out into the world.
Fair weather, thought Malcolm as he came out into the late spring morning, late in the hour but not the season, which had only just thawed at the edge of a long, dark winter. The air was heavy and musky with the scent of flowers. The sky was blue, though its color appeared weakened as if the struggle to escape winter had left the world exhausted. Above him, the sun shone, but only barely. He felt its light but not its heat as he walked along the alley’s length to the street. He was very black and very tall, and people often looked at him. It was no surprise, after all there were so very people like him in this place of milk-white people and their eyes in various colors like polished jewel stones. Malcolm had come up out of a place where the air was always thick and humming with the sound of cicadas or else, it pulsed with bird song. From down there, along the southerly blue rim of Appalachia, where the forests were so green they tinted the sky above them so that you at times were unsure, if you stood on the peak of a mountain, where the sky began and the ocean of wood below ended. Down there, black folks were everywhere, but here, they lived along the edges of the city, concentrated there like a dark, glittering resin, or the rim of the pupil just as it begins to dilate, to press against the blue iris of an eye peering at them.
On the street, Malcolm turned left and passed beneath some trees. Pollen fell against his shoulders, green powder against his skin because he wore a tanktop and shorts that fell just above the middle of his thigh. Its musky odor filled his nostrils, and he sneezed once then twice, and then a third time, in the custom of his father, now buried in a cemetery in one of those green forests.
Oh , he thought, better not. Best that the dead stay buried—who had said this? His grandfather? No. Someone else.
On the sidewalk, a group of people passed him. He smiled at them, and they at him, though he saw in their eyes a shape like a drowned thing. He could have named it for them. There is a word for such a thing, a thing that begins in the belly and crawls its way up the throat to explode out of the mouth—yes, there is a word for such a thing. But he passed them like a shadow, and he walked along the building, the sun throwing his own shadow out beside him like a twin. If he had turned his head, he could have glimpsed himself perhaps. But he didn’t.
He’s heading to the bookstore. There is a book he wants to buy. It is by a favorite author. He cannot remember the plot of the book that he wants to buy, cannot quite summon it back. It had been such a long night and a long day. His memory was raw, like a tongue bitten to pieces by a swarm of swallowed bees. Another group of people passed him, this time, giving the black giant a wide berth. He smiled at them, his teeth alarmingly white. He even gave a little wave, but the white woman and her three small kids flinched.
In the bookstore, Malcolm perused the fiction, in particular the books lying face-up on the tables. He preferred matte covers to glossy ones, matte covers seeming in all ways to be more serious. This was a ridiculous sentiment, he knew, but it was one that he could not shake no matter how open-minded he tried to be. He also preferred a kind of minimalist cover depicting people with reserved facial expressions—he liked to imagine that these were the people in the book, grappling with themselves in all the ways that he knew people grappled with themselves: in life, in love, in desire, in guilt, in shame. He also liked to imagine that they were people like himself, trapped at some distance below the surface of themselves, able only to look on as the world went by without them. He lingered over the book that he had come to buy, a book about a man and a woman in restless marriage, who hated one another as much as they needed one another. It had been reviewed favorably in The New York Times and in The New Yorker. It was his favorite author’s latest book, his fifth overall, and a bit of a departure from his themes about exile and longing.
Malcolm picked up the book from the table. It wasn’t very long, maybe a couple hundred pages. He was going to read it in a single afternoon, out by the lake, undisturbed. He had been planning this moment for quite some time, ever since the book had been announced. And now he held it in his hands, this slim dark volume, the culmination of a long-held wish. It seemed scarcely possible, and yet, well, no point in belaboring it.
It was noon when Malcolm made it to the lakeshore and sat on the stone steps that went down into the water. He pulled of his shoes, tucked his socks inside, and slid his feet down into the cool water. The sun glinted on his skin, and Malcom ran his pale palm along the shape of his thigh, pressing against the firmness of the muscle below the skin. He had been a swimmer, long and fast and dark, cutting through the water as if it had been made of air. It had been his mother’s wish that he swim, and all that was left of that wish and that dream, were the small circles he made in the water by turning his feet here and there. His feet seemed at once a part of him and apart from him, angled and broken by the surface of the water. He had broad, flat feet, the undersides of which were startlingly white. It was only in these places, the bottoms of his feet and the palms of his hand, where the even, dark expanse of his body broke. There and the white soft his eyes, and the fleshy brown of his lips. He turned his feet in toward each other, and the water rippled around his ankles.
There were a couple of boats far out on the lake. They were white and at this distance, you could have thought they were made of paper, full of hollow spaces to keep them afloat. But paper darkens when it’s wet. Voices glided along the water like gulls swooping, rising and falling, changing speed and pitch as the boats neared and distanced from one another. Malcolm leaned back on his hands and slid his legs further into the water. The book lay on his lap unopened. He couldn’t yet bring himself to read it. He wore sunglasses as he gazed up into the sky, which seemed hemmed in by the buildings built along the shoreline. There was a peninsula out there, furry with trees. He had once kissed a boy on that peninsula, had once sucked that boy’s cock by against tree, their hands digging into one another as if in search of precious ore. A white boy. Where was that white boy now?
The sun gave off a kind of false heat, meager.
In the second chapter of the book, the man turns to another man and says:
“I don’t fuck her. I haven’t since we—“
The man of course is talking about his wife, though he is actually trying to measure the impact that the other man has had on him. The principle of displacement. You measure the weight of a thing by how much it displaces. There was a classic children’s television program about science, and once, a man in a blue coat on that show had demonstrated this basic principle of physics by dropping at first an orange ball into a cup. The ball, of course, being hollow, floated. He dropped an orange in next, and the cup, being full, overflowed. They measured the weight of the water. When the man in the book told his boyfriend that he didn’t fuck his wife anymore, what he was trying to say was: I love you.
The other man in the book responds:
“You live with her. You go home to her. You leave me for her—every time.”
There is another principle in physics: mass defect, when the mass of a thing is not what you expect because something has been lost to the universe.
While reading at the lakeshore, Malcolm dozed a little bit, and a few birds came close to him. They didn’t linger when they discovered he had no food to offer them. He watched as disappointment grew in their small black eyes, the shape of his face inverted and distorted. He wished he had brought something for them, but his pockets were full of his keys, his phone, and three small pills of dubious origins. There three birds, in particular, white gulls with grey feathers black at the tips. They were wobbling along on dark feet. They pecked at the stone, drawing up salt and minerals, and then, all at once, they were gone, out across the water, rising higher and higher until finally, they were indistinguishable from the sky.
Malcolm watched the birds recede into the distance, his thumb marking the page. He had begun to sweat a little, in particular the nape of his neck glittered. His hair was cut into a low fade, but he could feel the sun making his scalp tingle, having found a severe angle in the sky. The lake stunk of dead fish, but a few storms blowing in from the west and south would hopefully churn it all up and dissipate the smell.
“Hey,” a voice called to him from over his shoulder, and Malcolm turned to see a man striding toward him. He was in bathing trunks cut in a flattering way. His body was very white, and seemed firm though his belly bobbled as he walked.
“Hey,” Malcolm said.
“Do I know you,” the man asked, crouching next to Malcolm without asking if he could. Malcolm studied his face but found nothing familiar.
“No,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
“I swear I do,” he said as he dropped his legs into the water and turned toward Malcolm. He was smiling, and he had a nice smile, this was true, though one of his teeth was crooked and yellow. He had coppery hair and he smelled like cherry soda or something sticky and sweet.
“I don’t think you do.”
“Well, I’m Carter,” he said.
“Malcolm.” They shook hands briefly, and Malcolm realized that Carter’s hand was damp and warm. He held on longer than he should have.
“Enjoying this weather, huh?”
“Yeah—it’s nice. I try to read when it’s nice.”
“What’re you reading?”
“Oh, just a novel.”
‘You probably wouldn’t know,” Malcolm said, embarrassed. He always felt so shamed about his taste his in books, which were difficult to explain to people in social situations. They always looked at him, watching him stumble and fumble as he combed through plots trying to find something interesting that wouldn’t be utterly incomprehensible to share. Though reading was the thing he enjoyed most, it was the thing he liked discussing least, and besides, no one he knew liked to read. Carter looked at him intently, unmoved by Malcolm’s attempt at brushing him off.
“Waiting,” Carter said.
“It’s called—“ but before Malcolm could finish, there was a loud horn blasting across the lake. IT startled both of them, and they jumped a little, rubbing against each other.
“Shit,” Carter said, frowning.
“Wonder what that was about,” Malcolm said, but in truth, he was grateful for the interruption. “Ah, I should probably get going.”
“Going?” Carter rested a hand on his thigh to keep him in place.
“I better,” Malcolm said, rising. “I better.”
“Okay,” Carter said. His hand slid down Malcolm’s thigh as Malcolm stood up. He tucked his book in his back pocket.
“Nice meeting you,” Malcolm said.
Pleasure,” Carter said, though he was already looking out at the lake again.
Malcolm shut his bedroom door and leaned against it. The air was dark and cool, though here too, it was humid. He unbuttoned his shorts, and they hung open around his thighs as he fondled himself. There was so much heat in his body. He thought of Carter’s red lips and the cherry scent of his skin, and he jerked himself off until it was too sad to go on.
His roommate came home a few hours later, and Malcolm was sitting at the counter staring at his phone.
“How was your day,” his roommate asked, a challenge his voice. “Did you go to work today?”
“It was fine ,” Malcolm said, “I worked from home. How was your day?”
“Productive,” his roommate said. “Very productive.” There was a kind of smugness to his tone that made Malcolm want to punch his face in, and he thought about it. He thought about it for several long seconds while smiled and nodded and said:
“That’s great. Glad to hear it.”
His roommate went to take a shower, and Malcolm lay on the couch on his belly, his insides twisting around and around. He’d try again tomorrow, he thought.
Tomorrow, if the weather holds.