A Single, Blinding Moment
And it is probably a mistake to agree, but he does, because her voice is calling his name, chanting it, transforming it again in a way that he knows no one else can or will.
She leans against the car, smoking under a high sun. Her smoke drizzles into the sky where it is invisible in so much blue light. The only tension in her body is in her elbow, where she’s bent her arm to smoke; looseness runs through her, languid and easy like breathing. The road is empty, and the only sound echoing in from the vast plains of dried fields is the sound of her breathing out smoke.
He is riding his engine hot when he comes over the bend in the road and finds her there. Hours of driving have made his eyes hard and sore, so at first he thinks he is only seeing a smoke break in progress. He has two hours left before he gets home, and he thinks ahead to the three hours of sleep he’ll get before he has to head out again for another two weeks of hard driving and hard labor. He’s barebacked and hot. Sweat sluices the knobs of his spine, and the interior of his truck is cracking from the heat. He has orange dust caked under his nails and in the creases of his muscles, which are hard but tired, throbbing like the rest of him for sleep, for rest. He is about to pass her entirely when she raises her hand faintly. The sun refracts against her fingernails and the bangles that slink down her arm. His hair is dark and stuck to his eyes as he pulls up beside her and leans across the seat so that he can through the window, “Need some help?”
Her lips are painted burgundy, and she’s got her hair pulled back into some kind of bun. It’s auburn and blonde. It’s not a smile, but her lips do slide upward to show her teeth, which are strong and white, “A flat.” Her voice is startling. Raspy, full of coppery music that seems to come from a hum or some other throaty vibration rather than from complete silence, and he feels a jerk in his stomach. Chills fan down his back, and he feels the goosebumps ripple across his arm. The way she says it, flat, as if she’s told him a thousand times before and just between friends, one more time, just for you—her voice, intimate, warm.
He nods his dark head and cuts the ignition. Then he gets out. His jeans sling slow on his waist and hang there, caught on the edges of his hips. He’s young, tan, twenty-five and in old, oily jeans. He slides on a white shirt. The heat throws bristling waves up his neck and rests on the back of his head. “That’s no problem,” he says, smiling. It’s one of those wet-lipped, red-lipped smiles that comes easily to him, when he’s trying to be personable, but she merely blows more smoke from the side of her mouth and pushes away from the trunk of her car. He squats in the dust and inspects the tire. “Spare?” he asks. She’s walks past him and leans through her window to pull a lever. She turns her head to gaze at him, and he sees his reflection swimming against the rim of her glasses. He looks small and distorted, like a troll of some kind. Her lips are still doing that strange thing somewhere between a smile and a smirk. There’s no exertion on her face when she pulls the lever, just suddenly the sound of it going pop, and the trunk springing upward. The trunk is up, but he’s still squatting on his tired haunches, and she’s still watching him. Then she says, in that thrilling voice of hers, “Well, aren’t you going to change my tire?” His skin goes red, and her smirk deepens. She smells like honey and something else, something that burns his nose.
Changing the tire is simple, even if his hands are tired. He twists the nuts off, one by one and puts them into an old plastic cup he found in the trunk. Then he rolls away the flat, slides on the dummy tire, and puts the nuts back, tightening them, twisting them, feeling the muscles in his arm bunch and then release, working them on tighter and tighter until they’re perfectly motionless. When he stands up, his back his sore and aches from the crouching. He rubs at the base of spine, where the heat is worst, and watches her watch him from the hood, where she’s sitting with her legs crossed and the deep valley between her legs is a tantalizingly small triangular darkness. “All done,” he says, his voice dry and cracking. “You should be good to go.” “Thank you” is not mundane in her voice. It sits pleasantly in her sooty contralto and becomes something else, something that he cannot name but strikes a raw heat in his gut that makes him clench. She slides the sunglasses up past her eyes and into her hair. Her gaze is blue and vivid and penetrating. For a moment, he is breathless. Her face, outlined in the silver heat of the sun is stunning. She has small features except for her mouth and her eyes, which by comparison to her nose and her eyebrows, seem large and full. She slides from the hood of her car and lands soundlessly, without disturbing the dust and walks to him. She is tall for a woman and her hips are full and curved. He clenches his dirty hands as she stands close enough for him to count twenty freckles across the bridge of her nose and beneath her eyes. Close enough that he can feel her breath against the bare hollow of his throat, which is damp with sweat. “I would feel more comfortable if you followed me home,” she says, and she rests her hand against his chest, and they are connected. He can feel her pulse through the thin shirt and his thin skin and the thinness of himself. Her pulse invades him like the sound of her voice and becomes his own pulse, the sound of himself breathing and beating.
He knows that touching her back is out of the question, and that speaking could break the spell, so he only nods and lets himself climb back into his truck and pull out after her onto the road. The drive is mostly silent, but every so often she hits a rut in the road and he seizes up, thinking the tire will wobble off or need fixing again. But the tire holds steady, and they continue for a ways in the heat and the sun and the dust which has turned the beautiful fields brown and dead. He feels himself drifting off because of the heat and the endlessness of the drive. It has been a strange summer, hot and dry, which is rare and eerie. Eventually, the brown gives way to green and the trees return to the sides of the roads, and they coast into a quiet rural lane that dips and dives into woods and cool shade. On a hill, a white and yellow house, large and old, stands, looking out over fields and distant neighbors. The home is beautiful, but neglected. Her car stops abruptly, and he leans out of the window to watch her get out, to catch just one more glimpse of her and to hope she’ll say a couple words, just for the road.
She turns and she does speak, to say, “Do you know anything about fixing pipes?”
They are still in bed at noon, heavy and warm from sex. During the night, while thunder boomed on the horizon, he was pressing against her, into her, riding out the heaving sky in the gripping quiet of her body. But now, it is noon, and the sun is bright in her curtains, which are white and lacy. They catch the light like spider’s silk, and the breeze ruffles them quietly. They are on a mostly quiet road, but he can hear tractors and the calls of birds. He needs to get on the road, but fuck, he’s tired, his eyes are still heavy, and she feels good and soft curled up against him. He stiffens and slides just into the beginning of her body, and feels that clawing, clenching in his gut that makes him murmur against the nape of her neck and breathe the perfume of sweat and lilac from her skin. She slides her legs a little wider and slips further against her friction, sinking in fractions of space until he glances up and there in the door way is a small, blond-headed boy looking at them with a remote and dull expression. He seizes and chokes on spit as he pulls away from her, “Shit.”
She looks up and smiles, wraps a blanket around her body and leaves the bed to put her arms around the boy, “Asa, you’re home.” Fear gurgles in his blood stream, and he thinks that this bitch is married and that he’s going to die. But no husband spawns in the doorway, no man appears. Just this small boy with a cartoon backpack and an unimpressed blankness in his body, as if he’s been there, seen it, done it all before. For the first time in days, he feels filled with energy. It’s the nervous, jittery kind as he jerks on his jeans. They’re rough against his thighs and against his groin, but he’s just trying to get out of there. She whirls around him, pooled in white sheets and smooth skin and sighs, “Noam, this is Asa. Asa, this is Noam.”
Noam does not know what to say or what to do. He’s standing there, dark-haired and hard-edged while this boy stares up at him. He doesn’t have a child’s eyes. Instead, he has the kind of stare his mother has. Penetrating, aloof, and blue, so blue. Blue like an empty summer sky. He nods to the boy, who nods back. Noam does not stay beyond introductions, but Sofia slides a piece of paper into his palm as she leans up to kiss his neck, “Don’t be a stranger.” Her voice falls like the first drops of rain after a long, dry summer, wetting him, healing him like cracked, brittle soil.
The woman behind the bar has dark hair and a small, upturned nose. She is laughing because she and Noam have just recognized one another from high school, and isn’t it funny that they’d end up so far from home and still run into one another. She is laughing, and her smile is electric and the sound of her voice is a dull but pleasing hum at the back of her throat. Her breasts are small, but tight and high, and he can see her nipples harden through the thin material of her shirt. She presses against the bar, and she smiles, pressing her palm against the top of his knuckles. For a moment, he thinks that he can see himself in her eyes, pressing against her back in the storage room, just barely getting their jeans down low enough to get skin on skin where it mattered. For a moment, in her eyes, they’re rubbing against each other, raw and harder—but then, he realizes that in her eyes, what he sees, is Sofia’s reflection sliding against his own, and he smells her perfume and feels her slide on to his lap.
“Noam,” she says, and her voice transforms his name into a vibration that spreads everywhere in his body. Her hands are warm, soft, searching as they slide through his hair and bare his neck to her, where she kisses the hollow of his throat and the bones that make up his clavicle. His orange flannel shirt is open, and breathes in the scent of his aftershave and cologne, which are Old Spice and something else his father gave him. He feels immediately that she is not wearing any panties, and what he feels is the heat of her body. “What are you doing?” She asks with a smile that has something cruel in it, something ugly. But he doesn’t answer, just smiles back and knocks down a drink. It burns the back of his throat, but she’s watching him, pressing with her eyes. It’s going to be another one of those nights.
They have been seeing each other for several weeks, and several times a month, he makes the drive from the suburb where he lives with his parents to meet her at her house in a small town. Several times a week, he is out of town, working as a wandering carpenter or handy man, wandering around in his truck, sleeping on his front seat with his head on the steering wheel, just to make money. Money for what, he has no idea yet, but he’s saving for something, building slowly toward something. But it is all starting to wear him down, all of the driving and the working, and the building. And then there is Sofia and her wanting, which is all-consuming and constant. Her wanting is only exceeded by her wanting to be wanted. And he does want her, need her, crave her. But there are times when his need does not match her expectation, and she digs her fingers into him, shrieks at him, accuses him. It is not easy, not easy at all to love her, but he does love her, and he knows that tonight is going to be a night where she presses and accuses. He can read it in her eyes which don’t narrow but brighten.
When they get to her home, she slaps him hard across the face.
“You don’t love me, do you, Noam?”
“I do,” he says, but he makes the mistake of letting tiredness show in his voice. He cannot pretend that this new, cannot fake surprise, and instead seems insincere, which makes her slap him again, harder. Her soft fingers bruise red, and she stares at him with glistening eyes.
“You don’t,” she whispers, and her voice comes dark and rich. He sits on the sofa and puts his head in his hands.
“Then why are you fucking around on me, Noam?”
“I’m not. I’m not doing anything, Sofia. I go to work. I go home. I come here. Sometimes, I don’t sleep, don’t eat. I’m always driving. When do you think I have time to fuck around.” He has spent the last two days driving or under sinks or on roofs or building cabinets. The only women he has seen are sagging, soft-thighed women who resemble his mother so much that he has to double check that she hasn’t found a way to be in several places at once. Sleeping around does not appeal to him and has not except for tonight, for that brief moment when for a second he let himself—no, better not to think about it. But Sofia has sensed it already and she lets tears swell to the rims of her eyes.
“You don’t love me, Noam. You don’t love me at all.”
“What do you want. Tell me, and I’ll do it, but I’m not sleeping around on you, Sofia. I haven’t touched anyone else, been with anyone else—“ but he leaves out the important one, thinking about someone else, and she seizes this omission and pushes him hard in the chest so he flops back against the sofa.
“But you think about it, don’t you? Fantasize about that fucking tramp, at the bar? Don’t you, Noam? Don’t you?” And she’s pulling up the hem of her skirt, and it’s bare skin all the way, and he can’t keep himself from reaching out to touch her, to pull her on to his lap and breathe against her chest. When he slides into her, she sighs and she presses tighter against him, “Move in with me. I can’t stand the thought of you being anywhere else. Move in with me.”
And it is probably a mistake to agree, but he does, because her voice is calling his name, chanting it, transforming it again in a way that he knows no one else can or will. “Okay.”
Asa is eight, but old for his age. It’s not that his arms are thick or his back is broad for eight—not just these things, because they are also true—but there’s something in the way he stares that makes him seem too big for himself. Noam has never met a little boy so concentrated and focused. He sits and stares until someone speaks to him, as if he’s world-weary already. His shoulders shift as if they’re trying to shrug off adult burdens, and he folds his hands together like he’s trying to unravel problems too big for a child.
It all profoundly disturbs Noam perhaps because he is not unfamiliar with being too old for his age. He was born to parents already softened up by middle age, and he grew up after they had already raised three brothers. He was afforded too much freedom, too much soft-handed responsibility, scolded for not knowing better, for misbehaving even in ways that he didn’t understand were misbehaving. For the most part, his parents anticipated and counteracted his mistakes, growing him prematurely into an adult-thinking boy. And then there is the sting of that first great loss, when his brother Isaac was wiped from the face of the earth in a single, blinding moment. It still resonates in his core, still permeates his muscles and his breathing, staining him from the inside-out. Maybe this is why he feels disturbed when he looks at Asa, because he is at once familiar with the course premature-maturity takes and with the sadness of loss. He resolves that he won’t let Asa get old and sad before his time. He’ll do it for Isaac, who was always the fun one, the bright one, the one bursting with life, and the one who played with him and taught him how to laugh.
He puts his hand on the back of Asa’s head and when Asa whips around to look at him, he has already taken the hand away and put it into his pocket, whistling, grinning to himself. Asa turns around again, focusing intensely, preternaturally intensely on coloring, but Noam puts his hand against the nape of his neck. Asa whips around so fast, his eyes are unfocused and he squints and says, “Quit it.” But Noam has already lifted him out of his chair entirely and put him on the ground. Asa squirms, flailing, kicking, gnashing his teeth behind his lips, but Noam pulls him into a headlock and tickles him. His muscles are developed and tight and hard, and there’s no laughter, just the hard breathing that comes with exertion. His face is red, and his eyes are wide—he’s scared, surprised.
Noam stops play-strangling him and pulls him into a loose-armed hug and rubs his back as Asa tries to catch his breath. He feels sad, deep, penetrating sadness ring through his heart. No one’s ever played with this boy before. No one’s ever taught him that you’re supposed to laugh when you wrestle. He’s going to change that. Noam is going to change it.
The field is filled with little boys in shoulder pads and bright jerseys. The sun is high and bright, and the distant hum of traffic blows in through the trees. On a Saturday, little boys are drawing lines so that they can throw themselves into enemy territory and advance against opponents. Already, they’re learning how to throw blocks or roll with punches. They’re dropping low to the ground and charging with all of their might into one another, bouncing and clacking, pushing against the unmoveable before dissolving into sporadic, hectic jerks. Some of them have already learned to take the game too seriously, and Noam looks on with a grim awareness at these high-nosed little boys who are already learning that this will be the singular, defining act of their lives. It’s sad in a way, to be so young and yet to know that all you’ll ever do will be measured against your success here in little league.
Just then, he catches Asa, standing shyly to the side. He towers over the other boys. He is blond and square-jawed, looking like a soldier in miniature. The other fathers eye him nervously, enviously. He is strong, and he is fast, but he has no love for the game. Not in the way that the other boys do. Noam had hoped that little league would teach Asa how to play and how to be with boys his own age, but he looks so foreign out there. He looks curiously aware among the boys. Still, when he catches Noam looking at him, he smiles, and Noam grins, and it all feels worth it, somehow.
He isn’t Asa’s father, but when Asa takes the line next to the other boys and squares up the way they’ve practiced in the yard, it takes his breath away. When Asa pushes and asserts his physical superiority, he cannot help but to feel proud and pump his fist. He’s shouting when Asa rips the ball loose and runs with it, running fast and free; he’s on his feet screaming, and in that moment, Asa is his, all his little boy, running one home. It’s a Saturday, and he and Asa are drawing lines, them against the world, and they’ll push as hard as they need to, for the fun of it.
Sofia leans against the back of her chair—he made that chair, carved it, shaped it, shaved it, with his own hands—and stretches so that every fiber of her body elongates into cat-like perfection. She presses her lips together, and her golden voices thrums inside of her like a pulsing string. She wants something. He can feel it taking shape inside of her, this thing she wants, but he is scraping up the tiles, replacing them all one-by-one, because this house deserves better than shitty floors. She rests her bare foot against his shoulder, warm, soft. She traces circles against the lean cuts of muscle that flex, but he doesn’t look up from the tiles he’s ripped up. She eventually leaves him there, surrounded by broken ceramic, but her humming remains, lapping against the circles she’s left carved in his back.
“I’m leaving you,” she says.
“What is it this time?”
“You don’t love me enough, Noam. You don’t love me like you used to.”
“I love you when I wake up. I love you when I sleep. I love you when I’m under the sink or fixing the floors or painting or reshaping or resurfacing or reupholstering—I’ve loved you through every square inch of this house, Sofia. I have.”
“You love this house more than you love me.”
“I love you. I love Asa. I love this house. I love being with you.”
“Don’t you dare bring Asa into this. Don’t
make it about him.”
“But I love him, Sofia. I love him and I love you.”
“I said don’t. Just shut up, Noam. What do you know about loving?”
“I know I love you. I said I love you. What else do I need to know?”
“You don’t know nearly enough, Noam. Not nearly enough, and it was my fault for loving you. You were a child. I should have left you alone.”
“A child. I wasn’t a child. And you weren’t a child. You know that.”
“I don’t. I don’t know that and neither do you—and you don’t love me. You can’t.”
“I can and I do. I gave up my whole life—”
“What life is that! What life did you have to give, Noam? What have you given me but heartache and sickness! What have you given Asa! Nothing! You don’t love us! You don’t want us!”
“I gave you my love, Sofia.”
“You didn’t give us shit.”
He and Asa have a ritual of sitting up through thunderstorms. They are both restless sleepers. Thunder has always bothered him. When he was younger, he used to curl beside Isaac and they’d recite their favorite team rosters or hum the lyrics to a Bob Dylan song. But after Isaac died, he struggled through thunderstorms alone. But when a storm rolls in, he and Asa meet in the living room and talk their way through it, ignoring the pitch and holler of the clouds. Asa has grown into a shy, boyish young man with an affable warmness behind his awkward old-manishness. He has his mother’s easy good looks, but without her malicious intent, his attractiveness softens into something more likeable. Sofia uses her beauty to alienate and disrupt. She draws power from using it against other people. But Asa is different. It’s almost as if he fights against it. When girls touch him or smile at him, he always seemed shocked or shy about it. He blushes when he’s complimented. He has an earnest humility which makes beautiful eyes and skin more likeable, infinitely more endearing. In another world, he could have been like his mother, verging on demonic beauty, but instead, he’s human, earthly, and loveable.
They are drinking, and Noam is nodding off. He puts his hand on the nape of Asa’s neck and smiles at him. “I shouldn’t be drinking with you, I guess. I’m a bad influence.” He can feel the hum of Asa’s pulse squirm under his fingers. His beautiful shy Asa. In the morning, he’s going to walk across the stage and receive his diploma. He’s going to graduate. That it’s been ten years amazes him. Ten years. The backs of his eyes burns, and he tilts his can for a toast. Asa looks at him with round, surprised eyes, and Noam knows that his joke has missed the mark. “I’m kidding, Asa. Come on, drink up.”
He wants to say something, but he can’t get his croaky voice to turn into anything worth putting out there, so he leaves his hand in the middle of Asa’s back the way he used to when he was sick. Sick Asa, small, pale-faced, curled up in a circle in the bed, coughing, but trying to keep all the noise and fever inside. How long have they been a team, the two of them? Fixing this house. Fixing each other.
Sofia is in the next town. She said she’s staying with friends for a couple of days, girl time. Noam feels his eyelids drowse and he bumps shoulders with Asa then slides his hand away. It lands on Asa’s knee. “You know, Asa, I’ve been thinking. Now that you’re graduating…I think you should take on more responsibility at the shop. I mean, if you want to. I’m trying to expand the scope from just tables into more things. I have this dream,” he laughs as thunder explodes above them and around them and through them. It rattles the windows.
“I have this dream of a whole lifestyle brand. Noam, that’s what I’ll call it. The Noam Collection. What do you think? Pretentious, right?” The laughter is deeper, and he’s making circles on Asa’s knee, which seems impossibly large, impossibly firm, impossibly warm.
He takes his hand away.
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.