Cover Photo: Toward a Dark Coast by Brandon Taylor
 

Toward a Dark Coast

           When the rain came at noon, it woke Ovid. He had slept through his natural alarm, through the sound of the city getting itself underway (car horns, bus engines, garbage men, post trucks), through the sounds and sensations of Vitor leaving (the pulling apart the arms, the sliding away, the grunting, the snorting, the stomping on boots, the slamming door), but he had not slept through the sound of the rain, which suppressed everything into a quiet murmur. Instead of leaving, Ovid lay on his back for a while, rubbing his bare stomach and thinking of Eurydice; Vitor had sweated all night, and now the sheets were damp with the scent of cheap whiskey and smoke. Ovid traced the outline of Vitor's back on the bed, where he had dampened the mattress with his heavy body. Of course he had sweated. He was always straining at the slightest sound, cataloguing threats, amassing a neurotic readiness for assault from any direction throughout the night; Vitor had never really recovered from a soldier's life, and now he sweated out his nightmares. Ovid put his lips to Vitor's pillow and tasted the alkaline remnants of the beer and the smoke. Salt burned his tongue. 

            Ovid pulled the sheet away and inspected his bare body. He was long and dark. His stomach was flat and covered in coarse, black hair. His heels were rounded and pink, his insteps white and high-arching, his fingertips curved, and his nails white. His elbows were pointed, and his nose slightly long, distinctly Romanian. He stood up in the gray light and stretched until each muscle stiffened then relaxed into place. Outside, a car backfired and some girls laughed as they ran through the alley. Ovid looked across the apartment with its bare, faded furniture and chipping paint to where he had left his pants hanging off the side of the couch, but could not find his shirt, so he put on one of Vitor's.

            It hung on him loosely.

            At some point during the day, Ovid thought back to putting on Vitor's shirt and adopting Vitor's smell. He wondered if the whiskey and smoke scent would seep into his skin like dye and remain there, altering him slowly from the inside. He was working in the archives, carrying boxes, moving papers, locating and organizing the research materials for the university archivist. He never thought of Vitor at work. It was a strange intrusion, so strange that he stopped mid-step and frowned. He stared down into the box until his eyes went out of focus, and until the desire to throw down the box and run full-force into traffic eased into a low, thudding ache behind his eyes.

            Mr. Abdel needed the files relating to the university's recent exhibit of ancient Grecian artifacts. Ovid was taking them to room 503, where he intended to sift through them before the anthropology professor arrived because he had not gotten a chance to visit the exhibit; he had been with his father instead, at Mr. Abdel needed the files relating to the university's recent program on ancient Grecian artifacts located to one of the viewing rooms. Ovid planned to sift through them before Mr. Abdel arrived because he was writing an article on Mycenaean origins of Orphic hymns for Dionysus Zagerus for the university press, but he had missed his opportunity to discuss it with the first-hand experts. They had come from Greece and Turkey and presented papers on the extent to which Mycenae had influenced Greek religion, papers that would have formed the basis for Ovid's thesis, papers that he had missed because instead he had been with his father at the doctor's office.

            Ovid set the box on the table and sat in the windowless room. It contained transcripts of discussions, copies of the manuscripts, photographs of the displays, all organized in binders and folders. Ovid went through these slowly, jotting notes and setting aside pages to be copied. He could not find the box with the papers relating to the specific nature of his research. It must have been here somewhere in all of the pages. He pulled more folders, more binders, throwing them back behind him, throwing them against the wall. The pages rushed upward and spun in the haze of the low-hanging lamp. Sweat beaded the surface of his neck and evaporated with the heat of his motion. Ovid grunted, shoved the box aside. He gripped the edges of the table and stared into the oblong shape of his shadow.

            He had missed his chance to discuss his thesis because he had been at the doctor's office with his father, listening as a Park Avenue doctor with a medical degree that cost five-times their yearly stipend from the Romanian government tell both of them that his father was dying, had been dying, and would be dead before the year's end. A cold shadow swallowed the heat in his bones, and then he stooped to pick up all of the papers before Mr. Abdel came to find the mess he had made.

            After work, Ovid stepped on to the sidewalk. The city lights on the horizon multiplied in the rain as they went in and out of focus. He did not know how he would end things, or what he would do afterward. He could go back to renting cheap motels on the weekends and living out of his backpack, moving from club to club, dancing in the dark, touching other bodies as he leaned down to whisper in French or Romanian. Awkward as a boy, he was now a long-limbed and dark. He enjoyed the hours he spent creating versions of himself inside of other people's eyes and bodies.

            For seven months, he had found an incomplete semblance of wholeness in Vitor, but now, it was time to let that slide away as he had so many other times because he was never truly comfortable with permanence. It was irreconcilable with how he had lived and his father had lived and his grandfather had lived, all exiles, drifting from place to place, taking aid from a government that wanted nothing to do with them.

            A car coasted by him and lit his arms in the rain, which dampened him. The car left Ovid in its red wake, and he pulled up his shirt to keep the water out of his ears. His beard and eyelashes caught the water and fragmented the light.

             In the first few months, the inflection and strength of Vitor's temper had defined the thing between them. How angry he could get over nothing at all. How loudly he could scream and beat his fists on his broad, white chest. Then, when silent and amassing secret thoughts behind his bright eyes, how vicious his hands could be knotting and gripping at your throat because you had lied to him. Vitor had a child's mouth, Ovid thought, gentle and red but so cruel as it sucked at you until there were only the beginnings of marrow. The insides of his arms were smooth and the skin there was pale and sweet; but there was a terrible strength hiding there, waiting to wrap around your throat. Those months had been recklessly, stupidly spent in a state of aggression.

            The streets were empty now, leaving only Ovid coming up the walk in the rain. Everyone had gone home or inside some place to keep dry. Yes, in those first months, it had gone exactly that way: violently, roughly at night and beautifully tender in the early morning. But, then, a few days ago, Vitor had tried to follow him home, and Ovid had known then that the thing had to end.

            Not because he believed his father had any moral hang-up with what he was doing. No, not after the women his father had loved in Paris, all of them with warm smiles, full breasts, rounded hips, and moles on their cheeks. No, Ovid did not believe his father cared one way or another, but might have suspected something, with all of the long weekends Ovid spent missing from their small apartment with its view of the river lighting up the trees with its sky reflection. Ovid did not want to make his father's last months difficult by bringing Vitor's enormity over their home.

            When Ovid finally reached Vitor's apartment, he found it empty. He pulled off the shirt, pushed down his pants, and went to wash himself clean of Vitor's scent and the dust from the archives. The water was cold and brown-tinted. It left a gritty sense of half-clean on his skin. He washed himself with a towel he found hanging off the sink, standing there in front of the greasy mirror, wiping at the corners of his body until his skin was white and shivering.

            He stared at his reflection with its damp, wild hair. Last week, one pale and cold day in mid-March, Ovid had found his father standing in their kitchen at lunch time. Usually, his father ate with the other columnists and essayists from the international presses at their downtown cafes, but there he stood, his arms thin and drawn, his shoulders pointed and skinny, his shirt rumpled, his face bleached in river light. He looked as though he had not left all day, which might have been true because Ovid left first every morning. His father had gazed at him with his large, green eyes, as if toward a dark coast beyond Ovid, beyond life and all it entailed.

            For hours afterward, he had tried to think of why his father had stayed in bed all day--it was not entirely unusual or out of character, but there was something disturbing about the look in his eyes, about the way he hadn't combed his hair or looked after himself and why he hadn't gone out to eat his honeyed apricots or fresh bread with Nutella at the little bakery with those old men he liked so much? Why hadn't he been there, discussing the old days running up and down the Latin Quarter, screaming at the tops of their lungs as the children of expatriates, as the new revolutionaries burning their fathers' books and crying out for justice. Why hadn't he been there, reliving his great days, instead of standing confused and filthy in the kitchen in the middle of the day?

            In the greasy reflection of Vitor's mirror, Ovid saw his father's shadow. He tried to fix his father's face before him in the dull light from the alley lamp, but it stung his eyes.

            He thought maybe that he was cold, but the heat was burning his left arm. It twisted along the tendons toward his fingers and against the underside of his knuckles. His eyes, which were his father's eyes still pressed at him, holding him up against the measure of some invisible self, some invisible list of things encoded in the DNA of time. He vomited roughly in ugly heaves, naked and burning.

            Around nine, Vitor returned, pale, sharp-eyed, and heavy-footed. He did not look at Ovid, but stripped down and climbed into bed next to him. He was cold and damp from the rain. Vitor put his cold skin on Ovid's cold skin, but Ovid turned away and put his face against the pillow. Vitor did not withdraw. He gripped the Ovid's arms pulled him back around.

            "Where have you been?" Vitor asked. He was from Belarus, and his voice was raspy and strong. His fingers were rough. He had killed with those fingers. "I want to know where you have been." He was always suspicious of Ovid's aloof nature, afraid that each withdrawal and each feint would be the final retreat. He was checking Ovid for other people's scents and markers with the paranoia of homecoming.

            Ovid said nothing, let Vitor pass his hands around his body: up his spine, down the backs of his thighs, across his neck, through his beard, over his stomach, checking every crevice, checking every space for trespass.  Vitor had been drinking again. His blue eyes were out of focus. They lay together in the overreaching arc of the street lights.

            "Where have you been?" He asked again, his mouth going cruel and hard. Vitor had done monstrous things with his mouth, yet to Ovid, it always seemed so soft. "You smell like shit."

            He smelled like Vitor's shirt and Vitor's water and dust from the archives, but Vitor did this often enough, and Ovid felt tired. He closed his eyes. Vitor's rough hands hardened.

            "You've been with someone else."

            Ovid opened his eyes slowly and stared down the bridge of his nose at Vitor, "Yes." Vitor's eyes widened at first, but then they narrowed. "Yes," Ovid repeated. Someone else in some other place, someone else doing something else that wasn't this. He wanted to vomit again. Vitor's smoke circled closer to his nose and to his lips.

            "You've been with someone else," Vitor repeated, then dropped into silence. He pulled Ovid closer, gripped his arms until they burned and then finally shoved him to the floor. Ovid rolled, naked and lithe. The entirety of his body slid into the irregular shadow shape of the city. There was too much light to fit through the window, and there suddenly was Vitor, standing enormous and burning like a city transmuted at night into the charred landscape of distance. He grabbed Ovid, wrapped his hands around Ovid's throat. Vitor held the back of Ovid's neck, staring at him, boring into him with his eyes. When he swung, his fist blurred the moon.

            Blood came hot and fast to Ovid's lips, to his teeth, to his eyes. It stung, dropped away, burned, opened, sealed, and pushed. Ovid watched it all from afar, listening to the sickening twist of his skin sagging and coming loose, listening to the thud of Vitor's knees in his stomach, listening to the echo of his body breaking and bleeding, becoming ugly and snapping, and when it was over, when the beating slowed and Vitor's breathing was hot on his eyelids, and Ovid lay there under him on the bed, shuddering. There was only the tenderness of his child's mouth kissing the wounds he had made.

            Ovid rubbed the nape of Vitor's neck while Vitor kissed the wounds, pressed his tears hot to the feverish surface of his skin. He felt more pain for Vitor than for himself. He stroked the rough, bristling hairs at the nape of Vitor's neck and let Vitor make up to him the ugliness of the moment. When Vitor slept, Ovid left, arm around his ribs, body racking with coughs, with seizures, with convulsions. He walked down into the rain and looked up into sky where the moon remained.

            The city lights multiplied in front of him as he limped his way to the bus stop. He rode the bus home to the apartment he shared with his father. Usually at this hour, his father knew not to expect him, so Ovid was surprised to find his father sitting at the kitchen table, smoking as he looked over a manuscript. When his father looked up at him and saw his face, even in the dim light of their kitchen, his skin went pale. They both blanched, as if unable to calculate just how much monstrosity had happened in so little time.

            "Papa," Ovid said, catching the back of the chair to keep himself up. "I did not expect you to be up this late. Let me make you some tea."

            His father stood up, forgetting that he was smoking, forgetting his papers, and ran to him. Ovid dropped to his knees. His father dropped to his knees. There, together, clasping his father's hands, Ovid wept. His father took him into his arms and put Ovid's ear to his chest. There, in the underwater dark of his father's body, he heard the echo of himself reaching across a vast distance to find its compliment stirring in the unreachable. He cried against his father's chest. He cried because he did not want to lose him, cried because he had squandered so much time, cried for the blood he shed against his father's chest, cried for the pain he had caused Vitor, and he cried because his father would wither in front of him.

            "Why do you weep, Ovid? Please stop. Please stop," his father said. After a while, he did stop. He stopped crying. He stopped bleeding. Eventually, his father got him to sit in a chair and made a strong tea. For a long time, Ovid did not know what to say. It was his father who spoke first. "I wish you would consider seeing a doctor."

            "No, papa. I'm fine."

            "You are not."

            "I am fine."

            "You are not, Ovid, and if you will not see a doctor, then at least let me help you."

            "Will it stop your pecking?"

            "Ah, yes. My pecking."

            "Alright."

            His father clucked as he artfully applied the antiseptic swabs to Ovid's face. He frowned, which made his father laugh softly. Ovid surveyed the damage the sickness had done to his father's face. His skin was pale and ashen. His eyes seemed larger as the skin sunk away and showed the shapes of his eye sockets. His gray beard was thinning, but his arms seemed strong.            "How is that?"

            "Better."

            "Only better?" His father smiled at him, which made Ovid laugh, but the pain his chest made him wish he hadn't. "Am I so funny, Ovid?" Ovid gripped his sides and doubled over laughing through the pain in his chest, laughing until he was on his knees again, laughing as his father looked down at him with both of his brows raised, and laughing in the middle of the night, with shuddering, tear-streaked laughter.

            Ovid laughed until his burning lungs gave way to exquisite, white blindness.

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.