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           Dennis is eight years old when he learns what transgender means. A woman on tv with an adam's apple and a five o'clock shadow says it and Dennis's family treats the word like poison, like a plague released into their children's minds. The television is turned off but Dennis stays by his spot in front of the coffee table, staring at the screen hoping he can manifest the woman in his dreams.

Dennis is ten when he is caught dressing up in his mother's clothes. Dee helps him with the makeup and the clasps on the back of the dress. She tells him he looks pretty. His mother tells him to take it off, she says he makes a pretty girl but not in a society like this one.

Dennis's father doesn’t say a word. He never finds out.

He is twelve years old when his mother finds her lipstick smeared across his bruised cheeks. She tells him to never touch her things again, that he's too old to be playing dress up, that boys aren't supposed to look like that in this world. Dennis trusts everything his mother says, so the kids at school must be right.

He is in middle school when he thinks he's forgotten about the woman on the tv and the dresses hidden in the back of his closet. In his senior year of the high school he peaks back in and it gets harder to forget. The sequins are too enticing and bright. The blue fabric makes his eyes pop.

Nobody has to know, he thinks to himself. Nobody but himself needs to see the way the fabric slides around his slender waist and how the mascara makes his eyes shine instead of pop. Nobody needs to know.

-

There is cold rain and unforgiving wind twisting knots in his frizzy brown curls. Nerves in his stomach twist in the same way as he grips his backpack close to his chest, head bent and ducking around the freezing rain.

Dennis curses himself for forgetting the bag at home. Curses himself for taking the bag in the first place.

If he'd known Dee saw him take it in the first place he probably would've left it at home.

She saw a lot of things she wasn't supposed to; saw him in their mom's heels, saw him under the bridge with his nose powder white and shiny. She saw him with the boy next door, hands buried in eachother's hair, sees him fucking the guy's sister a day later.

Dee presses her head against the cold tile walls trying to forget the fact that high school was coming to a close by method of a blunt being sucked on by a pair of two dry lips.

The rain dribbles down the window above the sinks in the bathroom. Charlie and Mac are sitting on the water stained counters, the tile is yellowing and caving in the places where they sit on. It’s still early, school had just gotten out. They had the whole weekend ahead of them but here they were, still sitting together hotboxing the bathroom.


Dee passes the joint to Mac, he inhales with his head pressed back against one of the mirrors. He doesn't glance up when Dennis walks into the bathroom, hair dripping onto his shoulders and chest heaving beneath his too big button down shirt.

"Hey," Charlie says, taking the joint from Mac's extended hand.

"The fuck you guys doing in here?" Dennis asks, hand tightly pressing the backpack against his chest.

Dee saw him do it, saw him putting their father's ID and their mothers fishnets into it that morning. They made eye contact but didn't say anything to each other, didn't speak of it and probably never will.

Dennis didn't know they would be in here. School was out, they were supposed to be gone, he needed this space that they were so casually invading.

"What's it look like we’re doing," Mac answers curtly.

Dee sighs, wordlessly asking for another hit of the slowly dwindling joint. She exhales, coughs, wipes her eyes and sniffs as she puts out the joint on the bathroom floor. The ash crumbles beneath her sneakers, smearing black soot across the yellow tiles. She scoffs at her brother, she wants him to go away, leave her alone, wants to dump out his backpack and expose him, but also not caring enough to go through with it.

"Go find a different bathroom dickhead," she mumbles.

That was the first time that Dennis could remember being given permission to be himself, still with the ever present reminder that he could only do so in private.

-

The club pulsates with bodies covered in glitter and sweat and mesh. In the corner a genderless body sweeps their tongue over a neon painted abdomen, it's like glitter oozes  from their pores and makes the whole room smell sweet and like sex. In the middle of the dance floor there is a runway slick with that same glitter shining like stars in the black hole club. A man in a dress walks down it, poised and powerful in heels that made him look ten feet tall - Dennis is enamored.

The man's adam's apple bobs in his throat, he is glamorous in all sense of the word. After the show he tells Dennis he isn't a woman or a man because in fact, he is just nothing. He kisses Dennis and tells him he looks pretty in those fishnets and tight leather skirt, his lipstick could be reapplied though as it was all over the man's apple red mouth.

 

It is the first time Dennis realizes there is another option other than male or female, the first time he realizes he doesn't have to choose.

In the bathroom the lights are dim so nobody can see the indecent acts too raunchy even for the club floor. Dennis pours white powder onto the dirty counters with a person who looks like an alien with the neon paint dusted across their eyes. They tell Dennis they feel like that sometimes, like an alien, but when the blood runs from their nose it reminds them that they are still human.

Dennis wipes his own nose with the back of his hand and looks in the mirror. Mascara heavy eyes stare back at him. They are hollow and empty but it doesn’t matter because there is cocaine circulating through his system and feather light hands that are creeping up his side's. It makes him feel alive again.

His heels click against the tile floor. He watches his reflection like a hawk, poised and powerful, as the stranger kisses him loose and with force. He isn't entirely sure they were separate entities anymore when their reflections blend together behind his coked out eyes.

The night ends, Dennis drags his weary body down to the curb and sits with his head in his hands, watching the endless line of people pouring out of the club doors. He is heavy with the weight of the bodies and the drugs draining from his open mouthed stare. He spits on the pavement and looks up when the person from the bathroom offers him a baggie, a pick me up for later, they call it. Dennis takes it, puts it in his bag.

Confetti and glitter are spewing out of the black hole building, the lights are off and it’s deathly silent. The double doors are like Dennis’s drooping jaw, mouth hanging open like it’s structure is too tired to keep it shut.  

Dennis picks up a red streamer and puts it in his backpack beside the baggie.

-

Mac stands outside an old lady's door. He's  leaned up against the wooden beams of the front porch to stay out of the rain, keeping his eyes trained on the signs posted throughout the property that warns trespassers of guns tucked behind waistbands or of dogs that bark and claw at the window behind the woman. Upstairs Mac can hear a child screaming, the dogs whines accompanying it.

Mac’s dad speaks to the woman with hushed words, he bargains with her, demands more money for his time. Behind them a police siren cries out through the hollow guts of the city. It makes Mac uneasy so he squirms against the wooden post, crosses his arms tighter over his chest and tries to look taller. It was only a matter of time before they got caught again. His dad’s voice is getting louder and Mac begs him to talk softer in his head.

The old woman looks ugly, Mac thinks. Her skin is falling off of her bones and it’s patchy and discolored. Her lazy eye falls to the side of his father’s head as she tells him to get off her porch before she calls the police.

“Good for nothing hag,” his father mumbles, hands above his head, shielding himself from the rain as he jogs back out to the pick up truck.

Mac follows, climbs in the front seat and presses his hands against the warm air that’s pushed through the vents. The woman's husband pulls in behind them, the dogs bark again and so does his wife when he climbs out of his truck. She shouts something about how Luther's business is no good for him, it’ll run them into the ground.

Mac’s thinks his dad is an entrepreneur, thinks the auto garage company they had together was something to be proud of, like a family heirloom instead of a tax front. He launders in money from the meth business and tells his son they’re doing God’s will with each eight ball they sell. Mac believes him until he’s arrested that night. The police sirens had followed his scent all the way to that rotted porch, the old woman all but shoved them in the direction of his father.

Mac goes to Charlie’s house that night to  get drunk. He doesn’t expect Dennis and Dee to be there, their matching benevolent grins shadowed in the dim light. Dennis introduces them to acid tablets but won’t tell them where he got them from. He tells them it was a gift, a pick me up for later. Mac doesn’t argue, he just takes the tablet and lets it dissolve on his tongue.

It doesn’t sit well with him and a few hours later the walls are screaming blood red. The flames from the fire they lit in the backyard lick at his shins and pose as a threat. It makes Mac feel like he’s not completely there. He had felt too much too hard today anyway, it was nice to get away.

Charlie leans in a little too close to the fire, throws sticks at it, saying something about ghouls in the flames. Dee punches his shoulder and tells him he's tripping.

Dennis doesn't take any acid, he feels disconnected enough, doesn’t have any feelings that need forgetting. Instead he gets drunk enough that his stomach churns and he bends over, heaving into the bushes out front.

Mac is nearby, hovering, unsure how to help or if he should. Dennis stands up and wipes his mouth, he looks Mac in the eyes from across the yard and smirks. It's enough to make Mac’s breathes catch in his throat, to make him want to close the distance between them and run away all at the same time.

Mac thinks about those eyes when he goes to sleep that night. The acid makes blue and red patterns swirl above his bed. He forgets how his dad never even said goodbye to him, how he looked when he was dragged off in cuffs, red eyed and red wristed. The red and the blue on his ceiling made it all go away, twisted it until the images were unrecognizable and all that was left was Dennis smirking at him in the dark.

-

That was the last time they all hung out together as a group before high school ended. Dennis and Dee go to college and Charlie goes to work for the school custodian. Mac changes oil at a real automotive shop.

At college there is lots of parties and not a lot of studying. Dee stays on campus and Dennis hovers around dive bars and clubs down the street in the dark, away from the prying eyes of fathers and brothers who would kill him if they found out. He figures as long as it's not in daylight he can't get caught. In the dark they can’t tell it’s him because his guilt and shame is buried beneath layers of foundation and sculpted by his soft contour.

Tonight his head is held up high, his cheekbones stained with glitter and is nose shining with a white powder glow. His heels click on the sidewalk and he lets his hips sway back and forth in the skirt that clung to his thighs. He's always liked his thighs, slender and strong, womanly even. He feels womanly tonight, feels strong and powerful almost. The cocaine has numbed him head to toe so he can't think to hard about what he's doing or how he's dressed, it doesn't really matter because the drugs distort his image in the mirror and let him walk out like this anyway.

Dennis never feels ashamed of himself at night. He looks too good for that. Instead he waits for the sun to rise to pull the long string of guilt and anxiety up from his stomach, waits for the aftertaste of shame mixed with Absolut in the morning. When he's bent over the toilet and resting his blistering forehead on the cool porcelain, he knows his roommate wouldn't be congratulating him so much of he knew where he'd been.

He goes to a party on campus that night and dresses in his day clothes. He finds the hottest girl there and fucks her, buries himself in the perfect ass of a latina girl whose name he’d already forgotten. When she falls asleep in the stranger's bed, Dennis steals her earrings and leaves, remembering to leave cash on the nightstand for her cab (he's nothing but a gentleman).

On the other side of campus Dee studies, or she tries to. Things don't come easy to her like they do for Dennis. She has to work harder, fight for everything she ever wanted.

She fights for things like her mother’s approval and as a consequence she’s searching for it in everybody else. The only thing that comes easy to her is that girls lips in the back of a sorority house who tells her it’s a secret only between them. Dee doesn’t tell anyone, it doesn’t mean anything because every girl experiments and every girl has fun. Dee thinks sometimes she sees her mother in the girl, in the way she is always going back to her no matter how many times she is dismissed or overlooked, wanting the things she can’t have.

If her stomach coils into knots when she sees the girl with her boyfriend in the halls, that’s nobody’s business.

She walks down the street, trying to make it to the dorms in time for curfew. His chest is filled with heavy rejection but her lips are stained cotton candy pink, lipstick smudges all the way down her neck. It's dark outside, the orange glow of the street lamps bleed into the rolling blackness. Her fingertips that clutch her books tightly to her chest are numb and unfeeling, her nose is running and her cheeks are an angry wind whipped red. She walks as fast as her endless legs will carry her with her head kept down. She tries to keep herself invisible but that's hard to do when you're taller than the average man.

She gets catcalled. Fear rises in her stomach and she runs until her lungs feel like they might burst from her aching chest. She wonders why Dennis would want to be a woman so badly in a world that hates them so much.

-

Dennis doesn't get catcalled, but he thinks he wouldn't mind it compared to the throbbing of his skull. His head, lips, and nose are bleeding into the bathroom sink. There are bruises up and down his ribcage, red and angry ribbons of blood like confetti drip from every wound they gave him.

A skirt is on the floor in tatters and Mac helps him clean it up. He doesn't understand what happened here and he doesn't ask. He silently cleans up the broken bits of a necklace and sweeps the shredded fabric up off the floor.

“Are you okay?” Mac asks him, because he feels like it’s something he’s supposed to say.

Dennis had only invited him here once before, when he first moved in he was homesick and broken hearted. There was a mess of hands and lips and they hadn't spoken since.

Mac wishes Dennis had called someone else, wishes he’d called Dee so that way he wouldn’t have all these questions boiling beneath his skin like who was this girl in Dennis’s dorm and why was her stuff still here. Questions like that, jealous ones.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Dennis mumbles, careful not to touch his split lip as he wiped his face clean.

Mac hovers by the bathroom door. He winces when Dennis does, feels his pain in his empathetic chalk melted heart. Dennis ran careful fingers along his ribcage to check for cracks, letting out a sigh when he thinks he doesn’t find any. There’s something else broken in there but he never talks about, never mentions the emptiness pressing against the hollow of his throat at night.

“You can go,” Dennis says, and so he does, not sure what else to do but to obey, to do as he says.

Across the campus, Dee’s phone lights up with Mac's number telling her Dennis is acting weird, something's up. She takes the bus and if Dennis knew what that meant he would’ve appreciated the gesture more.

She clings to her sides as the vehicle sways with each pothole. A man with glowing eyes hidden beneath a grease slick beard stares her up and down and she has to fight the urge to vomit.

There's a hard knock at Dennis’s door and when she sees black and blue tumefying on his eyes she forgets about the glowering ones on the bus and hugs her brother. She hugs him so tightly and he never wants her to let go. It's so healing and warm and he never wants it to end. It's something along the lines of a deep feeling, a cutting into your soul and painting it black and blue to match your eyes type of feeling.

When she lets go the emotion is gone, but he feels it's remanence in his stomach like a coal smouldering on wet ground. It's been a long time since he's been anything but numb.

“What happened to you?” Dee asks, letting herself in, sitting on his bed and surveying the room. She sees his beat up sneakers in the corner and a dirty shirt but bunched up a mere foot from the hamper. It's just the right amount of clutter, so much so that it feels staged, like he's covering something up.

“This guy in the park jumped me, it was the craziest thing,” he says half heartedly, not too far a stretch from the truth. She doesn’t need to know he was wearing someone else’s dress or that the guy was his roommate.

“Why were you out so late Dennis?” she asks. “Curfew is like 9 o’clock.”

“I don't know, Dee.” He rubs his hands down the side of his face that isn't battered and beaten. He sighs, “But If you’re going to be accusing me of shit then just get out.”

Dee stands up, appalled with Dennis’s words, angry at all the barriers he sets up that she has to keep knocking down with heavy hands. “I am not accusing anyone of anything.”

“Bullshit!” he scoffs.

“Dennis,” she says, calm and composed all of a sudden. “Please just tell me the truth, I came all the way out here, just tell me what happened.”

He pauses like he’s really debating on admitting the truth. “I didn't ask you to come,” is all he says in return.

It's enough to make her leave, Dennis wants to live ashamed and afraid his whole life that's on him, she was just trying to help. He can hold an ice pack to his own damn cuts and scrapes, what does she need to get her hands cold for anyway?

-

College doesn't work. Nothing ever does for them. Dennis quits and moves back in with his parents when things get to hard, when life gets too complicated and all he wants is to just feel something simple and familiar so he goes back to Mac and Charlie. They huff glue under the bridge and throw rocks at trains. Dennis doesn’t mind it so much, doesn’t mind it when Mac gets so drunk he can’t stand up on two feet and Dennis has to carry him back to his house. Dennis mind, he just likes having somebody to sleep next to.

Mac isn’t soft like the latina girl. Her hair cascaded like waterfalls and her laugh was like rivers. Mac was more like a rock, sturdy, something to hold in his white knuckle grip. Dennis liked both of them, liked having sex and kissing both of them. It was a non-issue, but to Mac it was his whole life in jeopardy. He couldn’t risk this, couldn’t be gay because God would never do that to him.

Dennis found that life was a lot easier when you didn’t rest your fate in someone else’s hands. He doesn’t believe in God, thinks he is a God, that maybe God is a woman,

“Or maybe God isn’t anything at all,” he says to himself as he looks in his mother's mirror. Makeup is smeared across his lips and cheeks, he pulls back the places he thinks are undesirable, smooths his hand down his face and under his chin.

There’s footsteps coming from the hall but Dennis is too enamored to hear them. He can't stop wondering why the eyes in the mirror look like they don’t belong to him. They’re hollowed out and glimmering with a bittersweet cocktail of starvation and drugs. There is a hand on the door but Dennis doesn’t stop losing himself in the distorted reflection.

Dee looks at her brother with wide eyes, her heart stops cold in her chest because she’s not quite sure what she’s walked in on. She hasn’t seen him like this since they were kids, just ten years old playing dress up in their mom's clothes. Now they’re approaching mid twenties and it stops being a game when you become an adult.

“What are you doing,” Dee says, her voice hoarse and trapped in her throat. She isn’t horrified or disgusted, she just stares up at him, shell shocked and confused.

She sees lipstick smears in the same places  as she did last night, they were synonyms written in cherry red wax.

Dennis doesn’t look away from the mirror, he can’t. He doesn’t want to know whether she is looking at him like he is a freak in sheep’s clothing or if his sister is filled with something more sympathetic. He doesn't want to be subject to her pity or her rage.

“Dennis,” she whispers, as if the house is filled with prying eyes, as if they aren't home alone in this big empty and bloodless house. “What are you doing?”

He waits a moment or two before he answers, “I don’t know.”

His throat is cracked and dry and the words don’t come out quite right. He wants to run, wants to get sucked into this blackhole house and come out normal on the other side. He knows that won't happen, that things don’t come out right here, they get mixed up, buried and repressed in the backyard.

Dennis decides he can’t live like this anymore, can’t live in a house that’s so big and empty and lifeless, tired of seeing himself reflected in the walls and in his mother's mirror.

A few days later he asks Mac to help him find an apartment and when Mac shows up  a week later, kicked out of his parents house with nowhere else to go, Dennis lets him in and never asks him to leave.

Dennis and Dee never speak of that night ever again, they like things better that way -unspoken and unresolved. It never happened.

-

There’s stuff everywhere, it’s the first thing Mac notices.

It was only a month ago that the house was completely empty, in that time Dennis has filled it with picture frames and souvenirs. There is a couch that Mac sleeps on is much nicer than the bed at home was, there's a kitchen with a table cluttered with dishes and magazines, and there’s something on every shelf in the room. Dennis’s things overwhelm the apartment, it's too much.

Mac wants to clean, wants it to look organized, or have some semblance of order but Dennis screams at him everytime he tries to. Mac’s got this figurine in his hand and Dennis is just screaming at him to put it down.

“Jesus dude, I was just trying to clean up a little.”

“It’s not your place to clean, Mac!” His face is red and there is a vein popping out of his neck, Mac is afraid he is going to explode, blood and brain will be splattered all over the clutter.

Mac doesn’t like stuff, so Dennis lets him have his own room, lets him keep it as empty and vacant as he pleases.

Dennis looks at his own room, sees the shirts and shoes and things scattered everywhere in the tight space and it makes him feel like he’s just as full. When Mac is there, tossing and turning beneath the unmade sheets, Dennis feels something resembling whole. He can reach out and touch Mac and suddenly he feels like a person again.

Mac is a good distraction, Mac is a good lay, Mac is slowly becoming his best friend.

They’re watching movies on the couch when Dennis thinks he might be the only person besides his sister that he loves.

-

They buy a bar. Dennis first suggests it as a joke one night when they were a little too drunk and a little too out of their minds.

Dennis is sitting too close to Mac on the couch in the apartment. His breath smells like lemon flavored vodka and they vow to never buy it again because all it tastes like is lemon pledge and bleach.

“We drank too much, dude.”

“We drank so much, we should stop.”

“You know, if we had a bar we wouldn't ever have to.”

“Yeah, it's kind of the perfect excuse, you know.”

Mac can't tell if he's serious anymore because Dennis’s eyes drift off to the wall with the spider web cracks in it from when he threw his phone against the plaster. It shattered on the hardwood and they haven't spoken about it since, he just bought a new phone and let himself forget about it.

Mac can't forget though because the cracks are still there and sometimes he's afraid they're getting bigger despite how hard they try to ignore them. Sometimes when they kiss late at night, Mac looks over and sees God's face in its outline.

“Mac, lets open a bar together,” Dennis says because he's ignoring the fact that they don't have the experience or the money for this plan to make sense. He just pretends that this could all work and it's convincing enough for Mac to agree.

“Yeah,” Mac says, raising his fist clenched around a bleach filled shot glass. He tips his head back and drinks the bitter liquid because Dennis says “Cheers,” and it's kind of hard not to listen to every word that falls off that devil pronged tongue.

They tell Charlie and Dee the next day, they are not on board at first but when Dennis convinces them it's just one big excuse to get drunk all day they're all in. Nobody says anything about how maybe it's a little pathetic to be piss drunk at two in the afternoon on a Tuesday, they just open another beer and drown the concerns with it.

-

Dennis and Dee’s mother dies. They go to her funeral dressed in black with their dark sleepless eyes to match. Dee smirked to herself, crosses her arms and refuses to pay tribute. She refuses to accept condolences because she is nothing but ecstatic that the old bitch was dead.

She looks over at Dennis who’s face is expressionless. She thinks he might be more affected than he’s been letting on. Darling Dennis’s mommy is gone, mother dearest who loved him like a trophy on her mantle, gone and dead for eternity.

Dee was certain that if the woman could've had him taxidermied, stuffed to the skin like her dead dog, she would've have done it long before he left for college.

After the service Dennis looks, he swallows the nerves tangled up in his throat like wires and peers into the open casket. She looks like a dead person, he thinks. He reaches out to touch her and he discovers that she feels like a dead person, exactly how he thought she would. Her skin is thin, mostly from the plastic surgery but also on account of the lack of blood coursing through her empty veins. He'd've though she’d replaced all that blood with pills and wine by now anyway. She is pale and her body is unobtrusive and frail, he’s afraid she might disintegrate right before his eyes.

Dennis strokes her cheek and tells her she looks beautiful, begging himself to feel something because the first person who ever truly loved him was gone. He moves his hand out from the casket when Dee walks over and forces himself to tear up.

When he goes home that night he dresses up in a skirt and heels and goes to the club where he breaks down in the bathroom all by himself. He can’t think straight because all he sees in his head is his mother rotting way in the dirt, never to be seen again.

There is not enough drugs in the world that can fix this so instead of overdosing he goes home and sucks Macs’s dick until he sees stars.

-

They’re thirty years old when they have sex for the first time, real true sex, not just blind handjobs in the dark or sloppy alcoholic kisses. Mac wasn’t even drunk when it happened, he did it just because he wanted to, because he liked it. For three whole days he’s at peace with that until Dee says something about them being codependent, how they needed each other so bad and how that was so pathetic.

Fuck her, fuck what she thinks, who cares?

It turns out Dennis cares. They stop talking, stop seeing each other. It’s enough time to let that guilt back in and swallow him whole. He makes plans to go to church that Sunday because Dee is right, she is right, she is right, she is right. Him and Dennis are unnatural and wrong all the way down deep into their bones.

Mac spirals until he doesn’t, until Dee promises him a date with a large breasted woman so he thinks he’ll try that, it’ll get his mind off things. When the woman turns out to be Dennis he throws water in his face and feels the guilt spill out in his gut. He’s angry until his not because him and Dennis are best friends again and so what if he can’t go an hour without checking in?

He still goes to church that Sunday, still asks God to forgive him for all of his sins. Dennis let’s him pretend like he’s been absolved, because even though he doesn’t believe in God he still knows you need to show contrition for it to mean something. Mac has something bordering on the edge of imperfect contrition and it tips over the night that he ends up in his bed again, and the night after that one, it only stops when Mac sees Carmen again at the gym and he’s reminded of all the sick and wrong that is embedded in this lifestyle.

Dennis gets married and that's the final nail in the coffin.

-

Dennis gets married because it’s what he’s expected to do and Dee is angry at him for doing so. They fight about it and he tells her that  she’s just jealous because she’s never never been more alone in her life. Dee believes him and starts letting guy after guy into her bed and each time it feels more wrong than the last. Girls are supposed to experiment in college but she never finished her second semester, so she reasons with herself and goes to a gay bar down the street.

There is a woman who embodies light and magnetic energy. She pulls Dee onto the dancefloor, twists her short delicate fingers in Dee’s blond hair and brings her mouth to hers, with deft lips she makes Dee see color behind her eyelids.

In the light of her apartment, Dee can see that she’s older, mid thirties maybe. Her lips and hands make her experience known and Dee never wants it to end, it feels so good . She stays the night, their bodies stained blue from the moonlight pouring in through the blinds. The woman's short brown hair spreads across the bed sheets, laugh lines embed themselves into the corners of her mouth and you can tell that she has lived well.

Those hands are curled around Dee’s longer and more slender fingers, her grip tightens in her sleep, the steady beat of her pulse makes Dee’s eyes droop, makes exhaustion wash over her.

In the morning there is cab fare on the nightstand and an empty spot on the bed.

Dee panics because there isn’t a note and Dennis’s words are echoing loudly in her ears. She’s can’t get back home, she doesn’t know where she is, and she knows if she calls the woman or waits for her to get back that would only be nurturing dependency. The thought of being Dennis’d by Ben was hard enough, but now that it's actually happening, and with someone who she thought had a good time with, it’s almost soul destroying.

She pulls on her clothes and looks at a city map on her phone. She leaves the money on the night stand and pays for a bus fare herself. She can barely breathe between the two bodies she’s pressed against, they smell like fish and all she wants to do is get home so she can get this god forsaken lump out of her throat.

Back home there’s a message on her answering machine. She wipes her eyes and clears her throat, half heartedly pressing the play button. The woman's voice crackles through the speakers, she sounds muffled, hurried but still sweet and heavenly.

“Sorry I missed you this morning, I found the number you gave me so I hope this gets to you soon. There was an emergency at work, waitress emergency things, you know how it is.” The woman chuckles and Dee could cry with the relief blossoming in her chest. “Anyways, hope to see you again soon, give me a call back.”

She’d forgotten about writing her number on her wrist at the club, forgotten about the woman's words, “ I’ll do you one better, how about you just come back to my place instead .”

She cursed herself for getting so drunk and for listening to Dennis at all in the first place.

The woman was going to call her back, she was going to see her again, and that is a far cry from nurturing dependence.

-

She didn’t want to tell anyone but Charlie is right there, he’s drinking a beer to start the day, maybe he’s trying to get himself motivated, Dee doesn’t know. He’s right there and it's so quiet so she might as well fill it with something.

“I slept with a woman.”

“Hot.”

She hits him over the head.

“Fuck you,”

“What?” He truly can’t understand why she is so angry. He rubs at the back of his head and shrinks away from her, smiling slightly.

“It’s not like that Charlie, stop it.”

"Ok, sorry.”

“I really like her,” Dee says quietly, leaning over the bar and staring into the dark wood. “So please don’t tell anyone.”

She traces her finger along the wood rings and doesn’t look up to see him nod, she knows he won’t say a word if she doesn't want him to and it makes her feel bad that she isn't just as truthful with him. She almost feels bad when she doesn’t tell him he already knows who she is.

That same night they go out dancing and there’s soft and small hands grabbing at her waist. Charlie sits at the bar and flirts with the bartender, she’s not the waitress but they look similar and the drunk haze in his head makes her face blur. He kisses her in the back room and when he comes out ten minutes later he sees Dee kissing the woman, open mouthed and unabashed.

Charlie's heart sinks when he sees who it is. He's so angry and it's red hot in his blood. His thoughts are roaring, why is Dee kissing the waitress? Oh god, Dee is in love with the waitress and why her instead of me?

When they break apart he sees how happy Dee is and for some reason he can't find it in his heart to be mad at her.

Dee’s eyes search the room and fall back on his. Charlie gives her a thumbs up and they laugh at each other from across the dance floor.

-

Dennis gets divorced, he is bored of playing house. He’s bored of this game he’s playing with Mac too, because sometimes it's house with sweet on the tongue pet names and hours spent lying in bed with each other, and sometimes they play abusive relationship with broken bottles and sore throats from yelling so much.

They’re too old to be doing this so he plays an even older game and goes out to the clubs for the first time in years. He dresses in heels that make him feel ten feet tall. There are young people who look up at him with doe eyes and he remembers being that kid, lost and confused in the swell of bodies that look so different from anyone they’d ever met before. Dennis laughs at them and shakes his head, he sways his hips, shows them how it is done and walks out onto the dance floor -not as a man and not as a woman, but as an otherworldly being.

People, girls, boys, the in betweens and the not at all’s, they grab his waist and pull him in by the hair and meet with him on the lips and teeth. A familiar set of bright eyes glowing in the dark of the club leads him to the bathroom. There they fill their lungs with crack cocaine, pink rocks crackling on a metal spoon, their pupils dilate and now they are the size of the moon. Beside him, credit cards are cutting trails of white onto the counter and Dennis leans down at eye level with it because he just can't resist. He breathes in deep and he’s electric. He closes his eyes, face still bent down low on the counter, just letting it sizzle in the fire burning low in his stomach.

He’s there for a moment but then suddenly there’s blood running down his nose into his mouth. He reaches his fingers up to touch the warm thickness running down his lip but before he can process the lurid crimson underneath his fingernails, his vision goes black. His teeth crack against the metal counter and his head feels split open on the tile floor. He can hear shouting flowing in and out of his ear drums which scream angry and fierce. There’s the ringing of a phone and suddenly he’s out on the sidewalk bleeding into the dirty slush melting on the sidewalk.

“We shouldn’t have let her do that line,” someone says.

“He’s a grown up, he should know his limits. Right, Gem?” says another.

Gen shakes their head and replies, “They’re family, don’t be an asshole.”

The pronouns get mixed up in Dennis’ head and he can’t focus on anything as the darkness bleeds into his vision. He starts to think of those something years ago when he was sitting on this same sidewalk with his head bent in between his knees. He remembers Gem and the acid, the pick me up in a plastic baggie.

Nothing really ever changes, he realises. Nobody's ever really going to change because someday you're going to find yourself right back where you started with nothing to your name but a shitty dive bar and a family who won't remember your name in a year or two when you're gone. You're going to end up right back on that sidewalk choking on your own blood with a stranger who fucked you against a bathroom stall while you were out of your minds on cocaine because nothing will ever change and that's your only guarantee in life.

Dennis laughs into the cold unforgiving cement. He coughs up something thick and heavy and let’s the sound melt into the ambulance lights as he closes his eyes, thinking about how this must be what it's like to die. He thinks of his mom for a moment and wonders how similar they must look right now. He's loaded into an ambulance and he doesn't know.

-

Mac is there, he’s vaguely aware of that. There’s a machine beeping and green iridescent mountains and valleys are counting his heartbeat on a computer screen.

Nobody else is there but Dennis doesn’t care because Gem from the club is standing by the doorway in their purple velvet dress, their fishnets ripped and torn, they look worn out almost. They’re so tall and to Dennis they look like a building or a skyscraper. Their eyes are like a condominium with interior lights twinkling like stars in an expanding black pupil sky.

Dennis doesn't move in his bed and it makes Mac panic. What if he’s dead? What if he leaves him here all alone with nobody to love him anymore (he was certain Dennis was the only person who did). He’s so worried be barely sees the person brushing past his elbows as he leaves the room to call Charlie and Dee.

“How you doing, sugar?” Gem says sweetly, fingertips dragging down Dennis’s hollow cheeks. He groans, turns over, but it's enough to let them know he was alive.

It’s nice until Gem whispers an apology. Dennis doesn’t want them to be sorry, doesn't want to hear any of that self blame. He listens as they ruined this whole thing, ruins the anonymity of this with emotion and guilt.

“I'm so sorry I let this happen to you,” they say, turning to leave before Mac can walk back into the room.

-

He doesn't see much of anyone anymore

Dennis doesn't go to work or the club's, doesn't see Gem or the gang. He feels dirty and wrong for the first time in forever. A familiar heat creeps up into his head until it fills him with boiling hot shame. He can’t sleep at night simply because he’s so guilty, so he avoids everyone and hopes the remorse radiating from him in a thick fog isn’t too noticeable. Mac lives with him for Christ's sake but he still finds a way to make himself scarce.

He's a man living in fear, strapped down onto the stretcher with his heart torn open for the whole world to see. He's spiraling until he's not because Mac comes home one night and forgets to even pretend to go sleep in his own bed.

It's too dark to see anything but Dennis can hear the sound of Mac kicking off his shoes, the sound of a belt buckle being undone and the slide of shirt fabric against his skin. Mac sniffs a little, tosses his shirt to the floor by the closet door and carefully crawls in so he won't wake Dennis up.

Mac doesn't know that Dennis hasn't been able to fully sleep in such a long time.

Dennis feels Mac's leg brushing up against his, the game they play is getting so old but he goes along with it because Mac is like a radiator when his room has been an icebox. These past few days he's been so cold and he just wants to feel something warm and alive.

“Where’ve you been?” Mac whispers because he knows he's not sleeping. Mac knows him better than anyone, he can tell when Dennis is not well.

Dennis grumbled something inaudible into the pillow and rolls over onto his side away from him. Mac moves closer and presses his nose in the crook of his shoulder, breathes in deep because he thought he'd lost Dennis a few weeks back and he wants to savor every moment he has with him.

He wouldn't ever tell Dennis that because he’d say it's stupid, but he can't help himself, can't help the things he feels for him.

“Okay,” Mac says in defeat. He rolls over to his side of the bed and no matter how many blanket he manages to steal it's still too cold.

-

Dennis is so God damn confusing. Mac used to think he had him figured out but not lately. Not for the past few months when he stays in bed with heavy eyes all day or on the days that he does come into work he's completely emotionless. He doesn't participate in their schemes or call Dee a bird when the joke is right there in front of him. She's asking for it at this point, desperate to have her brother back.

Mac remembers when they broke Dee and he silently wonders what could’ve possibly broken Dennis. Mac thought he was untouchable, thought nothing would be enough to hurt him.

Mac lays in bed with him that night and doesn't even try to go to church the next morning, he doesn't get on his knees in front of the bed he’d slept in because nothing even happened, Dennis had pushed him away.

The morning after he’d frozen over in Dennis’s bed, instead of getting on his knees for God he gets down and prays to Dennis. He falls down on heavy bruised knees and prays with his mouth and his lips. It's so unholy and wrong but he'll do anything to get Dennis back. The prayer is finished and he leaves Mac alone on the kitchen floor with something sticky and bitter in his mouth and throat.

-

He’s thirty one, it’s only a day or two after his birthday, after Mac had given him a blowjob in the kitchen.

Dennis has a breakdown; he’s old and ugly now, well past his prime. When he looks in the mirror he sees no beauty or elegance, there is only age embedded in the wrinkles on his forehead and in the bags under his eyes. In a moment of spontaneous rage he throws out all of his dresses and his skirts because he’s just getting too god damn old for this and he's tired of all the shame that’s sewn into the fabric of them.

He throws away the lipsticks and blush but keeps the mascara as a souvenir. Busted heels poke out of the plastic trash bag and a satin crimson shirt is stuffed down to near the bottom so he can't try and fish it out (it was his favorite). He puts everything in there except for the crumpled and frayed piece of confetti which is stuffed in his sock drawer.

He tosses the trash bag in his closet with a mental reminder to throw it out later that night after work. He doesn’t plan on Mac being home early, doesn’t plan on him walking into his room to find the shirt he’d discarded the night before on his bedroom floor.

Mac bumps against the closet door, it opens and the trash bag falls out, it’s contents spill out onto the carpet and fabric the color of blood is pooling up by his ankles. He picks it up and the satin slips through his fingers, blood drips to the floor, Dennis’s deepest wound has been ripped open and exposed.

He doesn’t know how to react or what to make of it. His first thought is that it belongs to some one night stand but he knows Dennis makes sure those girls don’t leave anything behind ever, he doesn’t want to remember them, he makes sure of that, it  couldn't be that.

Mac imagines Dennis murdering hookers on the street and keeping their clothes as a trophy and he wouldn’t put it past him. It makes sense, in his mind. It’s why he’s been distant and removed, why he hasn’t been showing up to work. Dennis must be a murderer.

Except when Dennis comes home to find his clothes all over the floor it appears that isn’t the case at all. He shuts down in a way Mac has never seen him do before.

Mac sits at the kitchen table with a beer in his hand, his head bent down low. He tells him he knows and Dennis’s blood runs cold. He pictures Mac walking down the street, watching him dance in those clubs, pictures his eyes trailing down the dress that hangs over his hips, imagines him hearing the click of his heels on the sidewalk. Mac must’ve seen him and oh God he must hate him.

“Dennis, I know, I know-” He keeps saying it and Dennis can’t stand to hear it anymore.

He falls heavily onto the couch with his head buried in his hands. A lump climbs deep into his chest, he swallows and swallows but now it stuck to the columns of his throat and he can't get it out. He can hear the legs of the chair scrape against the kitchen floor and he can feel Mac sitting down next to him, the weight of his body shifting on the worn cushions.

The silence makes him want to scream just to fill the air with something but suddenly Mac speaks and he braces for the worst, “Dennis do you kill people?”

It's not at all what he was expecting and Mac asks it so seriously Dennis cannot help but smile. He pushes out a laugh through a breath of relief and shakes his head.

“Oh my god Mac, no,” he says and Mac laughs along with him after a moment. “Despite what you all think I’m not a serial killer or a psychopath or whatever, Jesus Christ man.”

He watches Mac’s face twist in confusion and Dennis realizes he’s going to have to explain himself because Mac doesn't know, he doesn’t know and he shouldn’t know but here he is on the verge of finding out and he has to say something before Mac starts creating his own narrative again.

“So then, who’s is it. Is it Dee’s?”

It would be so easy to just say yes, to just put all the blame on his sister and never suffer any of the consequences. It’s so easy that he can’t resist it so that’s what he says. He says Dee was just dropping some of her stuff off and forgot to come back and get it.

Dennis doesn't believe in God but he still prays that if Mac asks Dee later on she will just go with it.

-

The girl breaks up with Dee and Charlie is there to scoop up her broken and heaving body. She tells him to go but he won’t, he just holds her until she stops shaking. The woman was the only person who was ever going to love her, the only one who was ever going to stand her. Charlie gets that, he understands it so much it hurts so he pulls her in tighter and cries too.

She’s his soulmate of pain and they hurt together. They fall asleep in her bed and Charlie doesn’t leave in the morning. His presence doesn't fix everything but it’s nice to have him there anyway.

In Dennis’s apartment the bag full of clothes is still shoved in the very back of his closet. He takes it out when he’s sure nobody is home, puts on a dress or a skirt and stares at himself in the mirror, criticizing every sharp edge and loose line.

He still hasn’t gone back to the club and he doesn’t ever intend to, doesn’t want to be the thirty something year old man in a dress there.

The gang has too many beefs, they decide. It was a stupid idea to try and fix them, Dennis knew that, and even though he didn’t like the thought of inviting so many people into his space he suggests it anyway because he wants everything back to normal. He wants to watch the game and eat sandwiches on his couch, wants everything to be how it was back then because he’s only getting older and the rate he’s going he doesn’t really know how many years he’s got left.

Throughout the dinner he can’t stop thinking about the clothes in the trash bag, just sitting there waiting for somebody to discover them. His eyes drift off to his bedroom door and sometimes he thinks he can hear it calling his name, teasing him in the most unfair way, telling him somebody's going to find out.

He’s so filled up with guilt it feels like it’s bursting from his open seams and tainting everything in the apartment. Suddenly every memory comes flooding back to him and they’re all guilty and chalk full of shame; the lipstick smear on the bathroom wall and the confetti in his sock drawer that sits alongside the tapes that capture every meaningless encounter he’s ever had. In the kitchen there’s the memory of bruised knees hitting the title and hands gripping the wood of the table, his head thrown back whispering his name while Mac is mumbling Hail Mary’s under his breath.

It’s too much, so when the fire starts he’s almost relieved to have it all gone, a weight lifted off his slight shoulders. They didn’t squash their beefs, instead they burned them alive. Dennis screws his apartment door shut because somehow it’s better to pretend like things never happened then to confront them head on. It’s better to let the clothes in his closet burn, to let the fabric smoulder and turn to ash.

He doesn't feel a shred of guilt when he walks away from the smoke pouring out of the cracks in the door, just closes his mouth and begs his eyes to stop watering as they all run towards the exit.

They all stand side by side, watching the apartment be engulfed by the flames. The fire has swallowed up the curtains and charred the wood of the table. They watch as bodies drop onto the fire escape, faces black with soot and hair burning at the root fall like rotting leaves on a dying tree, tumbling towards the ground to decompose on the pavement.

Dennis doesn't feel anything as he watches the fire twist around the frames of his windowsill. He imagines his whole dresser set on fire and his mattress burning down to the springs. All of his guilt and regrets whittled down to a few bare pieces of metal and smouldering embers.

That night Dee let's Mac and Dennis stay at her house. She says it's just for that one night but she doesn't say anything when they're still there the next day.


-

Living with Dee was a blessing and a curse, but mostly a curse. It's made Dennis more secretive if anything because he finds new ways to continue dressing in women's clothes. At first he thought it would stop him from dressing as a woman all together, that it would quell whatever desire he had inside of him to do so but just like when he lived at home with his parents he could never manage to suppress it. Whatever he’d left behind those burning doors would always come back to him, no matter how hard he tried to let go.

Three days after the fire they rummage through the wreckage to find something salvageable. Mac manages to find a few shirts that were just barely touched by the flames. He smells like fire for the next week until he finally caves and buys new clothes.

Dennis found the stupid piece of confetti, now just a sliver of burned up red paper. He keeps it anyway, stuffs it in his pocket as he sifts through the broken and burned rubble.

He finds his satin shirt stuck in between the melted plastic of the trash bag and a wooden beam. He puts it in with all of his other stuff and doesn't let anybody see him take it. When he gets back to Dee’s apartment he washes it in the sink, he scrubs it until his knuckles match the crimson fabric from the hot water. He wears the shirt late at night but he doesn't look in the mirror when he puts it on, just closes his eyes against the feel of it on his skin.

Sometimes he wears Dee’s clothes, she knows but she won’t ever say anything. They tiptoe around each other all day until both of them thinks the other has forgotten. When Dee finds another shirt missing she doesn’t wonder who’s to blame and Dennis pretends like he doesn't know it had gone missing. It never happened.

But late at night when there isn't satin pressed against his skin, Mac is there instead. There's an old mattress laid out in the floor for them and Dennis pretends to sleep on the couch while Mac just lays there waiting for him, the sheets pushed aside in a space shaped just like his body.

Mac is a light sleeper, Dennis knows this. He lays his head on Mac’s chest and listens to his heartbeat quicken everytime there's a noise he isn't used to. Dennis doesn't try and snap him out of it like usual because if he was telling the truth he can't sleep here either. His eyes stare blankly at the front door like he is waiting for the light out in the hall to turn hot and burn them alive.

Dennis rides the rise and fall of Mac's labored breathing until the sun cracks through the blinds and warms their cold exposed skin. He creeps back up onto the couch and stares at the door, pretends to be asleep when Dee comes out to make coffee.

Sometimes he's so tired he isn't pretending anymore.

-

Dennis is thirty two years old now and is still living at Dee’s. There is no privacy in this house anymore and Dee doesn't try and stay out of their business because it's everywhere. Mac and Dennis’s things, their clothes, their shoes, it's everywhere. She cannot get away from them.

They cannot coexist in this small space and Dennis makes that known. He makes sure they all know how horrible and abhorrent her apartment is, how terrible it is to live with such animals, no, such savages .

He's going off the rails and even though everyone can see it they’re all still too afraid to say anything. Nobody likes change and nobody likes admitting they have a problem. So his behavior is dismissed, dusted under the rug until they’re all choking on the grime floating in the air around them.

“You people are despicable,” Dennis growls from inside the bathroom.

Mac and Dee sit on the couch, Dee is flipping through a Magazine while Mac laces up his boots on the coffee table like Dee has told him a hundred times not to do.

“There's no hot water,” Dennis says in the doorway, robe tied around his waist, a towel wrapped tightly over his head.

“And?” Dee says, eyes never leaving the book in her hands.

“Christ, Dee. I dunno, how about you pay the water bill on time?”

She scoffs, “It's got nothing to do with that. Mac's the one taking a forty five minute shower, be mad at him.”

Dennis is angry, the temperature of his blood is enough to boil his bath water and have enough leftover to make tea. The colors of Dee’s apartment are tainted red and all he sees is confetti ribbons lying on curbs.

“That is unacceptable Mac. You don't need a forty five minute shower, no man on this entire goddamn planet has ever been dirty enough for a forty five fucking minute shower!”

He says things like this until the colors drain from his face and he can breathe again. Things go on like this until one day he says he feels nothing.

Mac doesn't know what to do or how to react to it, he never really does. He just watches Dennis fake it, watches as he laughs a little too loudly and as his smile never ever reaches his eyes anymore. It's like he's not even human anymore.

“Dennis please talk to me,” Mac says one night from the mattress.

Dennis is on the couch, staring up at the ceiling and waiting for his heart to grow numb like his finger tips.

“I can't feel my fingers,” he whispers.“‘M not sure if im alive anymore.”

Mac doesn't know how to respond so he just rolls over and tries to sleep, let's Dennis think he could freeze over completely for all he cared.

The next day Dennis smiles at Mac and acts like he didn't say anything at all, like he didn't just confirm all the things Mac had been afraid so of. Dennis goes along with their schemes like normal and even then you can tell a piece of him is missing.

The next night he still feels nothing so while Dee is out Mac kisses him and presses him into the mattress, he makes him feel in the places that it really counts.

-

Dennis gets diagnosed at thirty eight years old. The gang figures if he's going to pretend it's not real then so will they. They throw his pills out alongside him and drag him down into the dark where he can give himself in to the vacancy in his heart. They're aiding and abetting his disease but he can't do anything to stop them, can't ask for help because he's so far past that by now.

Dee tells Charlie he threw out his pills because he's her soulmate of pain and who else is she going to tell?

Dennis’s anger is solicited without a screaming match to light the flame. He just burns constantly and when he's not burning he is a pile of rain soaked coals. Mac suffocates the fire beneath his lips some night but other times it gets too hot. Dennis is too angry, he's too sad, he's too complicated, he’s feeling too much and then not at all. It's like the heart monitor in the hospital room where there are green neon lines running up and down in quick succession and then out of nowhere he's flatlining.  

Dennis is losing control and he can feel it, he can see it in the way his reflection hangs in the mirror and the way he feels like he’s melting into the sidewalk on his way to work. He feels like negative space, like neutrality in the flesh. He is wasting away and there is nothing anybody can do to stop it.

-

Charlie watches everyone around him age, watches them all grow older while he feels like he’s twenty three years old still. He is almost forty years old with no aspirations. He doesn’t feel the need to move out of his filthy apartment or get a new job, he loves the life he has even if he's the only one content with it. Mac, Dennis, Dee; almost everyone except for Frank wants to move on. He feels like the only one who is perfectly fine right where he is.

Dee stops coming over and Charlie knows it’s because she is tired of being his soulmate in pain, she’d rather be his friend then keep things the way they are.

Charlie’s falling behind, not even bothering to play catch up because he knows they will never really change either. Charlie knows better than anyone that they’re stuck in their ways and there’s no use in pretending otherwise.

At the bar, Mac and Dennis fight again. Charlie watches them crowd into a corner, the beer in Dennis’s hand hits the wall and shatters down by their feet. Mac growls something about him being out of control, something about him being over this, they’re done. Dennis yells back that he’s glad to be free from him.

Charlie knows a lot about them, when they think everyone has left the bar but Charlie is still behind finishing Charlie work. He’d been mopping up rat blood in the basement when he saw them kiss for the first time, he’d gone upstairs to get a new mop and there they were leaning across the bar to get to each other, Dennis almost falling over into him because he was so drunk.

Mac winced a little because Dennis tasted sour, tasted like the lime on his tongue that was stinging the bites on the insides of Mac's cheeks. Salt, drink, lime, he’d say and Mac would reply, I’m sorry but just not getting it . Dennis would take a another drink and Mac would smirk in his place behind the bar. Dennis looked back up at him with that smile that could plant stars in the daylight and Mac decides to finally get him back for it with his hand tangled in his hair and his tongue that tasted the bitterness of Dennis inside and out.

Mac only kissed him because he knew neither of them would remember. He hadn't planned on Charlie being there to remember though. He made eye contact with him when they broke apart, he watched him witness everything that was supposed to be secret. Mac kissed him again. Maybe he wanted Charlie to find out, maybe he wanted it to just be over, already so tired of waiting for the ball to drop he wanted to cut the chord himself.

Charlie didn't say anything that next day, or any day after. He is good at keeping secrets in that way.

He knows so much, things he never gets credit for. He knows how Dee fell in love with a woman, how she fell hard and fast and got so bruised up so badly along the way. He knows how Dennis sometimes feels like a woman but Mac is in love with the man.

Today, he sits at the bar. He is watching Dee count the cash in the register, watching her pocket some of it to buy more cigarettes that they will share together when she runs out of money from Dennis. He watches Mac storm off, leaving Dennis red faced and heavy breathed. He even sees Frank in the office through the crack in the door, he watches him punch numbers into his computer, calculating how much time they have until they run the business into the ground.

He sees their lives around him move with discordance, inharmonious chords that are entangled within each of their lives. Charlie knows better than any of them that this is who they are, and this is how they will always be.

-

Dennis and Dee get high for the first time in years it feels like. There is crack bubbling up in the pipe that they hold it to their lips with shaking hands. They breathe in through heavy lungs and a breath of relief is released through the smoke on Dennis’s exhale.

He coughs and passes the pipe to his sister. They’re sitting on the floor in front of the couch, heads bent back onto the cushions behind them. Dee tosses the pipe to the side and switches to the amber liquid in color tinted glass. She swirls the brandy around inside the bottle and takes a drink so big she nearly chokes. She doesn’t quite know what she’s trying to forget, she thinks maybe that means she’s already forgotten.

Dennis drinks so much his makeup runs. There is black clumps of mascara running down his cheeks in dried trails and Dee licks her thumb so she can swipe it across his face. Dennis is so far gone he doesn’t try and dodge her hand or protest to it.

He falls asleep on the ground next to Dee and when he wakes up his body reminds him just how old he is. For the next few days he stays in bed recovering, nursing the endless hangover with orange juice and tylenol. That night he begs Mac not to touch him, that’s how horrendous he feels.

The worst part isn't the ache in every crevice of his skin or the way his bones hung heavy or how his stomach swam with withdrawal. The worst part is waking up right back where they started ten years ago. They never learn and they never will. Dennis is beginning to think that if he can't ever see himself getting out of this endless whirlwind cycle then maybe he really does need help. He sees himself dying this way and he knows something's not right.

“I want to be young again,” Dennis tells Mac one night.

The tv is on and neither of them are very invested. Mac is curled into the arm of the couch, eyes drooping so Dennis can tell he is barely awake.

“Hm?” he mumbles, swaying his head to look at Dennis through tired eyes.

“I wanna be young again man. I'm tired all the time, I look like shit. ’M too fuckin’ old.”

Mac hums, allowing a lazy smile to work over his drowsy features when he gives Dennis a once over just to appease him. “Look fine to me,” he slurs through a slack jaw.

Dennis smiles, leans in real slow just because he wants to savor this moment. He wants to take a mental picture or whatever it is people do when they love something. In the dim light of their apartment he can see Mac's eyes are dark and they shine with love and fear and maybe even hope. Mac does feels hope because Dennis’s hand is on his cheek and now he's sighing into him with an open mouth grin.

Mac knows Dennis is getting older but that's what he likes about him. He likes that he's starting to settle down, finding all the ways he can smooth himself out, all the ways to feel content with just being okay.

Mac kisses him back and they’re having sex on the couch. They’re pressed up so close against each other Dennis thinks at some point he stopped being his own person and absorbed a part of Mac. They kiss and fuck and kiss until Mac feels himself drifting off to sleep to the feeling of Dennis’s pulse in the palm of his hand on his chest. They fall asleep on the couch together and for once everything is okay. They're just okay, maybe even below average, but they're okay together on the sofa with shitty cartoons flickering across their lax faces. For once they don't want anything more than that.

-

Mac is almost forty years old when he goes to his first gay club. It's loud and there are bodies like a pulse vibrating in the otherwise hollow building, Mac thinks it reminds him of Dennis’s own veins pressed against him the other night. He quickly finds himself pressed against hard bodies and strong hands, the colored lights reflect off the man's sweat slick skin and it makes everyone look alien. Mac feels out of place here, like he doesn’t belong.

There is a man soaked in blue and green lights, he is not Dennis, but he is sturdy and sure of himself like him. Mac forgets all about sin and absolution, he forgets about the hours spent in confessional running his voice raw just trying to get the guilt out with jumbled up and well meaning prayers. He dances with the man until he's lost himself in the sway of their bodies and he moves on to another, like he’s trying to make up for all those lost years in one night.

Mac stays out until his legs won't support his body anymore and he's had so much to drink the lines between consensual and nonconsensual begin to blur. Mac doesn't know if he wants this man to be pressing him so hard and fast against the bathroom stall, isn't sure if he's comfortable with the feel of a stranger's tongue in the places only Dennis has touched. His heart is in his throat because this is not familiar, he doesn't know this man and he's not ready to be touched like that by somebody he doesn't know.

Suddenly he can't breathe and it's all too much.

He misses him. He knows he shouldn't but he does and he hates himself for it. He misses Dennis so he pulls himself away from the stranger with a half hearted apology and races out of the bathroom doors. He pushes through the racing pulse of the club and inhales sharply with the sting of cold air. He’s bent over his knees and he can see his breath as he watches himself exhale in quick succession. The walk home is the loneliest he’s felt in a long time. The wind bites at his exposed shoulders (he needs to get shirts with sleeves), the wind whips at his skin and the lacerations turn him red all over. He is freezing and alone and every person he passes can definitely see the hands and lips that had been all over him tonight.

The club wasn't bad, is the thing. He had fun, he had the time of his goddamn life because for once he was indulging in something just because he could. The guy he danced with wasn't bad either, if Mac was being perfectly honest, the guy was hot as hell. He just wasn't Dennis.

Mac wants familiarity, something he can look at and be certain about, something safe and warm and something that knows and accepts him for who he is. He doesn't want to have to change for someone, doesn't want to have to pretend to fit their mold because he's done so much of that already.

At forty years old Mac is not looking for change, he's just looking for Dennis, but when he gets home that is not who he is greeted with.

When Mac opens the door he sees familiarity wrapped in foreign fabric and painted in gold shimmering eyeshadow. Familiarity with jewelry that dangles from its ear lobes and thin wrists. The silver and gold plated metal gets caught in the dim light of Dee’s apartment as familiarity tilts its head in the mirror to see Mac staring back at him.

Mac is frozen still by the door. He can’t make sense of the scene unfolded in front of him.

Dennis looks at him from the mirror, sees his confusion wrapped around his face in the glass reflection. He reaches an aristocratic finger out to touch the mirror and swipes it across Mac's face as if to keep him from seeing this. Dennis drops his finger and smooths his hand down his dress, he starts by his chest and works all the way down his hips. His hands are shaking and his whole body trembles with nerves so he turns away from Mac's face to look at his own. He studies his features carefully like he’s trying to see what Mac must be seeing right now. There’s black stains under his eyes from where his eyeliner must have smudged, lipstick keeps his lips stuck together, keeps his words from coming out. He looks weathered, dark crescent moons below his eyes are covered up with a layer of concealer but there are things he cannot hide like the way his skin hangs with age and a lifetime of bad memories. A lifetime of bad experiences that tells him he’s about to get his ass kicked right now.

“I look like my mother,” Dennis laughs bitter and sharp, he watches as Mac winces at the sound, watches him inspect his body from the other side of the room.

Mac blinks, snaps himself out of his daze so he can take his hand off of the door knob and shut it all the way. He presses his back against the wood as if Dennis is a monster and he has him cornered.

That's not the case at all though. Mac is taking the time to take him -or her, or whatever- to take all of it in. He sees the way Dennis shakes and he wants him to be steady like he always is. Dennis is always the one in charge, is always in the lead, the one with more experience and more willingness. He is commanding and authoritative but is also gentle and patient when he needs to be, when Mac is shaking underneath him the first time they have sex and when Dennis is letting him calm down and take a deep breathe before they even begin.

Mac remembers how nervous he had been to be so open in front of somebody. He remembers feeling his insides twist at the thought of Dennis seeing him like that, and maybe that's what it's like for him right now. He's out in the open, caught, exposed, however you want to put it. Mac can't just sit there and wait for Dennis to take the lead this time because he's shaking so badly and he doesn't try and move towards him or smirk wild and feral like he normally does.

When Mac thinks he sees tears in the mirror he swallows his nerves and walks over towards the person he’s loved since he was twenty six years old. He's known Dennis almost his whole life and nothing about that has changed. He might not recognize the figure in front of him, but he knows Dennis is in there somewhere, that much he does know, so he starts with that.

Mac starts with the familiarity of Dennis’s hands, one of the only parts of him not covered in makeup or clothes right now. They shake so hard Mac has to wrap his cold fingers around them to keep them still. Dennis’s eyes are still focused on his reflection and the tears are starting to spill over his rose colored cheeks. He lets Mac take hold of his hands and run them down his body just as he had done to himself moments ago.

Mac starts with the sharp edges and jagged lines of his body, this body that he has come to know so well over the years, that has gradually changed with age but one that he could map out every scar and every freckle in the dark. Mac knows Dennis’s body like his own so he starts with that. He might not be able to understand all the ways that Dennis is broken and burned on the inside but outside he is so familiar it's begun to feel something like home.

Mac meets Dennis’s gaze in the mirror again, turns him around slowly, breaking his one man staredown. Mac removes his hands and looks at Dennis, pours over every detail, everything that is new and everything that is old. He came here looking for familiarity but instead he got Dennis, and if Dennis can love Mac for all that he is then Mac can try and do the same.

Mac wants to say something, wants his throat to stop feeling like the way burnt rum feels when it’s sliding all the way down into the pit of his stomach. So he’ll clear his throat and try to speak, not promising himself that something will come out.

“You um-” he mumbles, it’s soft and breathy but he still tries, even if he doesn’t know what he should be saying. He’s at such a loss and despite the fact that he is trying to be the one who is steady and anchored, he still feels like the one that is floating at sea.

Dennis looks up at him with wet and shining eyes, he thinks his chest has collapsed while he is sitting there waiting for Mac to say something.

“You're different,” is all he ends up saying, and Dennis wants to yell at him, wants to scream something like yeah no shit, dumbass, but he doesn't. He just stands there and forgets how to breathe.

“Yeah,” Dennis says through a wet laugh and Mac laughs too because it's all he can do to keep from running away. “Good different though, right?”

“Yeah,” Mac breathes out, surprising them both. “It's good, you're good.”

He loves Dennis, however and whenever and wherever. That night they don't kiss or have sex or do much of anything at all. Mac lets him get undressed and they lay down on the mattress on the floor. They pull the covers up to their shoulders and Dennis doesn't feel so numb tonight. Everytime he feels Mac shiver he presses in closer, he was so filled with light and acceptance he could be warm for the both of them.

When he asks Mac if this was too weird he tells him it was, but it’s nothing he can’t try and get used to, it’s nothing he couldn't adjust to.

-

Mac walked in on him. Mac had caught him red laced and shaky handed. Mac knew and yet there he was still when Dennis woke up the next morning and the morning after that.

Nothing had changed really, even when they moved out of Dee’s house and bought back their apartment together. Nobody had told them they needed to get separate places, nobody said they couldn't still live together after almost twenty years of doing so.

Dennis decides to celebrate by going to the club.

As he gets ready his nerves burn with anxiety. His hands are shaky and he smudges the cat eye that took him twenty years to perfect. Mac is in the other room trying to button up the only fancy shirt he owns. He's nervous because he's only been to a club once and he doesn't want Dennis to see him like that, doesn't want him to see him for the quivering pathetic mess that he is.

They meet in the living room and Mac forgets about his worries for a moment because Dennis looks comely in the soft light of their apartment. Mac stares at him from his bedroom door, afraid to move because he doesn't want to disrupt the feeling that flows through the air between them in currents.

“Wow, um.” Mac doesn't know what to say, doesn't know how to respond because if Dennis was a woman he would call him beautiful and if he was a man he’d call him handsome, but Mac doesn't know what to say to somebody who is both of these and neither.

Dennis chuckles, low and sonorous, he shifts tentatively so that the floorboards creak beneath his heels. There are velvet shoe straps that rise up to meet legs exposed in a slit in the dress, Dennis’s thigh is on display and Mac doesn't really know how to feel about it, he doesn't know if it's more so sexy or funny so he just stares at him.

The tension is unbearable so Mac takes a deep breath, he swallows his pride and walks forward. He brushes his hand against the gold loops that cradle the sides of Dennis’s hard lined face, he slides nervous fingers from the jewelry to his jawline, sharp and familiar. “Nice earrings,” is all he says.

Dennis laughs again because he's just as unsure of himself and says, “Thank you.” He looks Mac up and down and gently smooths over the lapels of his shirt. “Is this new?”

“Yeah,” Mac chuckles, standing back to show it off. “Florals not really my thing but-”

“No, floral is definitely your thing man,” Dennis says, and they are back to normal. Mac smiles and all he sees is Dennis, real and in the flesh.

When they finally get to the club there are bodies glowing on a runway and low lights illuminating the way everyone wears their pride on their chests. Dennis watches them from the entrance, he judges Mac’s reaction, trying to decipher whether or not this is too much of a culture shock. Mac is trying to adjust but he clings to Dennis’s side like a lifeline because he still doesn’t know how to react to all the openness and freedom exhibited here. A woman is licking inside someone's mouth and a drag queen’s voice fills the room, Mac doesn’t see it but she is elegance and grace, she is beautiful. Dennis feels beautiful too, he feels ignited and good and all the things he’s been begging to feel all these years.

Here in this club is where they don’t shy away from who they are, here is where they are embraced and loved by people and aliens alike. Dennis has a smile plastered on his face that feels three miles wide when he surveys the room. Mac thinks maybe he can get used to this if it makes Dennis this happy.

Everybody is going in slow motion and is simultaneously going faster than Dennis’s brain can register. Tonight he is clean. Tonight he doesn’t need to do drugs to make himself feel like this is okay. He just takes Mac’s hand and spins him around on the dancefloor. There are neon lights to match the colors painted on Dennis’s eyelids and lips and everywhere he kisses Mac he leaves a red stain.

Mac watches as Dennis spins on a cliff's edge, he watches him spin and spin until his head is dizzy and wild with words and wandering hands. Mac watches Dennis kiss a stranger. He watches with jealousy burning low in his stomach and suddenly he doesn't care that he has been pushed so far out of his comfort zone tonight. Suddenly he doesn't care and he's jumping off the cliff too with his eyes shut tight and his mouth open wide. He's kissing Dennis hard enough to make the stranger's hands and lips and tongue disappear.

Together they're free falling in the middle of the dance floor and they kiss harder when the music pouring through the speakers in the ceiling starts to pick up the tempo. There's an explosion of sound and light and warmth pooling in their guts and escapes their lips in a sigh. Dennis’s thumb is pressing into his cheek and he whispers words that sound like “I love you,” against Mac’s lips.

When they get home that night there isn't even a thought of separate beds. Dennis is curled into Mac, wide awake with his head lying against his chest. There is a streak of glitter right down the center and across the top of of Mac’s ribcage, painted to look like a defiant cross. The pink sequins stuck to his skin were gleaming in the heat of the spotlight while they danced that night and when the drag queen declared him gay Jesus he didn't even pretend to be offended.

Dennis picks at the glitter paint that dries in clumps and tries to ignore the way he can hear his heart beating in the silent room.

Mac is the one who breaks the silence. “What do you want me to call you?” he asks. He's been so afraid to say anything because he doesn't know what the right thing to do or say is. He wants to be there for Dennis but he has no idea how.

Dennis just laughs and Mac is beginning to resent it. He doesn't understand what's so funny, doesn't know what there's to laugh at. He squirms a little beneath Dennis, getting a little self conscious because he knows he isn't educated in any of this, knows he's saying all the wrong things and Dennis must think he's the biggest idiot in the world.

He does think that. He does think Mac is a huge dumbass but that's what makes Dennis laugh even harder.

“What do you mean?” Dennis asks.

“Like-” Mac stops and starts, stutters and tries again. He doesn't know. “Dennis, I don't know what I'm doing.”

Dennis shifts beneath his arms and leans in closer. “You don't have to do anything, Mac. You know us, you know how we are. Everything can stay the same as before, okay?”

“But don't you want this?” Mac asks, gestures to the air around them, to the hours before to the woman assumed to be trapped in a man's body. “Don't you want to be a woman? Because that kind of requires change and shit, means we gotta do something about it.”

Dennis sits up so he can see Mac clearly. “No, I don't want to be a woman you asshole.” he says, trying to keep himself patient and understanding how Mac knows he can sometimes be. What he doesn't know is that Dennis is just as lost as he is. “I don't know what I want to be, you know. I'm not a man, I’m not a woman. I'm nothing at all, so nothing has to change ‘cause I don't want anything to change.” This is the first time Dennis has spoken any of these words out loud and he feels like the ends of his fingers are on fire with nerves. “I'm just nothing, alright? I'm nothing and I guess I'm okay with that,” he trails off, feeling relieved and scared all at once.

Mac still isn't getting it. “So you mean you don't want to get like a-” he stops again to find his words, hand gestures spinning in a roundabout way- “ like a sex change or whatever.”

Mac feels a fist jarringly collide with the center his chest and he heaves a little with the good natured force of it. “Ow dude, what the hell-”

Dennis slides back down to his chest, fitting himself back beneath the arm that holds him, grounded. “If you don't shut the fuck up right now, I’m gonna make you.”

Mac stops and smiles like a “ You wanna bet?”

And so Dennis wagers his lips against his.

-

 

Dennis is forty years old when he is finally okay.

He starts taking his medicine. He drives down to the pharmacist and they refill his prescription. The girl he’d manipulated all those years ago still works there and she smiles down at him with a sad sort of look in her eye, one that says she knew there must've been something wrong with him. He takes the paper bag from her and gives a half hearted smile back.

In his car he swallows the pills dry and has to call his doctor twice a week sometimes because they make his head spin.

Mac calls him beautiful on the days that he feels like he truly is, calls him handsome on the days that he feels like he is not. They still sometimes go out to clubs together and they're always dressed exactly how they want to be. Dennis towers over him in his heels and Mac likes it when he has to stand on his tippy toes to kiss him.

Dee doesn't try and call the woman anymore. She doesn't look for love that her mother never gave her because that's not the kind of love she needs anymore. She works on loving herself, on finding it in the friends that did stick around, friends like Charlie who let her cry until the color drained from her face and she could start to feel good again. She accepts that she doesn't have to love him in the way everybody tells her too, works hard to learn that too.

They sit on the roof of Mac and Dennis’s apartment. Charlie, Dee, Mac, Dennis, and Frank. They all sit with their legs hanging over the edge of the building, staring out into the bleeding heart of Philadelphia. Their lips are stained purple from the wine in a can and Dennis thinks he might have to quit drinking with all the meds he's on (he never does).

Everything looks beautiful from up here. The smog blankets over the tops of every building, the sunset stains the grey with a scorching red and a screaming yellow like a slow burn flame that engulfs the whole city. They think of the fire that was here years ago, Dennis thinks about how he wanted everything to burn that night so he could just start over again. He thinks about how what he really wanted was for everything to be the same again.

So tonight nothing changes. Tonight Mac holds Dennis’s hand, Charlie and Frank crush their wine cans and throw them ten stories below just to hear the aluminum clatter onto the sidewalk. Tonight Dee watches, observes them all just like Charlie's done a thousand times and she smiles a purple wine stained grin.

Down in the street below there's red confetti doing pirouettes in the wind. It slipped from Dennis's coat pocket when they were climbing up the fire escape. He watched it drift down the street and felt something pull at his chest like he was letting something go. For a moment, up on the roof, he thinks of Gem and wonders where they are right now. He looks at all the hollow spaces in the city and can't help but picture them in the same dim bathroom lighting. He hopes thats not the case and that they got help or something, hopes they learned how to be a better person. Maybe they're just like the rest of Dennis and the gang or maybe their years of living like that have caught up with them, Dennis doesn't know. So he let's go, doesn't forget, but let's it be for now. He stays up on the roof with the same people he's been with his whole life and prays to the God that he hates that it stays that way. It's low budget Lifetime movie semantics, Dennis thinks, but they don't move because they wouldn't change any of it for the world.

They are forty years old and everything is exactly how it was before; the good, the bad, all of it is still there. They’re too old to change now, so they'll settle for something that's just a little more than alright. For tonight, they are just okay.