Chapter 1: stuck still, no turning back
January moved bleakly into February with cold rains and more of those strange, warm days that spotted early 2017. Winter shifted nervously around New York City. Eddie alternated between layering a henley underneath his work shirt and wearing a white t-shirt instead.
“Don’t u know?” Richie texted into the groupchat. “Climate change = FAKE. its a govnt consp w chinese sientists.”
“Your spelling is so bad,” Bill replied. “You are terrible at spelling. Have you installed auto-correct on your phone?”
“P sure auto-correct is pre-installed,” Mike came back.
“YOU IDIOT,” Eddie wrote, “CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL. WE HAVE LITERALLY MURDERED THE PLANET AND YOU’RE STANDING OVER ITS CORPSE WITH A GUN IN YOUR HAND AND SHRUGGING. NONE OF THIS IS NORMAL.” Then he copied and pasted in five different articles from Scientific American, the New York Times, National Geographic, WIRED, and Forbes.
“hahahahaha,” Richie replied.
Eddie could have thrown his phone across the room just to hear the clatter of it against the hardwood floor and to feel the tightness in his chest, the healed incision sites pulled by the sharp motion of his arm, the tension of his shoulder. Rather, he fisted the phone and closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath for three seconds. Held it for seven. Released it slowly for five seconds through his nose. His therapist had talked at length with him about anger management.
He’d told Richie privately about that therapist, Dr J. Greene who worked out of Brooklyn. They were at Ben’s house in northern New Mexico for New Year’s, all the Losers scattered around the open, unfenced dirt and desert scrub backyard under an astonishing number of stars, huddling together in their little groups against the desert chill.
Eddie had stuck to the fire pit, this huge brick-ringed hole with a brutal iron peek-a-boo railing on top of it that Ben had built with his own hands and the blacksmith’s anvil he had back at his home in Nevada. That was the kind of person Ben had grown up to be: “a Canadian Home Workshop double page spread,” Bev had said slyly over drinks as Ben colored and turned his face to the dog.
“Ugh, disgusting,” Richie said. “Flirting. If I wanted to watch flirting I’d put on Golden Girls.”
“Don’t be jealous,” said Mike, leaning around them to grab a couple glasses out of the cabinet ceiling-mounted over the island. “You’ll find someone, Richie.”
“Probably at the zoo,” Eddie muttered.
“His name is Shabani,” said Richie, with a joking twist of his head. “He lives in Tokyo. You guys never met him.”
“Isn’t that the gorilla?” Ben said, confused. “The hot gorilla meme?” Richie steamrolled over him.
“And that’s easy for you to say, Mike, you grew up seven feet tall and built like a candy-coated dreamboat. I bet all the grannies in Florida are gagging for you.”
Bill said, “Beep beep,” and took one of the glasses from Mike with a smile.
Meanwhile Eddie had grown up to be someone with poor circulation in hands and feet, worsened by the circulatory damage he’d taken from the alien claw that had lanced through him. So he stuck to the fire pit, where the fire though ebbing still crackled and spat out bright and glimmering sparks, and he sat with his legs tucked in close and a zig-zag patterned blanket pulled around his shoulders. The divot in his chest and in his back ached with the cold. High here in the desert, thirty minutes from Taos and nearly seven thousand feet above sea level, the cold was unlike anything Eddie had ever known, a dry and biting thing.
“Yeah, it’s like that in Los Angeles, too,” Richie said when Eddie complained about it. “I mean, it’s not as bad there, just ‘cause you’re not forty miles above sea level, but it’s just desert, man.”
“Well, it blows,” Eddie said from under the blanket, pinned by his hands over his nose. “I’ve never been this cold in my entire life. At least if I wear a coat in New York, I can pretend I’m still warm.”
Richie laughed his obnoxious, snorfling laugh, and Eddie scrunched smaller under the blanket, pleased. A length of wood in the fire snapped. Fine and glittering sparks showered into the air, flickering against the blackness of the night and then coming slowly to the earth. They blinked out, each in its time.
“You’re such an East coast baby. You really oughtta come out to L.A. sometime, the smog would literally kill you the minute you got out of the airport.”
“That’s really tempting, Richie. Just the thought of all that environmental pollution.”
“Acid rain… Is that fog or is it just a cigarette cloud…”
“It really gets me going.”
“Oh, well, if it gets you going,” Richie said and then laughed again.
The firelight flickered red-orange across Richie’s neck. He’d shaved some this morning, trimmed away the rough hairs that had started wandering down his neck. The rest of the hair, though, that was filling out. He looked like he’d decided on a beard. Eddie curled his toes in his shoes, thinking of that.
Neither of them mentioned what did get Eddie going. He’d broken the news of his separation from Myra shortly after the hospital released him, and the Losers were all supportive and kind, full of an undemanding love that they gave up to him without hesitation, even though he knew that Bev had it worse.
After he’d texted the group, Richie had texted him privately just to say, “Told u u were brave Edsie.”
“Don’t call me Edsie,” Eddie retorted, and Richie had sent a string of palm tree emojis with a spinning heart at the end.
Around the fire pit they got to talking, nonsense shit about their day to days, what they were doing, things Eddie hated at family reunions or work events. Here, though, with Richie seated on the log next to him, Eddie’s knee bumping into Richie’s thigh because Richie’s legs were too long for their knees to match up, here with the rest of the Losers laughing and talking about fireworks later, it felt…
Use your words, Dr Greene would tell Eddie. When you’re overwhelmed with any feeling, just think it through. What do you feel? Why do you feel it? Give it a name and a house so you know where it lives.
It felt good, he thought. It felt like coming home, in a way that coming home had never felt to him. The closest he had ever felt to what he thought coming home after school or college or work should feel like was how he’d felt ducking into the clubhouse in the Barrens. Stan in his hair cap, pissily telling Richie it was his turn in the hammock. Richie swinging in the hammock with his shoes and socks off, long, bony feet and knobby ankles sticking out so that with each too-strong swing he nearly slapped Stan in the face with a foot.
The memory led the conversation deeper. Eddie brought up his therapist. He hadn’t before with anyone but his health insurance company.
“Oh, Brooklyn,” Richie said. “I hear that’s where all the good psychs are.”
“She’s not a psychiatrist, she’s a therapist,” Eddie said, aggrieved. “She helps me talk through my shit. Without meds.”
Richie hummed in his throat. Looking halfway to the stars, he reached over and idly cupped Eddie’s jumping knee in his hand. Eddie stilled. Richie kept his hand there, rubbing his thumb along the inside ridge of the patella.
“You’re shivering and it’s making me cold,” Richie told him. “Well, hey, I’m uh, seeing a psychiatrist. You know. For the drugs.”
“That’s not a funny joke.”
“It was pretty low-hanging.”
“No, I know you had that drug problem. A few years ago.”
“Creepazoid,” Richie teased him. “What are you, cyber-stalking me? Yeah, I did coke. But I’m on, uh, Paxil now.”
“You’re on an SSRI? And you drank?”
“I had one glass of wine,” said Richie, “I’m allowed to have one glass of wine.”
“One glass of wine negates your day of Paxil,” Eddie said. “What dosage are you on?”
Richie came out with the British voice: “Dr K, that’s confidential!” and Eddie startled at the crispness of the accent, the lilt to it. Then, normally, Richie said, “Twenty milligrams but we’re talking about increasing it in a few months.”
“Is it affecting your sleep?”
“No, actually, I take it in the morning.” Richie was grinning fondly down at him. He still massaged Eddie’s knee. A string inside Eddie twisted. “It’s the weirdest thing, my doc says Paxil’s supposed to knock you out, but it just gets me wired.”
“That’s the last thing the world needs. A wired Trashmouth.”
That got another laugh out of Richie, who squeezed Eddie’s knee once then took his hand away again. The laugh fizzled pleasantly in Eddie’s chest, deep in the half-filled holes of him, but as Richie moved his hand away Eddie’s breath caught, too, down in those holes, deep, deep in him. Use your words, Eddie. He wanted Richie to pet his knee again. He wanted Richie to touch him. He’d always wanted Richie to touch him.
“How do you know so much about it, anyway?” Richie asked. “You been moonlighting as a pharmacist? Slinging out the blister packs at Walgreens?”
Eddie shrugged. He shifted slightly, turning his legs away from Richie. He’d read that somewhere that your body displayed its interest in someone without your thought, that if you liked them then your feet would point to them sure as an arrow, that you moved to them like how some flowers turned with their petals opened wide to follow the sun.
“Myra takes Paxil.”
Another length of wood cracked, tumbling into the ash and embers. Eddie tipped his head back to watch the sparks reaching out for the stars, so clean and white and far above.
“Ah,” said Richie. He looked at his hands, clasping his own knees. “Got you.”
They talked some more after that, meaningless stuff. Then Bill came out with sparklers and Ben warned them not to go out too far with the sparklers. The scrub was dry. “Fires are no joke,” Ben said very seriously.
“Then we’ve got a problem,” Richie said.
“Why? What did you do?” Ben squinted at him.
Beverly swooped in before Richie, beaming, could deliver the punchline. She said, “Because you’re smoking, new kid,” and rising on the tips of her toes with a hand on his arm, she kissed Ben’s cheek with such softness that Eddie’s knees hurt.
That was New Year’s, and no matter what his therapist said, Eddie had refused to use the words to describe what he’d felt with Richie’s hand on his knee. He had bulleted a small list of facts for his reference.
• Richie was gay. He’d come out to them, all of them, before they’d left Derry. Eddie last of all, in the hospital in Bangor. He’d made a joke of it to Eddie and Eddie had told him to shut the fuck up. “It’s not a joke, loser,” Eddie said. “It’s fine. You’re gay. You’re still the most annoying dude in my life.” Richie had ducked his head and smiled, like a shy kid at his scuffed sneakers.
• Eddie was not heterosexual. He had known this for a while but he’d done what he had thought was a pretty good job of neatly sticking that in some dusty corner of his psyche. He was married and if he wasn’t a passionate husband, he was at least a dutiful husband. Then he almost died and he realized he hated his marriage and if he had to go on living his life, including with that marriage, then he might as well die after all. And he didn’t want to die.
• Richie was gay. Eddie was, he guessed, bisexual. He hadn’t hated sex with Myra or with the one girl he’d dated in college before his mom got sick and needed him to take care of her, so he probably wasn’t gay. It wasn’t okay or fair for Eddie to explore his sexuality with Richie just because Richie was the only gay man he had an emotional relationship with, since Danny in Accounting was ruled out on the grounds that he was an asshole and a moron and he watched American Horror Story.
• Eddie didn’t want to do the dating scene again. He hadn’t enjoyed it the first time. There was so much pressure, he thought, to do the right thing, to go performatively overboard for someone you barely knew. What if you didn’t like each other? Then he’d have humiliated himself buying flowers and chocolates for her. He hated the idea of it, of showing even the thinnest slice of his underbelly to a stranger.
And he didn’t want casual sex. Richie joked about casual sex in his sets, these raunchy fuck gags about women with plastic tits and fat asses, and none of it was real or true and it was all definitely wildly misogynistic. In late August, Richie had posted a screenshot of his Notes app: an apology for, he wrote, “basically everything I have ever said or done or implied about women, and people of color, and gay people, and like, anyone who isn’t Trump or Rush Limbaugh cuz fuck those guys. I don’t expect anyone to like me or forgive me and probably the guys who used to like me are going to hate me for this but fuck those guys too. Fuck me, I guess. Anyway, sorry. And not to distract from the sincerity or the importance of the above, because this doesn’t give me a free pass, but I’ve never actually fucked a woman. I am, how do you say, a gay bitch baby.” Then he’d gone off-line for a week. Eddie had spent most of that week yelling at Richie via text and yelling at the people yelling at Richie on Twitter.
Eddie hadn’t asked if Richie’s jokes about casual sex had come from any place of truth. He had a writing team before the ongoing reorganization of what Richie called “my entire fucking professional life,” but had he suggested things to them? Had Richie gone out to bars with neon lights and blue cigarette smoke and smiled that long, long smile he had at a man?
The thought made Eddie’s chest ache like a watermelon, ripe, ready for someone to split in half with a good knife. He didn’t think it. He’d more of those doubled memories now, emotions flashing through him with the same intensity and strange blurriness of an over-exposed photograph. His hands itched if he remembered being a child, chasing after Richie, shouting at him, hoarding Richie’s attention.
Dr Greene asked how the separation was going for Eddie.
“It’s, uh, it’s good,” Eddie said. “Um. The separation was mostly for Myra’s sake. I, uh, already know I want a divorce. And I told her that. But she wants to try this first and I already feel like a dick, so.”
Dr Greene had nodded and let him get a glass of water and asked him if he was seeing anybody else, all in that even and nonjudgmental way that she had that nevertheless made the hair on the back of Eddie’s neck stand on end.
He wasn’t an adulterer; he didn’t cheat. He’d never cheated. He’d never touched another woman outside of one or two handshakes necessitated at work. He didn’t like to touch people, period. Myra was the only person he’d held and made love to for the last ten years.
“It’s okay if you want to,” said Dr Greene. “But you’re right. It wouldn’t be a good idea if you’re thinking of divorce.” She made a face. “That’s not really my line to say. That’s for a lawyer.”
He mentioned it to Richie on accident after New Year’s, after all the Losers had scattered back to their vacations or their jobs or in Bill’s case, his wife.
“I don’t even have time to think about dating,” he complained over FaceTime. He was washing the dishes in the sink and just starting to scrub the wok he’d used for vegan stir fry three hours ago. “Like, obviously I’m dealing with my lawyer figuring out how to suggest this divorce to Myra in a humane way. Then at my job we’ve got this huge deal we’re working through with LG Chem and the fucking EPA. And meanwhile I’ve got this hole in my chest that should’ve taken like a whole year to heal but now it’s been, what, six and a half months?”
“And three days,” said Richie.
“Right, and three days, and it’s completely closed up, I feel fine, I’m a walking, talking human being and--” At that point he rocketed the metal scrubber in the sink, threw up his pink-gloved hands, and screamed.
“That’s it,” said Richie, “let it out. There you go, Wolfman.”
Eddie covered his face with the soap gloves and leaned forward, elbows on the sink. He could hear Richie’s breathing, calm and even, through the iPad mounted over the sink. With his fingers pressed to his forehead he imagined that Richie was standing next to him, standing over him, putting his own elbows down on the counter so he could lean forward beside Eddie. Breathing. Eddie pushed the thought away.
Richie asked quietly, “You okay?”
Eddie said, “Yeah. It’s just been a long week.”
“Eddie,” said Richie.
He was going to ask about the holes in Eddie’s chest. He was going to bring up the sewer, the foul lights, Eddie leaning over him and smiling and saying—
“I gotta go,” Eddie said. “I’ve got a headache and this wok is just. Fucked. I’ll talk to you later.”
Richie was quiet long enough Eddie thought maybe he’d hung up. Then he said, “Yeah, sure,” very brightly. “I gotta shoot some e-mails to my agent. We might still be able to save this Netflix special.”
I feel fine, Eddie thought at Dr Greene. I feel good. I feel normal.
And January, rainy, shivered and gave way at last to February, and February brought with it those odd sunny days then snow, a weather change that moved through Eddie too; and Richie. February brought Richie.
Chapter 2: run fast for your mother
I don't like writing author's notes in the middle of a chaptered thing; it always throws me off to read them. But real quick: this chapter deals some with abuse, parental and spousal. It's something that'll come up again. Depression and homophobia will also be addressed in this story. I hope to handle it well. Let me know if it's too much or if I lack delicacy.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When he separated from Myra, he left her the condo in Manhattan. Eddie’s lawyer pinched her nose at the meeting where he admitted he had moved out of the house. Elspeth Oyeyemi was a blunt woman with immaculate braids caught in a kaleidoscope swirl on top of her head. She did not care for guilt.
“If you’re serious about filing for divorce, then moving out now costs you the house. The courts will hear that you’ve abandoned the residence.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m aware of that.”
“The house is a significant asset.”
Eddie had folded his hands together on top of the three manila folders he had set neatly before him on the glossy, mahogany table. He did this so his hands would neither shake nor clench.
“Eddie, don’t go,” Myra had said, clinging to his arm, her eyes not sweet or wet with fear but sharp, “not tonight. Please just stay. It’s so late. We can talk about it in the morning.”
“Myra, I don’t want to talk about it in the morning,” he’d said, quick and heated, “I don’t want to stay, I’m going to take a room out at a hotel and stay there until I get everything sorted out. Do you understand?”
“This is your house, Eddie,” she told him, “this is where your bed is. Come upstairs, I’ll make you some tea and then I’ll leave you alone while you think. You shouldn’t have to leave your home.”
“I can’t stay here,” he blurted out. “I can’t stay here another god damn night, Myra, and I’m sorry, I know you don’t like that language, but I don’t fucking care. You can keep the house. I’m going to a hotel.”
“Your medicines!” she reminded him, triumph suddenly alight in her face. “What about your suits? And your office computer, Eddie, you need your computer for work.”
He’d grabbed his coat off the rack and shrugged into it with violence. “I’m going to a hotel, not Mars. I’ll call tomorrow after I figure out what I need to take with me.”
She was snapping at him as he went down the stoop to his car, reminding him that he didn’t have his inhaler or the Vicks vapo rub; she’d seen them in the cabinet. You can’t take care of yourself, Myra was sneering after him with each worried reminder she shouted to him. You’ll get to the hotel and examine the sheets and know that someone else slept between them, someone with sweat and germs and body hair. Sleeping in a hotel bed was like sleeping with a stranger.
Eddie got in the car. The mechanics down at Antony’s Auto Repair had done good work restoring the body. He left Myra standing in the doorway, her arms crossed in front of her chest, in her pink housecoat with the yellow flowers embroidered across the hem. On the backseat he had two cases of clothes and necessities, his laptop, and his usual overnight toiletries bag, everything he’d thrown together in the middle of the day on Wednesday, when he’d come home early from work just to pack.
He knew what the condo was worth, the remaining mortgage on it, its assured rise in value as housing in Manhattan grew increasingly expensive. It simply hadn’t seemed enough incentive to stay in the house with Myra, who knew now that he wanted out.
“And I feel like maybe I owe it to her.” His shoulder blades tensed together as he admitted it. “We only ever got the condo because I talked her into it.”
She had wanted to move out to Queens, to a larger house, but Eddie had argued for the condo in Manhattan, citing how close it was to his work, the investment of it, the aesthetic appeal. And they could afford it, he’d added. He made enough money to feel both guilty and defensive about it. Spending money on nice things made Eddie feel good. He liked leather seats in a deluxe model car. He liked aged whiskey and the occasional spa day with massage. He had a collection of golden age Adventure Comics plastic-sealed and catalogued in an atmosphere-controlled storage unit that he paid for with cash each month. At the bank he had a safety deposit box under his name and only his name where he kept two Breitling watches and a diamond Rolex.
“Does your wife have access to the storage unit? The box?”
He shook his head. “No, uh, those are mine. She doesn’t know about them.”
“Hiding assets could hurt you, too. But keep them secret for now, if she’s withholding your belongings.”
Myra had let Eddie take the computer but none of the medicine and only four of his suits. His record collection and his books, she kept. If he wanted to listen to the records, he could come over to the house. They were separated, she said with a smile, not divorced. They could listen to the records together like they used to.
Oyeyemi made notes on her tablet. “We should discuss the probability of alimony. If you’re ready to surrender the house and she’s employed, then--”
“We have a prenup,” Eddie blurted. His leg jigged under the table. At the lawyer’s sharp look he slid one of the three folders across the table to her. “We, uh, both agreed it was the responsible thing to do. Before the wedding.”
She took the folder and opened it, rifled through the collated papers. Eddie went on talking: babbling, he thought with a familiar frustration.
“Myra, she has an inheritance from her, uh, her aunts. And her grandfather left her an estate that she rents out. And I had my own assets, and it was just smart. To protect our assets. Because you never know what’s going to happen,” he added. “You know, like disease or a financial downturn or divorce. I said and Myra agreed that keeping some of our finances separated was a good way to make sure we still had individual autonomy.”
Oyeyemi smiled, a sliver like the honed edge of a knife. “Well,” she said, “that’s certainly going to work to your benefit, Mr Kaspbrak.”
Myra had hated it, actually, keeping their pre-marital assets so distinct. What’s mine is yours. She had wanted to share that inheritance and once or twice while they were dating suggested living on the estate in Pennsylvania. The prospect had made the skin of Eddie’s back tighten.
“It’s crazy,” Richie had told him one night in January over the phone, as Eddie threw a chicken casserole together. “I got that call from Mike, and I puked--”
“You puke a lot.” Eddie glanced at the mounted phone. The screen was dark; they weren’t on FaceTime. He busied himself with the saucepan. “You see a doctor for that?”
“Fuck you,” said Richie amiably. “And it turned out I had like, this secret stash of money I’d been throwing together for the last, like, seventeen years. Thousands of fucking dollars! Like, even when I was deep down Corrie Cocaine’s tits, I was putting twenties in this thing. Some animal part of my brain knew that clown was going to drag me back to Derry.”
Eddie pulled the skillet, quickly cleaned, out of the sink and added the bacon fat and sauté onions over medium heat.
“God, I can smell that over here,” Richie groaned. “Is that bacon? I can hear that fat popping. Jesus. You even allowed to eat bacon? Not too greasy for your machine-tuned heart?”
“Fuck off, I’m on keto.”
“Oh, you fuck off. What, you do crossfit too? Do I gotta put an intervention together?”
“There are several health benefits to the keto diet,” Eddie snapped, “and no, I don’t do crossfit, I don’t want to look like a meathead, I have holes in my body.”
After the hospital, Richie had, it seemed, made a resolution not to talk about Eddie’s chest injury or the scars that remained, the cupped, sealed holes that punched into his back and chest. Still, there were moments when Richie would hesitate and Eddie would know with preternatural certainty that Richie was about to say something soft and low, something that would start with, “Eddie--” His voice vibrating. Deep. Layered with tenderness that Eddie could not bear.
Now, Richie said: “Eddie, my Eds, my darling, my love. I also have holes in my body. Dirty, dirty holes.”
Eddie laughed. “That sucks,” he said. “That joke sucks ass, bro.”
“It sucks my dirty asshole, bro.”
Eddie added the rest of the bacon fat and stirred in the mushrooms to sauté another five minutes. The cream sauce simmered in its sauce pan.
“I signed a prenup,” he said.
Richie rumbled, bear-like. Mmm?
“Uh, when I got married. We did a pre-nuptial.”
“Wow, Eds, that’s so Hollywood of you.”
“Shut up. I think,” said Eddie slowly, “that maybe… I knew, too. That I’d have to go back. When Mike called, I blanked out at the wheel and just kept going into this intersection and some asshole t-boned me.”
“What the fuck! Eddie!” Genuine shock colored Richie’s voice. Then he added in a rush, “Your insurance premiums,” his voice too shaken to sell the joke.
The thin and delicate skin behind Eddie’s ears itched. He said, “It’s fine, the other driver was at fault.”
“Not if you drifted into the intersection.”
“The other guy was drunk.”
“Well, thank god for small favors,” said Richie. “May we all be t-boned by drunk drivers when we’re running red lights.”
“Shut up,” Eddie said again. Garlic, spinach. He turned the spinach over, coating it and waiting for the heat to shrivel the leaves. “And my arm started hurting too. Do you remember that? You set my broken arm in Neibolt.”
“Holy shit!” said Richie, and he started to cackle. “Oh, my god. I can’t believe you let me do that! I had no idea what I was fucking doing!”
“I didn’t let you do shit!” He jerked the casserole dish out of the cabinet with more noise than necessary. “I explicitly told you not to touch me, and you just fucking did it anyway.”
Richie was laughing helplessly, at length. “Holy shit, Eds. Oh, my god. You screamed at me not to fucking touch you. I never heard you scream so loud.”
“And then you fucking touched me!” With steady hands he poured the contents of the skillet and the sauce pan into the dish. “You never listened to me.”
“Man, I always listen to you,” Richie said, “it’s just that sometimes you say stupid shit I don’t care about. What did you even have to justify a pre-nup? Like, vintage advil and an old-timey stethoscope?”
“Oh,” said Eddie. He paused a moment with his hands in the shredded cheese. “No, I— When my mom died, she left me a hundred k.”
“When the fuck was your mom rich like that! Shit,” said Richie, “I should’ve proposed.”
“Beep beep. Some of it was from my great-grandparents. My dad. I don’t know if you ever noticed,” Eddie said, “what with your head being shoved up your ass—”
That set Richie off again.
“But my mom didn’t really spend money, ever. She only took me to the hospital maybe three times in total.”
“With how ‘sick’ you were?”
Eddie rolled his shoulders uncomfortably. With the cheese layered on top of the casserole, he popped open the oven and slid it on the bottom rack.
“She was a nurse. She took care of me.”
Richie was quiet.
“Don’t say it,” said Eddie. “Don’t say one word about taking care of my mom.”
“Wasn’t gonna say anything.”
“You were never sick,” Richie said. “Not the way she wanted you to be. Eddie, you were the toughest kid I knew. You hit Henry Bowers in the head with a rock.”
“And then I stabbed him with a knife and you hit him with an axe.”
“I really don’t want to think about that,” said Richie, sounding harassed. “I don’t want to think about that time I killed a guy. Can we talk about how you’re on some bullshit cult diet?”
“It’s not a bullshit cult diet,” Eddie snapped. “I’m sending you articles about this. You should do keto. You’re a fucking slob.”
“Uh, excuse you,” Richie said, “I’m the new hot. I’ve got that dad bod. People are crazy for that shit.”
“You look like a frog with glasses.”
Richie cracked up again and Eddie grinned to hear it. He wondered at it sometimes, how easily he’d fallen back into a rhythm with Richie, clawing at each other then clinging to one another’s wounds. It couldn’t have been just that they were so close as children. They were so different now.
Eddie knew he was meaner, sharper, kind of a bully. Most of the people at the office knew better than to ask personal questions of him. And Richie was still goofy, still forever cracking wise; but he lapsed into these shy silences sometimes, or he’d make a self-deprecating remark that hinted at the reasons why he took Paxil.
The worst of it came to him at night, as he cleaned the day’s dishes and sorted the laundry out in the quiet of his apartment. He’d think about how different they were now than they were then, and then he’d think it was like even with all the years and miles between them, he and Richie had still grown up to fit each other. His ragged edges matching to Richie’s worn curves.
Eddie stacked the leftovers neatly in the refrigerator. He’d labeled the date of cooking and the date to toss out on the Tupperware. It was important, he thought, to know when something would end.
Beverly came to New York City midway through January, one stop in a series of five to plot out a show she would like to put on in the summer. She left Eddie a voicemail: “Hey, Spaghetti, it’s Bev. I’ll be in Brooklyn today. Want to meet up at Michael’s for dinner?” meaning Michael’s of Brooklyn on Avenue R.
“I was craving Italian and I wanted something comfortable,” she explained to Eddie as the waiter led them to their table. “I hope this won’t throw off your diet.”
“You talked to Richie.”
Beverly smiled, her lively eyes turning to secrets. “I think he thinks keto is the Atkin’s diet.”
“Moron,” Eddie muttered under his breath.
Beverly laughed and linked her arm with his.
They took a table in the far corner, beneath pseudo-art deco lights that glowed yellow-white against the red accents of the room. Beverly’s hair, curling just so, shone copper-brass. The waiter made to take the two chairs on the outside of the table. Beverly shook her head and smiled at him and took the chair not opposite to Eddie, but caddy corner to him. She laid her hand palm-up on the table and Eddie took it, their fingers lacing.
“You look good, Eddie.”
He touched his cheek self-consciously and smiled, feeling how it pinched his lips.
“You look better,” he told her honestly. “Uh. Healthy. Happier.”
“We’re all happier,” she said, just as truthful. “Ben’s sorry he couldn’t come. He had a meeting in Paris about a museum they want him to maybe possibly sort of design.” The way she said it suggested she was quoting someone, probably Ben.
“Hopefully it’s not as—” He raised his eyebrows meaningfully. “As that tower in London.”
Beverly waved this off. “People blew that out of proportion. It’s dynamic and modern. The lines are so sleek. It makes me want to design a whole line to go with it.”
“Well, maybe he’ll give the museum an a-line.”
“Wise-ass,” said Beverly. “So, what’s good here?”
“I haven’t eaten at Michael’s in five or six years.”
“What? But you live here! Oh, my god, I love Italian. Too many carbs?”
He shrugged. “Myra, uh, doesn’t like Italian.” He tried to remember the specifics of her complaint. “It’s too rich.”
Beverly squeezed his hand. Her eyes were on the menu, opened before the two of them.
“Tom didn’t like Italian either,” she said. “Too fatty. Of course, he ate it. But not for Beverly Marsh.”
Eddie squeezed her hand, too. They studied the menu together. Her hand was warm and dry against his own. Love swelled in his tight-bound chest, love for this girl who had leapt out into the quarry before all of them, her hair flashing in the sunlight, her arms spread as if she might fly.
“Risotto di mare,” he said decisively. “That’ll be about six hundred calories.”
“Mm,” said Beverly, nodding. “But that veal parmigiana. Don’t you want to eat something fried?”
He nodded too, mirroring her, and Beverly snorted a laugh. “What about wine?”
“Oh, I love wine,” said Beverly. “White or red?”
“Maybe a rose.”
“Eddie,” she said, “you scoundrel.”
He grinned then laughed at the thought, as if anyone had ever looked at Eddie Kaspbrak in his tidy polos and his buttoned cardigans and thought him a rogue, a ruffian, a proper Han Solo.
The waiter returned. He was classically handsome, hair black and rakishly parted just off-center. Eddie’s eyes lingered; then he looked away.
“And how would you like to start your evening?”
“I’d like to try a glass of white wine,” said Beverly. “A rose for Eddie, is that right?” He nodded. “What vintages do you have tonight?”
Eddie looked at the menu, reading the same line again and again. What was it? He’d felt a flash of heat deep in his spine, then a disappointment that suffused his ribs. You’re allowed to look, he thought angrily. That wasn’t it. He wanted to look, just not at this man, so neat, so svelte. Clean-shaven, hair parted, customer service polite.
Stop it, Eddie thought.
“And the fried calamari,” Eddie said. “Plus the hot antipasto to start with.”
“Very well,” said the waiter smooth and charming. Eddie unfolded his napkin and layered it in his lap.
Beverly said, “So. How are you?” and they talked of small things at first, the usual catching up. He asked about the scouting. She talked about her plans for the show, the sets she wanted. He bitched about work and Beverly laughed as he grew progressively more profane.
Finally, after the waiter had delivered Beverly’s veal scaloppini francese and Eddie’s Norwegian salmon, with a plate of shrimp parmigiana they had agreed to share, Eddie sipped his wine and said, “How’s your divorce going?”
Beverly sighed deeply and stabbed her fork into the veal. “Good,” she said. “And badly. We’re doing everything through our lawyers. I wouldn’t be able to deal with any of this crap if we had to see each other. He…” Her jaw tightened. Her fingers whitened along the fork.
Wordlessly Eddie pushed her glass of wine nearer.
“I think I’d kill him,” she said.
“If you need help with the body.”
Beverly laughed, half-brittle, half-amused. She was thinking as Eddie was thinking of Henry Bowers, sunk deep in the quarry with rocks bound up in his clothes.
“We’re just the best group of people.”
“Losers forever,” Eddie agreed.
Beverly drank from her wine and stole two shrimp from the third plate. “The worst part of it right now,” she said, “is that he’s trying to retain ownership of the company. I’m suing for that, though. Ben’s been really helpful with it. He had to take some conglomerate to court about eight years ago over some designs he’d drawn for them that they decided not to use until after they sent him away.”
“Do you think you’ll get to keep the business?”
“I think so,” she said. “Tom’s just going to be a piece of shit about it.”
They ate together in comfortable silence as a strings number played through the restaurant. Hush and hum of other diners surrounded them. The clatter of dishes. A man, laughing loudly.
“Well,” said Eddie, holding his wine glass between both hands. “If you’re serious about killing him. We could give Richie an axe.”
Beverly spurted into her own wine glass, and Eddie laughed at the painful look on her face, how she held her nose and then swatted at him.
“Dickhead,” Beverly said. “Ugh. I forgot how much that burns. What about you? Have you filed yet?”
Eddie shook his head. “Not yet. I’m, um, going to. Soon. I just want to have everything in order first.”
“Eddie Kaspbrak,” she murmured. “Always prepared. Why weren’t you ever a Boy Scout?”
“My mom would have had a heart attack,” Eddie said, “and then I’d have to know I gave my mom a heart attack. Camping? Pocket knives? I might as well have told her I was gay and I was moving to California.”
“What did she have against California anyway?”
“Homosexuals.” Beverly looked at him over her forkful of veal and parsley. “I’m not,” Eddie said. “I… I don’t think I’m straight. But I don’t think I’m gay either. I don’t know. It, uh, doesn’t really matter right now.”
Beverly ate her veal. After she swallowed she said, quietly, “Richie’s in California.”
Eddie lifted his fork and knife. He lowered them. He said, “Yeah, he is.”
She nodded. They ate. Eddie felt pleasantly full, warm and sweet with good food and the nudging of Beverly’s foot against his own beneath the table.
They each ordered a cannoli with chocolate sauce drizzled on top. “I’m not sharing,” Beverly told Eddie. “This is for me.”
As they swapped bites – his had more chocolate chips, hers had more ricotta cheese – Eddie said, “Do you ever feel like… You’re a ghost, just walking around.”
She looked curiously at him, her mouth full, glossy pink lips pursed out with the weight of her dessert. Eddie smiled fondly at her, even as his heart pounded at what he needed to say.
“I do,” he confessed. “I feel like I lived, I survived everything down there, but I’m still a ghost. I’m just… I’m haunting my own life. Sorry. I sound like a total dumb fuck.”
“No, you don’t,” said Beverly. “Don’t call yourself a dumb fuck. It pisses me off when you talk about my friend like that. But yeah. I do feel like a ghost, sometimes. Less now that it’s over. But when I was with Tom, I felt like… Like I was a shell, or not even a shell. Like a sheet of saran wrap pulled over something.”
“Yeah,” said Eddie. He looked down at the cannoli, half of it eaten. The cheese and chocolate had spilled softly out from the pastry shell.
“But we aren’t ghosts,” said Beverly. “We’re not.”
He nodded. She stole a bite from his cannoli and offered him a bite from her own. He took it.
“We’re Losers,” he said. It wasn’t enough. At the same time, it was enough.
After the dinner, outside on the sidewalk in the evening drizzle, the streets slick with January precipitation, Beverly pulled him into a hug and pressed a delicate and fragrant kiss to his unscarred cheek.
“I love you, Eddie,” she said.
He held her tightly, Beverly who had carried all their deaths inside her for twenty-seven years.
“Love you, Bevvy,” he said, and he kissed her cheek too.
He had nightmares sometimes. Dark and rotting things. He was in the water, slipping deep, blood a murky cloud filling the water as he sank. Somewhere very far above him he saw the shadows moving: the Losers, reaching to him and then pulling away one by one so that even Richie had gone.
A pair of hands held Eddie by his ankles. His mother dragged him down. He looked at her, his mother, her pale hair thinned from the cancer. Her left eye red and swollen, a ball of pus and blood.
She said, Eddie, stay with your mother. Eddie, it isn’t safe to play with those awful children. They’re delinquents.
They’re my friends, Mommy, he said. They love me and I love them.
They’re dirty, she said, they’re dirty and they’re sick and look what they’ve done to you. Look what they’ve done to my sweet boy.
He struggled then, kicking at his mother’s face, kicking her like a terrible son would do to hurt his mother who only ever wanted the best for him.
He never dreamed of the clown. But he dreamed of his mother clinging to his feet, and of Richie a faraway wavering shape like a ghost through the water, somewhere he couldn’t reach. He could never reach Richie. He couldn’t reach any of them.
You’re the ghost, Eddie, his mother said mournfully. You gave up all your living to those parasites. Now my darling Eddie Bear isn’t anything at all.
Eddie woke up after those dreams, not with violence, but slowly, his chest aching, his shoulders trembling. His face was always wet. He would wake up missing his mother and hating her and wishing she was there to brush the tears from his face and make him lemon tea and put too many blankets on him. He loved her and he hated her, and after he’d finished crying he would get out of bed, put on his house slippers, and go out to the little kitchen and make some lemon tea. Extra sugar, to sweeten the taste. Sonia hadn’t allowed him sugar in his tea, only honey, but he liked the grit of it if he didn’t stir it all the way through. It crunched between his teeth. He wasn't supposed to have sugar on the keto, but fuck it.
He’d stand there in the kitchenette drinking gritty tea in his pajamas and his house slippers, thinking about calling Richie and never calling him. What would he say? I had a bad dream. I had a nightmare. I want someone to hold me. You let me sink. I want you to hold me. Richie.
Eddie finished the cup of tea. He washed the cup out with dishwashing soap and set it on the rack to dry. He went to the computer to catch up on his e-mails from the day before. It was 3:14AM. In Los Angeles, midnight had just come. He worked through the rest of the night.
“I just realized,” he typed into the groupchat, “this will be my first Valentine’s Day alone in eleven years.” Then he deleted the text before he could send it.
He thought of what his friends would think: their pity. No, never pity. Only empathy. He couldn’t bear the weight of that. Mike would offer to come to NYC and do tourist shit. Beverly would drag Ben down with her to take them all out to a high-end steakhouse. They’d all love him and he’d itch with their love the entire time.
“Anyway,” he told his therapist at their appointment on the first, “maybe it’s good. It’s not like I’ve ever enjoyed Valentine’s Day.”
“Myra didn’t like it?”
“No, she loves it,” he said, “but I just hate the, the way people look at you when you’re out buying flowers and chocolates and jewelry. Like they know you and your marriage, but they don’t. They don’t know shit about me, or about Myra, or about our house.”
“What if you were with someone else? Another woman,” said Dr Green, “or a man.” He’d confessed his uncertainties about his sexuality to Dr Green and she had smiled and told him about her wife, a school teacher in Queens.
“I don’t know,” Eddie said. “I never… When I was a kid, I did Valentine’s Day with my mom. Um, after my dad died. It was like, this is what a family does, because we love each other. And then I started dating Myra and it was like, okay, well, I’m supposed to do this because I love her.” He looked at his hands, flattening then clenching, fingers fidgeting. “But I never got it right with Myra. She’d give me a list of things she wanted and I’d get her stuff from the list and then she’d be upset because I wasn’t spontaneous. Or I wouldn’t get her something from the list and she wouldn’t like it and she’d want to know why I didn’t just use the list.”
“What would she do for you?”
He blinked at Dr Green. “Well— I mean, Valentine’s Day isn’t for me. It’s not about doing things for me, it’s about. It’s about showing that I love my wife. Or, uh, my mom.”
“Well, what would you have liked for Valentine’s Day?”
He thought about this. He said, “I,” and stopped. His fingers flattened, curled. “I don’t know,” he said again.
Dr Green smiled at him and said, “What if you did something for me? Write your own list of things you’d like. So that if you find someone else, you know what you’d like with them. Not from them, or for them. But with them.”
“Sure,” he said. “I can try that.”
He talked to Richie that night on the phone while he pattered around the apartment, just touching things, opening cupboards to double-check everything was in place.
“My therapist says—”
“Oo, I love the way you say that,” Richie said, purring outrageously. “My therapist! You minx. You yuppie.”
“Don’t call me a yuppie,” said Eddie, “I’m not a yuppie, fuck you.”
“Please, if we were in the ‘80s right now as adults you’d be in a boardroom snorting coke off a spreadsheet.”
“I don’t do drugs,” Eddie snapped. “That’s not funny, Richie. I’m not an addict.”
“Yeah, not like me.”
A spike of irritation ran up Eddie’s heel at the sudden indifference in Richie’s voice. He went to slam the silverware drawer shut, caught himself, and closed it neatly instead.
“That’s not what I meant, Richie. You know it isn’t. Look, I’m. I’m sorry for—”
“So tell me what your shrink says,” Richie said brightly. “Gimme the juicy details. You wanted to fuck your mother but I got there first so you had to settle for her younger doppelganger.”
“You’re disgusting,” said Eddie. “Is this the shit you do on stage? You just run your garbage mouth for an hour and people pay you for the fucking privilege?”
“Yeah, I’m not doing a whole lot of stage work right now,” Richie said, “but we’ll come back to that after you spill your guts to me, I got something to tell you. So come on.” His breath came more clearly over the phone, his voice crooning low in Eddie’s ear: “What’s on your mind, lonely listener? Divine Debbie is here to wash all that pain away.”
“Get laryngitis,” Eddie told him, and Richie laughed, still too near to the speaker. “No, fuck you. Dr Green says that my mom, she, uh. Do you know what emotional incest is?”
All the teasing dropped out of Richie. “Are you saying she touched you?”
“No!” Eddie said. “You freak. My mom never touched me. Jesus! I said emotional incest, asshole.”
“Okay, good,” said Richie, sounding unsettled. “I mean, that would’ve been. It would’ve made fucking her weird. For me.”
“It was already weird for me,” Eddie said, “now can you shut the fuck up so I can talk? You’re like a wind-up monkey.” He ignored Richie’s soft oo-oos and the clapping of his hands. “No, it’s, um. After my dad died. She, uh, she made me like her husband. Emotionally. So I had to take care of her and make her happy and do stuff around the house for her and, uh, she’d make me kiss her good-bye every time I left the house and tell her that I loved her and when I’d get back and I had to promise not to do anything that would break her heart.”
“Yeah, I remember,” said Richie. “Your mom was a bitch.”
“Don’t say that,” Eddie bit. “Anyway. And for Valentine’s Day she expected me to get her a card and a box of chocolates and after sixth grade I started buying her a teddy bear too from Mr Keene’s pharmacy. And she’d kiss my cheeks and say I was the only teddy bear she needed—”
But thank you, Eddie Bear, she’d say. You’re my sweet little man.
“And, uh, yeah,” he finished.
Richie was silent. Standing in the small living room, Eddie knuckled his free hand against his side and tried not to hyperventilate.
“Well, you said I couldn’t say it, but I’m still gonna say it,” Richie said, “your mom was a hellacious bitch and I’m glad I never fucked her tender.”
Eddie said, “You’re such a dickhead,” but he closed his eyes; he was smiling. Warmth filled his toes. The hardwood floor was chilly even through his rubber-soled socks.
“So, what did you want to tell me?”
“Hm? Oh, shit, right,” said Richie. “Guess who’s coming to New York, New York! For Valentine’s Day, actually, can you believe it?”
“Yeah, I know, I’m doing a couple gigs in Manhattan at this fancy club, because I guess they figured you can’t spell romance without R for Rich Tozier.”
Eddie’s heart pounded, too loud, in his ears. “You’re gonna break up every couple in that room.”
“Fuck you, I’m the king of romance,” Richie said. “I have several very loving jokes about pumpin’ and dumpin’.”
“Do you ever hear the words that come out of your ugly face?”
“Only now I talk about pumpin’ and dumpin’ guys,” Richie went on, “so that’s why I’m doing the small stages instead of the bigass theatres. You know, even Ellen won’t have me on? This redemption tour is a kick in the teeth.”
“You talked a lot of shit.”
“I did talk a lot of shit,” Richie said, almost gone quiet. “Well, whatever. So hey, the shows are on the eleventh and twelfth. I’ll probably fly in a few days early so I can, I don’t know, fucking absorb the big apple’s ambiance. Eat my body weight in fresh, Italian breadsticks. Figured we could catch up while I’m in town.”
Eddie looked around his apartment, so empty, still only somewhat furnished. He paid $2,000 a month for it: one bedroom, one bath. He had a couch in the living room and a nice TV, a high definition flat-screen he’d splurged on in a fit of defiance around Thanksgiving.
“You planning on staying anywhere?”
“There’s a couple hotels I usually hit up, they usually have room. This whole thing was super last minute. I just finalized the deal last night.”
Eddie nodded, thinking, and said, “You could stay with me. I’ve got a couch. And a, uh, a big TV.”
Richie had gone quiet again.
“You don’t have to,” Eddie added, hearing his voice go crabby and hating it. “I’m not gonna put fucking mints on your pillow. And I’m in St George on Staten Island so you’ll have to take the ferry.”
“No, no, that’s great,” said Richie, “that’s awesome. You’re the best, dude. I’d really. Yeah. I’d like that.” He cleared his throat. Eddie’s ears burned. “It’ll be cool seeing the micro-managed sterile lab you live in. Do I have to bring a hazmat suit or will one be provided for me?”
“Fuck you, stay at the Holiday Inn Express.”
“Oh, no way, buddy,” said Richie, “no take-backs. I am breaking that couch the minute I throw myself on it. I’m taking over that TV. No more nature documentaries or Fox Business. Just gonzo journalism and wrestling 24/7 the whole time I’m there.”
“When are you thinking of flying in?”
“Hm, the eighth,” said Richie. “That work?”
“Yeah,” said Eddie. “I don’t have anything planned. That works for me.”
Richie said, “Oh, hell, yeah. Let’s fuck this city up, Eds. I'm gonna run my dirty hands all over it,” and Eddie laughed, already thinking about it, already kind of steamed imagining Richie flopping on the couch with his muddy shoes still tied on. He'd scold Richie for it and Richie would toss his head like a snooty heiress in a period film, his hair an unparted mess, black curls flipping at odds with each other. He'd bat his stubby, uneven lashes and say something like, "Mr Kaspbrak, I have people to take care of these little details for me," and Eddie would want to hit him with a baking tray even as he laughed. Richie always made him laugh, even when Eddie wanted to strangle him; especially when Eddie wanted to strangle him.
"You better not bring anything weird with you," Eddie said.
"Eds, baby," said Richie, putting on a sleazy agent Voice, "when have I ever brought you something weird? Eds, baby, you're gonna love it. You're just gonna love it. I'm gonna bring you the stars."
"Just bring yourself, asshole," said Eddie.
"We'll see about that," said Richie, honeyed with frightening promise.
Eddie carried around the knowledge of Richie’s visit in him like a secret. He’d be reading the EPA liaison’s e-mails re: permits and the allowed chemical thresholds, and in his head he would turn that secret over in his hands, like a kid with a rock.
Eddie had collected rocks when he was five or six, pebbles and quartz and water-smoothed skipping stones he found near the creek. His mom had thrown them out after his dad died. They were too dirty. He never cleaned them. All these memories sprang out of him, things he hadn’t thought about in decades.
It shouldn’t have mattered whether or not Richie was coming to visit for a few days in February, not in the way it did matter. Eddie walked through work smug and untouchable. The shit that usually annoyed him proved inconsequential. Kevin never refilled the coffee pot after he killed it. Casilla sent peppy e-mails cc: the entire floor three times a day, like if she didn’t send everybody a motivational poster of a sad puppy they’d all just commit mass suicide. Tanner needed babysitting. Fuck them all if he sent a report without somebody else fixing it first.
Well, screw it, Eddie thought. He refilled the pot. He redirected Casilla’s e-mails to the spam folder. He told Tanner to get off his ass and fix his own shit before the department head fixed the situation and dropped Tanner down to the mail room where he could finally fucking do something. H.R. sent Eddie an e-mail about that one but he figured it was for a good cause.
“You’re the reason why job dissatisfaction is so high in this great country of ours,” Richie said after the last time Eddie got a slap on the wrist from H.R. Eddie had told him to shut the fuck up; he wasn’t taking professional advice from a guy who compared stirring mac and cheese to pussy-fuckin’ on stage.
“Well, fuck,” Richie said. “Now I feel dissatisfied with my job.”
February 3rd, Casilla poked her head in Eddie’s office, his sanctuary, his little corner room with the window that faced out on the brick wall of the next building over.
“Cake in the break room!” she sang. “It’s Barter’s b-day. You sign the card yet?”
Eddie shut the cabinet drawer with irritation. “I signed the card.”
“Oh, look at you, you team-player! Well, come on down and grab a slice,” said Casilla brightly. “Don’t you stay holed up in here all day. Everyone’s waiting!” She wiggled her fingers good-bye and darted to the next office. Her earrings jangled as she went.
Eddie crossed to the door, intending to slam it against the thought of another intrusion. He gripped the door knob. Rain began quietly to pelt the window, erratic drops that made it down the gap between the buildings. Eddie sighed unhappily out his nose. He grabbed his suit jacket off the chair before he went to the break room.
Richie would have made fun of him for wearing the jacket to the impromptu birthday party, but Eddie felt more comfortable in it: less approachable. Why did I come? he thought, and: Barter’s an asshole anyway. Tanner spotted Eddie across the break table and blanched, turning hurriedly away. Eddie skulked against the cabinets.
What do you feel, Eddie? asked Dr Green.
I feel like a fuckhead, he thought. He stabbed at the slice of dried out grocery store chocolate cake someone had shoved into his hands. I feel like a bridge troll. His suit jacket sat like armor across his shoulders, but his shoulders were tensed and his teeth clenched. Beverly had suggested he try to get to know his coworkers. He saw them every week day; he worked with them on projects and in teams. Married men often depended on their wives entirely for their social lives. Maybe he should reach out to the people in his work networks.
Eddie ate a fork’s worth of the cake. He chewed it twice. His tongue withered. Eddie set the fork on the plate, folded the plate in half, threw both into the trash can, and spat the bite of cake into a napkin. He threw that away too.
“Happy birthday,” he muttered to Barter in passing. Barter smiled uneasily at him. Good, thought Eddie viciously. He liked that they were scared of him. They should be scared of him.
“Don’t bully the kids at your office,” Beverly said over the phone. “They look up to you. You’re like their mentor.”
“If they looked up to me then they’d stop fucking everything in the ear.” He switched the phone from his left shoulder to his right. The screen was over-warm against his cheek. “It’s like none of them give a shit about doing their jobs right. They just want to eat cake and pat each other on the back when we’ve got work to do.”
“Eddie, honey, not everyone’s like you. Most people need breaks to keep working. I think you need a break.”
“I don’t need a break. I need to finish this analysis for LG Chem.”
Beverly made an amused and fluttering sound, a sigh that conveyed the flicking of her hand. “Take some days off. Richie’s visiting, isn’t he?”
“He’s coming in to do a couple shows.”
“Well, then take a day off so you can spend some time together. Listen,” she said, “I know. When you’re getting divorced. There’s some days when all I do is work. And Ben has to drag me out of the studio or I’ll forget to eat.”
“I remember to eat,” Eddie grumbled. “I have a meal plan.” He did the bulk of the week’s prep on Sundays, with a second, smaller prep day early Wednesday mornings.
“Be spontaneous,” she suggested. “Take the day off. Surprise Richie with tickets to something. What’s on Broadway?”
Eddie snorted, ready to argue. Then he stopped, struck. “Can you imagine Richie at CATS?”
“Oh, my god,” said Beverly, “I’ll venmo the money right now if you take him to CATS.”
“I can afford to take him to CATS.”
“Oh, right, I forgot you were Daddy Warbucks.”
“It’s a legitimate business,” Eddie said, “and my conscience is clear.”
He bought the tickets that night. Afterwards he thought twice about it. Maybe Richie didn’t want to see a musical. Maybe he’d rather go out to a bar, get drinks. Flirt with some New York guy in a leather jacket with a dark smile.
Eddie shook his head angrily, scattering the thought of Richie in his leather jacket leaning up against a bar while Eddie sat at a table in the corner, nursing an old-fashioned. Richie was a dick, but he wasn’t a complete fuckhead. Eddie saved the QR code to his phone and printed out the tickets too. No sense in not preparing.
He spoke with Beverly more often than he spoke with Richie in the week leading up to Richie’s flight, something unusual but not unpleasant. He got on with Richie in a way that sometimes seemed almost mystical, like they’d been paired up in heaven’s waiting room before they were born, Richie with a full head of black curls and Eddie five weeks premature. Twenty-five years since they’d last seen each other and Richie and Eddie could pick up a phone and shoot the shit no problem at all.
As kids, that summer of IT, Eddie had considered Beverly as almost like a museum piece, not because she was a girl or because she was so much older than the rest of them, not by her birth year but by the things that haunted her, or even because she was so beautiful even then. She was just cool. Richie had been cool, too, even if Eddie would have rather got scurvy or gangrene than admit it, but he wasn’t as cool as Beverly. Eddie remembered that summer, how Richie and Beverly bummed cigarettes off of each other and shared crude jokes and sometimes rode tandem on Richie’s bike.
Eddie had envied her. Bill liked her. Richie hung out with her. And it wasn’t like he had to hang around kicking rocks with Big Bill or with Richie. Eddie would have said his best friend was Stan if you’d asked him, and he thought Ben was neat if kind of a dope. Mike knew all sorts of neat shit about animal medicine and he was handsome like Beverly was handsome, like the lead in one of Sonia’s romance novels.
But Bill had been Eddie’s hero back then, tall and noble and so sad-eyed that Eddie had wanted to do anything to make Bill smile or laugh. And Richie had been Eddie’s. He’d belonged to Eddie, until Beverly, and then suddenly Richie wasn’t Eddie’s anymore; he was a teenager. He was growing up, and Eddie was still just a preemie.
They were different now as adults. Eddie shared things with Beverly he couldn’t share with any of the other Losers, not really. Their marriages hung between them like a chain, dripping iron so heavy it sank beneath the water.
“Did she ever make you feel crazy just for wanting to go out alone?” Beverly would ask. “Like you were going to run off with the god damn waiter at Silver Diner!”
“Did he turn off the radio when you were listening to it because he didn’t like the song?” Eddie would ask. “And then he wouldn’t let you put the radio on again.”
“He used to pinch my breasts,” Beverly confessed. “If he thought my dress was too slutty, or my nipples were hard because it was cold out. He put a cigarette out on my arm,” she said, laughing sharply, “because he smelled smoke in my hair.”
“She told me it was silly to apply for the job in Newark,” he offered. “That, uh, I was good at my job, I was so good at my job, but it was too much. I’d be overwhelmed. And I thought yeah. She’s right. I’m not— I’m not good enough for that. And so I didn’t apply for the next job. Or the job after that.”
They traded their scars, like that. A couple of kids sitting on the cliff looking out over the quarry, comparing the scabs on their knees, the bruises on their arms. One night Beverly whispered, “I told Ben. About what my dad used to do to me. That he, uh, touched me. And I hated him so much. I wanted him to die. I wanted someone to kill him and no one did and I had to.”
Eddie curled in bed with his phone. He said, “My mom died from cancer. I’d drive up to visit her alone because Myra wouldn’t come with me. They hated each other. And I’d wash my mom’s face and feed her applesauce with this little spoon that kids use, and she, uh, she called me my dad’s name, and I’d tell her I loved her.”
“Isn’t there anyone you can tell?” Beverly asked.
“My therapist,” he said. “You.”
“Eddie,” she said. “Isn’t there anyone else?”
And in that night space they shared, that dream-line across their phones, the electromagnetic waves that tethered all the cities of the world together, he said, “No. It’s fine. It’s my thing to live with.”
“We can’t live alone,” she said. “It’ll kill us. It killed Stan.”
But I’ve always lived alone, Eddie thought.
He said, “Do you remember those binoculars Stan carried everywhere? He thought he’d find some bird in Maine that nobody ever saw before, and all he ever found were sparrows.”
He remembered how the sparrows would take flight from the bushes, tiny birds beating their wings against the weight of the earth, rising, rising. Stan shielding his eyes with a hand, looking up to the sky. Wings a shadow at his feet, the birds silhouetted across his finely drawn face.
There were so many things Eddie wished he could tell Stan. “I miss you.” “I love you.” “I’m so scared I’m going to die alone. We killed IT, Stan, we did it, but I’m still so scared.” “Why didn’t you find us? Why did you leave? We needed you there. We wanted you there.” “I think I love him, Stan. I think I love him but I don’t want to love him because love is bullshit, Stan, it’s all a crock.”
He’d loved Stan and Stan had loved them but he’d still died, hadn’t he. He’d gone away. Gravity had got him in the end.
Richie called while Eddie was doing a quick grocery run at the bodega down the block. He had a can of dehydrated milk in each hand, Hoosier Hill Farm versus Carnation. A lick of childhood nostalgia drove him toward the Carnation; but what about the moral blight of buying from Nestle?
His phone rang. Eddie put the cans on the shelf in front of him and put the Bluetooth earpiece in to answer.
“Hey,” Eddie said, “Hoosier Hill Farm or Carnation?”
Richie said, “I was going to ask what you’re wearing but we’re doing this, okay. Hozer Farm—”
“Hoosier Hill Farm.”
“Or Carnation.” Richie made humming, thinking sounds. “All right, I give up. What are you talking about?”
“Powered milk.” He took up the cans again, frowning as he weighed them in his hands.
“Well, I buy my milk in its natural, pre-powered state. Aren’t you allergic to milk?”
“I have a sensitivity,” Eddie snapped. “But it’s fine. I take Lactaid for it.”
“Wait, that little pill you take before you eat? I thought that was xanax. You know, so you wouldn’t lunge across the table and choke me with your feral little hands.”
“My hands aren’t little,” Eddie said, squeezing the cans in his fists, “and nothing on this fucking planet could keep me from killing you.”
Richie made an exaggerated groaning sound, right into Eddie’s ear. Fisting the cans more tightly still, Eddie wished he could throw both cans into Richie’s face.
“God, you’re so hot when you threaten to rip my arms off. Do it again. But sound more unhinged.”
“Fuck you, asshole,” Eddie snapped. He shoved the Carnation back on the shelf and dumped the Hoosier Hill Farm in his basket. “No wonder nobody wants to go to your shows.”
He closed his eyes as he said it. The words lingered in his mouth, sour-tasting and too heavy.
Richie laughed, sounding stung and suddenly uncertain. A sense memory pricked Eddie. A thirteen year old with a mop of black curls and huge glasses, shrinking back on his bike as Eddie screamed at him.
“Wow,” Richie said. A little sound, a shuffle. Like he licked his lips. “Um. Yeah.”
The basket hung from Eddie’s arm. He ground his teeth.
“I’m sorry, Richie. That wasn’t … fair. Or right.”
“No, it’s okay. You’re not wrong. I mean, yeah, it’s not like anybody’s knocking down my door, uh. Don’t worry about it, Eds, we’re cool.”
Eddie turned sharply in the narrow aisle, so his back faced the front of the aisle and the staffer looking curiously at him. He could see his own face, tightly drawn, mouth turned down, reflected in the convex lens of the mirror posted up high in the back corner of the shop.
“Richie,” he said. The name sat on his tongue. He swallowed it rather than say it again. Felt it go down inside him. “I’m sorry. That was a dick thing to say, and I didn’t mean it. I shouldn’t have said it. You deserve… more… kindness, from me.”
“Uh,” said Richie. He was trying to muster up humor. That was his armor, like Eddie’s suits were for him. “Eddie. Cough once if you’ve been body snatched. Cough twice if you’re having a nervous breakdown.”
“I’m trying to be sincere, dickhead,” Eddie said. “Is it so hard to believe I want to be kinder to you?”
Richie relaxed. Eddie could hear it in his voice, the way the smile sounded in his nasal drawl. “Aw, Eds. You wanna be nice to me? You wanna spoil me?”
“Can you quit making jokes?” Irrationally, the anger in Eddie spooled and grew spikes. “It’s like, I’m trying to have a god damn human emotion here, and you’re slapping it away like I’m going to bite you.”
“Eddie, you have bitten me.”
“I was ten and you were being a dick,” Eddie said. “Look. I’m just— I know I’m not a nice person, okay? I made a guy at the office cry three days ago and the only reason they haven’t fired me is because I’m the entire reason the fucking department is still running.”
“You made him cry?”
“He’s an idiot and he almost lost us the contract with Boeing because of how stupid he is. I don’t care about him. He’s an asshole and his name is Tanner so fuck him.”
“Ah, his name is Tanner. What a dick. What is he, like, twelve?”
“I don’t know how old he is, I don’t like knowing things about my co-workers.”
“Wow,” said Richie. “That’s, uh. That’s really cool, Eds.”
Eddie bulldozed over him. “But you’re important to me. You’re my friend, and I care about you.”
“You sound like you’re literally gagging trying to be nice to me.”
“Every time you make another joke I want to choke you with a tie.”
“Ha-ha!” Richie crowed. “I don’t wear ties. Try again, numbnuts.”
“I do wear ties,” said Eddie. “I’ll choke you with my tie.”
Richie said, “Uh,” and then went entirely silent except for a little, sharp inhale. Relieved, Eddie went on dragging the nails out of his own guts to show them to Richie:
“You’re annoying, and I can never have a normal grown-up human conversation with you, and the fact that you have a job where people pay to listen to you run your mouth is actively insane to me, but.”
Eddie ground his teeth some more. The bodega cat alighted on the tower of Pepsi boxes to his right. It looked at him with luminous golden eyes, brown-striped fur and tail twitching as though it too waited for Eddie to pull out the last nail and let his guts come slithering blue-gleaming and sliming out.
“You’re funny,” Eddie grouched. “And you’re my best friend. And probably the funniest person I know, when you aren’t pretending to be some other asshole. And I like seeing you and talking to you, and yeah, actually, I do like it when you interrupt me, sometimes. And I’m glad that you’re coming to New York. And, uh, that you like me. Even if I’m not a nice person.”
Richie’s breathing filled his ear. His skin itched with it. The cat yawned, flashing pink tongue and marching lines of sharp white teeth. It rolled over on the boxes, showing the paler fur of its belly, and blinked again at Eddie. He knew better than to stroke that soft belly.
“Yeah,” said Richie at last. “Me, too. Um. I’m glad I’m coming to New York. And I do. Like you. You’re… Look, don’t tell Beverly or Mike I said this. You have to cut your hand and swear on it that you won’t tell them. But I think you’re probably the coolest person I know.”
Eddie’s eyebrows arched. “Me? Richie,” he said, “I’m in a bodega in a two piece suit buying powdered milk and Tums.”
“Yeah, because you’re a grown up. Do you wanna know what I’m wearing? I’m wearing He-Man boxers and a fucking t-shirt that says DO YOU THINK I’M SEXY.”
“They make He-Man boxers for men?”
“They do not.”
Eddie set his basket down on the boxes, startling the cat, and bent his head to laugh.
“Okay, I lied, they do,” said Richie. “But can you see me in like, little kid tightie whities with Skeletor on the ass? My legs would fall off. Oh, man, that really got you.” He sounded pleased. Richie Tozier got another good one off.
“Ugh,” Eddie said at last, wiping at his face. “God. I don’t want to see that. Your big, white thighs.”
“Big, white, hairy thighs,” Richie corrected. “And believe me, you’re gonna get an eyeful of it in three days. I am not a believer in wearing jeans inside the house.”
The hair on Eddie’s body stood on end. He felt acutely the small flush starting at his nape and creeping slowly, lingeringly, to his jaw.
“Pack lounge pants,” Eddie said. His voice felt rough in his throat. He fingered the handle of the basket and moved on to the next aisle. “Do you, uh, need me to pick you anything up?”
“Nah, I can do some shopping when I get there. You got any good bodegas around your place?”
“Yeah, Kwan’s is good. I’m there right now. You sure you don’t want me to grab anything?”
“I don’t know. Grab a couple boxes of Twinkies.”
“I’m not buying Twinkies.”
“And whipped cream. I want to blow those creamy yellow boys up.”
“I’m hanging up,” Eddie said. “What time’s your flight get in?”
“Dude, I already texted and e-mailed that shit to you. Six in the afternoon your time, you East Coast weirdo. Bring a limo and a bowl of jelly beans but you better pick out the white ones and the blues ones and don’t even think about keeping the black ones in there.”
“I’ll bring the Escalade and you can starve.”
“What a nice boy, that Eddie Kaspbrak,” Richie sighed, “isn’t he the sweetest little thing you ever saw?”
Eddie hung up on him. Smiling faintly, he went through the refrigerated section for local juice. The cat mow-ed at his feet. He looked at it. It looked at him. With a small sigh, Eddie crouched and offered the knuckles of his first two fingers to the cat. The cat sniffed at his fingers, whiskers trembling. Then the cat rubbed a cheek across his knuckles and walked sedately back the way it had come.
Standing again, Eddie wiped his fingers on his suit jacket and grabbed an orange juice to add to the basket.
Eddie was at the airport by five. Richie had texted him around four, telling him the second leg of his flight was delayed; he’d be in around seven. By then Eddie was already on the road. On principle he refused to turn around. He killed the time waiting with the new Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker on his kindle. Cover story on Michelle Williams in the WSJ. The New Yorker reported on that white kid who’d shot up a black church in Charleston. Eddie stared unseeing at a reproduction of a 1981 painting, three naked women laughing at a grave, one holding a bong, another a knife, the third a gavel.
He would have taken half a klonopin before driving up if he’d known the flight would be delayed, but: no, Eddie thought, I wouldn’t have. He didn’t need to take an anti-anxiety pill to see Richie, and he didn’t like driving after klonopin. The label said to take care when driving but Eddie thought the most careful and most responsible thing to do was to simply not drive at all.
It was idiotic to be nervous about seeing Richie again. They’d just seen each other for New Year’s. They talked on the phone two or three times a week and texted in and out of the groupchat like they did with the rest of the Losers. Aside from Richie, Eddie chatted the most with Mike and Beverly, and he thought Richie probably talked to Bill or Ben a lot. Ben accepted Richie with saint-like patience.
Eddie watched the clock. What was he supposed to do when he saw Richie? Shake his hand, hug him? At the Chinese place he’d just stood there with his arms at his sides trying to smile at this gawky late night comedian he hated stared at him. A decade of memories shoved into his head, each a spiritual variation on Rich Tozier lovingly sucking a finger and then cramming it in Eddie’s ear while Eddie screamed at him to get leprosy of the dick and die.
He didn’t have to worry. Richie came staggering out of the secured terminal with a duffel slung over his shoulder and a huge plastic bag stuffed under his other arm, and Eddie said, “Is that seriously all you packed?” and Richie said, “Dude, a kid was kicking my seat those entire two hours, I’m pretty sure my kidneys are fucked, do you have a dialysis machine?” and Eddie said, “Why the fuck would I have a dialysis machine?” and Richie said, “I don’t know, doc, why don’t you?” and everything was the way it always between them.
Richie threw his stuff in the back of the Escalade and hefted easily into the passenger seat. “Who’s the last person to ride in this? A Keebler elf?” He fumbled around the seat.
“It’s a bar,” Eddie said, annoyed, and he leaned over between Richie’s legs to catch the bar and jerk it up. The chair slid abruptly backwards. Richie stared at Eddie as he sat back up and closed the driver’s door.
“Oh, yeah,” said Richie. “That. Makes sense.” He stuck his legs out in front of him. “So, where to, Lewis?”
“My apartment. You smell like airport.”
“Yeah, ‘cause I’ve been in ‘em all day.”
“It’s gonna be an hour and a half, by the way, if we’re lucky. That’s why I told you to come in at Newark. Newark’s a half hour drive and now we have to drive through half the city in the rain.”
Richie scoffed. “Newark’s a shithole. I’m not flying into Newark. Forget it. LaGuardia’s fine.”
Eddie flicked the turn signal on and switched on the wipers too. The cold rain had started picking up again. He took the exit out of short-term parking and joined the interminable, creeping line to get out of the airport.
“LaGuardia’s a pain in the ass. It took me two hours to get up here. Every moron in Queens is out on the road, shoving their thumbs up their asses.”
“Oh, two hours, that must’ve sucked for you.” Richie was grinning at him. “Hey, did I tell you, I have kidney failure from some punkass five year old beating the shit out of my back?”
“There’s over the counter stuff in the glove box,” Eddie said. “Don’t take the ibuprofen; that’s bad for your kidneys. Take two Tylenol. There’s bottled water in the back seat.”
“I don’t even know where to start with that,” said Richie with no small delight. He turned in the seat under his belt, stretching back to snag a water bottle from the half-unwrapped box. His biceps flexed. He’d worn the leather jacket and underneath, a buttoned-up flannel in a dark blue plaid that looked alarmingly good against his skin. Eddie fixed his eyes on the road.
“Don’t start with anything. I’m putting up with you for a week.”
Richie settled back in his seat. He cracked the lid off the bottle with an easy twist of his thick wrist. His thumb cradled the bottle’s neck.
“Nah,” said Richie. “It’s nice. You’re just such a grown-up, man.”
“We’re in our forties, dude.”
“Every day my knees remind me,” Richie said, kicking his legs out as far as he could manage. He couldn’t get them fully straightened out before him. They were too long, his knees too prominent.
If Eddie pulled in too deeply a breath, he could smell Richie. That weird, sanitized airport smell, spice bite of aftershave. Leather, when Richie fumbled with the glove box to grab the Tylenol.
Eddie knuckled the steering wheel. “The beard looks good.”
“You think so?” Richie cupped his jaw with his hand, long fingers fitted to the line, his thumb sweeping the corner of his lip. The hair of his beard was short, coarse-looking, black. It had a suggestion of curl. “Thanks, man. I don’t want to look like a hobo.” His smile brushed the side of his thumb.
The driver in front of them suddenly flashed his brake lights. Eddie slammed on the horn.
“Move, asshole!” he roared. “It’s just rain, you stupid piece of shit!”
Richie cracked up beside him. Eddie’s heart pounded, too big for his wounded chest.
The rain had transitioned to snow by the time they got across the ferry to Staten Island. Local weather on the radio informed them of airport closures, flight cancellations.
“Right under the wire,” said Richie. “How bad’s the snow get here?”
Eddie shrugged as he pulled into the garage. He pressed his residential ID to the scanner. The red and white striped arm shuddered then began to lift.
“You grew up in Maine, too. It’s like that. You don’t get snowed in as long though. New York’s got better plows. They salted the roads today too.”
“No, like, footage,” said Richie. “What kind of snow hills are we talking about here?”
“Seven inches, maybe eight. Nothing we couldn’t dig out. What, are you scared we’ll get snowed in?” Eddie pulled into his assigned space. He glanced at Richie. “If we get trapped, I promise not to eat you.”
“Good,” Richie said, looking across the car at him, “you don’t want to know the shit I’ve put in this body. I ate a whole box of swiss rolls yesterday.”
“Are you eight? Isn’t your dad a dentist?”
“Baby, these pearly whites? Dentures.” Richie flashed his teeth at him.
Eddie turned away, laughing. He turned off the ignition. The car made small ticking sounds. The radio continued murmuring, running off the battery. He turned that off too. Thinking of joking some more, Eddie turned back to Richie.
He found that Richie was lounging back in the passenger seat, more at ease than Eddie had seen him since well before that night at the Jade of the Orient. If he pressed it, Eddie didn’t think he could ever remember a time Richie had looked so relaxed. He was smiling, almost softly, and the darkness of the garage put his broad and long face into wistful shadow. His eyes, blue, were shadows too behind his glasses. With the beard and his dorky Buddy Holly frames and his mouth curling up to the right, Richie looked startlingly, upsettingly handsome.
“Hey, Eddie,” said Richie.
Eddie felt, in order, and with clarity: the scar in his cheek; the furrows in his brow, the wrinkles around his forever downturned mouth; the hard line of his shoulders.
Richie shook himself lightly. He unbuckled his seatbelt.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just good to see you. C’mon, I wanna see the robot lab you call home.”
“Grab your stuff from the back, I’m not carrying any of it.”
“Like you could with your little arms.”
“I could bench you,” Eddie shouted at him over the car.
They rounded the back of the car at the same time. Eddie hit the door release button.
“Don’t fuck around,” said Richie, “I could pick you up and hold you over my head. I could baby Simba you, no problem.” He flexed his arms. Wearing so many layers, it didn’t exactly impress.
“Yeah, sure, Rafiki,” said Eddie, “you fucking baboon. Pick me up and hold me over your head without your forty-year old man spine snapping in half. Do you even lift?”
“Donuts to my mouth, every day,” said Richie cheerily. “How else do you think I keep this babe-a-licious body looking so good?” He struck three poses in quick succession behind the Escalade.
“I’m heading up.”
“Wait!” said Richie, hurriedly grabbing his duffel, the plastic bag. “Hold on! I don’t know where you live, asshole!”
They tromped through the light snow up the steps to the glass door of Eddie’s building. No doorman so Eddie swiped his residential card and tapped in the 4 digit code on the pin pad. Richie hunched too close to his shoulder, play-acting that he was the coldest man alive. Little, white flakes of snow stuck in his hair.
“Quit breathing down my neck.” Eddie yanked the door open.
“But it’s so cold, Eds,” Richie whined. He jammed the plastic bag up his side and clamped an arm around it so he could stick out his hands. “Look at my hands; they’re shaking.”
Eddie looked as they crossed the small lobby to the stairs. Richie’s hands were out-sized even for his height, his knuckles knobs, fingers long and square-tipped. His wrists stuck a half-inch out from his jacket and they were thick too.
“You should’ve packed gloves,” Eddie said, feeling waspish and annoyed with himself for that. “You should’ve packed anything for winter.”
“These are my winter clothes,” Richie countered. Their voices echoed in the stair well. “City of Angels, man, you know what winter’s like there? It’s a vacation. Santa Claus wears board shorts and a pin-stripe tank top.”
“Well, this is New York.” Eddie heard the syllables stretch in his mouth. Neeew Yaahrk. “You shoulda brought more than a leather jacket.”
“Yeah, but I look wicked smart in it.”
Eddie got his keys out and unlocked the door to his apartment. His apartment was two doors down on the third floor, one side of the hallway just a bank of glass windows looking out over the street. It didn’t feel particularly safe, but there was something about that lack of safety that made it thrilling, even romantic.
“Plus, when I get the consumption,” Richie was yammering, “the nurse’ll be like, oh, who’s this hot dude in the leather jacket that’s wasting away in my arms?” and he pretended to stumble, to swoon against Eddie. “Dr K, Dr K!”
Eddie shouldered him off. Richie’s hand had glanced across his hip. Richie made another faux-helpless swipe at him, and Eddie hip-checked him away rather than deal with the spread of Richie’s palms along his sides, heat of his fingers through Eddie’s sweater and polo.
“I got house slippers you can use,” Eddie said. “I don’t know if they’ll fit. I don’t know your shoe size.”
“No worries, I can barefoot it.” Richie crouched in the entryway and began unlacing his shoes, tanned leather boots with a thick black wedge.
“It’s a hardwood floor. Your feet’ll get cold.” Eddie checked through the shoe cubbies by the door and pulled out the spare set of slippers. No one had ever used them. The left slipper still had the paper tag on it. He yanked that off hard, the plastic attachment biting into his finger. “Here. Try these.”
Richie put them on. His eyebrows raised comically over his glasses. “Eddie! They’ve got fur in them. Jesus, what did you pay for these?”
Eddie shrugged. “I don’t know. Fifty dollars, sixty?”
“Wait a second,” said Richie. He stood, shuffling in the slippers, toes flexing so the ends of the slippers bulged then settled. “Escalade. Glass-enclosed apartment. Fur-lined slippers for guests. That haircut. Eddie, are you rich?”
“I pay taxes.”
“Eddie, you’re rich!” said Richie. “Holy shit. Um, they might not be big enough. Look.” Richie turned around with his hands in his jacket pockets. A couple inches of heel stuck out of each slipper.
“Why did you get so big,” said Eddie, disgruntled.
“That would be because I drank all your milk at school, Mr I Have a Lactose Sensitivity.” Richie turned back around, rocking his weight on his toes. “Now where’s this couch at? I seem to recall promising to break it.”
Eddie rolled his eyes and made to grab the plastic bag Richie had dumped on the entryway floor, by his duffel.
“Nah, I got that, dude,” Richie said, grabbing the bag from him. “You can carry my duffel though, since you’re being soooo sweet to me.” As Eddie bent for the duffel, Richie leaned over and loudly smacked his lips in the air over Eddie’s head: “Mwah!”
Eddie jumped. His head smacked into Richie’s face.
“Oh, shit!” said Richie, muffled. His hand covered his nose. “Holy crap, Eds. You almost shoved my glasses back in my skull. Fuck.”
“Don’t do weird shit when I’m bending over!”
Richie eyed Eddie over his fingers, massaging the long bridge of his nose. He expected Richie to ask why, and Eddie braced for having to tell the truth, to say out loud “Pennywise stabbed me through the back and now whenever someone comes up behind me and I don’t hear them, I blank out.”
Instead Richie dropped his hand. Flexed it. Nodded a little. “Uh, right. Only to your face. Easy peasy.”
Tension flittered out of Eddie’s back. A laughable gratitude swelled in him.
“Don’t do it to my face either.”
Richie trailed after him into the open room that made up the bulk of the apartment. “Aw, but you’re so cute, Eddie. Those skinny cheeks! I just want to pinch them. Cute, cute.”
The couch was a basic leather chesterfield, nut brown with two cushions and an open end on the left. He’d made it up with sheets last night, knowing how Richie sweated in his sleep or had used to sweat when they were kid. Passing the couch on his way out to work that morning, he’d paused a moment then made himself keep moving, unwilling or unready to think about doing the same thing tomorrow with Richie curled up between the sheets or spread out with a leg hanging off the side.
Richie said happily, “Oh, come to Daddy,” and flopped face down on the couch. His legs stuck off the end. Eddie shook his head and pushed the duffel under the coffee table, sleek wood stained to match the couch.
“God, this thing smells good.”
“If you don’t take a shower and get your sweat stink on it, I’ll put you outside like a dog.”
Wiggling further up the couch, Richie rolled onto his side. His cheek was squished against the cushions. His eyes made crescents as he smiled, his glasses crooked.
“Eddie, you would never put a dog outside.”
“I’d put you outside.”
“Well, yeah.” He snorted. “I’m not a dog. Despite what my comedy would suggest.”
Eddie padded into the kitchen, separated from the main living area by the half-bar and the ceiling-mounted cabinets hanging above it. He called, “You didn’t write any of that shit anyway.”
“Dog shit,” Richie mumbled. “Hey, Eddie. You think there’s anything to a joke about a gay dog? Like… horn-dogging it. Shit. Probably not.”
“Whatever you write’s gotta be funnier than that crap about fucking the actual shit out of coeds.”
“Oh, man,” said Richie. “I really did say that.”
He’d put together cream cheese and spinach filled chicken breasts last night to store in the fridge for tonight. Now Eddie preheated the oven and pulled the dish out of the fridge.
“Yeah, it sucked. No offense, bro, but you sucked.”
Richie sighed, loudly enough in the quietude of the apartment that Eddie, skillet in hand, glanced over at him. He’d stuck his long arms in the air and laced his fingers together, hands a bridge with palms up to the ceiling. The bones of his heavy wrists and the tendon running down his flannel sleeve: that was what Eddie saw.
“Yeah,” said Richie.
Eddie swallowed. He turned on the back burner and got busy gathering what he needed for the caramelized broccoli. Olive oil, the pepper red and black, cloves of garlic. The broccoli, two fresh heads with the stems peeled from the veggie drawer.
“Well,” Eddie said. He spooned the olive oil into the skillet. “Not to take away from how much you sucked. But I kinda sucked too. I think, uh, most of us suck.”
“Ben never sucked a day in his life.”
“Not the Losers, jackass.” He checked the sharpness of the knife he’d picked then began neatly halving the broccoli. “Just people. In general. We all fucking suck. Just. Look at the world, man.” He fed the broccoli to the skillet then covered it.
“Derry was poisoned, but… Is anything else better? You know, they killed that kid at Canal Days. That gay kid. And it was Pennywise but it’s not like Pennywise had to be there for some dipshits to kill a kid who just wanted to. Hold hands with his boyfriend.”
In the living room, Richie sat up. The slippers murmured: he was standing. Walking now. Eddie yanked the fridge open again rather than look at Richie. What the hell are you doing? Eddie thought. Richie’s gay. He knows. He was the one closeted for thirty years. You saw his stand-up. Macho frat asshole who fucked women’s tits and joked about their asses.
He had tea in the fridge. Arizona Iced. Eddie jerked the jug out. He knocked the fridge closed. Richie was standing there, his shoulder against the folding cupboard door. A curling fringe had fallen across his brow. He looked like a skinny, homeless Clark Kent.
“People don’t suck everywhere,” Richie said. “I don’t think you suck. What’re you making?”
“What’s it look like? Dinner.”
The oven dinged, signaling it had finished preheating. He peeled the saran wrap off the baking dish with the chicken and dumped it in the oven to bake for twenty-five minutes.
“Would somebody who sucked make me dinner?”
“This is for me,” Eddie grouched. “You just happen to be here.”
“Smells good.” Richie made a show of sniffing the air. He hovered over the stove, pretending to follow an invisible trail of smell to the skillet, like a dog in a Warner Bros. cartoon. “Whatcha cookin’ here, good-lookin’?”
“Broccoli. With garlic and some pepper.”
“Mm, green stuff.” Richie smiled at him.
That heat shivered along Eddie’s nape again. He said, “Not that I expect you to know what any of this is.”
“Hey, I know what broccoli is.” Richie trailed him to the table. While Eddie went on to the glass-fronted cabinets over the bar, to get down three plates and a pair of glasses, Richie kicked a chair out with his foot and plopped into it. “That’s the, uh, white crinkly stuff, right?”
Eddie laughed despite himself. “That’s cauliflower.”
“Oh,” said Richie. “So broccoli’s, what, it comes in a ball and you peel sheets off it?”
“That’s lettuce. Or cabbage.”
“Well, geez louise, Eddie!” He made a show of sinking back into the chair and blinking owlish behind his glasses. “I guess I just don’t know what the fuck’s this broccoli shit you speak of.”
Eddie thunked a glass in front of Richie, then a white plate. “Silverware’s in the second drawer left of the sink.”
Richie tossed off a salute, two fingers to his temple then back to Eddie. “Sir, yes, sir.”
The microwave timer counted off eight minutes. Eddie took the third plate back with him to the counter by the oven and stove. He uncovered the skillet and checked the broccoli, added water, covered it again.
As Richie shuffled through the silverware drawer, he said, “I know what you mean, though. Um.” He lightly tossed two forks up and down in his palm. “You remember that kid? Matthew Shepard? That was in Wyoming. ’98.” He laughed once, without any joy.
“Yeah,” said Eddie. He stared at the skillet lid. “I remember.” He’d just started his senior year at NYU’s business school. He’d broken up with Jenna over the summer, after he took her home to meet his mother. Then back to school, single, and furious with everything Sonia represented to him. He’d looked at some of the guys in his classes, the tall guys. He knew one of them had liked going out with other guys. But Eddie had come short every time he tried to think of approaching any of them, thinking not even specifically of Matthew Shepard, or of Henry Bowers chasing him and calling him a fairy.
“Maybe IT has a cousin in Wyoming, I don’t fucking know,” said Richie. “But maybe it’s just people.” He knuckled at his eyes under his glasses.
The quiet sank around them. Eddie sliced the garlic cloves and added them, the pepper, more olive oil to the skillet, which he left uncovered.
Eddie looked at the timer, counting down the last minute for the chicken’s bake. He heard Richie, setting the table behind him, and felt… He didn’t know what he felt. Lonely, maybe. Small.
“What I said earlier,” Eddie said, looking at the seconds passing down: thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight. “I didn’t mean it. You don’t suck. Your, uh, the person you were playing on-stage. He was an asshole. Fuck him. But you don’t suck.”
“It’s okay,” said Richie. “I yam what I yam.”
Eddie turned on his heel to glare at Richie. “No, listen to me, asswipe.”
“Kind of hostile.”
“Stop making jokes,” he snapped. “I mean it. You don’t suck. Other people, they suck. The guys at my office, they suck. But you don’t suck.”
Richie looked at him. His hair was a mess, too frizzy. He didn’t take proper care of it. The way he looked at Eddie was the way he’d looked at him down in the cancerous belly of Derry, clutching Eddie’s bloody face and covering the hole in Eddie’s chest with his broad hand like he thought he could keep Eddie together.
The timer went off. Eddie pulled on mitts and took out the baking dish. The microwave timer beeped too. He moved around Richie to set the dish on the half-bar, granite topped so it wouldn’t melt under the heat. Then he went to the skillet and added the last run of seasoning, salt and black pepper, lemon juice, some onion powder. The whole of that, he tipped onto the third plate.
Tea for each of them. Napkins. He used a serving fork to put a chicken breast on each of their plates, but he left a spoon in the broccoli so Richie could serve himself. Richie looked over his glasses at Eddie, across the round table. Head bowed, Eddie cut into his chicken.
They ate a little in silence. Richie was tired, Eddie told himself. He’d spent most of the day crossing the country, one coast to another. And Eddie was, not tired, but on edge. He hadn’t thought of what it would mean to have Richie here, in his home, without any of the other Losers to buffer them.
Richie made a pleased sound. Helplessly Eddie glanced up at him. Cheek pouching with food, Richie grinned at him.
“Eds, this is good. This is really good.”
“Don’t call me Eds. They’re just recipes from on-line.”
“When did you learn how to cook?”
Eddie shrugged. “I had to in college. With my dietary restrictions—”
“Oh, your dietary restrictions. That’s why there’s so much garlic in this.”
“I have a lactose sensitivity, not IBS.”
“And yet,” Richie mused, holding half the chicken breast up to the light with his fork, so the spinach and cream cheese stuffing showed, spooling out from the meat. “I sense a dairy in the Force.”
“I took a pill earlier, I’m fine. Anyway, I had to learn,” he said again. He stabbed his knife at Richie, who pretended to cower. “You should learn how to cook.”
“I can cook.”
“Frozen pizzas don’t count.”
“I can cook,” Richie insisted. “If we survive the blizzard of seventeen then I’m gonna go get some groceries and make you a real bomb-ass dinner.”
“Don’t say bomb-ass, dude,” Eddie said, mouth full, laughing at Richie as he sniffed and made a display of nibbling rabbit-like at a broccoli floret.
They ate like that in the little kitchen of Eddie’s lonesome apartment: laughing, mocking one another, Richie stealing chicken from Eddie’s plate “because it looks better, you definitely picked the best one for yourself, which is uncool, I’m your guest.”
“You’re not my guest, you’re like a termite.”
“Damn, Eddie,” Richie sighed around the chicken. “I oughtta pack you in my duffel and take you back to California with me. Nobody’s made me a dinner in like, fifteen years.”
Eddie flushed happily and took a long gulp of tea to hide it. “Well, you’re making dinner next. Remember? So don’t get used to it.”
“You’re a cruel dude, Edward K,” Richie said. His eyes were blue and softly lined. “Giving a man a warm meal then putting him to work.”
“You can take a shower first.”
“I’ll take a damn shower,” said Richie, “and I’ll take a damn good one, too. I’m gonna use every single one of your fancy soaps, on my butthole.”
“Use ‘em on your mouth, too,” said Eddie. Richie tipped his head back and cackled.
You don’t suck, Richie, Eddie thought; and he’d a doubling memory: holding Richie, summer of 1990, Richie skinny and fighting the tears on his face, swiping hard enough at his cheeks it was like he was trying to punch the tears away. Eddie stroking his curls and saying, “You don’t suck, Richie. Bill didn’t mean it. I don’t think you suck.”
It was snowing outside. Pale flurries moved like distant ghosts in the blackness just outside the one window in the living room. Very little of the snow stuck over night. Only at sunrise did the snow begin to cling to itself, the sky grey, the sun hidden away, snow falling in hushed inches to cradle New York City and its towers, its gleaming heights, all the millions of people who lived there and slept there and loved there, all of them waiting, all of them dreaming. The snow coming down through the night like a blessing.
Chapter 4: if you want to survive
You may have noticed I no longer have an estimate of chapters up. That is because I have completely lost control! I still know the shape of things - I just keep writing too much. I know this story is moving very slowly. I hope you continue to enjoy it anyway. Future chapters should move more quickly.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Eddie took one and a half to two trazodone each night to sleep. The breadth of his anxiety did not otherwise let him sleep through the night. He would wake at odd intervals or lie there for hours, exhausted and still unable to rest. The medication did not put him out like ambien would; he preferred the trazodone. Ambien made his hands slow, his brain too heavy. It pulled him deeper than he liked to go.
So when a noise sounded in the apartment, a sharp clunk, Eddie blinked awake. He didn’t recognize the sound. He wasn’t sure he had heard a sound at all. In his dark room he turned muzzily around in bed, feeling for the phone plugged in on the bedside dresser. 4:41AM on the lock screen.
Another sound. Movement, outside his room. Eddie stilled, half-up, his weight on one elbow dug into the mattress. His brain flicked through the probabilities, the securities. Pin pad and card swipe outside the lobby. Key for the door. Baseball bat under the bed. Eddie slid to reach over his bed when he stopped, remembering.
“Richie.” He groaned and relaxed back into bed. Sweat cooled, tacky, across his shoulders. Dark and shapeless dreams roiled at the back of his head then slithered away.
He rubbed at his eyes, his mouth. Then, looking at the ceiling, feeling the near silence of the hour like a muffling blanket, Eddie touched the scar on his chest. His fingers flinched under his shirt. He set his jaw and laid his hand across the scar.
A hole remained or not a hole, but a valley, as if an enormous ice cream scoop had dug out a chunk, the size of a child’s fist, of flesh and muscle and sinew out of Eddie. The hole would never fill. The medical team that managed his care had suggested cosmetic surgery, but the costs were too high, the risks worse. He rubbed scar cream and lotion into it after every shower, to loosen the skin that had grown thickly across the wound.
Eddie closed his eyes. Some nameless thing moved restlessly in his head. He rubbed again at his face.
“Fuck it,” he muttered. Eddie sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. His slippers were in the same spot he always left them, an inch out from the bed. He shoved his feet into them. The fur was silky against the rough skin of his feet.
He could take a shower now, quietly, and check on the snow. If he could work from home, he’d like to. He grabbed a change of clothes, fresh underwear. Because Richie’s here, he thought. They had a week. That was it. A nervousness darted through him. He tried to imagine a week with Richie. The roots of his teeth hurt.
He stepped out of the bedroom, planning to move quickly. The bathroom light was on. The door, just ajar. You had to push it hard and listen for two clicks to know it had latched.
All he meant to do was to close the door. That was what Eddie thought. He crossed to the bathroom door, set in the corner. He put his free hand on the door knob.
Through the thin, fluorescent lit gap, reflected in the mirror, he saw Richie, or what of Richie there was to see when he bent over the toilet bowl. The mountain range of his back, made into a curve. T-shirt stretched widely. Curls, dark brown or black. His glasses, unfolded, on the very corner of the bathroom counter. He wretched again; it shook him. His head bowed lower. He made helpless noise.
Eddie rested his fingertips on the door. He meant to push it open. Richie, are you okay? Richie, what’s wrong? Richie, it’s all right. Richie, let me hold you. What do you want? What do you need? Drink some water. Take this medicine. Eddie would stroke his sweaty hair over his ears and rub his back.
Instead he took his hand from the door and stepped away on his heel. I don’t know him, he thought. In the strangeness of the hour, Eddie realized without ever having thought so before that this was Richie Tozier and he didn’t know who Richie Tozier was. The man in the bathroom was a stranger.
That isn’t right, Eddie thought. I know Richie. He knew Richie the way he knew what it meant when his breath came too quickly. Not this Richie, he thought. Not this Richie, who was throwing up in Eddie’s bathroom and who had slept on Eddie’s couch.
This Richie was forty-one years old. His hair was more brown than black. He had a beard that darkened his cheeks and his eyes. He lived in Los Angeles. He’d gone to rehab twice. He drove flashy sports cars and when he said Eddie’s name he said it teasing or meanly or laughing. His voice, nasal vibrato, pitched lower. He had three tattoos, two of which Eddie had seen: Fleischer Superman “in stunning Technicolor” on his left shoulder blade, and a Porky Pig stuttering “Hey, c-c-cocksucker!” on his right calf.
I know Richie. He knew Richie, eight years old, nine years old, ten-eleven-twelve-thirteen hocking loogies into the quarry and resetting Eddie’s broken arm, look at me, Eddie, just look at me. Richie aged fourteen stripping off his shirt during study hall and jumping on the desk to beat his chest and holler like Tarzen. Richie, fifteen, telling Eddie, “If you fucking forget about me, I’m going to kick your ass so hard your teeth fall out of your nose,” that day Eddie moved out of Derry.
I know Richie, Eddie thought.
6’1”, about 180 pounds, tall and wide, wider than Eddie. Strong hands, defined thumbs. Hair on his forearms, his chest, even the backs of his thighs. In the sewer he’d held Eddie bleeding and fading in his arms and wept onto his face, Eddie’s own blood dripping from Richie’s shattered glasses. “Eddie,” he’d said, “hey, Eddie, c’mon,” and Eddie had looked blearily up at him and thought, Oh. You’re Richie. I know you.
Eddie backed away from the bathroom door. He fled to his bedroom. Behind the door, closed behind him, heedless of the noise and if Richie would hear it, Eddie knelt and placed his head between his knees. Very calmly he recognized that he was hyperventilating.
“He’s your friend, idiot,” he whispered to his slippered feet. “He flew all the way from Cali-fucking-fornia to stay with you. You talk to him three or four times a week on the phone. You made him dinner last night. You wanted him to come here and he came here because he’s Richie and he’s your friend and you’re a stupid piece of shit.”
He knew Richie. He didn’t know Richie. They were kids together but they weren’t kids anymore.
Last night as Eddie washed the dishes and Richie dried them, Eddie had sighed.
Richie said, “What?” sounding amused.
“Nothing. I’m just sighing, dude,” said Eddie, scrubbing hard at the baking dish. The corners always took the most effort.
“You sound like a dog falling asleep.” He flexed. Stripped down to a Bugs Bunny t-shirt, he looked more impressive than he had in the parking garage, biceps flexing. “Need me to carry you to bed in my big, strong arms, Sleeping Beauty?”
Eddie had told him— It didn’t matter what Eddie told him. It hadn’t been especially kind. Richie had laughed anyway, his eyes creasing. He’d looked at Eddie and smiled, lopsided, rumpled with his beard. Eddie had glowered up the four inches of height that separated them. In his chest his heart had fluttered faster and faster. He hadn’t wanted to say he’d sighed because he was happy, washing the dishes with Richie.
They weren’t kids anymore. He’d known that. He hadn’t understood it. How easily they had all fallen in with each other again, the Losers unchanged by the decades between; but of course they had changed. Of course they’d grown.
Richie was Rich now: not Richie, not Richard, but Rich. Eddie was Mr Kaspbrak at work, to his therapist, to his lawyer, to Mrs Kwon at the bodega down the block. Myra called him Eddie, but he’d never liked how it sounded in her mouth. Like a little kid’s name. Edward, my name’s Edward, or Mr Kaspbrak, but do not call me Eddie.
He’d dropped his change of clothes on the floor when he crouched. Eddie picked up his briefs, the flannel trousers, the GO METS tee. He folded each neatly across a knee and then he stood, carrying the little stack in his hands. He laid it on the unmade bed.
The toilet flushed. Richie turned the faucet on: the soft rush of water. Eddie counted to sixty. He was at twenty-three when Richie turned the faucet off. He thought of Richie drying his hands off. Turning out the light. Leaving the door open behind him. Forty-seven. Lying down on the couch again.
At sixty, Eddie opened the door.
Richie had not stretched out again on the couch. He was in the kitchen, doing nothing, only standing there holding the refrigerator handle in his hand like he’d forgotten what he’d come in to the room to do. He was in the drawstring shorts and plain green shirt he’d thrown on after his shower. The hair of his thighs was dark.
Eddie cleared his throat. Richie startled. All the muscles in his legs tightened, ready to spring. He glanced over at Eddie.
“Hey,” said Richie.
Eddie grumbled, as if he were still half-asleep. He went to the sink and the drying rack beside it. Last night’s glasses, turned upside down, stood there. He filled each glass with water from the brita filter and then turned to silently shove one at Richie.
“Uh, thanks.” Richie’s voice rasped, maybe some from sleep, mostly not.
“Drink water first thing,” Eddie said. “To replace what you lose at night.” He shuffled deeper into the kitchen to dig through the cupboard where he kept the tea leaves, each kind in its own ziplock bag. He kept little pouches of those moisture absorbent beads in that cabinet, to keep the tea dry.
Richie swallowed half the glass in two long gulps. The apple in his throat hitched up then sank. Eddie put the kettle on the smaller of the two front burners on the stove.
“You got, uh, coffee?” Richie rubbed at his forehead with three fingers. The little finger stuck out minutely.
“Bad for digestion.”
“Good for Richie wake up.”
“Go back to sleep,” said Eddie. “You look like shit.”
Richie, eyes lidded, twisted his mouth behind the glass of water. “What a soft touch, that Eddie.”
“Don’t act like my grandma at bingo night.”
“Never met the woman,” said Richie. “Heard she was a real babe, though.”
“Can you stop sexually harassing my dead relatives,” said Eddie. He didn’t have to fake the note of exhaustion. “Shouldn’t you be focusing on my grandfather anyway?”
Richie said, “Huh,” and crossed the kitchen on bare feet to refill his glass.
Eddie layered leaves in two mugs, fetched out of the cabinet over the half-bar. They were plain mugs, identically molded and painted the same dark blue shade. He got the honey from above the fridge and the bowl of sugar from the table.
“Not that I want you fucking my dead great uncle.”
Richie dug a knuckle in the inside corner of his left eye. He chuckled dryly as he did it and leaned against the sink.
“It’s so fucked. Eddie.”
“Necrophilia’s a misdemeanour in New York.”
“Holy shit, it’s not a felony?” Richie looked more awake than he had before.
“It’s a felony in Maine,” Eddie said. “That’s where my great uncle’s buried.”
“Huh,” said Richie again. He tapped two nails out of rhythm against the glass. “But I was actually, uh, referring to my obvious ongoing gay panic.”
Eddie hummed. He licked his thumb and touched the side of the kettle: warming. He looked to Richie, waiting for him to continue. Richie was looking at Eddie’s thumb, his hand; then he raised his glass and drank deeply. His throat worked. His eyelashes were short and black on his cheeks. Worn-out bruises showed around his eyes.
Richie lowered the glass. His fingers fidgeted around it. “Kinda makes me nervous when you don’t say anything, Eds, gotta tell you.”
“What, d’you think I’m gonna throw you out? It’s snowing.” Eddie popped his big toes in his slippers. He met Richie’s eyes and, steadily, he held his gaze. “You’re my friend. You’re Richie. I’m not gonna fucking beat you with a rock.”
A smile like a grimace passed across Richie’s face. He scratched at his arm, nails dragging red lines across his biceps. “I guess I thought that. Once that god damn clown was dead, and I remembered why I was, uh, so scared. That I wouldn’t care anymore. But I guess I still do. I’m still scared as shit.”
“You came out to all four hundred thousand morons that follow you on Twitter,” Eddie said. “That wasn’t scared.”
“No, I was scared, dude,” Richie said. “I was like, two feet from the bathroom in case the panic shits hit me. And, uh, I know we talked about it last night. Like. It wasn’t just that janky clown. But.” He scrubbed violently at his face. “Fuck! Why can’t I just get over this?”
The kettle began whistling. Eddie nudged Richie, a hand at his hip. Richie dropped his hand, startled again.
“Because it’s trauma, bro,” Eddie said. “I married my mother.”
He poured the hot water into each mug, carefully measuring to the line marked on the inside lip. Steam pillowed out in soft, warm waves. The heat of it wetted Eddie’s face.
He glanced at Richie through the steam. The cloud wavered. Richie’s face blurred then cleared again. His eyebrows were pinched at the center. He looked as if his heart was breaking.
“I hate tea,” said Richie.
“Well, tough shit,” said Eddie. “I made two mugs so you’re drinking tea. Do you want sugar or honey?”
“I want a caramel macchiato.”
“I want you to shut the fuck up.”
“Fine, I’ll drink your bullshit leaf water,” said Richie with a huff. “But I want chocolate syrup in it.”
“You’re a fucking rabid animal,” said Eddie. “And I don’t have chocolate syrup.”
“I should’ve stayed at the Holiday Inn Express.”
Eddie led Richie back into the living room, the light from the kitchen all that illuminated. The sheets he’d put on the couch had popped out of their neat creases; Richie had made a tangled nest of them. He’d pulled the coffee table over too, flush with the open end of the couch.
“Your couch is a couch for tiny woodland creatures,” said Richie when Eddie fixed him with death in his eyes and his face and the flashing of his teeth. “I had to stretch my legs out on something.”
“On my coffee table? I do work on that!”
“But you don’t drink coffee on it,” said Richie. “I’ll wipe it down later. Can we just sit, like people? Like human beings? Like it’s not five in the morning and you’re already at defcon yank Richie’s hair out?”
“Move over,” Eddie crabbed.
They sat together on the couch. Eddie folded his legs on it. Richie said, “Dude, come on. What the fuck. How do your knees even do that.”
“I do yoga. If you took care of your body even a little bit, maybe you wouldn’t sound like mariachi band every time you stand up.”
“Eddie,” said Richie, “did I ever tell you you’re the funniest asshole I ever met?”
Eddie decided to sip his tea rather than respond to this. Beside him, Richie squirmed, his endless struggle to get comfortable, to find comfort, to stay comfortable despite whatever bug itched at him. Eddie was pretty sure Richie had adult ADHD but Eddie wasn’t qualified to make those kinds of assessments. He’d sure as hell had regular ADHD in the 1980s.
“God, this tea sucks,” Richie muttered. He slurped at it, scowling. “How do you not have coffee? You’re like the most caffeinated man on the planet. Your heart could power the Hadron super collider.”
“I only drink coffee at work,” said Eddie. “Believe it or not, my hypertension is extremely bad.”
“Oh, not an issue, Ripley. I believe it.”
Eddie yawned and leaned his head back against the couch. It was easier to forget the years between them when they were like this, his shoulder to Richie’s biceps, his knee to Richie’s thigh. Richie stretched his lanky feet out and cracked the knuckles. He had long, patchy black hairs on his feet.
“You’re not a coward,” Eddie told him, as if out of a dream. He was looking at Richie’s feet, how he was crossing and uncrossing his toes. “Um. Actually, there’s something I should tell you. I mean. Something I want to tell you.”
“You are putting me out in the snow.”
Eddie ignored him. “I think I’m bisexual.”
He’d startled Richie again. Richie drew in a quick breath. His arm tightened next to Eddie. Eddie closed his eyes and waited for whatever would come now, whatever came next.
“I,” said Richie.
Eddie couldn’t resist. His resolve immediately crumpled. He peered just through his eyelashes. Richie’s hands were trembling, the mug shifting fractionally. Then Richie flexed his wrists and the trembling stopped.
“Uh,” said Richie. “Thanks, um. For sharing that. With me.”
“That’s it?” asked Eddie. He lifted his head off the back of the couch. “That’s all you have to say to me?”
“Well, what am I supposed to say?” Richie fussed his mouth up and crossed his eyes at Eddie. In Valley Vanessa’s Voice, he said, “Like, congratulations on ummmm, all that pussy? And like, the dick too? Greedy much?”
“Fuck you,” said Eddie. “You know that’s not how it works.”
“Sorry,” Richie said, “it’s just that you’re married. To a woman.”
“And you dated that supermodel for like three years,” Eddie snapped, “that make you straight?”
“Sorry! It was a stupid thing to say. But Jesus, Eddie, what the fuck.” Richie looked, somehow, deeply upset. “You couldn’t have told me— Whatever. Never mind.”
“Excuse me for fucking thinking we could talk about this shit like adults,” said Eddie, standing abruptly. “I didn’t realize you had the market cornered on sexuality crises.”
Richie dropped the mug on the coffee table and lunged to catch Eddie’s wrist. His hands engulfed Eddie’s forearm. He tugged once, so very lightly, a gesture so needy that Eddie had to stop and turn again to him.
“I’m sorry,” Richie said. “Eddie. I just…” The light from the kitchen caught in his glasses. His eyes were hidden. “It’s nothing. I’m happy for you. Eddie. Eds.” His left hand slid lower. His fingers brushed at Eddie’s fingers, asking. “It was a shitty joke, and I didn’t mean it. You can eat as much pussy or dick as you want.”
Eddie was the one trembling now. He said, “I’ve only had sex with two people,” and he hated that he said it, he hated that he was opening some gap in his armor, giving Richie the shot.
Richie stroked his fingers along the back of Eddie’s hand, and Eddie, unwanting but wanting too, uncurled his fingers so that Richie could take his hand. His glasses shone. Eddie saw his jaw work as he swallowed.
“I, uh,” said Richie. “I’ve never fucked somebody I cared about. Or at least never anybody who cared about me.”
Like he was magnetically attuned to Richie, Eddie slid to the couch again. He was turned to Richie, his knee pressed not alongside Richie’s thigh but into it.
“People care about you.”
Richie shook his head. He said, “Not really. I… until Derry, I didn’t even remember what it was like, having people who cared about me. Do you know how fucking shitty that feels? I went into that restaurant and you guys were all there looking at me like I was this annoying piece of shit stuck to your shoes and it was the nicest feeling I’d felt since fucking eighth grade, which I didn’t even remember.”
Eddie stroked Richie’s hand now, helpless not to. What was it about Richie that made him want to tear at him, claw at his throat, pull at his hair, and yet still be so tender with him? To take care of him, to really take care of him, the way that Eddie’s mother had never understood.
“Yeah,” said Eddie lowly. “I know how that feels.”
“But I don’t get that, Eddie,” said Richie. “You’re, like, the cutest little thing.”
“Okay, you can stop now.”
Richie clung to his hand. “No, no, I’m serious. You’re an asshole and you’re so fucking loud and you drive like you forgot you aren’t in a Mad Max movie—”
“It’s New York City, everybody drives like that in New York City—”
“But at that restaurant! Dude. When I saw you, I thought…” Richie shook his head. His frizzy curls fell across his cheek, stubbled.
Eddie’s mouth ached. His tongue was so dry, despite the water. Despite the tea.
“What did you think?” He tried to make it sound suspicious.
Richie’s eyes squeezed shut behind his glasses. He turned his face away. He said, “I thought, I hope someone’s looking out for him. I hope they love him. ‘Cause, uh. Eddie needs somebody to love him.”
Eddie held his hand there in the half-light, in the dark of the morning. Richie at last shrugged, ironic, nonchalant.
“You can say something funny now.”
Eddie licked his lips. He was still so dry. Richie’s eyes were on him again.
He said, “I care about you. You know that, right, Richie?”
And Richie swallowed again and said, “Yeah. I know that.”
Their mugs had cooled, sitting on the coffee table.
“C’mon,” Eddie said. “I want to check on the snow.”
“Oh, shit, that’s right,” said Richie, stirring back to life, obnoxious and bright. “It was snowing. I haven’t seen snow in like, five years.”
Eddie led them through the front door. He pocketed his keys in his lounge pants out of habit. The hallway lights were dimmed to the legally permitted minimum, just enough to make out the width of the path. The glass banks of the building’s exterior looked out on the street, where the world was quiet and dark and covered, now, in snow: an inch, soon two, pale and cold and lovely in these hours before sunrise.
“I hated winter,” Richie said at last. He whispered it. Here in the hallway, standing in front of the glass and watching as snow fell in loops, they had somehow passed into a private space.
“You did?” Eddie folded his arms against the chill of the hallway. He was watching the snow, how it seemed to dance around the yellow-gleaming streetlights on the corners. The memory unfolded inside him: something he had forgotten long ago. “You used to make the best snowmen.”
“That was Ben.” Richie stood, one foot on top of the other, toes curled against the linoleum flooring. “I made the snowmen with—”
“With the carrot dicks, yeah. I told you they were the best ones.”
“What a juvenile sense of humor,” Richie muttered. “You really thought that shit was funny?”
“I was fourteen. You were basically the only funny person I knew. And I didn’t know what jokes were yet.”
“Ahhhh,” said Richie, “there it is. The tender caress. The bitter slap. You always got me on that wire, Eds.”
“Don’t call me Eds.”
“Eddie, my love,” Richie sang softly under his breath. “I love you so-o.”
“Did you really hate winter?” Eddie turned to him. They were bent together, like that, the heat of their bodies a ghost between them.
“Yeah, didn’t you? Your mom never let you out when it snowed.”
“I got out.”
“Yeah, but if you got just a sniffle, she’d pull you of school, and then who the hell was I going to talk to in class? Mrs Applebum?”
Eddie stifled a laugh. “That wasn’t her name.”
“You’re still getting your memory back, you don’t remember,” said Richie. “Her name was definitely Applebum. I dis-tinct-ly recall that she was named Applebum.”
“She was always worried I’d get the flu.”
“Your mom? No, shit,” said Richie. “Anyway that’s why I hated winter. Like it wasn’t enough that every day was five hours long but Mike was stuck on the farm all day and I only got to see you maybe twice a week outside of school. That was fun, though. You’d come out in twenty coats—”
“I wore layers, you moron,” said Eddie, “it was winter in Maine, I wasn’t going outside in jeans and a sweatshirt like some assholes I could name.”
“If you fell over we could roll you like the Michelin Man.”
“Oh,” said Eddie with surprise, “you did that one time,” and then he slapped Richie’s arm and Richie giggled. “That wasn’t funny! Just because I didn’t want to get frostbite.”
“Nobody gets frostbite anymore. That’s not a thing. God, you were cute,” said Richie. “A little rollie pollie. You’d get so red in the face. And then the snot…” He ran a finger under each of his nostrils, miming the flow. “So cute.”
“I’m not talking about this anymore,” Eddie said. “Stay out here and freeze to death if you want.”
“Don’t you want to build a snowman? Hey, Eddie,” said Richie, “it doesn’t have to be a snowman.”
“Get back in the apartment. You’re barefoot.”
“I never see you anymore,” Richie whined as he followed Eddie. “Come out the door. C’mon, let’s go and play.”
“Drink your tea.” Eddie pointed at the coffee table. “I’m taking a shower.”
“How do I know which mug’s mine? Oooh, Eddie, maybe I’ll drink both. You know what that means: indirect kiss.”
“Go back to sleep. Wake up at a normal time.”
“You didn’t give me coffee,” Richie said. “I can’t help it. I’m delusional with the sleep deprivation. Hey, Eddie!”
Eddie reemerged from the bedroom with clothes in hand. “What?” he snapped.
“Don’t think about my feet when you’re in the shower.” Richie winked outrageously. His whole face got into it.
Eddie wanted to tell him to quit fucking around: they were adults, remember? They’d had an adult conversation. They didn’t have to just run their mouths. They didn’t have to pretend not to be depressive sacks of shit.
But he flushed and said only, “Richie, the day I think of you in the shower is the day I break my neck on the side of the tub.”
“Because of how overcome with lust you are,” said Richie. “That’s understandable. I have quite the death toll.” He heaved a sigh.
Eddie dumped his clothes on the bathroom counter and shoved the door shut, listening for the two clicks. His ear was nearly to the wood. He could just make out Richie in the living room, singing: “How I’ve waited for you, you’ll never know.”
In the time it took Eddie to shower and dry, to lotion his scars and moisturize, to sweep up the few scattered hairs around the shower drain, Richie had fallen asleep again. He’d been like that when they were kids, too. Up and running at three in the morning at a sleepover, then passed back out at five after waking everyone else up.
Eddie lingered a moment in fondness over him. He’d gone to sleep on his side on the couch, one leg half-bent, the other sprawling off the couch and across the coffee table. His glasses were tucked in his hair, the dumbass. Mindful, Eddie plucked the glasses off and folding the arms neatly, he set the glasses on the edge of the coffee table, far from Richie’s knee.
By then the hour was six. Eddie made his bed, perfect even squares, corners neat; then he took his laptop to the kitchen to do some work in there. He sent an e-mail in to the department head that he would be telecommuting due to the weather. The laptop didn’t have the hardware credentials needed to log directly into the work database, so he worked on the research end of things. His desktop had access but the desktop was in the living room against the wall and that keyboard was mechanical.
The sun rose at 6:57 that morning, though the dense cloud cover masked it. Richie woke up around eight, with sleepy, smacking sounds, like a bear emerging from hibernation.
“What time’s it?”
“Eight. There’s tea if you want any.”
“Nooo, thank you, old chap.” He stumbled into the kitchen, scratching at the hairy slice of belly that showed under his rucked up shirt. “Uh, you got eggs?”
“Second shelf. Just make sure you throw the shells away. I don’t have a disposal.”
Richie popped the fridge. “It’s like a Whole Foods in here.”
“I eat organic. It’s good for you.”
“Sure.” Richie yawned widely, straightening with the carton of eggs in hand. “Body’s a… machine.”
Eddie plucked away at the EPA reports. All around him came the little sounds of Richie shelling eggs, scrambling them thoroughly. Eggs sizzling in a pan. The fridge opened again; closed. Eddie scratched at his eyebrow, glaring at the screen. He’d have to double-check the files on his work account, but none of this shit was compatible. This whole venture had been a huge time-sink.
Richie set a plate on the table by Eddie’s elbow. Eddie looked up, bewildered. “Omelet du fromage,” announced Richie, “a la Tozier. Cheese is cool on keto, right? It was in your fridge.”
“Oh,” said Eddie. “Uh. Thanks. Richie.”
He shrugged, taking the seat next to Eddie. He had his own plate with an omelet. Richie offered Eddie the silverware, and Eddie took one of the knives, one of the forks.
“You were looking hangry.” Richie laid a hand beside his mouth and whispered confidentially to Eddie, “That’s when you’re so hungry, you get angry too. So, like, your default setting.”
“It smells delicious,” Eddie said. “Thank you.”
Richie blinked owlishly at him. He still had a hand to his mouth. This he dropped, and he sat upright, away from Eddie.
“Uh, sure. No problem.” He rolled his tongue over his teeth, the side of his cheek moving suggestively with it. “Might as well earn my keep.”
Eddie snorted. “That’s real sweet, Rich. Maybe later today you can clean the grout in the bathroom.”
“Man,” Richie said. “It’s killing me not making a joke about going on my hands and knees.”
“Don’t burn everything before your shows,” said Eddie dryly. He cut off another large piece and chewed at it. The cheese was hot on his tongue. “This is, uh, this is really good.”
“I’m a provider,” Richie said seriously, but his ears had pinked and he was smiling at his plate.
Eddie swallowed his bite. He took another.
After breakfast, and the dishes (“right now? You want to do the dishes right now? In the morning?”), Richie insisted they go outside. “Come on! It’s snow! Aren’t you even a little excited to get your ass wet?”
“Do I look excited?”
Richie squinted at him, too close. Eddie set his jaw.
“No,” Richie conceded, “but I figured that was just your face.” He made a face of his own, no doubt to mock Eddie. Eddie remained unmockable, mostly because Richie looked cross-eyed and puffer-mouthed.
“Do you know how many bad weather accidents happen in the snow?”
“Ffffive,” said Richie.
“Twenty-four percent! Twenty-four percent of them happen because of snow and ice!” Eddie cut the side of his hand against the palm of the other hand to emphasize each sentence: “Snow is a pain in the ass. It freezes. It melts. It freezes again. It ruins cars. It ruins sidewalks. It’s a giant safety hazard and four months out of the year I have to navigate this white crap. So no, I’m not excited for snow.”
Richie nodded as if in dawning understanding and then his mouth pinched to say get it the fuck together and he jabbed Eddie in the chest. “You have two minutes to put on a coat and some boots, and then I’m coming for you. We’re gonna fucking frolic in that white crap. You’re gonna have some god damn fun for once or god help me I will throw all your Burberry silk ties in the toilet and then I will flush the toilet.”
“I hate you so much,” Eddie said bitterly. “You’re such a dick.” But he got his coat and he got his boots, not because of Richie’s threat, which he knew Richie would never follow up on because Eddie would strangle him to death first, but because maybe part of him was fourteen years old and eager to escape the house and go out in the snow and throw chunks of ice at Richie.
Richie was standing in the hallway just outside the door when Eddie came out, winter boots laced up, his coat zipped, pulling his gloves on. He laughed looking at Eddie. All Richie had thrown on over his jeans and flannel were the ankle boots he’d worn on the plane and his leather jacket.
“You’re gonna freeze,” Eddie said. “I don’t know what you’re laughing at.”
“No, no.” Richie shook his head as they walked to the stairs. “I just think it’s cute. How prepared you are. You know—” He pitched his voice nasal. “Oh, Eddie, you look so grown-up!”
“Because I’m a grown-up.” They hit the corner in the stairwell and turned to continue down. “You should try it out. Growing up.”
“No, thanks, man, I’m gonna eat fruit roll-ups until I die.”
Richie crowded against Eddie’s back, his hands spread wide, one trailing fingers along the wall, the other gliding over the guard rail. Eddie ought to have felt pressured, or something akin to the anxiety he’d felt the night before when Richie leaned over him, IT’s behind you, IT’s going to hurt you. He only felt aggravated, skin tense, his shoulder blades itching with the nearness of Richie and his body heat.
“If you eat fruit roll-ups, you will die.”
“All men must die,” Richie intoned sonorously. Eddie did elbow him for that. Gasping comically, Richie hunched. His forehead thunked high on Eddie’s back, and Eddie shouldered him off. His back crawled where Richie had touched him. He thought that maybe he liked it.
“I don’t really wanna talk about death.”
They emerged into the lobby. He glanced at Richie, who had gone quiet. Richie was doing that fucking thing again, just looking wide-eyed and nearly hurt at Eddie.
“I’m not dead,” Eddie said sharply.
“I know you’re not,” Richie said. Then he shrugged uncomfortably and straightened, somehow getting bigger. “Nobody who’s this huge of an asshole could be a ghost.”
Eddie snorted. He pushed open the lobby door onto the grey-lit snowing February day.
“May I present to you: winter, Mr Tozier.”
“Now do a curtsy.”
Eddie did a flourishing half-bow instead, ending with his hand palm up out the door and the middle finger of his other hand directed at Richie.
Richie pressed a hand to his throat and said, all fluttering Southern belle, “Oh, Mr Kaspbrak, you do spoil a simple Mississippi rose such as myself. I hope that when you’re looking for a dancing partner at the debutante ball you’ll keep little old me in mind.” As he ran through this breathless monologue he tramped into the snow.
The half-iced crust cracked under his foot. He took the first step, then the second. Then his foot slid out from under him and Richie yelped and Eddie grabbed too late for Richie, his hand slipping off the slick leather covering Richie’s shoulder; and Richie landed on his back on the steps.
“Richie!” Eddie clambered down the steps and crouched in the snow over Richie.
Richie blinked up at him. His eyes were huge and shocked, eyebrows flyaway gulls.
“Ow,” said Richie.
“Can you move?” Eddie patted him down. Hands sliding under that leather jacket to feel at Richie’s sides, his undefined waist, the heat of him under the jacket. “Can you move your legs? Can you stand up?”
“Um,” Richie said. “Yeah, I think— Yeah, okay, I can move my legs.” His knees shifted; his boots dug into the snow at the foot of the steps. A wince folded up his face. “Yeah, gimme a minute. I can stand.”
“I’m right here,” said Eddie, like Richie would have somehow forgotten Eddie was hovering over him like a panicked ghost. “Grab my arm. I’m gonna lift you up.”
Richie said, “Dude, I’ll just pull you over too,” but he hooked his arm around Eddie’s offered arm and reached to take Eddie’s other hand, given to him, and Eddie ground his feet through the snow and heaved. Richie came up into his arms. His lips were even with Eddie’s jaw. His breath puffed white condensation against Eddie’s cheek. Their shoulders brushed. Richie’s knee bumped at Eddie’s thigh.
“Uh,” said Richie. His eyes were huge again, a ring of blue encircling pupil, blown black.
“I told you,” said Eddie, “I work out.” He couldn’t think of Richie’s bare hand clinging to his gloved hand. The long fingers wrapped around his wrist.
Richie licked his lips. “Yeah. I can, uh, tell.” He made to stand on his own then collapsed again against Eddie. “Oh, holy shit. Crap.”
“Can you walk? Let’s get inside. C’mon. Put your arm around my shoulders.”
“Eddie, I ate shit,” Richie said as they struggled back up the steps, his weight settled across Eddie’s shoulders. Eddie held Richie’s wrist tightly. He’d his left arm hooked across Richie’s back. His hand flattened along Richie’s side.
“Come on. The elevator’s over here.”
“There’s an elevator?” Richie said, with sudden outrage. “And you made us take the stairs?”
“It’s only two flights. How out of shape are you?”
“Be gentle,” Richie said. “I’m an injured man.” He grimaced as Eddie laid him against the wall to hit the call button. “Jesus. I feel pulverized. Like Andre the Giant just fucking whaled on my back.”
“It’s not that bad if you’re walking,” Eddie reasoned. The elevator chimed. He grabbed for Richie again, and together they hobbled onto the elevator. “I’ve got ice packs in the freezer. Try to stand up straight.”
Richie made another face but he did straighten. His back popped. He made a sound like a dying man.
“Oh, shit, Eddie,” he said. “Oh, my god. I fucking hate forty.”
“You need to take better care of yourself,” Eddie told him. “Do you do any stretches?”
“Stretches? What are you talking about? I don’t play sports.”
The elevator settled. Eddie herded Richie back to the apartment. Inside, he dumped his keys in the ceramic dish on the low desk by the door, and he dumped Richie on the couch. Groaning, Richie toppled over on his side.
“Eds. Where are you going? Eds. I can’t be left alone.”
“Don’t move! I’ll be right back.” He rummaged through his bedside table. The orange bottle was where he’d left it, still sealed with the red tape, at the back of the lowest drawer behind a box of Polaroids he’d kept since college.
In his absence Richie had shifted onto his back. His legs hung off the end of the couch. He was trying to pry his boots off with his feet.
“Quit that. I’ll get your boots. Sit up,” Eddie said. The mugs were still on the coffee table. One of them had an inch or so of tea inside. He ignored the thought of dust, collecting in the tea.
Richie groaned again but slowly sat up, swinging his legs over so that his back pressed to the back of the couch. Eddie popped the safety tape on the bottle and then the lid. He shook two of the white pills into his hand.
“Take these. It’s ten milligrams of flexeril.” He dumped the pills in Richie’s hand and twisted to grab the mug. “We just ate so you should be okay, but if you feel pukey let me know.”
“What d’you have flexeril for? Isn’t this shit, like, controlled?” Richie tossed the pills in his mouth and chased them with a swig of the tea.
Eddie took the mug from Richie and the other mug from the table. He stood up. “It’s from my surgeries. I didn’t want to take any more drugs. After. So I didn’t.” He took the dishes to the kitchen.
When he came back Richie was looking at him in a luminous way, as if there was a tremendous light behind Richie’s eyes and he was seeing things in Eddie that Eddie kept somewhere deep, tucked away in the dark that lived inside every person.
“You just lived with it?” Richie asked him. “The pain.”
Eddie nodded, his cheek rumpling, the scar twisting. “It… Don’t make fun of me. But it made me feel alive.”
Richie said, “I wouldn’t make fun of you.”
Under his coat and all the other layers, Eddie felt acutely the shape of his scars, how they pinned him front and back. Eddie cleared his throat and turned away again to take off his coat and the jacket beneath.
“Take your shirt off.”
“I need to look at your back,” Eddie said, turning around again, irritable and flushed.
“Uh,” said Richie faintly, still looking at Eddie, who was tugging his Mets tee down to his waist. “Sure. Just let me strip. Got any music you want to put on?”
Richie muttered, “Yeah, yeah, beep beep the guy with the broken back,” but it shattered whatever odd and nervous mood had grabbed Richie. Wincing as he did it, he peeled the Three Stooges t-shirt over his head. His chest was as hairy as the rest of him. The muscles pulled up, taut, his arms over his head: barrel-chested like a swimmer preparing to dive glidingly into the water.
Eddie’s hands itched. He stepped forward and took the shirt from Richie, who had to adjust his glasses. The shirt had mussed his hair; half-hearted curls of it stuck out like straightened springs, at comical angles. Eddie made a turn around gesture with his hand, spinning his finger. Richie rolled his eyes but got up on his knees on the couch and turned, showing the long expanse of his back to Eddie.
Freckles speckled his upper back. He had moles, small brown ones scattered the length of his back, four, then five. Eddie thought of cancer, skin tags, melanomas; then a memory drifted to the surface, kicking its way through the water of forgetting: Richie thirteen years old and stretching dramatically, his pale back before Eddie, a pattern of five little moles peeking at Eddie like secrets.
Eddie put his hand to Richie’s shoulder. Underneath the touch, Richie shivered.
“Sorry,” said Eddie, meaning for the cold of his fingers. Richie’s skin burned at his palm. He always ran so hot.
“It’s fine,” Richie said, voice thick. “So, uh. How bad is it, doc?”
A red line an inch or so wide ran straight across the small of Richie’s back. Eddie touched his fingertips to it, palpating the hot and swollen skin. Richie jumped and half-laughed.
“Okay. Yup. That hurts like a bitch.”
Eddie felt at the spaces where he knew the kidneys lived, but Richie didn’t jump or groan. The hardy knuckle-bones of Richie’s spine were buried underneath a thin, subcutaneous layer of fat. Richie only winced, as like a bruise, touched.
“You’ll be fine,” Eddie said. “It’s going to bruise. And you need to stretch so your muscles don’t lock up.”
Richie’s head bowed. His nape showed, a surprisingly elegant curve. He’d another mole there, just hidden beneath his hair. He nodded.
“You’re probably gonna have to show me what to do.”
“Sure,” said Eddie. He handed Richie his t-shirt over his shoulder. “I taught yoga at the gym a couple times. If those meatheads could get it, you can get it.”
“Oh, Eddie,” said Richie. “How I love your tender touch.” He dressed with slow and awkward movements, arms first, the shirt bunched over his chest, nipples dark like round bruises in the middle of his pale and hairy chest.
Eddie turned from him. His fingertips were raw with touching. He went to the kitchen, to check on his laptop’s battery. It had turned off automatically. He needed to plug it in. Two ice packs, from the freezer: he delivered them wrapped in a dish towel to Richie, who had turned on to his stomach on the couch.
“Come on,” Eddie said. “You shouldn’t sleep here. It’ll be bad for your back.”
Groaning, Richie rose. “What, you’re giving me your bed?”
“Just lay down. I’m sorry I didn’t change the sheets. I can do that first if you want.”
“No, it’s fine,” Richie said, “I’ll just try to ignore your sweat-stink.”
“Or you could lay on the floor,” Eddie suggested. He pushed at Richie so Richie sat heavily on the edge of the bed. He still had his boots on. Eddie crouched to untie the laces.
“You don’t, uh.” Richie’s fingers twisted in the bedspread. The neat corners wrinkled. “You don’t have to do that. Or any of this. I’m fine. It’s just gonna bruise, right?”
“Get over it,” Eddie said. He yanked the left boot off and started on the right. “You’re my guest. I’m not going to make you sleep on that couch with a back injury. You don’t fit on it anyway.”
He got the right boot off. Richie had on red and white socks patterned all over with smiling cheeseburgers. Eddie suffered a terrible surge of affection. He pushed off the floor, standing again in the loose V of Richie’s knees. Richie looked up at him, face shadowed in the unlit room.
“I don’t wanna put you out,” Richie said. “It’s your bed.”
“Just let me take care of you,” Eddie said. “Okay? You’re not putting me out. Now come on. Get on your stomach. I want to get these ice packs on you.”
Stiffly, like a man in a dream, or perhaps a marionette with strings pulled too tight, Richie obeyed. He pressed his cheek to Eddie’s pillow and breathed in and went uncomfortably still. Eddie pulled his shirt up and slid the towel, ice packs bundled in it, up the shirt so it covered the red line across Richie’s back.
That awful fondness still stuck like tar to Eddie’s lungs, his heart. He smoothed the shirt down Richie’s back.
“Just relax,” Eddie told him. “Okay? I’ll make you some hot chocolate.”
He stood. He crossed to the door. Richie shifted on the bed and Eddie looked back, meaning to scold him; but Richie had only turned his head over so he could look at Eddie, standing there in the doorway with the living room light behind him. Richie's ankle bones stuck out from his jeans. His arm had folded up against his side, wrist turned, fingers twitching the bedspread.
“Why are you being so nice to me?” Richie asked him. He asked it in a voice so unlike Richie: plaintive, soft.
“I’m always nice to you, asshole,” Eddie said, and he closed the door gently behind him.
As a kid, when Eddie did manage to sneak out of the house on such occasions, his favorite part of a snow day had been the hot chocolate at Stan’s house. Stan’s dad was severe and to Eddie, frightening, in that way stern adult men were frightening to Eddie. But Rabbi Uris had made them hot chocolate with steamed water and chocolate chips, bought Kosher pareve, Stan explained, at the kosher market in Haven.
“What’s pa-pareve?” Bill had asked, the first time Stan had invited them over after a bitter cold morning of sledding.
“Means no dairy,” Richie butted in cheerily. “No titty milk.” He made a rude tugging gesture.
Eddie kicked him under the table. So did Stan. “You don't know what pareve is," Stan hissed at Richie.
“Your mother should bring you to synagogue more often,” said Rabbi Uris. Richie hadn’t shrunk at Rabbi Uris’ strong look, but Eddie did.
“Naw, then Dad’ll make me go to mass too.” Richie kicked back at Eddie. “Hey, Stan, d’you think any of the birds are still left?”
“Some birds don’t migrate.”
“Yeah, ‘cause they’re dumb. They could go to Hawaii!”
“They don’t fly to Hawaii,” said Stan with the patience of Mrs Wagner, who taught third grade class 2, the one they all shared. “They just go south.”
“Hawaii’s in the south, right? Isn’t Hawaii in the south, Mr Uris?”
“And another, l-like, million miles away,” said Bill.
“I wasn’t asking you, B-Bill.”
“Don’t pick on Bill,” Eddie said. “You’re acting like a—”
“Like a what, Eds?” Richie grinned, mad-eyed, his glasses refracting light from the window that overlooked the Uris’ snowed yard. “Rabbi Uris, is Eddie allowed to curse?”
“Vulgar speaking will pull your soul down into your shoes,” said Rabbi Uris. He began setting the mugs out on the table. Stan, sitting properly, murmured thank you. Bill stumbled his thanks too.
“You’re acting like a butthead,” Eddie whispered meanly at Richie.
Richie elbowed him and Eddie slapped his arm away.
“Rabbi Uris!” said Richie, shoving his hand in the air like Stan’s dad was the teacher. “Eddie called me a butthead!”
“I didn’t call you a butthead! I said you were acting like one! There’s a difference!”
Stan’s father put two mugs down between them. The authoritative thunk of each mug on the wood made Eddie jump. You must always be respectful to men, Eddie. You should never be rude.
“Thanks, Rabbi U,” said Richie. “Ignore Eddie. He’s got this thing where sometimes he forgets English. And he turns into a mute.”
“Beep buh-beep, Richie,” Bill muttered.
“You should be a little nicer to your friend Eddie,” Rabbi Uris told Richie, with a clap to Richie’s shoulder. “You boys drink your hot chocolate. I’ll be in the study if anything happens. Try not to start any trouble, Mr Tozier.”
“No way, sir, no trouble at all, sir,” Richie chirped, “I’ll keep these fellas in line, sir, don’t you worry, sir.”
“Thank you, Mr Uris,” Eddie called belatedly after the rabbi. Stan’s dad turned to look over his shoulder at Eddie (Eddie, a good boy always minds his manners). Eddie said, “Um. For the hot chocolate. Sir.”
Rabbi Uris smiled at him. The smile made him handsome, suddenly, in a way that made Eddie go quiet all over again, thinking that he looked like Stan did sometimes.
“Remember your homework, Stan,” Rabbi Uris said.
“Yes, Dad,” said Stan, and over the lip of his mug he’d glared daggers at Richie then, unfairly, at Eddie, who hadn’t done anything and had in fact been exceptionally polite.
They’d learned how to make the hot chocolate on their own over the years, although Stan fussed if Richie or Bill did it. Richie burned the chocolate, and Bill always made a mess on the counter. Eddie was tidy, though, and so was Ben when Ben and Mike came along, but Mike didn’t like hot chocolate without milk and at first they were all too scared Stan’s dad would find out. If Stan's dad didn't use milk, then it probably wasn't kosher, and, Eddie reasoned, they bought the chocolate chips special.
“Just put milk in your mug, who cares,” Richie said, but he’d looked nervously at the kitchen door even though everyone knew Stan’s dad was at the temple dealing with the new graffiti.
“You guys are such pussies,” said Stan with tight-lipped scorn, and he’d put milk in all their mugs, even his own. Then he looked lean-eyed at all of them, waiting to see who would drink first.
“Oh, Stan, don’t drink it,” Richie moaned. “You’ll totally go to hell.”
“Hell isn’t real,” said Stan. “Maybe if you bothered coming to temple you’d know that.”
“Oh, Jesus, it’s happening,” Richie had shouted, careening wildly, slopping hot chocolate out of his mug. How old were they then? Fourteen, most of them. Eddie lagged behind like he always did. As Richie bounced around, babbling, Eddie had giggled, trying hard not to snort hot chocolate out his nose. “Stan’s— He’s— Oh, Christ, oh Lord help me, he’s turning into his dad!”
“Stan’s dad seems cool,” Mike said. Bill stared at him like Mike had just tripped down two flights of stairs, landed on his head, and done a cartwheel. Mike looked back at him and smiled, bemused, transformatively handsome. “What?”
“He’s not,” said Stan with deep feeling.
Richie slung an arm around Stan and said scornfully, “Maybe if you bothered coming to temple you’d know that.”
“And if you ever came,” said Stan, “you'd know pareve is about mixing meat and dairy. You can put milk in hot chocolate.” The rest of the Losers looked at him with stone-dull faces. “Dad just likes it with water.”
“I come all the time, ask Eddie's mom,” said Richie. Eddie punched him lightly in the side.
“You were j-just messing with us,” said Bill, as Richie slapped at Eddie. Bill had tugged his mouth to one side; he wasn't mad, not Big Bill, just annoyed he hadn't known. You could see that on Bill's face, that he disliked not knowing something, not knowing it innately.
Stan had only shrugged. “You never asked,” he said. They'd thought about that a while. Eddie had, anyway.
In his apartment kitchen, twenty-six years later, trying and failing to find any chocolate bars in the cupboards, Eddie remembered that Stan had moved out of Derry first, after Beverly. Someone in Derry had started vandalizing the synagogue, then the rabbi’s home. One day Stan came into school and very calmly told them some two or three high school guys in a pick-up truck had shouted Nazi crap and thrown, in this order, two bricks and a Molotov cocktail through the front picture window.
Rabbi Uris had refused to move. “Dad says it means that the anti-semites win,” said Stan. But his mother had demanded they go to New York, where her family lived, that Derry wasn’t safe for Stan and if Donald wanted to stay in Derry then that was fine with her but Stan wasn’t going to, not for all the righteous ideals in the world.
So Stan had moved to New York. New York! Eddie thought, another of those little and delayed epiphanies. Stan had gone to college at NYU and so had Eddie. We could have met each other in class, he thought. They could have roomed in the same dormitory building. He tried to remember if he had shared a class, a lunch table, anything with a guy who might have looked like Stan or talked like him; but in the end, he remembered nothing else but the day Stan had left and how he had hugged Eddie and promised to write and never did.
“I hate snow days,” Eddie muttered. He closed the dry goods cabinet. Even as a kid, eager to go out and play, to get snow shoved down the back of his shirt by Richie or to build the World’s Tallest Snowman with Mike and Ben, he’d get stuck in his own head. It was like the snow as it accumulated made a blanket to muffle his brain. Or it was the years of snow days spent trapped in the house with his mother, still weighing him down.
He sighed and grabbed his phone.
Texting didn’t come easily to Eddie. He was a generation too old to really understand it, he guessed. He preferred phone calls and Facebook Messenger, but he made an effort with the group chat, as they all made an effort.
He opened the text client then paused, thinking, his elbows on the half-bar.
“Thought about Stan,” he wrote into the chat. “It’s snowing in NYC. Do you remember that hot chocolate his dad used to make?”
The message delivered. He looked at the chat, thinking about Stan and how he held the mug with both hands, long fingers encircling it and the tips crossing together beneath the handle.
“Hot chocolate?” Beverly texted.
Eddie smiled and wrote back, “Guess you left in the summer, so you didn’t know.” He summed up those winters, leaving out, it felt, all the details that made it beautiful: Rabbi Uris’ rare smiles, Bill making elaborate toasts, Stan rolling his eyes at Richie playing the fool.
“Wow,” Beverly wrote. “I wish I could have been there.” She was quiet. Then the client showed Beverly is typing, and she added: “After we moved, I was so lonely. I didn’t even remember why. I think I was missing that hot chocolate.”
“I still make it,” Eddie texted, “but different. I use full chocolate bars and milk. I thought it wasn't kosher but I was remembering something and I think maybe I was wrong. Hard to remember some of the details.”
Beverly is typing. Beverly is typing.
“We could ask his wife.”
“Maybe,” said Eddie. “I don’t know.”
“Ok,” Beverly texted, and he saw her smile; he felt the touch of her hand on his knuckles. “Love you, Eddie. xo talk later?”
“Sure. Love you too.”
He put his phone face-down on the bar. Thinking of how long it might take to walk to Mrs Kwon’s, he went to check on Richie, to tell him no hot chocolate.
What had he expected? Richie was asleep, sprawled on top of the bedspread. At some point he’d gotten up enough to pull the brown afghan at the foot of the bed over his legs; or he had managed it just by pulling with his feet. One of his legs was bent at the knee. He’d an arm tucked under a pillow, the other arm flung out wide, fingers dangling off the side of the bed.
“Asshole,” Eddie said under his breath; but his heart was aching, looking at Richie breathing so evenly, steady with his cheek pressed deep into the pillow.
Yeah, Eddie thought. Yeah. Okay. It had the shape of realization; he accepted it; he let it sit unquestioned in his chest.
He would have left like that, only he thought about Richie waking up while he was gone and waking up with his mouth dry or his stomach upset, like how any strong muscle relaxant did to Eddie; so he slipped back in to leave a plate of club crackers and a glass of water on the bedside table, where Richie would see it when he opened his eyes.
Then he pulled the door closed, holding the knob perfectly still in his hand so that when the door fit the frame it did so without complaint. Richie went on undisturbed, snuffling in his sleep, Eddie’s brown afghan tangled around his legs.
Mrs Kwon didn’t close the bodega for rain, shine, snow, hurricane, “earthquake too,” she told Eddie. “Always open, Edward. The dollar does not sleep.” That and her family lived in the two floors of apartments above the bodega. He’d met most of them over the course of the months he’d lived on the block, five now.
Eddie stamped through the snow along the sidewalk. His apartment building was positioned at the midpoint of the block, bracketed by taller housing on either side. On the other end of the block a corner building boasted a nail and beauty salon, a barber’s above that, and a small romance book store on top of that. City workers had plowed the street already and hired workers were shoveling off the sidewalk in front of the apartments. Eddie bobbed his head at the men he passed.
Outside the bodega, Mrs Kwon’s brother-in-law (“Danny, Edward. You can just call me Danny. Unless you want me calling you Mr Kaspbrak and I don’t feel like doing that”) was on shovel duty. His face creased: he hailed Eddie with a hand, lifted at a jaunty angle.
“It’s afternoon now, you gotta get a new watch. Hey, you still at Shulman & Chantilly’s? Hell yeah, all right. Might be seeing each other. I’m coming over from Brookman’s.”
“Really?” Edward smiled, not broadly perhaps but with real pleasure. “It’ll be nice to work with someone who actually knows what they’re doing.”
“Jesus, don’t scare me like that,” said Danny. He was good-looking in an old movie star kind of way, his cheek bones strong and his cheeks half-hollowed beneath, hair black and naturally wavy. “That kind of crap’s why I’m getting out of Brookman’s. I got tired of busting my ass so other guys could ride it.”
Eddie laughed sharply. “Well, the pay’s better.”
“And the company,” said Danny, and he winked at Eddie.
Eddie flushed under his coat, as he flushed every time he spoke with Danny, who was ten years younger than him and possessed of such smooth, easy confidence that Eddie felt like a stuttering teenager around him. He wasn’t unaware that he was attracted to Danny. It was only that…
Well, he thought. Because you’re not free to date.
The bell over the door dinged as he stepped into the bodega. Normally Mrs Kwon sat at the register. Her daughter, Na-jung, sat there now and didn’t bother to look up from her textbook.
“Welcome to Kwon’s, need any help just ask, thank you!”
Eddie nodded; she didn’t look and she wouldn’t have cared. He wandered down the candy and chips aisle, scanning the white wire racks for the bars.
Mrs Kwon bragged about Na-jung, who was twenty years old and in college, every time he came in. “Of course, I wanted her to get into Harvard, go to law school like her father, but Harvard was not for my Na-jung. Juilliard! Juilliard for violin! She’s second chair, do you know that? But I think she’ll be first chair next semester. You should hear her play. She’s a genius. But we’re not supposed to say that. It can hurt a child if you tell them things like that. Instead we say, ‘You did a good job,’ and she doesn’t have anxiety.”
At the counter, Na-jung looked like any other college student. She had a dramatic, black stubble undercut with the hair on top bleached blonde and artificially curled. She had earbuds in and a pink highlighter and a yellow highlighter both held in the same hand over her textbook.
Eddie thought about his own mother, how she’d talk about his business studies. He found the bars of chocolate, a wall of Hershey’s and Dove’s and Cadbury’s. He’d wanted to go into pre-med at one point, hadn’t he? Why hadn’t he?
He knew why: Sonia had scolded him for even thinking of something so dangerous. And how would they pay for it? Didn’t he know how expensive medical school was? Business school would open up more opportunities, and then he could buy a house in Vermont. Of course they’d live together. He had to take care of his mother.
A cell-phone rang. Not his. Na-jung started talking to someone.
Eddie never had bought that house in Vermont. It was almost funny, he thought. He’d moved in with Myra as an act of rebellion. How Sonia had hated her, called her a slut and a gold-digger. Mommy, I don’t like the way you talk about Myra. Mommy, when you say things like that about Myra, I don’t want to come around and see you.
Maybe he shouldn’t have cancelled his therapy appointment this week. How was he going to explain that to Richie, though? Hey, thanks for flying across the country, but I’m gonna go see my doctor for an hour after work.
Eddie sighed and finally spotted the cardboard box of Kohler dark chocolate bars. He grabbed four of the bars and on impulse, ducked down the soups and dinners aisle to grab a couple cans of chicken noodle.
Na-jung was still on her phone when he approached the register, balancing the cans in the crook of his arm. “I don’t know, there’s nothing I really wanna go see this weekend,” she was saying. “I’m basically done with coffeehouses right now. If I hear one more sad white dude read a sonnet, I swear to God— Hold on, I’ll call you back.” She dropped the phone carelessly on her textbook. “All set?”
Eddie laid the items on the counter for her to scan and bag.
“You’re that guy from up the street, right?” said Na-jung.
“Uh. Yeah,” he said. “I’m Edward.”
Na-jung rolled her eyes. “My mom’s, like, in love with you. I think if she could get you and my uncle Dan on a date she’d die happy.”
“Oh,” said Eddie. “I didn’t know that Dan was.” He cut himself off.
“Don’t freak out,” she told him.
“I wasn’t going to,” he said. “But, um. I’m not available.”
“I’ll tell my mom,” said Na-jung with profound twenty-year old dryness. “Uncle Dan doesn’t date white dudes anyway. No offense.”
She read him the total. Eddie offered his debit. As they both waited for the card-reader to process the transaction, he fidgeted.
“You know, Rich Tozier’s doing a couple shows this weekend, in Manhattan.”
Na-jung laughed out loud, not particularly kind. “What, that asshole? Sorry. Uh, I’m not supposed to swear in front of customers.”
“It’s cool,” said Eddie, who had no idea what was cool with or to college students. He found Na-jung effortlessly intimidating, young and composed.
“It’s just, he’s such a frickin’ douche,” she continued. She bagged the cans of soup and the bars. “He says all this shitty stuff about everybody and then he comes out like wow, so awesome, ‘cause that’s what the community needs is for more straight people to think every guy who’s a homophobe is secretly gay.”
Eddie accepted the bag and the receipt. His neck was sweating.
“Well,” he said, “I think it was. Kind of brave of him. Coming out even though he knew people wouldn’t respect him for it.”
Na-jung looked at Eddie. Her nose wrinkled then smoothed out. She shrugged one shoulder.
“I guess,” she said. “Maybe if he stops making all those shitty jokes about women.”
Eddie nodded, smiling reflexively, and made his escape. At the door, pushing it open, he paused and said to Na-jung, “Your mother’s really proud of you,” feeling like an idiot even as he said it.
She eyeballed him, her black eyebrows arched as if to say okay, and?
“Yeah,” she said, “I know.”
Eddie jerked out into the snow. Danny had gone back inside. The sidewalk in front of the bodega was cleared, except for the patches of icy snow that had got into the crevices. The snow was still falling, fat white flakes tumbling from a foreboding sky. Hunching his shoulders against the cold, Eddie made his way back home.
He unlocked and pushed open the door to find Richie standing there in the living room, wild-eyed and holding two phones, one in each hand. His hair was a disaster, his shirt wrinkled. He had the brown afghan hanging off his shoulders and his glasses were slightly askew.
“Oh, shit, did I forget my phone?” Eddie said.
“Eddie,” Richie blurted. “You’re—” He swayed abruptly on his feet.
Eddie dropped the bag in the doorway and lurched forward to get his shoulder up under Richie’s arm. “What are you even doing up?”
Richie tightened his arm almost painfully around Eddie. He ducked his face. His breath gusted through Eddie’s short-cut hair, pulling up goosebumps along his scalp.
“I woke up and you were, uh, gone, so I…”
“What, panicked? Threw your back out?” He pulled Richie over to the couch and made him sit, back straight. “Did you eat anything? I left you water and crackers. Did you even touch them?” He felt at Richie’s face with the back of his hand, checking his temperature, if he’d sweated.
Richie swatted his hands away. “It’s nothing. Forget it. I’m stupid.”
“You’re not stupid,” said Eddie. “Can you sit here for a minute and not fall over?”
Sulkily, pulling the afghan higher around his face, Richie said, “Maybe.”
Eddie got the glass of water and the crackers from his bedroom. Richie’s boots were on their sides at the foot of the bed, on the floor. One had tumbled with the toe pointing under the bed. As he came back out, hands full, he called:
“You need to drink the water. And eat some crackers, okay? I left them there for a reason. You need to keep food on your stomach with flexeril.”
Richie looked up at him as he rounded the couch. His fingers plucked at the afghan’s loose, knitted stitches.
His tongue stuck out between his lips, as if he meant to lick them; then he clamped his lips together between his teeth.
“What?” Eddie repeated. He sat next to Richie on the couch and shoved the water at him.
Richie wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I just had a stupid dream.”
He took the glass in his left hand and held it there, at his arm. He still wouldn’t look at Eddie.
Eddie gentled his voice. “Richie. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he said to the afghan. “It was… I don’t even remember it now.”
“You still look freaked out.”
Richie did lick at his lips then. He took a long pull on the water. Then another. He shuddered under the afghan. So few inches between them. Slowly, not knowing why he could not simply do it with ease but wondering if perhaps he did know, Eddie reached across that distance to rest his hand on Richie’s leg.
“It was the deadlights,” Richie said, dully.
Eddie drew a leg up on the couch. He folded it beneath him and laid both his hands on Richie’s leg. Richie took in a shivering breath and hid the exhale in the water that he drank.
Strange, to talk about something so vile under the familiar golden-warm lights of Eddie’s apartment. Remember: the sewer stink in Eddie’s nose, a memory of violence that pinned him like a butterfly, beep-beep, motherfucker, so many rows of teeth, the blood drifting out of Richie and floating in warm red beads to the fungus-coated alien rocks above, floating in beads like water did in space, like jelly.
“IT’s dead,” said Eddie out loud, to stop the shivering that had started in him too. “We killed IT.”
They had carried him between them, Ben on one side and Mike on the other, holding him up with their shoulders.
“IT’s dead,” Eddie said again, louder than before. His heart thumped like a rabbit’s heart: a frightened animal, run into a corner. “IT’s dead and we killed IT and IT can’t come back. IT won’t ever come back. We killed IT, Richie.”
They had screamed at IT, taunted IT. Eddie said, “You smell like my mom’s diapers,” and Richie had stomped on IT. Ripped an arm off. The Losers surrounded IT, making IT tiny, making IT nothing, and they had crushed that tiny withered alien heart. Dead, dead, dead. Dead like Henry Bowers. Dead like Sonia Kaspbrak. Dead like Betty Ripsom.
Richie bent over. He covered his face with his hand. The glass of water, he tucked to his chest. The back of his shirt had rucked up, exposing the bruising skin so low on his back.
“Richie,” said Eddie helplessly. “Richie. I didn’t go anywhere. I just went down the street. I went to the bodega to get chocolate so I could make hot chocolate like Stan does. Remember how Stan makes hot chocolate?”
“Did,” said Richie in a mottled voice. “Stan did.” His shoulders jerked. He tightened. Richie was crying.
“Don’t cry,” said Eddie, and he wrapped his arms around Richie. He pulled Richie flush to him. “Don’t cry, Richie.” In the circle of his arms they were ageless; they were children again. “Stan loved us. He loved us. Don’t cry.”
“The deadlights,” Richie wept into his shoulder. The afghan scratched at Eddie’s face. He closed his eyes and burrowed into Richie’s own shoulder. “In the deadlights. I don’t remember. I don’t want to remember. But I see it. When I sleep. I see the deadlights, Eddie, I can’t stop fucking seeing them, Eddie, I see the deadlights.”
Eddie stroked his hair, his ears. He did this tenderly: a softness that seemed to well up unbidden from the corners inside of Eddie. Don’t cry, Richie, like a child trying to comfort another kid who had bruised their knee.
“What do you see?” Eddie touched behind Richie’s ears again, straightening the arms of his glasses. “In the deadlights.”
“I don’t remember.” He said it through his teeth. “I told you. I don’t remember what I saw. All I saw was the deadlights. They—”
He tore away from Eddie. Snatched his glasses from his furious face and threw them on the coffee table.
“Jesus, Rich, your glasses!”
But Richie ignored him. He dug his hands into his hair and pulled, hard, curls swallowing his knuckles.
“Fuck!” he said. “God damn it!” or god damn IT.
Eddie grabbed Richie’s wrists; he wrestled his arms back from his face. Richie stared, panting, at him.
“Quit it!” Eddie said. “Quit it, or tell me what the fuck is going on.”
Like that, so easily, Richie crumpled into him again. His nose, buried in Eddie’s clavicle and so cold. Eddie was still in his coat. He’d half-unzipped it coming in, before he saw Richie standing there and staring at Eddie like Eddie was a ghost; like Eddie had walked out of a grave or a bad dream or a spotlight, shone into darkness.
“I see the deadlights,” said Richie into Eddie’s chest.
“What do you see?”
His hair smelled of sweat. Eddie looked down his cheek at the exposed, wet skin of Richie’s nape. The mole, small and dark. The ladder bones of his spine, barely more than a suggestion under the fat and the muscle and the short hairs growing in. He needed a haircut soon. Eddie stroked him once, languorous from the top of his head down his neck to his shoulders. Richie swallowed. The heavy breathing of his crying slowed.
“I see the deadlights.”
“What do they look like?”
“I don’t— I don’t know. They’re just lights, spinning. But I can’t tell if that’s what they are. My head… hurts. When I’m looking at them. That wasn’t IT,” said Richie, roughly. “What we saw. That fucking clown. The spider. IT was the deadlights. I saw what IT was. Beverly, she…”
“She saw IT, too.” Eddie stroked him again, even slower. “Did you ever talk to her about it?”
Richie rolled his head. No. “She, uh. She had to carry it enough. She doesn’t, um, need this shit too.”
He was calming in Eddie’s arms. He was melting into Eddie’s arms. I want to take care of you, Eddie thought. I want to protect you. Let me keep you and I’ll keep you safe. Eddie Bear, it isn’t safe out there.
“IT’s dead,” Eddie whispered to him. “IT can’t hurt you. IT won’t. Even if IT did come back—”
“IT was already dead,” Richie said, digging his hands into Eddie’s back, “IT was already dead the whole time, IT was never alive, not really—”
“Even if IT came back,” Eddie said, loudly now so that Richie had no choice but to hear him. “I won’t let IT hurt you. Do you believe me? Richie.” He laid his palm gently on Richie’s bearded jaw. “I would never let IT hurt you.”
Richie breathed against him. Then he lifted his head, and his eyes were dark, pupils blown wide, and he was incandescent with anger.
He said, “I don’t care about me, Eddie! I saw you in the deadlights. I saw the deadlights and I saw you and you were dead, Eddie, and then I fucking watched IT stab you,” and he grabbed Eddie by the arms and shook him once. “Eddie, god damn it, I watched you die, and now when I go to sleep, I—” His breathing shook. “I see the deadlights and—”
Eddie cupped Richie’s face in both his hands. He shook Richie then.
“Shut up,” Eddie said. “Shut up and listen to me. No, Richie! You have to listen to me now. So just shut the fuck up!”
“I saw you,” Richie whispered, “I saw you in the deadlights. I see the deadlights. I see IT.”
“Shut up!” Eddie snarled. “I’m not dead. Look at me, asshole! Would you just look at me! For fucking once!”
Richie looked at him.
He sees you, Eddie thought. He sees you. His heart gulped. His lungs swelled. Every part of him worked, even the parts of him that IT had ripped in twain.
“I’m not dead,” Eddie said. “Do you see me?”
Slowly, not blinking, Richie nodded.
“I’m not a ghost,” said Eddie. “I’m not dead. I went to the bodega. I bought chocolate bars and soup. IT didn’t kill me. IT couldn’t kill me.”
“Just like your mom,” said Richie.
“For fuck’s sake—”
“She couldn’t kill you either.”
Eddie stopped. His thumb traced the line of Richie’s cheekbone. The ungiving ridge of it, under the skin.
“No,” said Eddie. “She couldn’t kill me either.”
“You’re alive,” said Richie.
“I’m alive,” said Eddie.
Richie squeezed his eyes shut. The corners of his eyes were wet. Tears pushed out, silvery things wicked and foul. Eddie brushed them away.
“This is real.”
“This is real,” said Eddie. “You’re here, and I’m here. This is my apartment. And I’m not dead. You couldn’t get rid of me if you fucking tried.”
Richie’s jaw worked. His throat did too. He cupped Eddie’s hand, the one that petted him so carefully.
“I’m sorry for having a fucking breakdown on your leather couch,” said Richie without opening his eyes. “If you wanna have a breakdown then you can.”
“I don’t want to have a breakdown,” said Eddie. “I’m done having breakdowns. You can have as many breakdowns as you want but you have to start believing me when I tell you that I’m real.”
“I’m trying,” Richie said. His eyes when he opened them were watery, unfocused without his glasses, but sharp too: clear. “I’m trying, Eddie.”
He remembered, as he had remembered before, the feel of Richie’s hands on his broken arm: the firm snap of the bone cracking into uneven place as Eddie screamed and screamed at Richie.
Eddie reached for Richie’s glasses. He put them on Richie, mindful of threading the arms through his sleep-greased curls, stuck to his temples. Richie blinked owlishly at him, his pupils thinning. Eddie stood.
“Maybe this will help,” he said to Richie. “Stay there.”
He unzipped his coat. He walked to the closet by the door and hung it neatly inside on the waiting hanger. Then he unbuttoned his green plaid flannel and folding it, returned to the couch and set it on the coffee table.
Richie said, “Eddie? Uh,” and Eddie said, “No. Shut up. I’m still talking,” and pulled off his GO METS tee-shirt. He should have folded the tee. He didn’t. He held it nervously in front of his chest and then he straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin and he dropped the tee-shirt on top of his folded flannel.
With his body, bared, he said: Do you see me? and Richie saw him.
He knew what the scars looked like. He felt them, every day. In the terrible stillness of Richie’s face, the flatness of his expression, Eddie saw again his own fear, his horror. The flinching terror he fought by memorizing the scar on his chest with his fingers.
“Oh, my god, Eddie,” Richie husked.
“I’m still alive,” Eddie said. His skin prickled with the chill. He knew his nipples were hard with it. He looked down his nose at Richie. “This is my body. This is my body, and it works. I survived, Richie. I survived my mom, and I survived IT, and I survived Derry. I—”
He startled. Richie had reached his hands out to Eddie and grasped him, one broad hand covering his hip, the other hand stretching to brush his fingertips at the bottom lip of the scar. Reverently, like a man at worship: like a man knelt before a sacred god. Eddie was not that thing. He wasn’t an altar or a temple. He didn’t know how to say these things to Richie.
“You’re alive,” Richie murmured wonderingly.
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” said Eddie. “If you’d just fucking listen to me.”
Richie smoothed his fingers into the hollow, a gliding stroke that filled Eddie’s wounded chest with Richie’s middle three fingers, the knuckles so thick, his nails so raggedly short. Eddie trembled unwilling under Richie’s spreading thumb, the little finger that crooked so only the tip touched his skin. His hand covered the whole of the scar. He filled that hollow with the heat of his hand.
“Myra couldn’t look at it,” Eddie told him. “It upset her too much.”
Richie’s eyes flickered back and forth, taking in all of Eddie. The lines by his mouth. The crow’s feet at his eyes. The furrows, he knew, that marked his brow when he frowned, and he always frowned. He didn’t want to be the kind of person that frowned but it was the way his face was: so nervous, so dour.
“So I kept my shirt on. So she wouldn’t have to look at it. And I think I already knew that I had to leave her, after Derry. When I married her, I, uh, I was just running away.” His hand came up, to rest on Richie’s wrist, flush with his ribs. “I was running away from my mom, and I was, uh, running away from having to be brave. But I’m brave.”
Richie said, “You are brave,” and he swallowed. His jaw clicked. “You’re so much braver than anybody ever told you.”
“And I know that now,” said Eddie, “but I forgot it then. Or I didn’t want to remember it. And then I came home and I was already thinking that I had to leave, and she didn’t want to look at me. She couldn’t touch me. Do you know what a dead bedroom is?”
“Do you want to tell me this?” he said, almost normal, shoulders pulling back.
“We weren’t sleeping together anyway,” Eddie said, as if that mattered. “We hadn’t slept together in a year. Almost two. And then it was like I was a leper, and Richie, I’m alive—”
“You’re alive,” said Richie. Call and response. “Eddie. You’re alive. I can, uh, feel your heart. Right now.”
“It’s a good heart,” Eddie said fiercely. “It’s a working heart. There’s nothing wrong with it. And she didn’t want to touch me because she was afraid of hurting me but Jesus Christ, Richie, I just want somebody to touch me. I’m so fucking tired of nobody touching me!” He shouted it, because it was the truth, and he told Richie that too. He told him, “My whole life everyone told me I was fragile, I was delicate, you have to be careful, Eddie, all the fucking germs, you can’t eat that, Eddie, you’re sensitive to that, Eddie, I’m not fucking sensitive!”
“I never said you were fragile,” Richie told him. His fingers tightened around Eddie’s hip. “You weren’t ever delicate. You were a gross little gremlin. You were even grosser than me.”
“And I just wanted somebody to touch me,” Eddie said, “I just wanted one motherfucking asshole to touch me,” and it was too much. It was true, too true, huge and spilling inside him.
He’d loved the Losers for so many reasons and among those reasons he had loved them because they had touched him. Richie had touched him more than anyone else, though, and maybe that was why when they were young, just dumb kiddy assholes, Eddie had loved him so much. “Richie, get your disgusting hands out of my hair!” “Richie, I swear to Jesus Christ if you put any more of your boogers on me!” “Richie, it’s my turn in the hammock so shove over and let me in.” “You’re such an asshole, Richie, quit fucking grabbing me!” Do not fucking touch me!
And all that time his sparrow bird taking flight, cornered rabbit heart that worked just fine, Mrs Kaspbrak, had said please, please, touch me. Touch me. I just want someone to touch me. “If you touch me right now, I will kill you, Richie!” he screamed and he thought, If you don’t touch me, I think I’ll die, without any of those words, not knowing it was what he needed was for Richie to touch him and to remind him you’re alive, you’re alive, you’re Eddie Kaspbrak and your body is strong and it’s alive and so are you.
Looking up at Eddie from the couch, Richie said, “I’m touching you,” and his fingers moved so very lightly across Eddie’s chest.
Eddie felt his heart thrumming against his ribs. He felt his lungs pistoning. He heard the blood in his body, pumping vitality and life to every extremity, to every hair, to each of his fingernails and to his toes too.
“She wouldn’t touch me,” Eddie said.
“Eddie,” said Richie. “You’re so strong. You’re so brave. I shouldn’t have freaked out,” shaking his head now, lowering his chin, taking his eyes away from Eddie, “I know the deadlights are a lie, they aren’t real, I just. Eddie,” he said, like it was being ripped out of him.
Eddie clutched at Richie’s wrist. He held his hand there, to his chest.
“Eddie, if you died,” said Richie. “I don’t know what I’d do.”
Eddie said, “You’d live,” and Richie pressed his forehead to Eddie’s navel and he said,
“My back hurts like shit,” and he took his hands away from Eddie, who let him.
They looked at each other. Eddie was cold without Richie to cling to him. Richie looked away.
“Go back to the bedroom,” said Eddie. “I’ll make hot chocolate.”
“Okay,” said Richie, oddly subdued, and he picked up his glass of water and the plate of untouched crackers and he went back to the bedroom.
Eddie put his tee back on, then the flannel, which he left unbuttoned to hang open around him. Finally he took off his shoes and put house slippers on, stooping to grab up the white grocery bag he’d dropped. Already he was thinking about spot mopping the floor that evening after Richie had gone to bed. Eddie would sleep on the couch. He’d done it before some nights, too tired from working on the desktop to make it all the way to the bedroom.
The bag said in red letters on the side THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. He put the soup away in the dry goods cabinet for later along with two of the bars. The third and fourth bars he unwrapped neatly on the counter and broke into fragments, small chunks he could toss easily into a pan. He added a cup and a third of milk to the pan with cinnamon and whisked, letting the work of evenly melting and mixing the chocolate and the milk and the cinnamon clear his mind of everything, even Richie. After a few minutes, once it had mixed all together, he added more cinnamon, a teaspoon of sugar, and a pinch of salt.
This he poured into two tall mugs, the orange Mets mugs Myra had thought distasteful and that he’d taken with him that first night he left the house. On the verge of leaving the kitchen he stopped and added more sugar to one of the mugs, noting that it was the mug he carried in his left hand with him.
Richie was stretched out flat on his back on the bed. His hands were half folded across his stomach. On his back rather than his front, the solidity of him stood out. He was a large man, Richie, when he hadn’t been much bigger than Eddie as kids. But of course Eddie had been smaller than everyone, especially Beverly. Now Beverly and Bill were the shortest of them all. It was strange to think of Big Bill, smaller than Eddie, overshadowed by Richie.
“Hot chocolate,” Eddie said. He sat on the edge of the bed and let Richie sit upright on his own. Richie took the offered left-hand mug with mumbled thanks.
“Feeling any better?”
Richie hummed around the hot chocolate. “Yeah. Back doesn’t hurt so much. Still sore but I guess that’s normal.”
“You did wipe the fuck out on the stoop.”
“I’m trying to figure out how to make that a bit for the show on Saturday.”
“You’ll make it work,” said Eddie.
Richie patted the bedspread next to him. Wordlessly, Eddie clambered up beside him. They sat shoulder to shoulder, their backs to the headboard. Richie’s bare feet towered next to Eddie’s slippered pair.
“This is really bitter, dude.”
“I put sugar in yours.”
“Dude,” said Richie, “I mean, it’s like divorced wife on Days of Our Lives bitter.”
“Dark chocolate’s good for you.”
“You’re a nutcase,” Richie said. “Dark chocolate blows. Milk chocolate or get the fuck out.”
“Aren’t you Jewish?”
“Legally speaking,” said Richie. “It goes through the mother. But I don’t keep kosher, you’ve seen me eat. I don’t even go to temple. I thought Stan’s dad was going to chop his dick off because I didn’t know what the fuck a circumcision was. I didn’t know we got that at birth.”
“I’m not circumcised,” said Eddie.
Richie choked on his hot chocolate. “What? And you’re telling me this now? Now, when I’m an adult man?”
“Mom didn’t think it was nice,” Eddie said. “What? That’s what she said. She said it causes unnecessary pain to an infant when you should just teach your child to wash their dick.”
“Your mom never said ‘dick’ in her life.”
“I’m paraphrasing, jerkwad. And she wasn’t wrong.”
“Try not to be religiously insensitive,” said Richie. “I’m kind of trying to be a better Jew. You know,” he said, swirling his chocolate, “in Stan’s honor.”
“Well, Stan would’ve put more milk in your mug,” said Eddie.
“More sugar too. Hey, Eduardo…”
“No, fuck you,” said Eddie. “It’s fine. Just drink your chocolate. If I knew you were such a baby I would’ve gotten Cadbury Dairy Milk.”
“Am I supposed to know what that is?”
Eddie put a hand under Richie’s mug and forced it up to his mouth. Laughing, Richie took a pinched sip and crossed his eyes.
“Ugh, god,” Richie said, “it’s like straight espresso.”
“And you’re never straight.”
Richie laughed again, at first maybe uncertain and then, when he looked at Eddie’s scowling face, deeply with honesty.
“No, man,” Richie said, “I only drink that rainbow espresso. French pressed only by the manicured hands of a male model.”
Eddie thought, See? See how easy it is when you let it be easy?
He finished his hot chocolate first then lingered beside Richie, holding his mug and studying the faces Richie made with every sip he took, each more outrageous than the one before.
“Sleep in here tonight,” Eddie said. “I’ll take the couch.”
Richie immediately protested. “No, c’mon, it’s your bed. I’m not stealing your bed and having breakdowns in your apartment.”
“So no more breakdowns,” Eddie told him. “You’re sleeping in the bed. End of story. You don’t get a vote.”
“I do too get a vote!”
“You’re sleeping in the bed, Rich,” Eddie said. He yanked the mug out of Richie’s fists. “That’s it. I’m not budging. It’s fine. I sleep on the couch all the time.”
“Why?” Richie asked in genuine-seeming confusion. “This bed’s comfortable as shit.”
“Because I’m a workaholic and I can’t sleep without anti-anxiety meds,” Eddie said, “that’s why the couch. Jesus! You already got all your germs on my sheets. I’ll make up a new cot on the couch and sleep there for the night.”
“Eddie, it’s got a foam top! I can feel it molding to my legs.”
“So I’ll kick you out tomorrow night,” Eddie said. “You can sleep on the couch then. I’m not arguing with you about this. You’re my friend, and you’re sleeping in my bed.”
He took the mugs with him, and he brought the duffel to Richie and the enormous plastic bag with its soft mystery inside.
“You didn’t look at that, did you?” asked Richie with alarm.
Eddie pinned him with scorn. “No.”
“Okay,” said Richie. “It’s a prop for one of my shows.”
“Since when do you use props?”
“Since I blew my entire routine the fuck up,” Richie said. “I’m improvising. I’m changing the game.”
Eddie tucked the plastic bag on the floor by the bedside table. The duffel he dropped there too.
“Did you not pack any jeans?”
“Jeans don’t get dirty, Eddie,” said Richie. “They did a study.”
“Who the fuck is ‘they’?”
“Scientists,” he said vaguely.
“Whatever,” said Eddie. “Whatever! Do you have any laundry you need me to do?”
“Well, I’ve only been here one day, so no,” said Richie, “but thank you most kindly, good sir.”
“At least let me wash your jeans.”
“If I let you wash my jeans will you stop nagging me?”
“If I stop nagging you will you start washing your jeans?”
Richie got off the bed and angrily stripped out of his jeans. He staggered slightly, a wince creasing his face, but made it without falling over. He wore tight Batman sigil boxers underneath his jeans. The hairiness of his legs stunned Eddie again.
“Here’s my damn jeans,” said Richie. “I hope you know this means I’m going to be manspreading in my boxers in your bed.”
“You were gonna sleep in the jeans?”
“I was gonna put on lounge pants,” Richie said, “but then you insulted my jeans care and I thought, fuck it, I’m gonna rub my thighs all over his thousand thread count designer sheets.”
“They’re seven hundred thread count, you moron,” Eddie said.
Richie threw his hands in the air and said, “And I sleep on a toilet covered with a winter tarp!”
“Do you need any more water!”
“No!” Richie glanced at the glass he’d set on the table. “Yes! Uh. Thank you. Um.” He blinked rapidly. “Thank you for everything. Actually.”
“No problem,” said Eddie. “Why the fuck are we yelling?”
Richie snorted and pushed his glasses higher up, a casual gesture that struck Eddie low in the gut as surely as a syringe depressed into a vein.
“Because we’re maladjusted freaks and it’s how we talk.”
“Give me the glass.” Eddie held out his hand. His legs were tingling. Arms too. The place inside him that pinched was the place where Richie had pressed his brow to Eddie. A stretch of skin and muscle and organ that now felt electrically charged, transcendent. “I’ll get you more water.”
Richie handed him the glass. Eddie turned to go.
“Hey, Eddie,” Richie called.
Eddie looked over his shoulder at him. “Yeah?”
“I’m glad,” Richie said. “That you’re alive. I just wanted to tell you that.”
“Yeah,” said Eddie. “Me too. I’m, uh, glad you’re here.”
Richie’s mouth shaped a lopsided smile. “Glad to be here.”
“I’ll get that water,” said Eddie, before his heart could start hammering again.
“Cool,” Richie said.
That was Thursday, the day it snowed. They ate a zucchini lasagna together and as Richie had threatened they watched wrestling on pay-per-view. Richie had handed Eddie his card and very strictly instructed him to order Royal Rumble. Eddie complained but since Richie was paying, he did it.
Halfway through the opening match Richie started yawning, and by the midpoint of the program, right as Eddie was getting excited, Richie leaned over and sleepily laid his head on Eddie’s shoulder so that Eddie had no choice but to go very still. He watched the rest of the program like that, Richie mumbling in his sleep and relaxing by degrees against Eddie. Eventually, Eddie knew, he would have to wake Richie up and direct him to the bathroom then the bedroom.
The announcers were shouting. Richie sighed and rubbed his nose along the sensitive skin connecting Eddie’s neck with his shoulder. Very delicately Eddie brushed the hair back from Richie’s ears, and Richie sighed again and pressed even closer and slept like that, dreamless, warm, easy and sweet.
A couple corrections I'm adding June 25, 2020:
1) Fossore noted that an earlier note I had on this chapter wasn't fully informed. While the keto diet can be dangerous without a doctor's oversight and it isn't for most people, it does assist many people with seizure disorders to control and manage seizures.
2) I've rewritten a portion of the opening scene to correct a rather large error I made re: kosher diets. Mimmsio was so kind as to assist, explaining where and how I had erred.
Thank you enormously to both of you for your attention, your kindness in reaching out, and your assistance. Thank you!
Chapter 6: & i never wanted anything from you except
Light spoilers for this chapter in this note! Feel free to skip this and go straight to the chapter; none of it's important. I just thought it would be out of place at the end, given how the chapter does end.
Work is going to be very intense for the next few days so I'll be slower replying to comments. Still trying to finish by Valentine's Day!
Boglioli's is a real boutique with locations in Milan and New York. Absolutely everything else about it I made up for this fic. If you or someone you know works at or for Boglioli: please do not seek financial compensation. I don't have it. This is [checks notes] parody.
Peter Luger is also real! I have never been to it. See: I don't have it; it is money. I drew what details I could from the menu posted on-line, photos of the restaurant's Broadway location, and a very scathing review in the New York Times. The Chicago Chop Shop is also real, and I have not been to that either. I think Outback Steakhouse is a nice luxury once every couple months.
So the snow had come, nine or ten heavy inches compacted and plowed or shoveled away throughout the day by public works efficiency. Trucks had moved through the late afternoon and on into the early night, grinding salt onto the roads. In this fashion New York City managed a storm most remarkable for coming on the heels of an unseasonably warm February 8th.
On the morning following, very early that Friday, Eddie put on the local news as he always put on the local news while he performed his before work routine, those little matters of cleanliness and preparedness that gave him comfort or cleared his head. Two buses had slid on ice. An incident involving a tractor trailer had produced no injuries. On the Upper East Side, a man had died. Now, here’s your weather outlook for Valentine’s weekend.
Eddie showered briskly and applied his lotions, the creams. In the steamy mirror, his scar showed as a bruise, below his heart, slightly left of center. He rubbed the lotion in and thought once, briefly, of Richie’s broad hand moving slowly to cover the scar. Eddie washed his hands, dried them, and shaved though he hardly needed it. Unlike certain of the Losers, Eddie grew facial hair in lazy patches and never overnight.
There was a sort of serenity to the work of shaving that he found pleasurable. He liked the ritual of it. On the mornings he planned to shave, he woke a half hour earlier than he usually did so he could take his time with it. Myra hadn’t understood. Why didn’t he just use shaving cream in a can? Why didn’t he use the Gillette razors she bought him? He’d made excuses, ducking his head, hardly wanting to admit that he liked the luxury. It was a nice thing, and Eddie, as he knew, appreciated nice things, though so often he had to sneak them past his mother then past his wife. They could afford a little spoiling, but he’d felt guilty for wanting the spoiling.
He kept the bar of Crabtree & Evelyn soap in its wooden bowl in the cabinet. This, he took out. He rinsed the brush under the faucet and made a creamy lather by brushing circles around the top of the soap, used enough now that the brand lettering pressed into the soap had faded to small and soft lines. The lather, he dusted heavily across his jaw and the skin so delicate under his chin.
Eddie used a straight razor to clean the sparse hair from his face and throat. The faint scrape of it burned deliciously in the moment then faded. His hand was steady. He kept his eyes on the razor in the mirror, though he was aware at all times of his scarred cheek. The scar was always there, a severe line, dividing. If he shaved near it he did so with painful care.
When he’d finished, he cleaned the razor and the brush, dried off the soap, washed his face and patted his cheeks and jaw with light touches of minty aftershave. The fragrance would cling to his fingers for the rest of the hour then fade.
The steam had dried off the mirror. Eddie looked at his reflection, half-naked, freshly shaved, his hair drying in black twists he would brush and gel out. This is my body, he thought. He thought that he liked it. He thought that if he tried, he might think it beautiful. This is my body and it works. He looked at his shoulders, at the wiry musculature of his chest and his abdominals, the cutting lines of his hipbones as they ran under the towel. He looked at the hole in him and was unafraid to see it.
To his reflection Eddie said, “This is my body,” and a flickering rollover flame flashed through him at the sense-memory of Richie touching him and looking up at him and beholding him, it had felt, like a man on the verge of wonder or of something cousin to rapture; when no one had ever looked at Eddie like that except for once, a very long time ago, down in the rotted colon of Derry when Eddie had kicked a clown in the face and Richie had stared at him with eyes like saucers and a laugh out of place around his mouth.
His phone, sitting on the counter far from the sink and the bath, beeped at the lowest sound level. He had run out of time.
The thought came oddly but stuck. He looked at his reflection suddenly to him a stranger, a man so much impossibly older than he. He felt as if a clock were ticking somewhere in the backmost regions of his head.
The phone beeped again. He switched off the alarm.
Dressing quickly in white undershirt and boxers, Eddie emerged from the bathroom in a lingering and unseen cloud of fragrance: hot water, soap, cream and cologne. After leading Richie to bed he’d pulled a button-up, suit jacket, and pressed trousers out of his bedroom closet to hang in the closet by the apartment door. The sock suspenders and woolen socks he’d laid out on the coffee table after wiping it down.
His second cup of tea had cooled. He microwaved it twenty seconds as he buttoned up his shirt, straightened the cuffs. Standing in the kitchen in socks, suspenders clipping them to boxers, and the button-up, he thought again of Richie, sleeping just in the other room. If he came out, he would see Eddie like this, half-dressed, the bare skin of his thighs bracketed by the suspenders and pale from winter.
Eddie’s ears hurt. He drank the tea too quickly and burned his tongue. “Damn it.” Pulled on his suit jacket, the trousers. He had his keys, his ID on its lanyard, his wallet. Phone. His bag of gym clothes was in the back of the Escalade. Spare phone charger in the glove box. Eddie finished the tea and did a quick run through of the living room, in case there was something he had forgotten. His briefcase was by the door. He’d hung his winter coat on the closet’s knob.
“Shoes, idiot,” he muttered. He’d forgotten his shoes.
Grinding his jaw, Eddie turned and set his shoulders and very quietly opened the door to his bedroom.
The lamp on the bedside table was on, and Richie was sitting up in bed with one leg folded and the other stuck out in front of him: a backwards 4. He had a spiral notebook open in his lap and a pen in his hand. Another pen jutted out of his hair, over his ear. Somewhere in the night Richie had stripped out of his shirt. He sat on the bed just in those Batman boxers and a pair of mismatched socks, one white, the other blue patterned with pink hearts.
“You’re up,” said Eddie.
Richie said, “Oh, hey. Heard you rattling around.”
“I didn’t mean to wake you.”
He shrugged one weirdly hairy shoulder. The Fleischer Superman tattoo rippled with the motion. “I was already up. Got an idea while I was sleeping and I’m trying to see if it makes sense when I’m, you know, not sleeping.”
Eddie opened the door wider and stepped into the room. His room. He was allowed to step into his own room, whether or not Richie was sprawled out hairy and mostly naked across his bed, where he slept most nights and on his own in matching pajamas and not, like Richie, in just boxers.
“Does it make sense?”
He opened his closet to go through the shoe rack. Casual shoes he kept in the cubbies by the door but the leather and designer shoes he preferred for work he didn’t dare keep so close to the hall and the temperature variations. Straightening with a pair of black Wolf & Shepherd wingtips in hand, he turned to find Richie gazing indistinctly toward the floor, near Eddie’s feet.
“Uhhh,” said Richie. His chest expanded; he exhaled gustily. He’d soft muscle all through his chest, a broad-shouldered man who didn’t make the time to exercise as Eddie made time to exercise.
Eddie’s head pounded. He wanted, childishly, to throw his shoes at Richie. Why did you take your shirt off? What, are you an animal? Are you a fucking ape?
“Your idea,” Eddie prompted.
Richie eyed him warily, as if he smelled a trap. “What about it?”
“I’m going to throttle you,” said Eddie. “Does your idea make sense?”
Richie continued eyeing him, like Eddie was the one who’d gone off the rails instead of Richie, who had gotten so engrossed with staring into Eddie’s closet while he was bent over looking for his shoes that he’d forgotten what he’d said to Eddie literally two seconds before Eddie had opened the closet.
“Oh, no,” Richie said. “I got bored trying to make something work out of, like, sheep melting into Ralph Nader and started doodling instead. Wanna see?” He turned the spiral notebook around. Richie had in fact filled most of the two pages with cramped, borderline illegible chicken scratch, then drawn a horrifically realistic sketch of a sheep with Ralph Nader’s face.
“You are fucked in the head,” Eddie told him.
“Yeah, probably.” Richie stretched his folded leg out. He arched his back slightly. A grimace creased his face around that dark beard. The neatly delineated edges of the beard had blurred. Small hairs had sprouted high on his neck.
“How’s your back?”
“Better. Sucks.” Another shrug. “I don’t need anything, though. I got Tylenol in the duffle if I have to take anything. You on the way out?” He yawned, nose wrinkling. “Isn’t it like, butt thirty o’clock?”
Eddie tried not to find it charming the way Richie blinked out of focus, one eyelid faster than the other.
“It’s six. I have to walk to the garage then take the ferry to get to the Financial District.”
“Thought you didn’t have to be in until eight.” As he spoke, Richie yawned again and slid a little down the bed, as if he were melting into the sheets. His toes wiggled in his socks.
“We have the Broadway show at seven,” Eddie reminded him. “So I’ll go in early and make up some of the time I’ll lose leaving at four. I thought we could do dinner after the show, if that’s all right with you.”
“Yeah, no, I’m flexible,” said Richie. “Uh, some place with steak. I don’t think I can eat lamb right now. It’d feel too much like cannibalism.”
Eddie rolled his eyes. “Well, I made reservations at a steakhouse for 9:40. So you won’t have to eat Ralph Nader.”
“You already made reservations?”
“I could cancel them if you’d prefer to stay in.”
“No, no,” Richie said. “That’s— No, that’s totally cool. That kicks ass, actually.”
“Okay,” said Eddie.
“Okay,” said Richie.
“You have to rent a suit today,” Eddie said. “You knew we were going to Broadway so I don’t know why the fuck you didn’t pack anything but t-shirts and hoodies.”
“And socks,” said Richie. “I’m not a fucking bear.”
Eddie, at the door, made a point of looking Richie up and down, very slowly from his curly head down to the hairy ankle the blue sock exposed. When he met Richie’s eyes again, he caught Richie with his tongue flicking across his lower lip.
“That’s debatable,” said Eddie, with maybe something of a sneer.
Richie laughed and fiddled with his glasses, pulling them off then sticking them back on his nose. His throat was dully red.
“Uh. Yeah. I’ll go uh, rent a tux.”
“No,” said Eddie, changing his mind, “fuck it, we’ll go after work. Boglioli’s should be open.”
“Hey, Edsie. You know I’m not a goblin,” said Richie, “I’ve actually bought suits before. I go to the Emmy’s. I go to the Grammy’s. I’ve been to the Oscar’s like three times, I can rent a damn tuxedo. I can even do my own cummerbund.”
“You don’t have a key to the apartment,” said Eddie. “I’m not picking you up at a Men’s Wearhouse.”
“Jesus, snob,” said Richie. “Where exactly are we eating anyway? Should I bring a bespoke bib? Should I get tux insurance? You want me to pick up a couple embroidered handkerchiefs while we’re gadding about town like a coupla fancy lads?”
“You’ll find out,” Eddie shouted over his shoulder. “I’m driving.”
“Gimme something to work with!” Richie hollered back. “Is it an Outback? Are you taking me to the finest Outback in Manhattan? Am I gonna get fucking blasted on peach bellinis and bloomin’ onions?”
Eddie fitted into his work shoes and slipped the galoshes on over those.
“And wash your hair!” he snapped. “You look like you fell in a grease trap!”
“Show your dead mom a little respect, asswipe!”
“Shave your neck, dickshit!” Eddie said, and he slammed the door behind him.
One of his neighbors was standing just outside her door with her smartly trimmed goldendoodle, Sweetie. Sweetie had tied about her swannish neck a silk handkerchief patterned with crocuses today.
“Uh,” said Eddie. “Good morning, Mrs Zhou.”
She was as immaculately fashionable as ever, her black hair a sleek, asymmetrical cut that wrapped around her head from one ear to the other jaw. Her coat was heavy red wool and it fell nearly to her ankles. Fuck, Eddie thought, I forgot a tie.
“You and your man are very loud today,” said Mrs Zhou.
“We’ll keep it down. I’m, uh, sorry for disturbing you.”
“I don’t care about the loud,” said Mrs Zhou, “you’re not any louder than those kids upstairs. I swear to God all they do is run. I object to the profanity. You know those kids are awake at all hours.”
“Yeah, no,” said Eddie, “I don’t normally… I’ll talk with Richie, later. It won’t happen again.”
“Thank you. Sweetie, say thank you.” Sweetie lowered her chest to the ground and crossed her long legs in front of her. “Very good girl, Sweetie! Let’s let Mr Kaspbrak go to work now.” She tugged Sweetie to one side of the hallway.
“Thanks. Bye, Sweetie.” He offered his fingers to her in passing and Sweetie sniffed his hand then licked solemnly at her nose. “Have a good day, Mrs Zhou.”
“You, too, dear. And watch that mouth.”
How old was Mrs Zhou? She had to be twenty-five at the most, but she was the most precise person he’d ever known. Even her dog was perfectly, precisely mannered. He had a deathly fear that Richie would venture out of the apartment, remember he didn’t have a key, and then start banging on Mrs Zhou’s door in his boxers and a fresh t-shirt, his Porky Pig cocksucker tattoo just out there for everyone to see.
Eddie laughed without meaning to just imagining it. Then he soured, remembering Mrs Zhou’s husband was a six foot tall attorney with arm sleeve tattoos and a laugh like a foghorn. Not that Richie was even into women, “you psycho,” Eddie muttered to himself as he trudged toward the parking garage. When the fuck had he turned into a jealous moron? Over Richie Tozier? He hadn’t even packed a second pair of jeans.
He was in the Escalade, peeling off his galoshes with a tissue, when he abruptly realized exactly where Richie had been staring: not at the closet, or at the floor, or at Eddie’s many expensive and carefully maintained designer shoes, but at Eddie’s ass. The tissue slipped. Eddie smeared mud along his thumb and the cuff of his white button-up.
“Fuck!” said Eddie. He punched the steering wheel. “God damn it, Richie!”
He carried that pent-up energy into work where he let it seep out of him over the course of the next seven hours via several curt e-mails, a mandatory department meeting, two conference calls with LG Chem, and an absolutely excruciating social chat with Casilla.
Eddie had enough awareness to recognize that Casilla was an accomplished employee whose skill and intelligence with interpersonal relationships was vital to the department’s efficacy. He just didn’t give a shit. Interpersonal relationships were not necessary for Eddie to do his job and to do it well. This was most likely why he hadn’t had any friends before the Losers reemerged into his life. It was a depressing thought. Eddie figured most of his thoughts were that: depressing. He shouldn’t have cancelled the appointment with Dr Green.
He took a working lunch and ate his turkey and ham sandwich from the cafeteria at his desk. After work, he’d work out at the company gym for an hour, shower, change at the apartment and pick up Richie. What with the snow and all, Eddie had skipped the gym yesterday; he didn’t mean to make a habit of it. Unlike Richie, Eddie had to work if he wanted to have any strength at all. He tore a chunk out of his sandwich and angrily cleared three cells on the draft spreadsheet.
Maybe he should go to the gym now and clock back in till five. I could call Dr Green and see if I could get in today, he thought without real hope or interest. That nagging sensation of time spinning down hadn’t left him.
On an impulse Eddie looked at the calendar on his desk, a thick paper stock framed in leather for easy reference. He’d scribbled in penciled shorthand appointments, dates. Bway, P.Luger w/RT marked Friday, today. RT 10-11p on Saturday, the slot for his show at the club. RT 8-9p for Sunday. And on Monday, the day before Valentine’s Day, he had written RT 10a then drawn a stick figure plane, like so: -|-->
He rubbed his thumb over that stick figure. The lead smudged faintly. Very lightly he ran his fingertips across his thumb. His fingers ached, too sensitive.
From a distance of thirty years Eddie heard Stan shouting, Hurry up, Eddie! We’ll be late! He saw Stan on the bicycle, leaning into a curve, no longer pedaling, arching elegantly forward on momentum alone.
He no longer remembered what they were late to. It was so long ago now. He just remembered Stan’s voice, the sunlight honey-bright in his hair. How his button-down shirt had untucked from the back of his belted jeans.
Eddie sat there staring at his calendar. Eventually he remembered his lunch. He finished it and trudged on through the work day with his office door closed and his fingertips itching and that clock in his head winding down, winding down.
He showered at the gym after his work-out. The water was hot, steaming as it hit the stall doors, and Eddie turned his face into it and scratched his nails meanly through his hair. Too hot, nearly, in the shower, but there was an itch just under his skin he thought might burn away.
He soaped quickly and scoured at his body, slicking away the sweat, the dead skin; and at the junction of his thigh and hip Eddie hesitated, his hand hovering so near to his penis, the soapstone rough and clutched in that hand tightly as a talisman.
“Call it a dick, Eddie,” Richie said in his ear, “you’re not a dumb virgin like Mr Sanders.” Mr Sanders had taught biology in the seventh grade. This is the penis. This is the vagina.
“That’s my willy,” Richie sang after school, “that’s my wang, that’s my pecker, that’s my thang!”
Richie, thirteen and feral, did not occur to Eddie then. He thought of Richie sinking slowly down the headboard, his chest broad and covered with dark, curling hair, the easy layers of muscle underneath the layer of subcutaneous fat. The white sock covered his right ankle; the blue sock exposed the left. His dick a soft and heavy mound in his boxers, tucked to the left against his thigh.
Eddie leaned his head against the shower wall. The hot water beat stingingly at his back. The knot in his gut wound tighter. He didn’t like to think of other people when he masturbated. It seemed to him a violation; he knew that was anxiety; he felt it as guilt.
He put the soapstone on the little shelf on the wall. His hair was plastered to his skull. Water funneled between his eyes. It cascaded from his nose, splattering noisily between his feet and filtering into the drain. He looked at that drain for a very long time. Then he turned his face from it. The water blurred across his eyes.
Very gently Eddie reached for his cock. He wasn’t hard yet. He felt the blood, though, beating in his body. The thing that yawned in his gut and wanted pulled the knot just a little tighter. He ran his fingertips along his length, just a shiver of a touch. His thumb fitted under his foreskin at the end. He rubbed his thumb against the head of his cock, over the slit; and his body began to stir, his cock to harden, the muscles of his groin to tense.
He pulled his hand away. He closed his eyes and thought of the water, the water. The drain and the water. Richie yawned, teeth showing. Tongue thick and darkly pink. His nipples ovalur and brown. The hair that covered his breast and then ran v-like down his gut and under those damn boxers. His thighs clenching and easing as he stretched.
Eddie grit his teeth. Fleetly he touched his chest scar. Felt it aching, a hollow unfilled.
Shyly he touched his cock again, half-hard now. He circled the head of it loosely with thumb and finger, the foreskin sliding back against the shaft. Just once he pumped into the circle he’d made; and in the spaces between his eyelashes he saw Richie’s wide chest swelling as he breathed in.
Eddie took his hands away. He stood there, trembling, with his hands held out from his sides.
He thought: What if Richie doesn’t want you? Just because he’s gay doesn’t mean he wants to fuck you. Do you want to fuck him? Do you want to fuck him and then he goes away? What the fuck do you want, Eddie?
Oh, he wanted. He hurt with the wanting. He thought yes, okay, just one kiss. One kiss would be enough; but he knew it wouldn’t be enough. Eddie had always wanted more. It was why he spent money on designer shoes, $400 a pair. It was why he had his suits tailored. It was why he had the straight razor and the shaving soap and the brush to make a cream of it. It was the fuck-off huge SUV in New York City; it was the $2000 a month apartment with a glass-enclosed hallway; it was Richie in his bed, rumpled with sleep and running his mouth.
He didn’t want more. He wanted everything. He wanted all of it, but more than that he wanted (yes, he thought, yes, yes: thirteen year old Eddie chanting with all the greedy longing in his tiny runaway heart) Richard Phineas Tozier.
Eddie turned the water off. He scrubbed his face with a towel. Brusquely, he scrubbed the rest of him. So, you want him, he thought. And if you don’t get him? Then you’ll live.
He dressed in his undershirt, button-up, his trousers. No suspenders or suit jacket. On the way out of the showers, he dumped the towel in the laundry bin. He felt incandescent. He felt like a man on fire. He felt like Eddie Kaspbrak.
“Did you seriously change out of one suit into another suit?” said Richie after Eddie finished dressing in his bedroom. He’d kicked Richie (back in jeans, wearing a Motley Crue tee with a hole in the chest) into the living room so he could dress in peace.
“The other suit was dirty.”
“From sitting in your office?” said Richie. “What were you doing, advanced calisthenics while you were doing calculus on your computer?”
“Fuck you,” said Eddie. He pulled his tie tight between his hands and snapped it twice, like warding off a bull. “This is what adults do. We change into fresh clothes after work.”
“All right, all right, put the tie away,” said Richie. “Either choke me with it or sling it around your neck. What the hell, man. Do tourists really get dressed up to go to Broadway? To see CATS? Am I gonna see a bunch of preteens in Gucci and Versace, flaunting the family stones?”
“It’s the theatre.”
“It’s CATS. My grandma had it on vinyl!”
“It is a live theatrical production,” Eddie said with violence, pinching his fingers just short of Richie’s face. “You are not going to wear jeans and a Motley Crue tour tee your uncle gave to you when you were twelve!”
“Man, screw you,” said Richie, “I was going to change into the Pink Floyd shirt your hot grandpa gave me on his deathbed.”
“We’re renting a suit,” said Eddie. “You’re going to get a suit.”
“I’m not getting a suit to see CATS. I will get a fursuit,” Richie added, “but I ain’t wearing no three-piece tweed bullshit.”
“What the hell’s a fursuit?”
“Oh, my god, Eddie,” said Richie. “Holy Lord, take me now into your loving embrace. Oh, my Eddie, my love, my darling, light of my wretched, filthy, godforsaken life, what the hell’s a fursuit.”
“Don’t tell me,” Eddie said. “I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know, Richie! Don’t tell me whatever disgusting thing you’re about to say!”
“Everything we’re about to see tonight is a fursuit,” said Richie. “I want to go in full CATS costume. I want to go to a Party City right now and get my full body painted.”
“If you don’t put your shoes on in the next five seconds, I will choke you with my tie.”
Richie shoved his feet into his sneakers, complaining as he did so. “You’re such a tease, Kaspbrak. I’ll kill you, Richie. I’ll choke you, Richie. I’ll pull your hair, Richie. And do you ever deliver? No. Here I am, still fully alive.”
Eddie knotted his fist in the back of Richie’s jacket and shoved him out the door.
“You never even slap me around like you used to,” Richie lamented, bowing backwards despite his bruises so his face was upside down over Eddie’s shoulder. “Uh. Hey. Don’t look now,” he whispered to Eddie, “but there’s an extremely pretty woman giving us the stink-eye.”
“I’m really sorry, Mrs Zhou,” Eddie said without turning around. He continued propelling Richie forward towards the stairwell. “We’re leaving now. I promise we’ll be quiet when we come back tonight. Could you stop being a freak for five minutes?” he hissed at Richie.
Richie fluttered his eyelashes and said, “Oh, you love it, Eds. You always have.”
The thing was, Eddie did. He did love it. He loved the fighting, the shouting, the foul language, the way Richie focused on him.
“You make me wish I had Dory amnesia,” he said, and Richie said, “What, like the fish in Finding Nemo?” with rising delight. Every second with Richie was hell.
Boglioli was indeed open. The sleek bank of glass walls glimmered enticingly in the early nightfall. Golden warm lights in the boutique illuminated the sparse racks and the rich wood paneling inside.
“Eddie,” said Richie, “is this where you buy your suits? Do you have to tell me something? Are you a Bond villain?”
“Please stop talking,” Eddie muttered. He wound an arm around Richie’s waist to tug him nearer and through the tall, polished wood doors. Richie swayed against him. His hand brushed over the small of Eddie’s back, then away.
The staff on hand recognized Eddie although he hadn’t been in since shortly before Thanksgiving, when he had to replace the suits Myra still would not release to him.
“Mr Kaspbrak,” said Michael, smiling. His black curls were dreaded and neatly gathered at his nape. “It’s always a pleasure to see you.” He wore a cream suit with a gold brocade waistcoat beneath the jacket. The colors showed stunning against his dark skin, as did the gold and beat brass rings he wore on his left hand.
“Thank you, Michael. I meant to come in some time last month, but.” Eddie shrugged.
“Work gets to the best of us. And this would be?” Michael looked up at Richie with an arched eyebrow and an impeccable smile.
“Rich,” said Richie. He offered his hand. Michael shook it sharply twice. “Uh, Rich Tozier. I’m with Eddie.”
Michael glanced sidelong at Eddie. His smile deepened at the corners. “I can see that. Why don’t you gentlemen follow me?” He led them up the illuminated hanging steps to the second floor, where the private rooms stood. “Should I send Devon with some bourbon?”
Eddie looked at Richie. “Uh, sure,” said Richie. “I could go for a bourbon.”
“None for me,” said Eddie.
Michael nodded and gestured them into a corner room. White curtains blocked off the glass walls, so that the rest of the city need not peer in.
“Devon will be in shortly.” He gave Eddie a flutter of a wink and drew the door shut behind him.
There were already rolling racks of suit jackets available to peruse in the room, and Eddie went to them immediately as Richie sank onto the white leather couch. Richie watched Eddie flip through the jackets. He stirred.
“This isn’t a rental place.”
“You’re not paying for anything,” Richie said.
“Of course I am.”
“I’m not broke,” Richie said. “I can afford to spend a few thousand dollars on a new suit. I probably need one anyway. Just don’t understand why you thought you had to trick me to come here.”
“I’ll buy you the suit,” Eddie said.
“No, you won’t.”
Eddie paused, his hand on a promising red jersey K-jacket. “Yes,” he said, “I will.”
A muscle jumped along Richie’s jaw. “I don’t need any charity.”
“This isn’t charity,” Eddie said as if to a stupid man. “I wanted to do something nice for you.”
“Taking me to a Broadway show starring a bunch of furries is nice,” said Richie. “Buying me a suit is patronizing. You think I can’t dress myself? Do you think I’m a kid?”
“You brought one pair of jeans and ten t-shirts.”
“I didn’t ask to go to a high-end steakhouse.”
“It’s a good steakhouse. It’s an excellent steakhouse. Peter Luger’s—”
“That sounds like a Die Hard villain,” said Richie. “Peter Luger: charming Brit. Three piece suit. Are you buying dinner too?”
“Actually,” said Eddie, yanking the red jersey off the rack, “yeah. I am. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Maybe,” said Richie. “Depends. How much is this dinner?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m buying. Remember?” He pulled off a black plaid tuxedo jacket and a navy blue one, too.
“Okay,” said Richie. “All right, you twerp. So, you’re buying me a suit. You’re taking me to a show. You’re buying me dinner. I just wanna know why.”
Eddie stood over him. “Because I want to,” he said coolly. “Because maybe I want to spoil you a little. Rich Tozier.”
Richie looked up at him through those thick glasses of his. His eyes were narrowed. He said, “Is that right, little Eddie.”
Eddie hung the three jackets on the hook by the couch. “Try these on.”
Richie stood from the couch, still looking steadily at Eddie. He stripped out of his leather jacket and grabbed the black plaid tuxedo jacket.
“I’m buying the suit.”
Eddie turned on his heel, stung and not wanting it to show.
Devon brought a tray with the bourbon and a small offering of bruschetta with tomato, basil. A handful of olives filled a tiny wood bowl. Richie said, “Thanks,” and grabbed up the bourbon to take a long, insulting pull.
Michael wasn’t far behind Devon, who had lingered to exchange greetings and some small talk with Eddie. Devon was perhaps Eddie’s age with distinct grey peppered in his hair, and he pulled Eddie into an easy conversation about work, the snow, how he’d found the grey linen suit he had bought in November, though, Devon chuckled, he hadn’t much opportunity to wear it in the winter.
Michael fussed with Richie, asking for measurements, turning him this way and that to check the length of his arms, the breadth of his chest.
“Of course many of our suits can be worn off the rack but they’ll fit better with alterations.”
Devon clasped Eddie’s hand in farewell and left the way he’d come. Eddie, perhaps still stinging, chanced a look at Richie. He found that Richie was already looking at him, with a little frown biting at his mouth and a crease between his brows. What for, Eddie couldn’t guess. He supposed Richie was still angry with him for tricking him.
Eddie took up the couch seat that Richie had vacated. He hadn’t meant it to be a trick, he thought mulishly as he popped an olive in his mouth. He’d wanted it to be a pleasant surprise. There were so few things he could offer Richie. Even if Richie’s career had taken a downturn, and it had, he remained famous. He had sponsors, an agent, royalties and one or two film deals he’d bragged about recently in the chat.
A suit, a classy dinner: the suggestion of a New York romance. That was what Eddie could give him. New York City was like that for visitors, dreamy and romantic, if someone knew how to guide them to it.
It wasn’t for the romance that Eddie loved the city; it wasn’t for the nostalgia or the allure that he’d stayed. He liked the grime of the city and the efficiency of it, its steel and iron and brick walls, the harbor, the ferry, the stink of it and the rats on the subway and the forty thousand pizza shops all at war with one another. It was a loud city, a living city, and it was his city, in as much as New York could belong to any one person.
But maybe Eddie could give some of New York to Richie, who had fled to Chicago, to Los Angeles. He could give him something of this city he loved and if he did that then maybe he could give Richie some part of his heart too. He held a slice of bruschetta between thumb and two fingers, and he looked again to Richie, who was laughing now with Michael, joking around. He’d put on the red jersey jacket. The fabric pulled appealingly across his shoulders. Michael was telling him the black wool trousers would complement the red. They had a pair that fit Richie’s inseam, the length of his leg; they would only have to hem them. Of course, with a few more alterations…
“Nah, need it tonight,” said Richie. “But I’ll be in town a couple more days. Think I could drop ‘em off tomorrow?”
“I can check with Devon. What time would you need them by?”
They added a leather belt with a gold buckle, a black turtleneck to wear under the red jersey jacket, and a pair of bright red loafers that miraculously fit. Eddie focused on the olives and the bruschetta to allow Richie the privacy to change. Michael was downstairs, consulting with Devon on the schedule.
“All right,” Richie muttered. “Well.” He cleared his throat. “Okay, Kaspbrak, damage check. How do I look? Be gentle. I know that’s not in your nature but try.”
Eddie looked up, half a slice of bruschetta in his mouth, two olives pinched between his fingers.
The chandelier light overhead haloed Richie’s hair. He had washed it after all and done something with gel to define his curls. The turtleneck looked to Eddie like a hand encircling Richie’s throat. An intimate touch. In the red jacket, trousers unhemmed but clinging to his thighs and his hips, the buckle gleaming at his crotch, Richie looked—
How strange it was to think something like this. How deep of a punch to feel it.
“It looks good,” said Eddie. His throat was dry. “You look, uh.”
“Handsome?” Richie suggested. “Diabolical? GQ cover story? People magazine’s sexiest man alive runner-up number 49?”
“The first one,” said Eddie. “If you keep your mouth shut.”
Richie grinned at him.
What he looked was delectable. Eddie’s body throbbed in time with his heartbeat. Richie was 6’1” and hairy as a gorilla and about as mannered as one, and right there, in that private room on the second floor of Boglioli, he looked to Eddie like how a supermodel must look to someone who wasn’t so profoundly fucked as Eddie. He looked delicious. He looked like something Eddie wanted to tear apart.
“Eddie, baby, my mouth’s my charm point,” Richie said. “Hard as it is to believe. These plush lips drive the critics wild.” He made kissy faces at the air, soft mwahs with his lips puckering as like in offering.
Eddie shoved both olives in his mouth.
Michael returned to take the trousers downstairs for someone else to hem, and Richie collapsed beside Eddie on the couch in just his boxers. The boxers sported surfing Santa Clauses wearing sunglasses.
“Gimme that,” Richie said. He swiped three bruschetta off the tray in one go. “Well, there’s four thousand dollars I didn’t plan on spending.”
“I told you I’ll pay for it.”
“Oh, no, Eddie,” said Richie. “You’re gonna pay for dinner. And you’re gonna pay for dinner. I’m gonna order so many steaks they’ll run out of cows. They’ll have to start shipping them in from Wisconsin overnight.”
“You eat that much red meat, you won’t shit for a week.”
“I have my ways.”
Richie laid a finger beside his lips and blew hot air directly into Eddie’s face. Eddie slapped him across the shoulder. Richie shoved all three bruschetta into his mouth at once, chewed three times, then smiled hugely so the mashed up food showed.
“I take it back,” said Eddie, “we’re going to Denny’s.”
“Too late, bitch,” Richie said. “You made reservations. I’m eating at Hans Gruber’s Steak n’ Bake tonight.”
Contrary to every expectation Eddie had, Richie loved CATS. He knew the lyrics to half the songs (“I told you, Grandma had it on vinyl”), he thought the structure of the play hilariously simple, and during the Skimbleshanks song he leaned over and whispered, “Hey, Eddie, it’s you.”
“That was so much fun!” Richie said in the car on the way to Peter Luger. “Don’t fuck around, bro. I know how gay this sounds, but I think I love musical theatre.”
“You are gay.”
“Yeah, but like, I don’t want to be the stereotype.”
“You’re really not fucking with me?” Eddie glanced bemused at him. “You liked it?”
“Are you fucking with me?” Richie shot back. “That fucking railway cat. Memory? I felt like I was going crazy watching those guys crawl around on stage. Those costumes were insane. Do you think my agent would let me wear a fursuit to a show? Never mind. You don’t know my agent.”
“I think you should stay away from Broadway.”
“No way,” said Richie, “you’ve awoken the beast. I’m all about Broadway now. I’ve been thinking about a career change anyway. You think I could get in Phantom? I’ve got an ugly enough mug.”
“You do not,” said Eddie automatically. “You’re good-looking.”
“Have you seen me?” said Richie. “I look like Bigfoot if Bigfoot died.”
Eddie stared grimly through the windshield. “You have… shoulders. And your hands are big.”
“Wow. Just what every guy wants to hear.”
“Your face is weird—”
“Eddie. Please. Stop. It’s too much.”
“But it’s a, a good weird,” said Eddie loudly. He could hear how unhinged he sounded. “Like, fuck Brad Pitt.”
“Sure,” said Richie. “I guess. Don’t think I’m his type, but…”
I am going to sock him in the head, Eddie thought.
He said, “Forget it. Just… You don’t have to be some ripped asshole to be attractive to people.”
“And you don’t need the lifts in your shoes,” said Richie kindly. “Lots of people love short men.”
“I am going to sock you in the head,” said Eddie.
“Is this a fetish for you?” asked Richie. “Can you only get hard if you’re threatening me with violence?”
“Do not fucking talk to me anymore.”
Softly under his breath Richie sang, “All alone in the moonlight…”
Eddie white-knuckled the steering wheel.
At the restaurant they sat in the narrow lobby just inside the paned glass front, waiting for their reservation to be called. Richie had his phone out; he was, he announced to Eddie, texting Bill about college basketball, if Eddie wanted to join in. Eddie did not like basketball. He didn’t dislike it, either. He guessed that basketball fell neatly into the cubby marked Things Eddie Doesn’t Give A Shit About.
“Right, you’re a baseball man.” Richie picked away at the digital keyboard with his thumbs. “Yippie-ki-yay, go, Mets.”
At a loss for what else to do, Eddie pulled out his own phone. He had an e-mail from Mike, who was currently in Florence and enjoying the tourism off-season. A plethora of photos were attached to the e-mail, few containing Mike, the majority of monuments, cathedrals, stone edifices so ancient they predated the earliest verified tales of King Arthur.
Eddie— You’d love Florence, Naples, Verona. So much history in everything. The museums are incredible. The libraries! I have to drag Bill back here with me sometime. The food is so good. I think I’ve gained twenty pounds just eating pasta. You’d hate the buses though. They’re never on time. Richie would get a kick out of the culture – people like to sit back and chat.
Eddie flipped through the photos, smiling, and he looked up to share them with Richie; but Richie had leaned his back against the paneled wood and closed his eyes.
Why was it like this between them? How could they have such tender moments and then ruin it, each of them retreating behind a wall? Eddie would think, I want to be kinder, I want to be gentler, I want to take care of you, and then he would shout and swear and insult Richie. And he would see it in Richie sometimes, how Richie wanted to soothe him, but it was like how he had tried to help Eddie by setting his broken arm, and Eddie had screamed and screamed because it had hurt, because Richie had hurt him and he hadn’t meant to hurt him but he had done it anyway.
I want to be gentle with you, Eddie would think. He didn’t know how to be gentle. He thought sometimes that it was too late for him. That somewhere in the decades of forgetting he had become someone and now that was who he was forever. He was too tired or he was too old; how could he become someone else now that he was this person?
Of all the things Pennywise had stolen from him the worst was the person he could have been. That wasn’t right either. I would have been this person anyway, he thought. The years tunneled around him.
I’m Eddie Kaspbrak. I’m Eddie Kaspbrak. And who’s that? Who is Eddie Kaspbrak? You thought you knew earlier today but now you’ve forgotten again.
Why can’t you be kind, Eddie? Why can’t you be good?
He didn’t want to be kind. He didn’t want to be good. He wanted to be ugly and mean and frightened and dirty and still be loved; but who could love you if you wouldn’t change?
I’m trying, he thought, I’m trying. I’m trying so hard. He didn’t want to be that little boy, so scared in the dark and wet and fetid rot.
People will hurt you, Eddie Bear. You’re such a sensitive boy. I won’t let any of them hurt you, those awful girls. You’ll be safe with your mother.
If I let you in, he thought, if I let you in—
His lungs contracted. He breathed in and out. If you go out on your bicycle without a helmet on, you’ll hit your head. If you don’t wash your hands after you piss, you’ll get a cold. If you open your heart and you let someone in…
If you let him in…
Eddie, if you let him in—
“Reservation for two, Kaspbrak?”
Richie opened his eyes. Eddie stood. He looked at Richie, his hair black brown and curling, his long legs crossed before him. Richie gave him half a smile. Then he, too, stood. They followed the hostess into the restaurant. Richie’s knuckles brushed against Eddie’s hand once. Twice.
They were seated at a corner table further back into the restaurant. The table was plain wood, faux-workman, and the chairs were iron-backed with a slant out. The waiter brought them menus and water then hurried away to attend a family nearer to the doors. Despite the hour Peter Luger’s was more than half full, mostly couples and some small parties. A low and chatty hum filled the high-ceilinged room.
Richie flipped through his menu and said, “Kinda funny, Eddie. That woman over there with the Farrah Fawcett blow-out. I think she’s in a t-shirt.” Squinting, he pointed the direction the waiter had fled.
Eddie didn’t bother to look. He was considering the menu. “And?”
“I get the feeling you may have lied to me. Eddie, tell it to me true.” Richie folded his arms on the table and leaned forward, blue eyes lidded, one long eyebrow popped high. “Are you embarrassed to be seen with me?”
When Richie leaned forward like that, the turtleneck seemed to swallow all of his neck. His shoulders blocked out much of the empty table behind him. In the red jersey jacket, with his curls framing his glasses, he looked… Eddie’s chest cramped.
Eddie folded his own arms on the table and rested his weight against them. He tipped his chin up, stubborn. Richie blinked; his eyelids hung low a moment then he looked again from Eddie’s throat to his eyes.
“Maybe,” said Eddie, near to a murmur but not quite there, “I wanted to go out with a good-lookin’ guy.”
Richie sat back, his arms unfolding but still on the table. He fiddled with the corner of the menu. “Well, joke’s on you, pal. You’re out here with me.”
Eddie leaned even further forward. The edge of the table bumped against his chest. He said, “Don’t joke about it. I’m trying to be sincere here with you right now and you keep trying to make it into a joke.”
“I get called a frog all the time,” said Richie. “Tim Gunn said my head was a rhombus.”
“You’re doing it again and I’m telling you to stop it.”
“I’m not doing anything,” Richie protested. “I mean, Jesus, look at you.”
“Don’t make this about me.”
Richie gestured at him with a wide hand. “You’re like, uh, you’re like a depressed Rudolph Valentino. Okay, put your eyebrows away. Don’t point those things at me when they’re loaded. No, I’m serious! You’ve got that Old Hollywood intensity. People are probably making passes at you all the time and you don’t even notice because you’ve got this insane idea that scars aren’t hot.”
“It’s a disfigurement, asshole,” said Eddie, “it’s literally right on my face where everybody can see it, and I’m not a depressed Rudolph Valentino. And this isn’t about me, this is about how you’re fucking— You’re six feet tall and built, are you fucking with me? There’s like a whole section of Grindr devoted to guys like you.”
Richie pressed two fingers to each temple. “Okay, first of all, and there’s a lot of shit I have to cover here so if you could zip the motormouth—”
“You’re like an auctioneer, do you even breathe? Ben’s built, I’m a schlub. You saw me shirtless. I’ve got dad bod. And secondly, no, Eddie, I’m not done, and secondly, are you on Grindr? Are you banging twinks all across the big apple?”
“I don’t have Grindr,” said Eddie, flushed and snappish. “I’m just not socially incompetent. I know what apps are. Grindr, Tinder—”
“That’s not real. I know that one’s not real.”
“Farmers Only is real, I can prove it’s real, Ben absolutely has an account on here and I just haven’t found it yet, hold on.”
Richie fumbled with his phone. Eddie was trying to quell the laughter vibrating in his chest.
“Why are we like this?”
“There’s no bars in this place,” Richie grumbled, “you’d think they’d offer free wi-fi. Why are we like what?”
“I don’t know,” Eddie sighed. “Like morons.”
“Because we’re morons. Boom!” Richie slung his phone across the table at Eddie. “Read it and weep. Check out these corn-fed, all-beef motherfuckers.”
Eddie took the phone and after paging through the first two or three results, he had to cover his face to keep from laughing until he cried.
“Jesus, Rich. Is this what you’re into?”
Richie was smiling, looking tousled; glowing. Arguing with him always did that to Richie, when it didn’t just upset them both. Sometimes it was like this, too: like they were two magnetized pieces clicking together.
“Derry fucked me up,” said Richie. “Now I can’t get off unless a guy’s wearing spurs and gay-bashing me.”
Eddie sighed and returned Richie’s phone to him. “That’s not funny.”
Richie said, “My trauma, my coping,” and slid his phone into the inside pocket of his jacket. He didn’t make a joke like that again.
The waiter returned. They ordered appetizers, extra thick bacon for Richie and the iceberg wedge salad for Eddie.
“Can you eat green stuff on keto?”
“Like I’m cutting out vegetables and fruit,” Eddie scoffed, cutting his fork through the air. “It’s more like… Guidelines I’m following.”
“So you’re not on keto.”
“I’m on keto, I’m just not devoted to it. Most dietary plans you shouldn’t follow that closely. The human body needs carbohydrates and plant fiber to function. Which is why you should have gotten a salad too. I know you’re getting the steak.”
Richie made a show of pinning a slice of bacon with his front teeth and tearing the strip in two.
“Fine,” Eddie told him. “Die of clogged arteries. I won’t mourn you.”
“Please. You’d collapse sobbing on my grave.”
“I’d tell everyone you deserved it and why in full, gruesome, nutritional detail.”
“If you make a slideshow, you’re not allowed at my funeral,” said Richie. “I’m going to put it in my will that you’re banned from sitting shiva. You’ll be legally compelled to go to Disneyland for seven straight days.”
“Why the fuck would I ever go to Disneyland?”
“Because you’re a human being capable of experiencing joy?”
“Do I look like a five year old to you?”
“You look like you’ve never had any fun in your entire life,” said Richie, “and if you tried to have fun then you’d go into anaphylactic shock and I’d have to stab a straw into your windpipe while Goofy and the chipmunks went into hysterics.”
“I have fun. I have responsible, adult fun.”
“I bet you build ships in bottles,” Richie said. “That’s something boring rich guys do. Where d’you keep the stuff, Eddie? Where’d you hide the supplies? I knew you were hiding something in the apartment.”
“Yeah, your body,” said Eddie, “in three days. No, I don’t build ships in bottles, who the fuck even does that? That’s something sociopath CEOs do. Jeff Bezos builds ships in bottles. I read books, moron.”
“Reading is not a hobby!”
“Reading is a hobby,” Eddie said, “you’re just a moron.”
“You already called me that, try to keep up.”
Eddie furiously ate half his salad in a rush before he shouted dickhead in the middle of Peter Luger’s. Richie was smiling, looking smug as he sucked bacon grease from his fingers rather than clean them on his napkin.
“Why can’t we have a single normal conversation?” Eddie asked at last, turning over a clump of blue wedge cheese in the salad bowl. “We start out okay and then we’re yelling at each other again.”
“You like arguing,” Richie said, “don’t lie. I like arguing too. It’s fine. It’s like, uhhh, it’s our love language. Idiots shouting into each other’s mouth, in perpetuity.”
“Yeah, but what if it’s unhealthy?”
“I don’t know,” Richie said. “I mean, you call me mean crap all the time but I make fun of you too so. It’s not like it’s ever about anything really important. You don’t call me a self-hating queer or whatever. It’s just stupid shit.”
“You’re not,” said Eddie. Richie looked at him over his last strip of bacon. His fingers were sticky shiny with grease, his saliva. “You’re not a self-hating… Whatever.”
“Queer.” Unaffected, Richie folded the bacon in half and popped it in his mouth. Around his chewing he said, “You can say it if you want. We’re reclaiming the word, Eddie baby.”
“Well, you’re not a self-hating anyone,” said Eddie. “You’re dealing with trauma. We talked about it before. It’s not easy.” He thought of Na-jung and of Danny. “I think it’s easier for the younger generation. But it wasn’t like that for us.”
“Nah,” said Richie. “Guess not.”
The waiter returned with their drink orders, a glass of white wine for Eddie and a whiskey on the rocks for Richie. Did they want to order?
“You ready?” Richie asked. “I’m ready.”
Eddie folded his menu. “I’d like the ribeye. Rare. Can I add a grilled potato?”
“Potato and vegetables come with the meal until 3:45,” the server said apologetically. “It’s an extra surcharge for dinner.”
“That’s fine.” Eddie looked at Richie and held his hand out to him.
Richie gave Eddie his menu, to stack the two of them neatly together. “Yeah, I’ll take the porterhouse, medium rare. And I’d like another appetizer, the sliced tomatoes and onions.”
The waiter took both the menus from Eddie and left them.
Richie hooked his elbows on the table. His arms folded. The fingers of his left hand peeked up from the fold of his elbow. The wrist of his right hand showed, where he tucked his hand into the fold of his left elbow. A couple fine hairs marked his exposed wrist.
“So,” said Richie. “When did you know?”
Eddie leaned back in his seat with his glass of wine. He rubbed his thumb idly along the bell of the glass.
“I was ten,” he said. “I didn’t know. I didn’t know what bisexual was until I was in college.”
“Yeah, Derry wasn’t real good with the sex ed,” said Richie dryly. “So who was it? The lucky guy you had your first widdle crush on you.”
“Don’t be a douche,” Eddie said, but he said it from a distance, thinking. Remembering.
“Wait, let me guess.” Richie paused, holding his whiskey tumbler at his nose. “Big Bill got you all twitterpated.”
“No,” Eddie said slowly. “I think it was Stan’s dad, actually.”
Richie spat the whiskey back in his tumbler rather than blast it out his nose. “Rabbi Uris?”
“He was tall,” said Eddie. “And handsome. Really severe. He made us hot chocolate.”
“You were scared to death of him! He patted your shoulder all manly dad one time,” Richie said, “and I thought for sure you were going to wet yourself.”
“That’s really fun, Richie,” said Eddie, “that’s a great joke coming from you, who wet the bed until he was twelve.”
“Can’t believe I have to do this again but beep-beep, Eddie,” said Richie. “Let’s leave the past where it belongs, six feet under the soil and in fucking Maine. Okay, so what about girls? If you say Stan’s mom, I’m going to drink your wine.”
“No, that was your mom.”
“Can you leave my mom out of this, you homewrecker?”
Eddie laughed into his wine. “Fair’s fair, asshole. Um, no, I think it was Beverly.”
“Damn,” said Richie, “what does that woman have that I don’t have?”
“Red hair,” Eddie suggested. “Ben Hanscom.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me,” said Richie. “Speaking of a marbled cut of beef. Ben. What the fuck, right? Mike’s even worse. That dude’s taller than me. Like, who gave him the right?”
“Well, you’re still taller than Bill.”
“Did you see those photos? When Mike visited Bill and Audra in London? Bill looked like a middle schooler next to him.”
“Isn’t it so weird that Bill’s short?”
“Oh, no, it’s total cosmic justice,” said Richie. “He used and abused how tall he was when we were kids, leading us around everywhere. Now we’re the tall ones. We get to be the boss. Not you, though.”
“Fuck off, I’m five-nine. Five-nine is the national average. And it’s three inches taller than the global average.”
“Wow, sensitive subject,” said Richie. “Now I know what they mean when they talk about short guy syndrome.”
Eddie flipped him off, and Richie cracked up into his whiskey.
They talked like that as they waited for their dinners, talking about the Losers, talking about Richie’s first crush (“Bill. Yeah! I know! He was tall!”), pulling up Mike’s e-mails from his grand tour of Europe and comparing what photos he’d sent Eddie vs the photos he’d sent Richie.
“Huh, so I get the bar reviews, and you get the museum tours.”
“How much is he drinking?”
“It’s Europe, Eddie, they don’t have water there.”
“Why are you drinking anyway? What about your Paxil?”
“Man, fuck it for today,” said Richie, “I’ll just power through tomorrow morning. Head first, eyes closed, can’t lose!”
Eddie swallowed his wine and looked up, pleased. “You watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine?”
“Yeah, obviously,” said Richie. “Do you know what I’d do to get on that writing staff?”
“Is that what you’d like to do?” asked Eddie. Richie gave him a curious look, head tipping to one side. “Uh, write. I don’t know, you said something earlier about a career change, and you were joking, but.”
Richie toyed with the whiskey tumbler. For a moment Eddie considered apologizing. He knew the state of his career was something delicate to Richie.
Then Richie shrugged and said, “Yeah. It’s, uh, something I’m trying to explore. I know some of the guys working on Bob’s Burgers, and uh, there’s this new comedy show coming in the fall on Adult Swim that I’m writing pitches for.”
Eddie nodded, listening. He smoothed his fingers across the table.
“That sounds good. I, uh, I think that would be a good change for you.”
“No jokes about how I don’t write my own material?”
That was Eddie’s cue to shrug. He did.
“I’ve seen some of your new stuff on Youtube. It’s better. You were always funnier when you made up your own jokes when we were kids. Instead of just ripping off Chris Farley or Arsenio Hall or, uhhh, what was his name. Uncle Buck?”
“John Candy,” said Richie. “And don’t forget George Carlin. I stole that dude’s shit 24/7.”
“It’ll be a good fit,” said Eddie. “I mean it, Richie. This’ll be really good for you.”
“Man.” Richie rubbed at the side of his nose with his thumb. “I don’t know. You haven’t even read any of my shit. I don’t even know if any of it’s any good.”
“I’d read it.” Richie shifted in his seat and turned his face away, smiling wide: ah, this guy! “No, I’m serious,” Eddie insisted, “Richie, I’ll read your shit. I want to read your shit. Do you use Dropbox? Google Docs?”
“I, uh—” Richie ran a hand through his curling hair and then shrugged massively, hands in the air, palms facing Eddie as though to say okay, okay, you win. “You got full carte blanche to rip me a new one. Don’t go easy on me.”
“I won’t,” Eddie said. “When have I ever gone easy on you?”
“You’re soft, Kaspbrak. You’ve got a soft underbelly. You gotta toughen up if you want to shred my material.”
“I do, Richie,” Eddie said, “I do really want to shred your material. I want to make you cry.”
“Please, Eddie, there’s families in this restaurant,” said Richie.
The waiter returned with their plates on a tray before Eddie, skin zinging, energy making his feet tap, could come up with something to say in reply to that.
“Hell, yeah,” said Richie, “lookit that spread of meat. Garcon, my good man, could I get another whiskey? Skip the rocks this time.”
“Don’t you dare throw up in my car,” Eddie warned him. He covered his wine glass with his hand. “Just water for me.”
“He’s my chauffeur,” Richie explained to the waiter. “I’m doing this dinner for him as a favor.”
“Do not give that man the check,” said Eddie. “If I’m in the bathroom then bring the check to me in the bathroom.”
“Geez, Eddie, isn’t that a little unsanitary?”
“Actually, why don’t I give you my card now?”
“We’ve got a great working relationship,” Richie told the waiter, who looked as if he were ready to simply take off his apron and walk away. “He drives me everywhere, he lets me sleep in his bed, he buys me dinner. Eddie, am I your sugar baby?”
Eddie nearly hit the waiter with his card. “Put everything on this. If he comes up to the register, pretend he’s speaking Icelandic.”
“They speak English in Iceland, you ignorant fuck,” Richie said to Eddie.
The waiter took the card and left without another word.
“Pretty surly service around these parts.”
“Eat your fucking steak,” said Eddie.
Richie gave him a one finger salute then started carving into the porterhouse. The chandelier lights gleamed in his glasses as he bent his head to take the first bite. Eddie sipped at his wine. He held it, sweet and slightly bitter, on his tongue, letting it fill his mouth. Then he swallowed.
He set his empty glass back on the table between them. The dregs of the wine settled yellowish at the bottom of the bell. Richie’s face was distorted through the glass, overly wide, distant, the eyelashes clumped about his eyes both magnified and rendered far from Eddie. His dark curls like a cloud on the horizon, heralding a storm.
Eddie bundled Richie into the apartment. He’d four whiskeys in total and that was on top of the bourbon at Boglioli’s. He was draped comfortably across Eddie’s shoulders and wholly unbothered by Eddie’s litany of complaints.
“My back kind of feels like ground beef,” Richie said, alcohol-stink on his breath. “Can I sleep in the bed again?”
“Are you just screwing with me so you don’t have to sleep on the couch?” Eddie fumbled for the light then gave up. Richie was winding his long arms around him like the coils of a South American constrictor, friendly-sweet and crushing strong.
“Awww, Eddie.” Richie rubbed his cheek cat-like on top of Eddie’s head. “Don’t be a dick. You can sleep in the bed, too. Your bed’s like… A fucking small country. East Europe. God damn, I could go for some vodka.”
“You’re drinking at least five glasses of water before you go to sleep.”
“Dude. I will piss in your bed.”
“Dude. If you piss in my bed—”
Richie swung away from Eddie to collapse against the half-bar in a 1920s swoon.
“Kiss me, choke me, thrill me, slap me. That steak was kind of boring. Eddie, you should fly with me to Chicago, I still have an apartment there,” Richie said, oozing upright. “I wanna take you the Chicago Chop Shop. They’ve got that Japanese beef. Uhhh. Wagyu. Eddie. You’d love it.”
He tried swiping at Eddie as Eddie slipped by him to grab a glass from the cabinet.
“Eddie. Come to Chicago. C’mon, Eddie. Eds. Edsie. Eddie Spaghetti. Baby Bear. Edsie Bedsie Baby Bear.”
Eddie shoved a glass of water into his hands. “Drink this.”
Richie muttered, “Bossy,” but hunching, he drained the glass. “More.”
Eddie filled it two more times for him. Sagging sleepily against the bar, Richie said, “Hey, Eddie.”
“What is it?” Eddie tried not to snap.
“I hate it.” His eyes were drifting closed, long drunken blinks. His glasses had slid down his nose. “Living alone. Thought I liked it. But I don’t. Let’s go to Chicago. Okay? I’ve got a walk in closet. You can put all your suits in it. Hey, Eddie.”
“Jesus, you’re drunk.” Eddie swung Richie’s arm around his shoulder again, intending to take him to the bedroom. But Richie fought him off, staggering into the wall.
“Hey, Eddie,” Richie said. “I have to shit.”
Eddie gave up.
“Fine. Don’t fall in. I’m putting water and advil on the bedside table. Richie, close the fucking door.”
Richie executed an elaborate, awful bow and slammed the bathroom door shut. Eddie punched three times at the air and then went to get a glass of cold water for himself to drink.
Finally Richie reemerged. Eddie had turned on the lamp in the bedroom and straightened up the sheets and bedspread that Richie had left a mess.
“Did you wash your hands?” said Eddie snippily, though he’d heard Richie turning the faucet on and off, on and off.
With a huge and gusting sigh, Richie proffered his hands to Eddie. His fingers were still damp, his palms too. Eddie didn’t have particularly small hands. His own fingers were long: pianist’s fingers, his mother had once wistfully said. But Richie’s hands were larger than his hands, and stronger, and the weight of them in Eddie’s hands was something for which he could not have braced.
“All spick and span,” Richie said. Alcohol hoarsened his voice. He smiled with drowsy, heated slowness at Eddie.
Eddie dropped his hands. Richie made a little sad noise.
“Go to bed, Richie.”
“Come with me.”
“You’re gonna be up all night going to the bathroom,” Eddie said. “No.” He got a hand on Richie’s shoulder and pushed, trying to steer him to the open doorway.
Richie resisted. He was large enough that he simply stopped moving.
“No, c’mon,” Richie said. “’s not fair. Come sleep in the bed with me.”
“Will you just go?” said Eddie. “Will you just go lie down?”
Richie groaned and turned, stomping, to the bedroom. At the threshold he wobbled and pivoted on his heel.
“Why are you so pissy anyway?” he demanded. “What’d I do? Huh? I didn’t ask to steal your bed. I’m trying to share it. Is it ‘cause I’m gay? You don’t want to sleep with the gay guy?”
“Fuck you, Richie.”
“Oh, I wish you would,” said Richie tauntingly. “Is that why? Is that why you won’t just come lay down with me?”
“Fuck you,” Eddie said again, his chest heaving. “You don’t know anything. You don’t fucking pay attention to anything.”
The bedroom light was behind Richie. The kitchen light was behind Eddie. They were trapped together in shadow.
“Why don’t you tell me, huh? Let me in on the little secret. I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours. Here’s mine: I’m gay, Eddie! I’m gay! Does that freak you out, Eddie? Richie Tozier’s a big ol’ gay.”
“I like men—”
“Oh, you like men—”
“Yeah, I do,” Eddie snarled. “I want to fuck men. Is that what you want from me? What the hell’s wrong with you? Why the fuck would you ever think I’d be scared of you? You’re Richie.”
Richie covered his glasses with his hand. “Forget it. I’m sorry. Forget it. I’m being an asshole.”
“Yeah, you are,” said Eddie. “What the fuck do you think today was? What the fuck did you think I was doing? Huh? I took you out to get a suit. I took you to a show. I took you to a, a fucking nice restaurant.”
Richie’s hand lowered, sliding from his eyes, down his nose, from his face entirely. He stared at Eddie and his face was blank. Eddie wanted to scream. He wanted to curse. He wanted to pull all his own hair out and cry.
Instead he said, “Why didn’t you kiss me?”
Richie stilled. The shadows covered his face. His eyes, so blue, were dark things behind his glasses. The hand he’d lowered made an abortive movement then fell again to his side.
“In the sewer,” said Eddie. “Why didn’t you kiss me? I know you wanted to. When I was dying, and you were holding me. You wanted to kiss me.”
They looked at each other there in the twilight shadows, pinned between the lights. Richie swallowed.
He said, sounding very rough, sounding almost angry, “What about before that? What about that. When you pulled me out of the deadlights. You leaned over me and you said—”
“Stop,” said Eddie.
“You said, Richie, I love you,” Richie said, making a voice. “You said Richie, I should have told you before, I love you and I’ve never loved anybody else. And then IT stabbed you and you never fucking said it again.”
Eddie stood there. He was shaking. His heart in his chest was swollen, over-bursting, beating so that the scars on either side of his chest hurt like three day old bruises, purple and black and aching to the touch.
“You’re drunk,” said Eddie. “Go to bed.”
Richie swayed on his feet.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah. Okay.”
Eddie stayed there, standing alone, looking at the door closed between them. He didn’t cry or scream or curse. He didn’t pull out any hair at all. He only closed his eyes and tried to breathe and thought, time’s up. Time’s up. The clock had run out.
Chapter 7: everything you had &
17 Garza isn't a real place in NYC, much as Shulman & Chantilly's and Brookerman's are invented businesses. I also made up the British late night TV host; you can fill him in with whoever you like. There is a Bed, Bath, & Beyond on Richmond Avenue in Staten Island.
I won't link to it here because I don't want to get anyone in trouble, but if you Google "Richmond Chandler Pearls are a Nuisance" you can find a copy of it to read on-line.
Thanks for your patience with me. I'm very sorry I couldn't finish this for Valentine's Day. Work is still absolutely nuts.
All of your comments, however many, however few, however long, however short, have been as an oasis to me as I stagger to and from The Job. I have teared up a few times!! Gross. So: thank you. Thank you all so much. We're almost there.
This kills monsters.
He drew his arm back. His hips twisted. Eddie launched the post forward with the whole of his body, a singular motion that brought his leg up with the force of it. In a clean arc it flew like a golden arrow of myth to drive through the engorged and shining throat of the beast: the demon: IT.
Richie dropped nine feet, ten. He struck rock with his feet. His limp body saved his knees, the bones of his shins; his femurs did not drive into the hip sockets. He collapsed, ragdoll, on his back on the sewage-wet stones.
The terrible light had gone out. Eddie staggered unerring to Richie even in the sudden dimness. His body hummed. His blood, it sang. He slid painfully to his knees beside Richie and reached for him. Richie, dazed, his pupils pinpricks rapidly dilating, looked up at him.
“I did it, Richie! I killed IT!”
Hadn’t he? Hadn’t he done that, Sonia Kraspbak’s boy? Eddie laughed in Richie’s face. He’d fisted his hands in Richie’s mud-stained tee, and he thumped them once against his chest.
Richie was looking at Eddie as if he too felt what Eddie felt, and what he felt had left him speechless, tight of breath. Richie’s hand came up. He curled his fingers around Eddie’s nape.
“I did it,” said Eddie again. “Richie, did you see?”
Never before in his life had Eddie felt like so: fearless; as if every dusty corner and mildewed crevice in his unloved body had been swept clean in the moment he had launched the fence post into the air. He was radiant. He was light. I’m not afraid of anything, Eddie thought.
Richie’s eyes were so large, his lips parted. He looked at Eddie with some emotion so vast and so terrible Eddie could not at first name it; no one had ever looked at him with such a thing on them. He said, “Eddie,” in a croak, and his fingers tightened along Eddie’s nape. His thumb pressed gentle to the corner of his jaw. “You saved me.”
And oh, thought Eddie, oh: so that what’s it is. So this is how it feels. Forty years and he had never known, and here it was in front of him in the longing that made Richie’s touch so heavy and furrowed Richie’s face and made his head lift uneasy from the rocks.
“Of course I saved you, Richie,” said Eddie. All along it had been this easy. He hadn’t known. He hadn’t known. “I love you.”
Richie’s hand spasmed. His mouth fell open. All the irony, the purposeful cruelty, the wariness had passed from Richie. When he collapsed out of the deadlights he had done so naked, stripped of his pretensions.
Eddie thought, You love me, and for that one moment, so sweet in the sweltering, stinking dark, he believed in it with a child’s totality.
“I’ve always loved you,” Eddie said. “My whole life. I think.” His heart trembled. Richie got an elbow beneath him. He drew closer. Eddie lowered with infinite, tender slowness to meet him. “I think maybe I didn’t ever love anybody that wasn’t… That wasn’t you. I think—”
The claw drove through him. Very neatly it skewered Eddie from the back, two inches from his spine, and straight through his chest. A lung began the shocked work of collapsing. All of the nerves in Eddie’s body directed missives to his brain which lit up in a firework cavalcade of PAIN PAIN PAIN, white-hot sparking and so thorough he could not consciously register it as pain.
Blood had spattered across Richie’s face. It coated his lips. His glasses, already cracked, were red-soaked with it. That’s my blood, thought Eddie with some surprise.
“Eddie?” said Richie.
Then IT whipped Eddie away like a petulant child, tossing a broken toy. Wind hissed through Eddie’s ears. He hit the rocks at thirty miles per hour. Another Eddie, at a desk with a calculator and full knowledge of the speed and forces involved, would have reported he had a 50% chance of survival from the impact alone.
He was very calm. There was a great deal of blood. His fingers were twitching. Already he was going into shock.
That’s right, thought Sonia’s son. There’s so many things to be afraid of, and he was afraid again, as he ought to have been afraid all along. What would bravery get you? It’ll get you killed.
“Eddie!” Richie screamed. “Eddie!” His hands were on Eddie’s chest, and Eddie gasped, at last registering what his traumatized nervous system shouted at him, pain! pain!
I love you, Eddie thought, I love you; and it wasn’t enough. It could never be enough. He thought, I’m scared, and he thought, I’m glad it wasn’t Richie, and he thought, this kills monsters.
He watched the arc of the arrow. He watched Richie drop. The cutting edge went through his chest. It happened again when he blinked, playing out behind his eyes or perhaps in the flooding hole in his chest.
His brain, stuttering, said again: this kills monsters. Again: this kills monsters. Like the end of a reel of film, its tail flapping, the white cells jouncing against their black borders, saying it’s over! Get lost! There isn’t any more! Th-that’s all, c-c-cocksuckers!
And somewhere in the dark the monster capered and laughed, while Eddie bled all over Richie’s hands, his strong hands, the hands Eddie had dreamed about for so many years without ever knowing why. Every pump of Eddie’s heart gushed blood up his throat.
Richie was crying. He felt the tears on his face. He didn’t feel them as wet or as warm, his brain too preoccupied with the uninterrupted wailing of his every part, but he felt the pressure of the tears as they landed on his nose and his torn-up cheek.
“Hey, Richie,” he whispered. The gore clung hot-tangy to his teeth. He said, “This kills monsters.” He covered the blood sticky hand that cupped his jaw. Eddie smiled.
“I should’ve told you. Before.” His mind flickered, trying for the words as they slipped eel-like from him. Deep shadows ate at his vision. “That I. That I love you.”
In the flickering shadows Richie curled weeping around him and said—
Eddie never heard it. But he sensed the others, come to surround them: fragmentary shadows on the edges of his awareness. He had to tell them something. The pain was lesser; he was going somewhere. The leper in the basement. His eyes were so heavy.
Pressure, soft, on his face. A hand, a thumb, gentle on his lips then firm. Pain exploded again in Eddie, and he shouted, eyes opening, looking wildly at Richie staring slack-jawed down at him from some meager distance of inches.
“It hurts,” Eddie said.
And what was pain? Pain told you, “You’re alive right now. These parts of you need to be fixed. So fix them.” Can you live with that?
“We can’t leave him,” Richie said.
“So we’ll take him with us,” said Beverly.
The Losers knelt beside him in a ring; the only friends he’d ever had. Ben at his right side, Mike with a shoulder under his left arm, Richie before him and frantically packing his ripped, tacky patterned shirt underneath Eddie’s cardigan and his hands touching, grasping, briefly stroking Eddie: his face, his shoulders, his aching collarbone. Bill asking is this okay? Does it hurt? Beverly saying he’s strong. He can take it. C’mon, Eddie.
And some stray neurons silver-bright with trauma misfired in Eddie’s brain. He thought he heard Stan whisper into his ear, “Don’t forget, Eddie. Please don’t forget. You have to remember.”
“There’s something,” Eddie slurred. “Something I have to remember. In the basement. Of the pharmacy. The leper…”
He told them. They listened. Richie held his hand, dangling off Ben’s shoulder. His thumb swept across the limp backs of Eddie’s knuckles. Eddie rested his head on Mike’s shoulder as they began to stumble through the dark and the sewage. He curled his fingers so that if only fleetly he held Richie’s hand in his own. Then Richie’s hand fell away.
“Eddie,” sang the demon in the dark. “Eddie Bear. Eddie, my love.”
He took two trazodone that night, one hundred milligrams total, a dosage his general physician and therapist had both agreed he could take so long as he did so sparingly. Eddie hadn’t taken two at once in several months, but he couldn’t bear the thought of lying awake all night on the couch straining to listen for Richie. He’d curled on the couch tight as a shrimp on a plate with his hands tucked under his chin, and tried very hard not to think that he had failed: that he ought to have pushed through without using the medication, which at times he felt guilty or resentful for having at all.
“I just don’t know if I need it,” he’d told Dr Green at a session shortly before the Christmas week. “Like it’s a crutch.”
“Well, do think of it as a crutch,” said Dr Green. “People who use crutches need them to walk, because they’re hurt or they have a disability. Your anxiety is a disability.”
“I should be able to manage it.” He’d looked down at his arms, loose on his knees. He picked at his cardigan’s ribbed cuff. “It’s… My mother used to give me benadryl to help me sleep.” He curled his fingers under the cuff and tried again. “To put me to sleep.”
“And how did that feel? When you took the benadryl.”
He thought for several cold moments in her office with its three windows, faced out to New York in December. Dr Green had pulled the blinds and the floor’s heat was on, but the chill still seeped through the fine gaps.
“It made me feel weak,” he said. “Slow. I had to go to bed or I’d fall over. And my head was.” He gestured frustratedly at his head, fingers outstretched as if to grasp a basketball. “A black hole.”
“How does the trazodone make you feel? Compared to the benadryl. Take your time,” she said. “I know you can get overwhelmed. And it’s okay to take a minute to sort through it.”
He did, dropping his hand. Arms again across his knees, he folded his fingers together.
At last he said, “Calm. It makes me feel calm. Sleepy, but not like I have to find something to lay down on right away.” His hands passed over each other, then again the other way. He gripped the fingers of his right hand firmly in the left. “I can still do things after I take the trazodone. Um. Brush my teeth or eat. Read a book for a while.”
Dr Green waited. Her nails, blue-painted, rested on top of the composition notebook she always had but never wrote in.
“It feels different when I wake up, too,” he said, thinking it through as he spoke. “With the benadryl, I would wake up… Dry. Slow. I’m sorry, I don’t really know the way, how to describe it. Just, um. Like I was muffled. Or my brain was, um, under dirt. That doesn’t make sense, sorry. That was stupid.”
“It makes sense for you,” she said. “It’s how you would describe it.”
A part of Eddie of course longed for Dr Green to say: This makes sense, because I say so; and not that it made sense because it made sense to Eddie. You can’t force people to understand things the way you understand them, she’d told him once, but you can ask them to try to understand it. So he had to trust that she would try.
“But with the trazodone,” he said. “Um. I’m sleepy. A little. When I wake up. Kind of groggy, I guess. But then I’ll make a cup of tea and I’m fine. It, uh, feels normal. Like how I think normal people feel in the morning.”
Was that the right answer? Was it what she wanted to hear? Stop trying to please everyone, Eddie. He heard it in whose voice? His own, thirteen and high-pitched with stress. That ghost that lived inside him.
“I understand that medication is complicated for you,” said Dr Green. “We’ve talked about it some before. Your history. Would you like to talk some more about it, today?”
He shook his head quickly, before she had finished speaking. “No. Not today. I, uh, I don’t want to talk about that. Or about my mom. Thank you.”
Dr Green smiled. She had a pleasant, round face. He guessed someone else might think her motherly.
“No worries,” she said. “We can talk about work if you want. How are your friends?”
At the end of the appointment she had given him a task. “Think about it like homework. I know, you’re too old for homework, I know. And you don’t have to do it. But it might be easier for you to write about your feelings, about medication, than it is talking about them. So would you write something about them? Would you try?”
“Yeah,” he’d said, “I can try,” and he had gone home and sat in front of his laptop with the Google document open and the cursor blinking and his head blank of every thought but a very clear memory of his mother reminding him to take a fish oil pill with his lunch at school.
So, he took two trazodone the night of— That night. And he slept on the couch, clutching at his knees, dreaming strange and slippery things that fell out from his fingers as he jolted awake because Richie had opened the front door.
Eddie said something. An incoherent, sleep-grizzled sound. Wan pre-dawn light filtered through the cracked door from the glass windows outside. Richie was a silhouette with a duffel over his shoulder. The fog burned out of Eddie’s head.
“Don’t go,” Eddie blurted. He stumbled off the couch, half-crouching as he held a hand out to Richie. “It’s— You can stay.” I won’t say anything, I won’t do anything, I didn’t mean it, please stay, please stay: nausea struck Eddie at the knees. He collapsed sitting on the end of the couch and dizzily blinked the yawning spots from his eyes.
Richie had a hand on the door, clasping the edge of it. He dipped his head.
“There’s, uh, a morning Shabbat service. At Temple Israel. They’re a reform synagogue, and I thought.” He shrugged. “Fuck. I’m trying to be a better Jew. They’re doing a Torah study before the Shabbat.”
“Oh,” said Eddie. He remembered Richie talking about that: for Stan. “I could—”
Richie was quick to cut him off. “Nah, it’s okay, I don’t, uh, I don’t need a babysitter on this one. And I’m meeting with some producers here anyway.”
“You didn’t tell me about that.”
“Yeah, it just slipped my mind,” Richie said. He scratched at his jaw. The length of his arm hid his face. “Sorry. So I’ll probably be out of the apartment most of the day. You can stretch out. Let it all hang out again. Um. Show’s tonight so I’ll just get there early and run over the material. But text me, if you wanna talk!”
He smiled brightly at Eddie. Eddie felt it like a cold hand, slowly stroking down his back.
“Sure,” said Eddie. He heard his own voice, so awfully calm. Standing from the couch, he made for the kitchen. “Uh, gimme a moment. I have a spare key.”
“I don’t really need—”
Loudly, Eddie kept talking. “I’m going into the office anyway to make up hours.” He pulled open the office supplies and miscellanies drawer. At the back of the drawer, he’d taped the spare key with a length of scotch tape. “So if you forgot something, I might not be here to let you in.”
He handed the key off to Richie. Their hands brushed. Richie’s palm was warm and slightly chapped, the skin made rough by the season. His fingers closed around the key. The tips brushed at Eddie’s fingers, pulling away.
Eddie stared resolutely at the v-neck of Richie’s yellow zip-up hoodie. Good Times & Sun Shine the front boasted in red print, curled in a half circle with a red star centered beneath that arc. He heard the moisture in Richie’s mouth as he swallowed.
“Thanks,” said Richie.
If Eddie were braver, he would have something else. Instead he said, “No problem,” and let Richie leave.
When Richie had gone out, he closed the door and he locked it again. Then he went to the kitchen to fill the kettle with filtered water and prepare the leaves for his morning tea. His hands were very steady. Eddie pulled out one of the red clay mugs, ridged on the sides, and for the span of a heartbeat or perhaps two he only held the mug, remembering.
Then he set it on the counter. The burner glowed dully red, pulsing heat under the copper kettle. Eddie packed the mug with leaves. He was thinking of his mother stirring honey into his tea and telling him he should drink it all because his mother had made it for him and she loved him very much. Don’t you love your mother, Eddie? Don’t you love her just as much as she loves you?
He stood in the kitchen in his pajamas bottoms and his Iron Man t-shirt. Goose pimples marked his arms. He crossed them. After a few minutes, the kettle began to lowly cry.
Most Saturday mornings, Eddie could be found at the gym on the third floor of 17 Garza, the building that housed Shulman & Chantilly’s among other businesses. He didn’t often work on the weekends but he did like to run and in the winter months or if it rained he did so at the gym.
If he ran, he didn’t have to think, and if he did think he thought of his heart’s steady beating, the breath count he tried to maintain, the lactic acid his muscles produced with each loping step. How the fabric of his running shirt felt, pulling sleekly across his chest. The sweat on the insides of his knees. Eddie ran, and Richie in the shadows fell behind him and then away, so it was only Eddie here, Eddie alone and contained wholly within his self, running, breathing, heart pumping with regular strokes, the blood moving hotly through his veins and his organs and the meat of his body.
Each of the treadmills had a TV mounted from the ceiling a foot ahead so that as you ran you could watch programs or any of a number of nature runs. Someone had gone out with a Go Pro and run trails through the USA, or Canada, or somewhere. You could pretend you weren’t a city-bound sadsack who had to put on a video shot from a camera strapped to someone else’s chest, someone who did go out in the world and run between the trees with the birds singing and the deer watchful and silent somewhere within the greenery and the earth hard-packed and uneven beneath their flexing feet.
Eddie put on the news. He didn’t wear earbuds as he ran; he preferred the annoyance of closed captioning, the delayed scripts that played out white text on black bars and sometimes did not finish. His Fitbit tracked his heartbeats per minute.
The Fitbit was a gift from Richie, sometime in October. Richie had called it a “fuck you gift” which was his way of saying it was a gag gift, and when Eddie had opened the Little Mermaid branded box to find the blush pink Fitbit Alta inside, he’d looked at Richie and said, “Fuck you.” This sent Richie into a bout of laughter so intense he’d sat down “or I’ll fall on my fucking ass, and I know that’s exactly what you want is for me to break my assbone so you can stand there smirking at the end of the hospital bed while they put me in cass-t. Do you get it, ‘cause—”
“Because ass,” Eddie had said, “and they don’t put you in a cast for a broken tailbone. They can’t do anything for you. You just don’t get to sit, ever.”
“What, like I work retail?” said Richie. “Like I work at a fucking bank? What the hell do you do if you have to use a wheelchair and you bust your ass? What the fuck are we even doing here. It’s like we’re still caveman. They can do Face/Off but they can’t put your butt in a cast?”
“I swear to God, Richie,” Eddie had said, “if you make me say this one more time, I’m going to tell TMZ you threw up watching Beetlejuice. Face/Off is not real.”
“Yeah, no,” said Richie, “I just like how much you hate having to remember Face/Off exists.”
So he used the Fitbit when he worked out; only then. It was a doorway, he suspected, to the kind of granular detail re: his health and exercise habits that would take Eddie by the hand and very kindly lead him back to a lifestyle he could not survive.
The news anchors, two women, both blonde, and a man with a brown crewcut, debated the Women’s March of January. Eddie felt the usual anxiety low in his gut at the reminder, that months after they had killed IT, the electoral college of their country had given the presidency to another, human monster, a monster like how so many humans were monsters. It wasn’t just Derry. It was everything else, too. They were all still floating, all of them, the Losers and everyone else.
Stop, he thought. Stop thinking it’s hopeless. It’s not hopeless. Nothing is hopeless. If you can survive IT, then you can survive anything. If he could survive the swaddled blur of his childhood, the suffocating love of his mother, then he could survive this.
Eddie fiddled with the controls, changing the channel to soap operas, soap operas in Spanish, an entertainment news station, cartoons, more cartoons, PBS. He thought, oh, Ken Burns, but by then he’d gone on to the next station. The next station was re-airing a month-old taping of late night talk show, one of the new ones with a British host, an affable man in a three piece suit. The closed captioning said,
HERE TO HELP US WITH THAT
IS OUR NEXT GUEST
the letters popping up individually as Eddie watched. His fingers hovered over the buttons. Richie, his beard very neat, in trainers and crisp designer jeans and a tasteful flannel button-down, jogged on to the set and waved hugely to the audience. He cut two swift, elaborate bows to the crowd, a leg stuck far out behind him each time.
- CROWD LAUGHING
[CAM] SO RICHARD
[TOZIER] COME ON CALL ME RICH
[CAM] RIGHT, RIGHT, RICH, LET’S NOT STAND
[TOZIER] AH FORMALITY
THAT WOULD BE IN BREACH OF MY
- CROWD LAUGHING
“Should’ve made a tea joke,” Eddie muttered. But he was looking now at this Richie of the month before, a younger Richie with a thinner beard in a comically late Chanukkah sweater.
[CAM] ARE YOU JEWISH
[TOZIER] YEAH I’M TRYING TO GET IN
TOUCH WITH MY
NO DON’T CHEER THAT I’M JUST
EATING LOTS OF
BAGELS AND CHALLAH AND THIS
EGG THING CALLED SHAKSHUKAH
LIKE MY STOMACH IS
AND THE REST OF ME IS LIKE
WOW I LOVE BREAD
When had this episode aired? He’d a vague impression of Richie tweeting about the date in the groupchat, but Eddie had been in the middle of an ongoing catastrophe at work, juggling three separate accounts and covering for two people who had been out sick with H1N1. “Sorry, I’ll tape it though,” he’d said, but he never had watched it. He wasn’t sure whether or not he’d recorded it on the DVR.
[CAM] WHO DOESN’T LOVE BREAD
SHOW OF HANDS
[TOZIER] ACTUALLY MY FRIEND ONE OF
DON’T LAUGH AT THAT IT ISN’T
I HAVE FRIENDS YOU KNOW I HAVE FEELINGS
SOMETIMES, IT’S A REALLY COMPLICATED
ANYWAY HE’S ON KETO
DO YOU KNOW WHAT KETO IS
“Oh, fuck you, Richie,” said Eddie, “what the fuck? Why didn’t anybody tell me about this?” He ran faster, legs eating up those transient miles as the tread rolled endlessly on beneath him. His footsteps rattled.
[CAM] THAT’S THE ONE WHERE YOU CAN’T EAT BREAD
AT ALL JUST THE RED DRIPPING HEART
OF A GOOD WELSH COW
[TOZIER] NO THAT’S ATKINS
AND THE COW ISN’T WELSH IT’S FROM
WYOMING AND YOU HAVE TO CONQUER IT
IT WON’T RESPECT YOU
[CAM] THAT’S VERY IMPORTANT WITH ATKINS
[TOZIER] YEAH IF THE COW DOESN’T RESPECT YOU
THEN YOU MIGHT AS WELL GIVE UP
GO BACK TO THE TWINKIES
Richie and his fucking twinkies, thought Eddie. It was a miracle he hadn’t keeled over dead in Derry with all the running they’d done through the town, through the sewage maze beneath it, through that damned haunted house.
Richie continued, leaning amiably against the guest couch’s arm, his left leg crossed over the knee of the right, all the long, broad, soft lines of him both on display and tucked away,
[TOZIER] KETO IS THE DIET WHERE YOU CUT OUT VEGGIES
AND THEN YOU DIE FROM SCURVY
[CAM] OH THAT SOUNDS AWFUL
[TOZIER] THANK YOU I’LL TELL EDDIE YOU SAID
THAT HE’LL BE REALLY HAPPY WITH ME
FOR SHARING THIS WITH YOU ALL
[CAM] OH ECSTATIC I KNOW I WOULD BE
WHO WOULDN’T LOVE TO HAVE THEIR DIETARY
CHOICES MOCKED ON PRIMETIME TELEVISION
[TOZIER] RIGHT, IN FRONT OF GOD
[CAM] IN FRONT OF GOD AND EVERYTHING
[TOZIER] THE GOOD NEWS IS HE DOESN’T WATCH YOUR
[CAM] OH WELL THEN **** EDDIE
Richie laughed, his nose wrinkling the way it did when he really brayed. His cheeks rounded. They made happy, glittering, blue crescents of his eyes, magnified behind the powerful lenses of his glasses. He said,
[TOZIER] NO NO DON’T **** EDDIE
HE HAS ENOUGH **** ON HIS PLATE
[CAM] JUST NOT ANY VEGETABLES
[TOZIER] AND HE HAS ALL THAT SCURVY NOW
NO EDDIE’S A GREAT GUY AND HE’S ONE
OF MY OLDEST FRIENDS
I GOT GRANDFATHERED IN TO HIS FRIENDS
CIRCLE JUST BY VIRTUE OF BEING
THERE WHEN HE WAS 11 AND HE WAS
DOUBLE-GUNNING FANNY PACKS
Richie gestured almost obscenely to his crotch, then behind him over his ass as he giggling said,
[TOZIER] YEAH ONE ON THE FRONT AND
ONE ON THE BACK
THEY WERE LIKE HOLSTERS FOR HIS
[CAM] OH IT’S AWFUL OH I CAN’T
[TOZIER] FASTEST WHEEZE IN THE EAST
[CAM] HE ISN’T IN THE AUDIENCE TONIGHT
I KNOW YOU SAID
[TOZIER] OH DUDE IF HE WAS IN THE AUDIENCE
I WOULD ALREADY BE DEAD
[CAM] MY FIRST GUEST DEATH ON STAGE HOW TREMENDOUS
[TOZIER] I’M REALLY SORRY I COULDN’T GIVE YOU THAT
[CAM] NO IT’S ALL RIGHT TRULY I’LL JUST NEED A MOMENT
The host made a show of restacking note cards as Richie laughed with the audience, hamming for them. His smile showed roguish, a lopsided shot of teeth in the midst of his curling black beard. He didn’t look half as stupid with sideburns as he should have looked. The flannel pulled tightly across his shoulders when he laid his hands on his ankle, set over his knee. The sleeves were rolled up just short of his elbows.
The host cleared his throat.
[CAM] SO YOU RECENTLY
THIS WAS A FEW MONTHS AGO
ON TWITTER YOU MADE AN ANNOUNCEMENT
Richie folded his hands together over his ankle. His smile, to Eddie, was perhaps more rigid. A pinching at the corners. He looked pleasant enough.
[CAM] A RATHER SURPRISING ANNOUNCEMENT
TO MANY OF YOUR FANS
AND TO YOUR CRITICS AS WELL
[TOZIER] YES AND TO MY FANS AND MY CRITICS
I WOULD LIKE TO TAKE THIS OPPORTUNITY
THE RUMORS ARE TRUE I
MADE LOVE TO YOUR MOM
[CAM] OH THE ONE MOM? THE SORT OF
THE CONGLOMERATE MOM?
[TOZIER] YEAH JUST THE MOTHERSHIP
[CAM] AND OF COURSE YOU ARE GAY NOW
[TOZIER] WELL IT’S BEEN A LONGSTANDING
BUT THE TRUMAN SHOW STYLE WRITERS WHO’VE
REALLY BEEN BEHIND ME SINCE CHILDHOOD
THEY THOUGHT THIS WAS THE RIGHT
TIME TO MAKE THAT REVEAL YOU KNOW AFTER
BUILDING IT UP FOR SO LONG
[CAM] SOME WOULD SAY THE FORESHADOWING WAS
A BIT UNDERWHELMING
[TOZIER] BECAUSE OF THE ***** JOKES
[CAM] I’M NOT SURE IF WE HAVE TO CENSOR THAT!
I DON’T THINK ANY GUESTS HAVE SAID
***** ON STAGE BEFORE
[TOZIER] I’M PRETTY SURE
JACK NICHOLSON HAS SAID ***** ON THIS STAGE
[CAM] RIGHT BUT HE’S JACK NICHOLSON
[TOZIER] HE HAS ***** PRIVILEGES
[CAM] EXACTLY HE ISN’T
A MAN YOU CAN LOOK IN THE EYE AND SAY
PLEASE NO MORE *****
[TOZIER] LIKE PLEASE JUST SAY CAT
LIKE WHEN WE’RE TALKING ABOUT YOUR CAT
JUST SAY CAT OR EVEN KITTY
[CAM] BUT NO IT’S ALWAYS ***** THIS
***** THAT HERE ***** HERE *****
[TOZIER] THIS REALLY SOUNDS LIKE MY TRASHMOUTH
DID JACK NICHOLSON GHOSTWRITE FOR ME
STEVE THAT’S MY AGENT HEY STEVE
DID JACK NICHOLSON EVER
DID HE GHOSTWRITE FOR ME
CAN YOU GET BACK TO ME ON THAT ONE THANKS
Eddie leaned forward with his elbows on the controls and tried very hard not to slow down or trip from the effort to not laugh at Richie’s typical, breezy delivery. That high-low-high-higher patter as if frantically checking his own notes and finding nothing.
[CAM] AND YOU’RE WRITING YOUR OWN MATERIAL NOW
[TOZIER] YEAH I’M TRYING SOME STUFF OUT
WE’LL SEE HOW FUNNY I AM
WHEN I’M NOT JACKING OFF TO LESBIAN PORN
FORGIVE ME FOR ASKING THIS
WE’VE TALKED BEFORE ON THIS PROGRAM ABOUT
OUR MUTUAL TROUBLES WITH THE
[TOZIER] YEAH AND I SAW YOU’RE DATING
KELLY AKUFFO THAT’S GREAT MAN
SHE’S A REALLY GREAT PERSON
AND JUST KILLER ON STAGE TOO
[CAM] THANK YOU YES
I DON’T WANT TO BRAG TOO MUCH BUT
OF COURSE IT’S ALWAYS A COMFORT
WHEN YOU LOOK LIKE US
[TOZIER] LIKE BIGFOOT
[CAM] RIGHT LIKE BIGFOOT
BUT GETTING BACK ON SUBJECT
SINCE YOU’VE COME OUT
THERE’S BEEN MUCH SPECULATION ABOUT WHETHER
YOU’RE SEEING ANYONE OR NOT
Over the progress of the conversation, Richie’s smile had grown wider and chummier, more and more of a “ha ha, here’s the chucks, ladies and gentlemen!” façade. To the audience he must have appeared at ease. To Eddie he looked, oh, lonely and uncomfortable, shoulders tensed beneath the harsh spotlights on the stage.
Eddie’s heart was cramping. He’d sweat on his throat, and his armpits were sticky as he continued running, kept pushing and pushing. As if he thought he might in his running from Richie run to him. Then the host said,
[CAM] WOULD THIS EDDIE BE
and Eddie quickly slowed the treadmill so he wouldn’t trip and be swept back along the machine and dumped on the hard floor. The cramp in his heart had turned to a knot. He rubbed at his chest scar.
[TOZIER] NO NO NO
EDDIE IS GREAT
HE’S A REALLY INCREDIBLE GUY
BUT NO WE’RE NOT DATING
JUST OLD FRIENDS
YOU KNOW EVEN IF WE WERE LIKE
I WOULDN’T WANT TO TOUCH THAT
YOU KNOW? LIKE
RUIN SOMETHING YOU HAVE WITH A FRIEND
AND EDDIE IF YOU’RE WATCHING THIS DON’T BE LIKE
OH MY GOD HE’S THOUGHT OF IT BECAUSE
WHAT I MEAN IS LIKE
HE’S MY FRIEND AND WE’VE BEEN
THROUGH A LOT TOGETHER
[CAM] SUCH AS KETO
[TOZIER] AND THE SCURVY YEAH
[CAM] IS LOVE ON THE HORIZON FOR YOU
Richie ran a hand through his hair. He scratched at the back of his head and grimaced flashily, another part of the show.
[TOZIER] AH NOT REALLY
YOU KNOW UH
MY LIFE IS SUCH A MESS THAT
DATING JUST SEEMS LIKE IT WOULD END
IN DISASTER AND I’D
REALLY JUST LIKE TO SPEND SOME
TIME WORKING ON ME
AND MY MATERIAL AND WHAT I’D LIKE TO
BE DOING IN THE FUTURE
[CAM] YOU’RE DOING A SMALLER TOUR
NOW RATHER THAN THOSE LARGE THEATRES
YOU USED TO SHOW AT
[TOZIER] YEAH THERE’S UNDERSTANDABLY
BEEN A LOT OF PR STUFF GOOD AND BAD
BUT MOSTLY I JUST WANTED
TO TRY OUT THE STUFF I’M WRITING
IN THESE SMALLER VENUES
YOU KNOW THE PLACES WHERE I STARTED OUT
[CAM] IT’S A VERY DIFFERENT ENVIRONMENT
[TOZIER] IT IS BUT IT’S NICE
IT’S GOOD TO BE THERE IT KIND OF FEELS LIKE
SOMETIMES YOU GO HOME TO A PLACE
WHERE YOU GREW UP AND IT’S LIKE HOLY ****
THIS PLACE IS A NIGHTMARE
WHAT A DUMP
AND SOMETIMES YOU GO HOME AND IT’S LIKE
WOW WHY DID I EVER LEAVE HERE
AND THAT’S WHAT THESE LITTLE CLUBS FEEL LIKE
LIKE COMING HOME AND IT’S WARM AND COZY
AND IT’S BEEN WAITING FOR ME
[CAM] WHAT A LOVELY THOUGHT
[TOZIER] THANK YOU
[CAM] ENTIRELY OUT OF CHARACTER
[TOZIER] YEAH MY TRUMAN SHOW STAFF IS
TRYING SOME STUFF OUT
[CAM] THEY HAVE THEIR WORK CUT OUT FOR THEM
NOW FOR A SHORT BREAK
AND WHEN WE GET BACK
RICH TOZIER WILL GIVE US A PREVIEW
OF HIS NEW SET!
Richie looked directly into the camera and gave both a wink and a fingergun: point, click, bang. Eddie turned off the television. Over the next five minutes he gradually slowed to a walk, then after another five minutes of walking he switched off the treadmill and stopped, arms hooked over the handles, his head bowed. He panted harsh gasps.
Had the other Losers watched this? Should it bother him to think that they had? He thought of how Richie had thumbed his jaw as he talked about prioritizing his career. The flicker of horror-shock when the host had joked about Eddie: about Eddie.
His skin buzzed. He was dripping sweat. Ask him about it, Eddie thought; but he also thought of Richie trying to escape out the door that morning, and he thought of Richie the night before enshrouded and made a blue-dark ghost by the lamplight at his back and not at all saying to Eddie, yes, I wanted to kiss you. There in the dark. When I held you.
Eddie got a clean towel from the cubbies and wiped the machine down, little though he needed to. Then he walked, legs trembling from the exertion, to the showers and washed aggressively under cold water, his skin prickling tight as a lizard’s pebbled hide.
He thought of Richie’s uncomfortable smile sitting on that couch. He thought of Richie saying, “Dating just seems like it would end in disaster.” He thought of Richie stretching in Eddie’s bed, his shirt off, his pectoral muscles pulling tautly up in wings as he raised his arms, the black hairs that covered his chest and curled around his nipples.
Eddie shivered violently under the cold water. He rinsed the conditioner out of his hair and twisted the handle sharply so that the water petered out. It gurgled as it ran down the drain. He stared at the drain, waiting, but no ghosts whispered to him. Only in his head did he hear his mother speak, and he knew well enough now how to lock her away in a little corner where she would starve and fall silent.
He pulled on a polo, slacks, a belt. Stuffed his dirtied gym clothes in the light bag he carried just for them and for his beat-up Nikes. He’d time to kill now. The Saturday he’d left open gaped bare before him. He had thought, maybe, with Richie he might—
It didn’t matter.
Eddie took the stairs two flights up to the office.
He worked well, or he would have said he worked well. A steady output, a general tidying of the shared resources on the database: Eddie had every right to log out smug and satisfied with what he’d done. He logged out, instead, tired, and once he’d logged out he sat for a while in his ergonomic chair and stared blankly at the plain blue desktop screen. He’d never bothered to change the wallpaper.
All the time he’d worked he had remembered snatches of Richie on that talk show. His leg, crossed. The hair dusting the ankle that showed. The white watch on his wrist. The easy, laughing smiles he’d given the crowd as he played to them. This was Rich, the adult Rich, the man Eddie sometimes thought he hardly knew. This was the man that had looked at him in the half-light of the apartment last night and said, “You told me you loved me,” quietly and with a cold kind of edge.
Eddie thought, I should call him or, I should text him. Say to Richie: I love you. I love you and I want you to love me too. Please say that you love me. Please say anything to me.
He made fists out of his hands and squeezed them, hard, so that his clean-kept nails hurt the meat of his palms. Then he straightened his hands out, pressed on the desk, and pushed himself out of his chair.
Outside his office in the hallway he nearly ran into Tanner. They both startled, Tanner severely.
“Sorry, Mr Kaspbrak,” said Tanner.
Eddie said, “What are you doing here? It’s Saturday,” without thinking at all about what he would say to Tanner St. Martin, twenty-some years old and newly hired at Shulman & Chantilly’s as a junior analyst.
Tanner looked briefly cowed; then he lifted his chin, a motion Eddie found disorienting. It was the sort of thing Eddie did when he no longer wanted to feel out of place.
“Well, I,” Tanner started, “uh, I thought about what you said in your e-mail.” That was the e-mail over which H.R. had given Eddie a talking to and at length. “And sir, you’re an asshole. But um, you were right too. I do want to learn and to do better and to, uh, to prove that I’m not just good enough to get this job but good enough to keep it. So that’s why I’m here on Saturday, Mr Kaspbrak. Because I want to be better. And I figured I should start by learning the company library.”
“Oh,” said Eddie. He looked at Tanner, who was three inches taller than him, skeletally skinny, with cropped hair and very dark and serious eyes. Eddie said, “Well, first of all, you don’t owe the company your weekends and you shouldn’t make a habit of coming in on your days off because they’ll start expecting you to be here on Saturday and if you don’t come in they’ll think you’re slacking when you’re taking your federally protected weekend.” He said this all on one strong breath.
Tanner said, “But you’re here on Saturday?”
“Because I’m an asshole,” Eddie snapped. He was bristling; then he turned on his heel and threw open his office door. “Whatever, you’re already here. Do you know how to search the database?”
“Uh, a little,” said Tanner. “It’s a lot more proprietary than the one I worked on at my internship.”
“Was the internship paid? Don’t answer that,” said Eddie. “Well? Come on. I’m leaving in another hour so that’s how much time you have for me to show you this.”
Tanner stepped into the office and came warily to the desk, where Eddie had logged in again and was tabbing to the main page of the directory.
“Why are you showing me this?”
I don’t know, Eddie thought. Then he thought: Because I wish I was better than I am, too.
“Because if you have enough guts to stand up to me,” said Eddie, “then you should have enough guts to stand up for yourself period. And if you don’t then I’m wasting my time right now. You said I was an asshole,” he reminded Tanner. “I don’t try to be an asshole but I am. So now I’m gonna try to be an asshole in your favor.”
Tanner squinted at him. “Thanks?”
“Don’t end a statement with an up note,” Eddie said furiously. “They’ll walk all over you here.”
“Okay, Jesus,” said Tanner. “Thank you.”
“Better,” said Eddie. “So if you want to search the database these are the three shortcuts you need to learn. There’s a notepad in the second drawer. Pens are in the cup. Put the cap on the other end of the pen. I’m not losing any caps in here.”
“Oh, my god, you’re worse,” said Tanner.
“Yes,” said Eddie with that satisfaction he’d so wanted. “I’m worse. Start writing these things down. And I am not your friend, Tanner. Nobody you work with is your friend. Everyone here would betray you.”
Tanner stared at him with something like awe and something like fear. “Man,” he said, “what the hell happened to you?”
“Corporate advancement and a divorce,” said Eddie. “The divorce is pending. Why aren’t you writing?”
Tanner started filling the notepad. He had neat handwriting. A strong hand with a rightward slant.
He carried with him that feeling of having done something good onto the ferry. With the Escalade parked, he stood near the rail, unsafely but wanting to have that reckless salt-sting moment. Then Staten Island, the parking garage, the apartment.
Mrs Zhou was at the corner talking with Na-jung, and Sweetie, a pink bow pinned to each of her furry ears, made a happy chuff at Eddie as he crossed beside them.
“Good afternoon, Mr Kaspbrak.”
“Good afternoon, Mrs Zhou.” He smiled at Sweetie, who, thought primly sitting, lightly danced her front paws. “Hello, Sweetie. May I?”
“Just two pets,” said Mrs Zhou. “She’s spoiled enough today.”
“She’s just too cute,” Na-jung protested. Her lashes drooped. She looked longingly at Sweetie. “I wasn’t trying to distract her…”
“Dogs are distractible darlings. They are eager to be distracted.”
Eddie petted Sweetie the two times he was permitted and then, daringly, he scratched under her long chin. She panted happily at him. Her brown eyes folded into sugary lines.
“Bye, Sweetie,” Eddie said to her.
“Say good-bye, Sweetie.”
Sweetie slipped down on her belly and laid her chin mournfully on her crossed paws. She looked soulfully after Eddie, who looked once or twice over his shoulder to see her still laying there, watching him.
He opened the door to his apartment, still thinking about Sweetie, thinking about a dog and the soft wet nose of the dog pressed to your fingers, and there he stopped. The apartment was dark. The sheets on the couch were still mussed where he had left them; the door to the bedroom was still open.
So little difference from how it normally was to come home as he would late in the afternoon or early in the evening after work, alone to a lonely apartment, most days glad for the silence and to know he needn’t worry about Myra, her shows, what she wanted to tell him of her day rather than ask about his as well. That should have been the first sign years ago, that neither of them had really cared to know what the other had done during the day apart.
Now Eddie stood in the doorway to his apartment with his hand lingering on the jamb perhaps an inch or so higher or lower than where Richie had held it that morning. It was silly to think he could have grown accustomed to another presence in only a couple of days. You couldn’t miss someone that quickly. He did.
Eddie thought, What if he doesn’t come back? and he closed his eyes and clenched his teeth because that was his mother’s thought in his head. “Eddie, sometimes I worry that if you leave this house at night you won’t come back. There’ll be a terrible accident. You know those drivers don’t pay attention, even if you’re wearing an orange vest…”
Richie would come back. He would. What would Eddie say to him when Richie came through that door tonight?
He would say:
I love you. I love you. I love you; and he would be brave, parting his broken chest to show Richie his heart as it beat inside him, and Richie would say— He couldn’t imagine what Richie would say.
He would say:
Forget it. You were drunk. I was lonely; and he would be safe, and Richie would smile relieved at him, and they would go on being friends. And Eddie would be a coward.
“I killed IT,” he said to his empty apartment. “I survived Neibolt! I’m still alive! I am. I am alive.” And still there was no one else in the apartment, and Richie had gone, and his heart was contracting painfully around nothing.
He put his gym clothes in the washing machine, tucked on top of the dryer in a double-wide cabinet in the kitchen. They both had front faces, opening out. He pulled the sheets from the couch and the sheets from his bed and sorted them into manageable loads, and even with the regular humming of the washing machine as it went about its work the apartment was like a house for thin and lonely things.
Eddie got his phone.
Bev picked up on the third ring. “Hey, Eddie.”
She sounded rumpled if a person could sound rumpled. At ease. He imagined her curled up in some picture window on top of a cushioned box, wrapped up in old afghans. Eddie sat cross-legged on his own stripped bed, on top of the foam cover on top of the mattress on top of the box springs.
“Hey, Beverly. How are you?”
Her laugh chimed over the line. “Always so formal. Eddie, it’s just me. I’m doing fine. Trying to finish reviewing some legal shit for court.”
“Oh. I can call back later if it’s important.”
“No, it’s fine, I’ve already gone over it twice. Ben’s lawyer is a shark. He says we can share but I want her all to myself. What’s up with you?” He made a noncommittal sound. “Aren’t you and Rich hitting up the town? Or are you too worn out from CATS?”
“Um, I think that’s why I’m calling,” Eddie said. “I don’t really know why I called. I just wanted to hear your voice. Bev.”
She was quiet a moment. “What is it, Eddie?”
He plucked at the foam, pinching tiny creases then watching as they faded. “Richie and I had a fight last night.”
“You two always fight.”
“It was, um. Pretty personal.”
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
Eddie closed his free hand around his foot. He flexed his toes and tracked the tendons moving, the way in which each set of bones pulled a different line down his foot.
“Not really,” Eddie said. “It was. It was really personal.”
Beverly hummed. He imagined her resting her forehead against that picture window. Her hair red and curling against the cold glass.
“Wanna bitch about our exes?” she asked at last.
He settled more comfortably against the headboard and reached for the brown afghan, hanging half off the mattress. He tugged it across his lap. His feet stuck out.
“What’s the dickhead want now?”
“Well, Ben’s lawyer—”
“Yeah, she’s my soulmate.” Beverly laughed, infectious so he grinned too, plucking at the afghan. “Her office did excellent work. They’ve got copies of some of the early contracts, before I married him, when he was trying to work as my agent.”
She went on, explaining how the contracts showed an understanding that Tom would receive at most a 10% commission rate, something later business details did not contradict.
“He never formalized it, did he,” said Eddie. “Stupid bastard.”
“No, his argument is based entirely around marital assets. But now with this we can argue that the business isn’t in the realm of marital assets. So it’s out of the purview of divorce court.”
“Do you want me to send a fruit basket to Ben’s lawyer?”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Beverly said, “she’s very well compensated. Ben has her over for dinner every other week. She brings her wife and we eat this Japanese steak Ben gets from some rancher in California and we all drink $1,000 a bottle wine and act like rich yuppies in a home invasion horror movie.”
“God, I hate those movies.”
“You would hate them.”
“How can you stand watching that crap?” It made his skin crawl, to think of someone moving alien through his home, a lean shadow watching as he ate and slept and did his ablutions.
“I don’t know, it’s cathartic,” she said. “I can’t really explain it. Ben won’t watch them either, he doesn’t like horror.”
“I don’t like horror!”
“Weenie,” said Beverly, amused. “Me and Richie’ll go see the new Alien movie without you and just talk shit the whole time.”
Eddie shuddered and jerked the afghan higher on his knees, the edges lapping at his chest. He’d a vivid recollection of watching the first Alien movie on VHS at Richie’s house. In the aftermath of the Derry reunion, the scene of the fetal alien bursting out of John Hurt’s chest had taken on fresh and immediate meaning.
“Talk as much shit as you want,” he said. “I’ll stay in with Ben. We’ll drink that $1,000 a bottle wine and talk shop.”
“He has a workshop, Eddie,” said Beverly, burbling with more laughter. “It’s like a guest house but it’s just one huge room and it’s filled with, oh my god, an entire Home Depot. I’ll say something about wanting a, a rosewood coffee table with pull-out drawers, and a week later he’s made one for me.”
“Richie made an omelet the other day,” Eddie said. “That was nice. He, uh, he put some bell peppers in it. So that was good.”
“Can I tell you something? Ben cannot cook eggs. It’s awful. They’re always too runny.”
“Well, Richie’s incredible with eggs,” said Eddie. “So, uh, fuck you, Ben.”
Beverly cracked up again. “God, he’d probably want Richie to teach him. Trashmouth’s Guide to Frying Eggs.”
“Richie couldn’t teach a joke a punchline.”
“Harsh, Kaspbrak.” The shuffling of papers, very faint. “So,” she said, more gentle, the laughter still lingering in her mouth. “How’s Myra?”
Eddie glanced at the double-wide window in his bedroom. It looked out on the pitiful courtyard the building shared, a grassy-patched yard with three thin trees wound into one another by the smallness of their shared home. The bare and skinny fingers of their branches peeked just over the sill. In the spring they’d bud and in the summer their green leaves would press sweetly along the bottoms of the window.
“I haven’t filed yet,” he said, thinking about how it would look to see those buds, to know how those leaves would make something cousin to beautiful of his dismal view of the other side of the building, the other apartments across the courtyard with their own doublewide windows and the weather worn bricks everywhere else.
“Don’t put it off.”
“It’s almost Valentine’s Day.”
“Are you spending it with her?”
Myra had texted him, asking that they meet on Valentine’s Day at a small, homey restaurant where they’d often ate on Sundays after church. He hadn’t replied or at least not yet.
“No,” Eddie admitted.
“So pull the stitches out.”
“I don’t want to hurt her anymore.”
“It’s hurting her now,” Beverly told him. “It’s hurting you. Don’t think about this like it’s about mercy or being kind. It’s a divorce. You hurt each other. So stop it.”
“Putting it off?”
“Stop hurting yourself.”
He closed his eyes against those branches, shivering against the window panes with the little wind that made it down into the yard.
In the cool light of the day, he opened his eyes again looking at those twigging fingers and said, “I’m scared I’m turning into my mother.”
Beverly might have said, Of course you’re not. Or perhaps she could have said, Don’t be silly, Eddie. These were things some of the other Losers might have told him, not intending to be hurtful, only they loved him and they were impatient with such thoughts.
Beverly said, “Okay.”
She sighed, a rush of static along the line.
“Sometimes,” Beverly said, very quietly now, “I think about… I’m happy with Ben. I am. He’s.”
She was quiet a moment. Eddie slid off the headboard and lying on the bare foam top he curled around his phone, huddling under the afghan. The wool smelled like Richie, his particular sweat odor and the cheap spring water scented shampoo he used, heedless of the damage it did his curls.
“Not perfect,” Beverly said. “But, um. Perfect for me. But sometimes I still think about it. About running away.”
“He’d never hurt you,” Eddie told her gently.
He imagined Beverly lying down on the cushion in the picture window and curling around her phone, as if they were facing each other across the hundreds of miles and the severe rises and drops in altitude.
“I know he wouldn’t,” said Beverly. “He’s Ben. But I…” She sighed again. “I’m scared that I’ll hurt him. And I don’t want to hurt him. But I don’t know if I remember how to love someone without the hurting.”
Eddie stretched his hand out across the foam, his fingers spread widely. He imagined their hands touching, their fingers knotting together. Two Losers, hearts broken, ghosts forever in their heads.
“I think that,” Eddie said. “When you love somebody. You hurt them.”
“Does it have to be like that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know how normal people love other people.”
“Sometimes,” Beverly said, “at those perfect dinners, I want to stand up and smash my wine glass on the ground and scream. And I don’t, because I go to my therapist and I know that it would scare Helen and her wife and Ben would get that sad look on his face like he wants to save me, and I don’t need anyone to save me. But I want to do it.
“So,” she said, laughing again but in a shattered way, “when you say you’re scared you’re turning into Sonia, I think, I’m scared I’m turning into my father.”
He said, “You killed your father. He’s dead.”
“So is your mother.”
“But they don’t go away.”
“No,” she said. “They don’t.”
They breathed together. He heard her blow her nose. His own eyes stung, his nose too.
“I don’t know how to love someone normally,” he told her. “I. My mother… She told me she loved me. And she expected me to say it back to her. Even when I was furious. Or if I was sad, or I wanted to go somewhere, or I had to get away from her or I’d go crazy, I had to tell her I loved her and kiss her cheek and sometimes I hated her. I hated my mother. But she said she loved me,” Eddie said, “so I said I loved her and I kissed her cheek.”
“You aren’t your mother, Eddie.” He could nearly believe it when Beverly said it to him.
“And you’re not that asshole.”
“Do you believe me?”
“Almost. Do you believe me?”
“I’m trying,” she said. “I’m trying. What if I hurt him, Eddie? What if I hurt Ben?”
“You won’t hurt Ben.” He wondered if she could nearly believe it when he said it to her.
She blew her nose again.
“Why did you fight with Richie?”
“Because,” said Eddie. “Because I told him I love him.”
She was quiet again.
“Eddie. You aren’t Sonia Kaspbrak.”
“He didn’t say it back,” said Eddie. “I think that. Maybe. He doesn’t want me.”
“Did you ask him?”
“I can’t,” he said harshly. “I won’t do that. I’m not my mother.”
Beverly laughed again, as bitter-broke as before. “And I’m not my father.”
“We aren’t. We aren’t.”
“Tell Ben,” said Eddie.
“I can’t,” she said, hitching. “He’d… Eddie, if I ran away, he’d let me. And I don’t want him to let me. I want him to keep me tight. And I’m so fucking terrified that means there’s something wrong with me.”
“And if I ask Richie…”
“If he said yes. Would you believe him?”
He turned his face from the window.
“Even if I knew he was lying,” Eddie confessed; and he fit the knuckles of his fist to his scar and felt his heart, ugly thing that it was, beating on without care.
After the call with Bev, he changed the laundry then returned to his bedroom. Pulling the afghan over his legs again, he opened his laptop and began composing an e-mail to Dr Green, RE: My hang-ups wrt medication. As he did with many informal e-mails, he intended to free write for fifteen minutes then spend the next five deleting long passages, paring it down, shortening the sentences to concise and clear statements.
He wrote at first about that strange day he’d learned his aspirators were filled with flavored water, and then with little transition he began to transcribe a memory that slipped from a carefully blocked off recess and to the forefront of his thoughts. He wrote for several minutes: for a half hour, in a numb sort of state that when he looked at the tiny clock in the corner of the screen disquieted him.
Eddie sat back. He’d left off mid-sentence. He reread the four pages he had written, gushing, no paragraph separations. Something in his head flutter. He hit the X on the window. “Would you like to save as a draft?” the client prompted. He hit the Delete option. He closed his laptop gently and then he pushed it away, and he sat for four or five minutes in bed with a leg pulled up and his hands over his face as his breath staggered.
In the memory he was six or maybe seven, and it was autumn or maybe spring, and he had a very serious cold with a high fever. Sonia had pulled him out of school for the week. First grade? Second grade? She’d kept him confined to bed with several Archie comics and lavished him with attention, never too far from him in case something happened, Eddie, what if you were to fall out of bed? What if you got up in your fever and you went to the bathroom on your own and slipped and hit your head on the linoleum? She couldn’t bear for it to happen.
He laid in bed, half-awake, still dozy, taking his medicine dutifully as his mother fed it to him in a transparent cap. The syrup coated his tongue and his teeth; it made an oily film down his throat. He took a glass of water too. When he’d finished both, Sonia took the cap and the glass and put them on the bedside table right next to his Illustrated Bible for Children with the painting on the back of Moses parting the Red Sea.
His mother stroked his hair from his fevered brow. She smiled at him. “I love you, Eddie,” she said so honey-sweet, so loving-dear. “I love you more than anyone else in the whole world. I’ve only ever loved my little Eddie. My little man. I don’t need any man but you.”
He smiled, too, though he was tired, so wretchedly tired that his face hurt and it seemed as though he began again to sweat from the fever that pulsed in time with his heart. She stroked his cheek with the back of her hand. Her eyelashes were so low.
“Do you love your mommy?”
“I love you, Mommy,” he said in his little, husking voice.
“Do you love your mommy so, so much?”
“I love you so much, Mommy.”
“How much do you love your mommy?”
“More’n anything,” he said drowsily. “’Cause you’re my mommy.”
“Mommy will take care of you, Eddie. That’s how much I love you.” She kissed his brow with her dry lips. “Because we take care of each other, Eddie. That’s what love is. Holding each other very close. And I’ll keep you safe, I promise, Eddie.”
He smiled again, halfway to sleep. His eyelids were even more tired than his chest was tired or his head was tired.
“Can I sleep, Mommy?”
“Of course you can,” she said, squeezing his hands, “of course you can sleep. You sleep and you get strong again so you can look after your mother.”
He said, “Okay,” and he was happy when he slept because his mother loved him. She loved him very much. She told him so every day, in fact. Not every mother told her children that, but Sonia Kaspbrak was a good mother and she would never let her son think for even one moment that he wasn’t the best and most important thing in the whole wide world to her, the only person that she loved, the only person she would ever love, her dear sweet sugar-bear Eddie.
That’s what love is, Eddie. You’d do anything to keep them safe. You’ll hold on to them forever, even when they’re mean to you or they try to leave you. Because you love them, Eddie, just like Mommy loves you. And don’t you love Mommy, too? Don’t you?
Outside the memory, Eddie covered his face and felt the brown afghan spooling around his legs. A corner had slipped off the edge of the bed. Now gravity pulled it slowly and surely to the hardwood floor at his feet. He lowered his hands to his cheeks. The scar tissue was vividly drawn under his fingers. He dropped his hands entirely. He pulled the afghan up again.
Eddie looked at his closed laptop, chrome bright even in the dimming light from the courtyard. He opened the laptop again. He pulled up the e-mail client and sent a quick e-mail to his lawyer, Oyeyemi. Then he reached for his phone. He called Myra.
After that he changed the loads of laundry again, dressed in his coat and sneakers, and went out to the Bed, Bath, & Beyond on Richmond Avenue.
Evening trickly lazily in at first then in a rush it came swooping over the day, dark and a bit colder. Lights went on all along the street. In the apartment Eddie finished setting up the air mattress on the living room floor. He’d pushed the couch over to make space for it.
Richie hadn’t called or texted; he hadn’t stopped by the apartment.
Eddie opened his text client and stared at the screen, at the messages from the day before.
“Remember to trim your beard!”
“Ok ok geez mom leme pcik my nosehair to is that good. waht time btw pickup?”
“Six,” Eddie had written.
“cool,” Richie had written.
In the blank field, Eddie wrote, “How are you?” He deleted that. “What do you want for dinner?” He deleted that too. He sat back on his heels, the phone hanging in his hands between his knees. The small of his back twinged after a few minutes at the position. Sighing, Eddie pushed up onto his feet.
“Dinner in the fridge,” he wrote. “I set up an air mattress for you in the living room.”
He made dinner after that, meatballs with mozzarella and garlic and black pepper. A third of it he portioned onto a plate with some farm-canned green beans he’d bought upstate for Thanksgiving then left in the cabinet. The rest of the meatballs he stored in Tupperware and set in the fridge next to the rest of the likewise stored green beans. In scribbled script he wrote DINNER / 02/11/2017 / THROW OUT 02/15/2017 on each of two sticky notes and taped them one to each of the Tupperware containers.
There was a text from Richie waiting for him. “u didn’t haf2. I can sleeep on the couch.”
“For your back,” Eddie wrote back. “I’m not going to be responsible for your spine breaking when you jump off a stage to crowd-surf.”
“idk shows not liek that,” Richie said, “not like a rawk star,” and then he added the rock on hand emoji and a guitar emoji too.
Eddie smiled at his phone. He felt, oh. So sweet and so sad.
The screen dimmed after thirty seconds. Then it turned off. He put his phone away. He washed the dishes, the pot and pan, and put them on the drying rack. A final load of sheets to put in the dryer, and he did that. The machine tumbled them dutifully, rumbling as he closed the closet door on it.
He wasn’t going to stay up for Richie. The show wouldn’t end till 11PM at the earliest, and Richie liked to stay to take pictures for fans, sign autographs and goof about. Then there was the train and the ferry, a taxi if he decided to splurge for it.
Eddie wouldn’t wait up for him. Richie had wanted the space of the day and Eddie had given him that and he would continue to give him it. He read for a couple hours in bed, a collection of short stories by Raymond Chandler: The Simple Art of Murder.
The dryer went quiet. He got up to fold the cleaned sheets and put them away again in the bedroom closet, on the high shelf above his jackets and trousers, his shirts and the shoes at the bottom. Then it was time to wash his face and change into pajamas, to brush his teeth and moisturize and clean off the specks of toothpaste that had gathered on the mirror.
He read another of the stories, Pearls are a Nuisance, and thought on the strangeness of Ellen’s line at the end, “Do you believe that Henry was in love with me?” Henry of course had stolen the pearls and wound them around his left ankle. He thought longer on the letter Henry sent to the detective, Walter Gage, after the whole of the affair. “It was too bad I had to scram because you are a sweet guy.”
Eddie plugged his phone in and then he plugged in his kindle. He turned out the light. It was ten o’clock. He had pulled the blinds closed on the doubled window. He wondered how many lights were on in the apartments across the way, if he might see strange silhouettes moving through foreign bedrooms. It was a discomforting thought. He closed his eyes.
He must have dozed, for he woke when he heard the front door open. Rubbing at his scarred cheek, nervous gesture, he thought first of going out to yawnfully greet Richie. But he stopped with his toes just touching the tops of his slippers.
He listened to Richie moving about the apartment, opening the refrigerator, opening the microwave. The muted clink of a plate. Eddie withdrew his legs. He laid back down with his head on the pillow. He pulled the afghan around his shoulders. He hadn’t bothered to wash it yet.
After a while the sounds of Richie passing softly through the apartment seemed to lull Eddie deeper, deeper, as if he were being gently rolled through water by light waves. He wanted Richie to come into the room, to say lowly, “Eddie?” but by the time the thought shifted through Eddie he was nearly asleep; and then he was asleep and it was Sunday morning, very early, not yet one o’clock, and in his dream Eddie was clutching a pearl necklace wound about Richie’s neck and Richie grinned at him and said, “It was too bad I had to scram, Eds,” and Eddie said—
When he woke up he couldn’t remember any of it.
Chapter 8: what was left after that too
In all the madness of work, writing, getting sick (hello: I have the February cold at last), meltdown, work, more work, work, I completely forgot to link and share this GORGEOUS and INCREDIBLE fanart that @z_zz made for the last scene of chapter six. I am furious with myself!!!!! Because it's so effing wonderful!!!!!!!!! I can't believe I ever managed to write anything to inspire something like this! PLEASE LOOK AT IT IMMEDIATELY AND IF YOU HAVE A TUMBLR GIVE A HEART.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In the dream his mother was there, sitting at the foot of the bed, her face turned to the window. He knew of course that it was a dream. He was very nearly awake, hearing Richie in the kitchen opening and closing cabinets, running the faucet. But his mother was there and she was looking at the leaves so green and vibrant growing from the trees in the courtyard and filling up the bottoms of the bedroom windows.
He looked at her in her brown and yellow patterned floral dress, the one with the small dark brown buttons that ran up a quarter length of each sleeve. Her hair was pulled back. She’d forgotten her glasses. Her hand rested on top of the brown afghan, near to Eddie’s leg but not on it.
“Sometimes I miss you,” Eddie told her, his throat drowsy and thick.
He hadn’t known his father long enough to miss him when he’d gone, snuffed out by cancer as hundreds of thousands of lives were suffocated by cancer that ancient killer, commonplace uncaring death. Some handfuls of precious lives lost every twenty-seven years in Derry to the primordial thing that lived in the earth and yet what was this to man’s genetically coded bomb that he carried with him everywhere he went until the day it did or did not trigger? The explosive cellular growth of the human body turned against itself, the singular betrayal: so it was for Frank Kaspbrak.
Like so many children, unspecial in this manner, Eddie had grown up with only his mother to love and to protect him. If Eddie thought of his father and he did not often think of his father, he knew only snatches, sensory flashes of smell or of a hand splayed across his thin back or of a man’s face ill-defined.
His mother stirred. She turned to look at him. Her hair fell uncombed over her shoulder. The light from the window was dim from the hour and yet it seemed to wash out her face so that she was indescribably pale and without detail. He had lost his mother’s face in the dream. His chest clenched.
“I miss you,” he said again. He felt as if he were slipping deeper again into sleep as she looked at him. “You had this perfume… It smelled like peppermint. It made my nose burn. I told you that, Mommy. And you changed it. And that one smelled like…” He closed his eyes, drifting. “Gardenias.”
She stroked his leg through the afghan. Her hand was heavy and cold. He shivered and pulled his leg away, curling. Sonia had worn that fragrance every day for the rest of her life.
He slitted his eyes open again and looked at his mother. The buttons at the front were undone, the top four, so that the home care nurse could attach the electrodes when she came that day to tend to Sonia. The fabric made strange folds across Sonia’s chest.
Eddie said, very softly, “Sometimes I’m glad you’re gone,” so she might hear or she might not. His eyes hurt to say it, his head too. He said, “I’m sorry, Mommy,” and took in a deep breath, smelling fresh-turned earth and gardenias white-petaled and blooming.
“I’m sorry, Mommy, but it’s true. I’m glad you’re gone.”
She reached for him. He pulled his legs higher. Cold seeped from her. He thought that somewhere in the smeared whiteness of her face he could make out tears. Look what you’ve done, Edward. You’ve made your mother cry.
“I’m okay,” he said. “I’m alive and I’m strong, Mommy, I’m so strong. I’m going to run a marathon in the fall, did you know that? Were you watching me? The doctor says I’m healthy. I’m strong. I’m strong,” he said again, “and I’m alive, and I love Richie, and I love my friends, and I’m not sorry.”
She looked at him. The edges of her were frosting. She made a little helpless gesture, her fingers curling for him and then her hand fell away.
Eddie sighed and held his hand out to take those ice-fogged fingers in his hand, against the warmth of his living skin. Her cold did not hurt him.
“I love you,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about me. I survived anyway. I’m better now.”
Her other hand closed across the back of his hand. She held his hand like that, cupped between both of hers, and she said:
“Eddie. Eddie Bear. You need your mother.”
And gently, so gently, he said, “No, Mommy, I don’t,” both loving her and pitying her, and hating her too with a child’s hate and a man’s grief that he could not have had a mother who just loved him like a mother should love her child, and wanting her to stroke his forehead with a warm hand and to lean forward and kiss him once over his left eyebrow.
He said, “I’m okay. I was always okay. You can go now,” and he pulled his hand strongly from between her fingers.
Her hands fell away. He saw her face only a moment and he turned his own face away from it and squeezed his eyes shut with a little cry because he could see under her skin the grave and something else too, something beautiful and terrible and very far away that would wait for him same as it waited for everyone to let out that last breath and go at last to it.
When he opened his eyes, his mother had gone. He looked over his shoulder. The bare winter branches of the courtyard trees poked black fingers into view through the window. When had he pulled the blinds? His mother slipped from him, his mother and the watchful thing inside her that was death and the far country; so that he looked wondering at the window and tried, before giving up, to remember if he’d gotten up in the night to pull the blinds and why.
He could hear Richie in the kitchen, singing the beat of Stand By Me: “boomp, boomp, ba ba, boomp,” voice deepened. “When the night has come,” he sang, muffled through the walls, “and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light that we’ll— Shit!”
Eddie struggled upright in bed. He was smiling, only just. He scratched at the back of his head, feeling the hairs sticking at odd angles, and yawned. The room was chilled, despite the heater rumbling. Eddie blinked sleepily at the window and the February day reluctantly dawning beyond it. He smelled gardenias.
“So darlin’, darlin’,” Richie belted, “stand by me. Oh-oh, stand by me.”
There was in Eddie a lonely feeling, a hopeful thing beside it; or it was a new breed of grief he hadn’t felt before. As if he’d held cupped in his sealed hands a ladle’s worth of water. Now he knelt by a pool and slid his hands into the waters and the water he had carried dissipated into the pool, born away by unseen currents so that his hands when he withdrew them were wet but empty.
I love Richie, he thought. He thought it without epiphany and without pain, though that salt water grief thickened in him. The wind rattled the tree branches. They tip-tapped at the glass. Let me in, let me in. Maybe you just had to carry it until you found the right pool and then you let it slip from your hands and stood up and found something else to carry. Maybe love was what you carried heavy across your shoulders, pails of water from one pool to pour into another.
He didn’t think of this. He thought of the trees, hibernating now. How greenly they would bloom again in a month or two. All life strained to the sun, hungry to continue living. He thought of Richie at New Year’s, smiling at him with the bonfire dying and spitting up sparks before them. The shower of yellow and orange and red embers, spraying up from a cracked log as it settled into the ash, those pinpricks of light against the shadows and slopes of Richie’s familiar-strange-new face. The cold and the isolation of the desert had surrounded them. Yet there too in the barren stillness the coyotes ran and little birds slept with their beaks tucked under their wings and desert mice burrowed into the cracked earth in their dens, and Ben emerged out of the scrub with brittle sticks to feed the fire. Beverly turning with her hair bright and her face brighter to meet Ben come again to the circle.
Eddie got up. He rooted his feet into his slippers. He scratched again at the back of his head. He sat a moment on the edge of the bed, his hands braced on the mattress. A cool rush of air enveloped him. He shook it off. He stood. In passing he touched four fingertips to the window, over the shivering branches, and he looked down into the courtyard where the grass was brown and thin. Someone in a puffy coat was walking a small child in a pink hooded coat around the little path of the yard. The child took wobbling steps. The shepherding one held two gloved fingers out; the child clung to them.
Come spring the courtyard would flush with growth. He thought of it coming. The bushes along the paved path boasting tiny fragile pink or white flowers then likewise tiny berries that would scatter across the path and crush wetly underfoot.
“Ah, god damn it,” said Richie. A clatter.
Eddie drew in an expansive breath. His chest stretched widely around the swelling of his working lungs, the right lung whole, the left scarred and patched, the both of them fat with alveoli driving the oxygen to his blood and pulling out the carbon dioxide he would exhale in a hot gust. The breath made fog of the window.
He hung the afghan around his shoulders. He went out.
Eddie first saw the air mattress with its tangled sheets. Something in his belly flipped over with longing and more of that saltwater ache. He moved around the couch and the mattress both. The duffel was half-spilled across the floor, the plastic bag stuffed under the coffee table again.
He found Richie barefoot in the kitchen in lounge pants and a too-tight t-shirt, idly poking at a pan on the stove. Eddie did pause then. It choked in his throat. He was forty-one years old. They could talk about this. They were grown men. I just got him, Eddie thought with a flash of consumptive anger. I just got him back; and the anger went out the way it had come in.
Richie lifted the pan and tried flipping a wet pancake. It slopped along the side. He frowned and lowered the pan with both hands, legs spreading. He meant to hurl the pancake in the air.
“What the hell are you doing,” said Eddie.
Richie jumped, spilled batter on the floor and his foot, and yelped, “Shit! Fuck, it’s hot!”
“Why the hell does my kitchen look like this?”
Two opened packs of flour, almond flour and coconut flour, sat on the table. There was a flour-spotted measuring spoon between the two bags. Three separate dirty bowls were scattered across the counter, along with two small bottles: avocado oil, vanilla extract. Another small paper packet sat torn open and leaking crumbs into the sink. Richie’s phone was propped up against a small container of instant Maxwell House coffee. He’d a blue mug at his elbow and a red one next to that.
Richie had dropped the pan on the off burner at the back of the stove. The copper kettle sat on the left of the front burners, the heat turned low. Now Richie hunched, holding his foot in his hand with his leg bent awkwardly mid-air.
“Dude, I’m trying to make pancakes. Jesus. I think you burned all the hair off my foot.”
“Good, you look like a hobbit,” said Eddie automatically. “And I didn’t do that, you did that. Why is there shit everywhere?”
Wincing, Richie let his foot go. “Because I’m cooking. Or did you miss that part? You know, what with me cooking and all. Fuck me, does that look red to you?”
“You clean up as you go! You don’t just leave a fucking—” Eddie gestured with both hands at the whole of the kitchen then mimed ripping the hair out of his own head. “I don’t have words! Congratulations. I don’t even have words for this shit.”
“Sure doesn’t sound like it. Move, I gotta wash my hands now or you’ll freak out about foot germs in your breakfast.”
Eddie moved, but to go to the drawer where he kept the hand towels and washcloths. He stepped over the batter splattered on the hardwood. “I don’t know why it keeps falling out of your goldfish brain, but I’m on keto. I can’t just eat pancakes.”
“Okay, first of all, keto is bullshit,” said Richie loudly over the roar of the faucet. “And you said it was just guidelines for you, and furthermore, because I’m the coolest and best friend in the whole universe, I looked up low-carb keto pancakes.” He slapped the faucet off with unearned triumph.
A plate crammed between the bowls held six or seven pancakes on it. They were golden-brown and flat, with crisped edges. Eddie swiped up the batter with a hand towel. The cake had cooked enough that most of it came readily with the first go. He got the rest with the towel’s corner.
“Now I have to mop in here today.”
“Excuse me, please move,” said Richie. “I’ve got another five of these sons of bitches to make.”
Pissed, Eddie stood. The tip of his nose was just even with the knob in Richie’s throat. They both went still. Eddie tipped his chin up. Richie was blank-faced again but his eyes, blue, pupils half-dilated: he didn’t blink.
Richie stepped back. He took a second step and then he moved around Eddie. Always a few inches separated them. Eddie lowered his head and carried the hand towel to the sink. He kept a trash can in the cabinet underneath, and he shook the towel out over that trash can. Egg shells sat on top of the trash, five or six of them cracked and splintering with thin yellow shreds of the nutrient-rich yolk. It was a joke, a cruel one, that Eddie’s heart should squeeze, knowing Richie had remembered Eddie telling him there wasn’t a garbage disposal.
Eddie breathed out through his mouth. He straightened, folding the smudged towel into needless quarters as he did so. It would only go into the washing machine.
Richie’s big shoulders bowed forward as he fussed over the pancakes. His sideburns scruffed. The curling edges of his hair intruded on his too-tall forehead. Danger, danger curled Eddie’s toes in his slippers. Eddie turned to the table and began tidying.
“You didn’t have to make breakfast.” Eddie folded over the top of the almond flour bag and pinched in the plastic ties.
“I can clean up,” Richie protested.
“No, I’ve got it. You cook and I’ll clean.”
He glanced at Richie. Richie was flexing his toes on the floor. His lounge pants had ridden up on the right leg, showing his hairy calf and Porky Pig’s grand salute.
“I shouldn’t have shouted.”
Richie shrugged. “I shouldn’t have left shit everywhere.”
Eddie swiped the loose flour off the table into the palm of his hand. He carried this to the sink. Irritably he said, “It’s fine. It’s not a big deal. I know you were going to clean up anyway.”
“Yeah. Well. Maybe. Not my apartment.”
Eddie shook his fingers. Drops of water flew from the ends to patter against the metal. Richie added another two pancakes to the stack. He’d switched to using a spatula from the ceramic cup of stovetop tools rather than flipping the pancakes. Eddie picked through the bowls, taking up the two Richie wasn’t using.
He ran the water hot and spritzed dish soap into each bowl.
“I don’t have coconut flour.”
“Yeah, I had to pick up a couple things. Do you know what—” Richie bent to peer at his phone screen. “What the hell’s er-y-thri-tol?”
“It’s a sweetener,” Eddie said. He pulled the daisy-patterned rubber gloves on. “Um. From fermenting yeast. Sugar alcohol.”
“Oh, shit,” said Richie. “Let’s get blasted on some keto pancakes.”
“The alcohol content isn’t— Shut up.”
Richie laughed quietly as he turned another pancake over. “Nah, I had to pick that up and the coconut flour. And uh, you didn’t have any Cool Whip or chocolate chips so I picked those up too. And raspberry syrup.” He slid the pancake onto the stack.
“What was your plan? Make healthy pancakes and load them up with corn syrup?”
“You think I’m sharing any of that?” He poured batter into a wobbly circle on the pan. The batter began to sizzle. “That shit’s for me. This recipe is like fucking alchemy or something. These pancakes are sawdust. They’re drier than your mom’s—” Richie stumbled then but it still fell out of his mouth, “puuussy.”
Eddie shouldn’t have laughed.
“Don’t choke,” Richie said. “Look, this pan’s really hot. I can’t just whack you on the back right now.”
“Bro,” Eddie wheezed. “She’s dead.”
Richie looked cornered. His eyes darted. He said, as if it were being dragged out of him, “Yeah, I know, that’s why her pussy’s so dry.”
Eddie made a sound like a walrus trying to snuff snot back up its nose.
Richie said, “Holy shit. Are you a beached whale?” and Eddie had to put his gloved hands down in the soaped up bowl and hang his head so he could just ride it out, all the laughter rising and rising out of him.
Richie carried the pancakes to the table and gathered the dressings he’d bought, the Cool Whip in its round package, the bag of chips, the syrups raspberry and maple (“Corn syrup-free!” Richie pronounced, “Authentic Canadian!”). Eddie brought to the table the plates, the silverware, the entire silver wire container of paper napkins. Halfway seated, Richie turned and casually snagged the kettle by its wooden handle off the stove. Passing it to his far hand, he stretched again and picked up the blue mug on the counter. This he set in front of Eddie and leaning over the table, he poured steaming water into the mug.
“I don’t really know how you make this shit,” Richie said, “so if I put too many leaves in or not enough or if I put in your secret stash of like poison oak, just call me a dickweed. Or, uh, whatever you think of. You’re better at insults than I am.”
He slid the mug to Eddie, who took it with untrembling hands and stared at Richie as he stretched yet again to grab the red mug and then the instant coffee box. Through this exercise, he held the kettle steadily by its handle a few inches over the table. Eddie stood suddenly and went to the drawer next to the stove, to get out one of the rubber trivets so Richie could set the kettle down. He snagged two more spoons too, one for Richie’s mug, one for his own.
“Oh, hey, thanks,” said Richie. He put the kettle on the trivet.
Eddie sat across from him. He took three of the pancakes for his plate and watched Richie spoon French Vanilla Café instant coffee into his mug then stir in hot water.
“I can’t believe you put that in your body.”
“Really?” Richie took a sip and grunted, pleased. “It’s like 70% sugar, 30% caffeine. That seems like something I’d put in my body.”
“There’s strawberries in the fridge. Go get them.”
“Geez, bossy.” But he did.
Eddie took the ventilated plastic box from him. As Richie stacked pancakes on his own plate and began slopping Cool Whip over the tower, he watched Eddie go through the strawberries, inspecting them with his fingertips for soft spots and patches of mold. Those that passed inspection he put on his plate.
“Don’t tell me you’re trying to make this breakfast healthier.”
“That does seem like something I’d do,” Eddie said. He picked up his knife and began neatly halving then quartering the strawberries. “You should eat some fruit too.”
“No way, buddy. C’mon, Eddie,” he teased, shaking his own knife at Eddie. Cool Whip made frosted curlicues along the flat. “Come to the Dark Side. You know you want to. The Cool Whip. The chocolate chips. Mmm. So decadent. The clotted arteries.”
He waggled the knife in lazy loops, sketching a figure eight and twisting the knife as he did so as though it would make the cream look like anything other than a sugar bomb.
“They’re gonna be clotted when I’m done.”
“Fine,” Eddie snapped. “Give me the Cool Whip.”
“Gimme three strawberries.”
They made the trade, Richie smirking as Eddie fumed. He wound up adding chocolate chips too, a cavalcade of them alongside the cut up strawberries in the Cool Whip he’d loaded on the top pancake. What Richie did with the raspberry syrup, Eddie tried not to notice or hear.
They ate like that together, Richie saying, “These pancakes don’t suck as bad as I thought they would,” Eddie retorting that Richie had made them. “That’s what I said.”
“They’re fine,” said Eddie. “I like them.”
Richie leaned back in his chair and drank his coffee. His fingers wouldn’t fit the handle, so he just held the mug directly. His eyelashes, lowering, hid behind his black glasses frames.
Neither of them brought it up. That was all right, Eddie thought. He could live like this too. If Richie didn’t want him or didn’t want a relationship, that was fine. Eddie could love him like so, comfortably and a little sadly for a time until his heart had healed same as Eddie always healed.
Under the table, Richie stretched his legs out. His foot nudged at Eddie’s. Eddie nudged back. He added another pancake to his plate. Richie stole a strawberry from the box and ate it one bite, teeth cutting off the head with its leafy hat. Eddie drank his tea. He’d forgotten to add sugar. It was bitter on his tongue but warm, and he had learned long ago how to swallow bitter things.
Richie licked chocolate from his fingers. Eddie breathed in the steam from his tea. He let it settle wetly, hotly in his throat. Then he breathed it out again.
Richie said, “D’you want any more?”
“No,” said Eddie. “I’m good. Thanks though, Richie.”
“Sure,” said Richie, smiling with his right cheek crumpling. The suggestion of his mouth soft in his beard. “No problem.”
After breakfast, Eddie cleaned in the kitchen while Richie cleaned in the bathroom.
“I can clean up,” Richie protested as Eddie gathered the plates. “You know, I’m not a complete slob.”
“You can clean up,” Eddie said coolly. “You have food in your beard.”
Richie swore. So Eddie tidied the dishes and put away the raspberry syrup and sealed the lid back on the circle container of Cool Whip and ziplocked the rest of the chocolate chips. All these things, Richie would not take back with him. Eddie told himself he would not eat them. So they would sit rich with sugars and syrups slowly separating into layers of oils and waters in the refrigerator or the cabinet until Eddie at last threw them out.
Richie came out of the bathroom as Eddie was scrubbing the cutlery. His yellow daisy gloves went up to his elbows. A slice of freckled skin showed on either arm between his sleep shirt and the gaping rubber.
“I don’t know,” said Richie. He scratched at the beard, fingernails tugging at the coarse hairs. “Beard was an idea but now I’m thinking it looks kind of shitty. I look like, uhhh, what’s that fucker’s name?”
Eddie rinsed the forks. He glanced at Richie, now feeling the edges of the beard at his throat.
Richie didn’t have a terribly long neck, not like Eddie who sometimes thought his reflection resembled a goose, stretched-out and mean. What Richie did have was a thick neck, broad and muscled lightly near to the bottom of it, where the anatomical musculature of the shoulders began and swooped out in wings over the powerful and load-bearing bones.
The same muscles flared along Eddie’s shoulders. The same bones made him sturdy. No part of him looked as Richie looked.
A very lean-sounding rasp: Richie had dipped his head as though self-conscious and the skin webbed between first finger and thumb scraped across the black shadow of hair at the back of his chin.
Eddie dumped the forks in the cup of the drying rack and turned briskly back to the knives, the spoons, one caked heavily in dried white sugar-cream and sticky raspberry syrup.
“You look like you broke out of a logging camp.”
Richie laughed, snorfling with it. His hand dropped from his neck. “Don’t say Paul Bunyan. I’ll have a fucking, Vietnam War flashback.”
“IT really animated that dumb fucking statue to terrorize you?”
“Oh, dude, Paul Bunyan gay-bashed the fuck out of me,” said Richie. “And then he tried to like, literally bash me. I hate that giant flannel-wearing bitch. Him and the blue ox he rode in on.”
Eddie shook the water droplets from the spoons and tilted his head as in consideration. “Why did IT, um.”
He neatly fitted the spoons to the cutlery cup. He wasn’t sure how to proceed. So often, even after his coming out, Richie acted like a shying horse, nervous and prepared to spook. Eddie grazed on the memory of the other night; he shoved that away.
“Why did IT gay-bash me?” said Richie, obnoxiously loud and with an edge of cruelty. He leaned against the counter, too close to Eddie, and folded his arms and shrugged. “Probably because I was thirteen years old and gay as shit.”
Water was seeping into Richie’s lounge pants. Eddie didn’t have to glance down to see it doing so. It was why he didn’t especially like washing the dishes for all that the work of cleaning calmed him. The water got everywhere and he had to towel the kitchen counters dry again before they could drip on the floor.
“Did you. Did you know? Even then?”
Richie shrugged again. He ducked his head once more, turning his face slightly from Eddie, and reached up to scratch at his ear, the thick sideburn running in front of it.
“I mean. Yeah. Mostly, I did. Like, I knew it but I didn’t want to know it. Dude,” he said with sudden unfunny hilarity, “I used to stay awake at night in bed praying to God that I wasn’t a fucking quee-ah.”
“Don’t say that.”
“No, it’s cool, I can say that. I’m reclaiming the word. It’s a thing,” said Richie. “And like, maybe if I tried hard enough then I could pop one off to Ally Sheedy instead of just.”
“No way,” Richie said, “I was Judd Nelson in Breakfast Club. Fuck you. No, I was like whacking it to fucking… Anthony Michael Hall.”
Eddie startled into a spray of laughter, and Richie grinned down at him over his shoulder and his folded arms.
“No. Fuck you, bro, you weren’t—”
“Tickling my pickle to Farmer Ted in Sixteen Candles?”
“Shut the fuck up!” he roared. “No way. Anthony god damn Michael Hall?”
“I was crazy about him,” Richie insisted. “He had that nerdy vibe, I used to fantasize about shoving him into the lockers at school and like—”
“Jesus,” Eddie gasped, “Jesus fucking Christ, shut up. I’m gonna cry. I’ve got these fucking gloves on, dude, can you shut up.”
“So that was my weird celebrity crush,” Richie said. “While the rest of you guys were all hot for Molly Ringwald I was like, oh, that shrimp with the panic attacks? That’s the one for me. That’s the one I gotta push in the mud. Mess up his stupid sweatshirts.”
“You were thirteen!”
“How was I supposed to know he was like twenty-five?” Richie demanded. “It’s not like he was ever gonna… Purple Rose of Cairo out of the screen and go—” He pitched his voice dweebishly high. “‘Oh, Richie Tozier, don’t you want to give me a wedgie? Don’t you want to stick your spitty finger in my ear?’”
Eddie leaned over the sink, hoping gravity would clear his eyes while he struggled to peel his gloves off.
“Jesus. How the fuck have you ever gotten laid.”
Richie flattened his mouth in an exaggerated show of dissatisfaction. “Oh, it is a sparse and cursed land out there. Purple nurples don’t work outside of seventh grade.”
“They didn’t work in seventh grade.” Gloves off, Eddie wiped at his eyes. “You’re such a mess. Fuck, man.”
“Yeah, well,” said Richie. “Homophobic clown put a Manchurian Candidate trigger in my head so every time I thought about saying, hey, guys, I’m Rich Tozier and I like to eat man-ass, I blacked out and shot an ambassador. What about you? You didn’t know?”
“Didn’t know what?” Eddie blinked a fragment of soap from the corner of his eye. “That I was bisexual? Hell, no. I didn’t know I was bisexual until—” He nearly said, Until I saw you again at Jade of the Orient in that stupid yellow shirt after you hit the gong like a dumbass.
“Until a little while ago,” he finished. He reached behind Richie for the towel on the drying rack. Richie shifted off the counter to let him by. A line of damp flannel showed high across Richie’s ass. “So, um. That’s probably why the clown never, uh. Tormented me for that. ‘Cause I didn’t even know.”
He wondered though, thinking uneasily of the leper crawling to him, whispering I’ll blow you, Eddie, I’ll blow you for a dime, bloodied sores oozing in the dirt as it sludged on toward him. All of Sonia’s, in retrospect, madly homophobic interpretations of HIV and the AIDS crisis embodied in an animated corpse begging Eddie to let it suck his dick for free.
He didn’t fall deep into the memory. Richie said suddenly, “Charles Manson. That’s the guy I look like. Right?” He turned to Eddie with his hands held up in a picture frame around his beard. “Is this or is this not the face of the cult leader that instructed you to brutally murder Sharon Tate?”
Eddie swiped the water from the edges of the sink. “You don’t look like Charles Manson. You look.”
He stopped. Richie still had his hands to his beard. His eyebrows tweaked. The living room was poorly lit at his back. The fullness of the kitchen light illuminated Richie’s face. Nothing of the moment should have made Eddie think again of the other night, of Richie’s hand slithering down the length of his face as Eddie looked up at him and said, “Why didn’t you kiss me?”
Why didn’t you kiss me, Richie? Why don’t you want me?
Eddie folded the hand towel neatly in thirds. He hung it over the drying rack.
“You look handsome,” said Eddie.
“Oh,” said Richie. His hands dropped.
“If you don’t look too close,” Eddie added. He shook out the gloves and hung them from the drying rack, too. “Then you look like Fozzie.”
“Of the Muppets?” Richie laughed. Chuckled, more than laughed, like out of politeness: hey, Eddie, nice one. “That’s a compliment, you culturally ignorant bitch.”
Annoyance pricked at Eddie’s nape. “Don’t call me a bitch.”
“Right, right,” said Richie. “My apologies. That was sexist. You dick.”
“Don’t call me that either,” Eddie snapped.
They were both quiet after that. God damn it, thought Eddie miserably. He worked his jaw and put his weight on his hands, gripping the sink. You were normal. You were normal again and it was fine. Fuck! he thought; you’re forty-one, asshole.
“Anyway,” said Richie. “I gotta…” He jerked a thumb to the air mattress. “Get dressed. I’m uh, meeting some buddies of mine. Some other comics. Just shoot the shit for a couple hours.”
Eddie’s knuckles hurt. This is your fault, he thought as he stared fixedly at the faucet. A bead of water dripped. Another followed. You couldn’t be normal Friday and you can’t be normal today. He doesn’t love you, stupid. You can’t fucking make him.
“Yeah, cool,” said Eddie. He pushed off the sink and shook out his arms. “I should get dressed too. I have to do some shopping. Uh. Prep meals for the week. Boring shit.”
“Sorry I’m not.” Richie made an unintelligible gesture, flipping his hand around. “Uh. Gonna be around to help out.”
“You’d just get in the way,” said Eddie. “I don’t exactly live in the penthouse suite.”
“No, but it’s nice, it’s very uhhh, economical,” said Richie. “It’s compact. I like that your washer and your dryer are stacked on top of each other in a closet in the corner of the room where you eat food, that’s just really great, really great apartment planning.”
“Could you please just shut up and get dressed so you can go already?”
“Fuck you,” said Richie amiably enough.
Eddie disappeared into his bedroom to dress. He stayed in there until he heard the front door open then close, twenty minutes later.
Most of the perishables he needed, the fresh fruits and the meats, he purchased at the grocer’s a few blocks north and a couple more east, but there were a few things Eddie preferred to buy at Mrs Kwon’s than Spinelli’s Grocers n’ Goods (DELI INSIDE). Spinelli’s didn’t stock those little yogurt drinks, for one, the what the fuck was it called?
“Yakult, Eddie, it’s yakult,” said Mrs Kwon with the chiding exasperation of a woman who’d raised three kids and treated Eddie like he was the fourth. She was at most a decade his elder. Coming out from behind the counter, she continued: “How many times do I tell you this? Still you don’t remember. Ya-kul-ut. Yakult. Easy. Two sounds, you put them together. Michael, turn down that TV, okay? We have Eddie in the store.”
Eddie smiled and waved a little to the children behind the counter. She’d two of her grandchildren with her in the store, a small boy in a Cars t-shirt and an even smaller girl with sparkly pink barrettes in her dark hair. Michael turned the volume down. The girl blinked at Eddie and wiggled her fingers at him. They were watching Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, the old animated film. The three fairies surrounded Briar Rose, pushing her out the cottage door and into the sunlit day.
“Yakult is here, in refrigerated goods,” said Mrs Kwon. She had her reading glasses on with the pretty beaded strap that looped behind her neck. “We got in new flavors, you should try one.”
The bell at the door rang. Mrs Kwon hollered a hello and patted Eddie’s arm. “I’ll be right back, okay? Try the green apple flavor. Very good. Tart.”
Eddie smiled absently after her and returned to the refrigerator boasting yakult, the polka dotted bottles of Calpis soda, banana milk. His arm was warm where she’d patted it. He’d gone by the apartment with the bags from Spinelli’s before coming to the bodega, so he’d time to go through the shelves. You’re not loitering are you, Eddie? Well, and so what if he was?
One of the children had turned the television up again. Briar Rose was singing about a dream, a man she had met in one. Eddie put an eight pack of the plain yakult in his red basket. Then he added a pack of the green apple. He drifted down the aisles.
“Michael, turn it down.”
“Grandma, it wasn’t me, it was Esther.”
“Turn it down, aren’t you bigger than she is?”
Some memory came bobbing up inside Eddie like a last bubble, exhaled at the bottom of the pool. They were coming out of the Aladdin, Eddie and Richie and Stan. What had they gone to see? Not Sleeping Beauty, but Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
“What a freak,” said Richie. “Kissing a dead chick!”
“She wasn’t dead,” Stan said. “Weren’t you paying any attention?”
How old were they that day? Eleven maybe, or even twelve. Not far from that terrible summer. It was summer that day too, cotton-sticky late summer with the dog day cicadas out and humming in every tree.
“They put her in a stinkin’ coffin!” said Richie. “He had to like, lift the lid—”
“There wasn’t a lid.”
“And bend down—” Richie pursed his lips and made grotesque, wet smooching sounds, peppering the air around Eddie’s head.
“If she was dead she’d have been like decomposing, you moron,” said Eddie, shoving Richie away. “Like, her skin would have been all rotting away and I’m telling you nobody would have wanted to kiss her.”
Stan added, “And the witch’s book even said it just put her in a sleep. Remember?”
“Ugh, how did you guys even watch that?” Richie jumped up on the high concrete wall running along a decorative flower bed stretching along the street. “I fell asleep halfway through because the dumb dwarfs just kept singing.”
“And in the original fairy tale—”
“You fell asleep because you stayed up all night eating candy and reading dumb horror books,” Eddie said hotly, “and those are just gonna give you nightmares and like, indigestion, and then your guts are gonna get stopped up.”
“You’re just mad because your mom won’t let you eat Kit Kats anymore.”
“When the prince kisses her, in the original fairy tale,” said Stan, “she spits up the piece of apple that she choked on. So it’s not a kiss. It’s more like he gives her the Heimlich.”
“And then you’ll never poop,” said Eddie vengefully, “and you’ll die from constipation, and we’ll put you in a coffin and nobody’s going to kiss you.”
“You guys are pussies,” Richie declared. “That movie sucked. I mean, what kind of creep looks at a dead girl and is like oh man, I gotta smooch that chunk of ice!”
“He loved her!” said Eddie. “He was in love with Snow White!”
“They met one time!”
“So? They were still in love, and it was true love’s kiss that woke her up—”
“You mean raised her from the grave!”
Stan stomped between them and turned around. His curls bounced. He said, lip curling into a sneer, “You’re both dorks. I’m going home. Read a book, Richie.”
“No thanks,” Richie hollered after him, “I’d rather do Eddie’s weird poop thing.”
“It’s not my thing! It’s what’s going to happen to you if you keep eating junk food all night and not sleeping!”
Richie hopped off the flower bed. He nearly tripped in the landing, and Eddie darted to the side so Richie wouldn’t grab at him for balance and pull him down too. But Richie managed not to fall and he straightened, pushing his glasses up his nose.
“Stop calling me Eds.”
“Hey, Eds, if I die because my guts explode and there’s poop everywhere—”
“You’re so gross and my name’s not Eds—”
Richie swung his arms around Eddie and twisted them around together as if dancing. “Eddie, my love, would you kiss me in my coffin? With my poop everywhere?”
“I wouldn’t kiss you if you were covered in roses and your mom gave me a quarter to do it,” said Eddie, “in fact, I wouldn’t kiss you if your mom promised to kiss me if I did it!”
“You’d just let me stay dead?” Richie pouted. “You’d let the stupid dwarfs put me in a glass coffin?”
“I’d put you in the coffin my! self!” said Eddie, and Richie fell over laughing, dragging Eddie down with him after all.
On the television in Mrs Kwon’s bodega, the prince had just startled Briar Rose singing in the woods.
“I’m awfully sorry,” said the prince. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“Oh, it wasn’t that,” said Briar Rose in her lovely voice. “It’s just that you’re a, a—”
“But don’t you remember?” asked the prince. “We’ve met before.”
“We— We have?”
“Why, of course. You said so yourself. Once upon a dream.”
Eddie touched two fingers to his lips. He felt, oddly, as if he were waking out of a dream of his own under the fluorescent lights of the bodega, in the aisle beside the refrigerators and the chips and other small snacks.
His footsteps clicked muted on the linoleum tiling. Milk. He had come in to grab a carton of milk, too. Did he have Lactaid at home? As if in a daze, Eddie added small things to the basket: a roll of Tums, a box of Pepto-Bismol tablets, a bag of Kasugai Ramune Gummies.
Mrs Kwon hurried to the register at his approach. He had only stood there a moment or two, watching the movie on the small travel television. The kids ignored him.
“You should get more, Eddie, you’re too skinny.”
“No,” he said, managing to look away from the television, “no, I’m fine. Um. And can I get a Kit Kat?”
Mrs Kwon looked at him. She tipped her glasses down her nose. Then she pointed, wordlessly, to the impulse display in front of the check-out counter. He grabbed three Kit Kats from the display.
“You know,” said Mrs Kwon, rather slowly, as if she thought something wrong with Eddie, “there was a man in earlier. You know him? Very tall, healthy man, not skinny like you. He had big neck and shoulders, like Zhou from your building, but white. Tall, hairy white man.”
“Oh,” said Eddie. “Yeah. That’s, uh, that’s Richie. He’s staying with me right now.”
Mrs Kwon hummed a rising falling rising note. She punched in the codes for the yakult.
“He is, if it is okay for me to ask? This Richie, he’s your man?”
The frost over the water broke. Glass rang in Eddie’s ears. He looked at her and flushed hotly. In summer, when his tan had come in, no one would be able to see the blood flooding his cheeks, the capillaries dilating. Winter did not offer him such mercies.
Mrs Kwon hummed again. “Bad news for my brother.”
“Danny doesn’t date white guys,” said Eddie.
“Who said that? Danny can date white guys. Danny can date any guy just so long as he gets married,” said Mrs Kwon. “Are you married to Richie? Is he your husband?”
“No, we’re just friends.” Eddie fumbled for his wallet. “He’s only visiting through today. Um, he doesn’t even live in New York.” He handed Mrs Kwon his card and said, weakly, “He’s from LA.”
Mrs Kwon ran his card. Her eyebrows arched finely. “He buys you almond flour and coconut flour, and he’s not your man?”
“We went to school together. In Maine.”
“Eddie Kaspbrak,” said Mrs Kwon, “I worry about you. You come into my store five months ago and you have a scar on your face and I think, this man is a gangster. Then you buy yakult from me and yell at rude teenagers and I think, this man is okay but why is he single? Maybe he’s short but that’s not the end of the world.”
“I’m not short,” Eddie said.
Mrs Kwon waved dismissively. “Now I find out this tall man comes to live with you but he’s not your husband. He just comes to my store to buy gluten-free flours and a box of erythritol, but he’s not your man. It’s not good for you to live alone, Mr Kaspbrak, you will get stomach pains and a bad back and someone will break into your house.”
“No one’s going to break into my apartment building,” he said, taking the bag from her. “My building’s very secure.”
“Okay, and if someone does?” said Mrs Kwon. “What are you going to do? You’re so short.”
“I’m not that short!”
The kids looked with interest at Eddie. He flushed again and lowered his voice.
“Sorry. But I’m not that short. And I work out.”
Mrs Kwon looked him over. Her eyebrows arched even higher.
“Work out as much as Richie?”
“Richie’s never worked out a day in his life,” Eddie hissed. “He’s just… Big!”
Mrs Kwon’s eyebrows settled. She gave a shrug. “Good news for Richie. Good news for you too.” Mrs Kwon winked at him.
“Who’s Richie?” asked the little girl of Mrs Kwon. “Is Richie the guy who called me princess?”
“Yes,” said Mrs Kwon, “he was the very handsome, very tall man who called you princess.”
Eddie said, “Good-bye. Uh. Have a good day,” and left the bodega before Michael in his fucking Lightning McQueen tee could add anything to the conversation.
His lips were stinging. He touched them again. Each of his thoughts was like a bird, swinging in a great circle overhead without any place to land. What is it? he thought. What am I trying to remember?
How much easier to let mortification swaddle him instead. To think of Richie in the places Eddie thought of as his own: the apartment, the bodega; fitting into them as if they were fitted to him.
His thoughts circled, circled.
Eddie put the television on one of the nature channels as he did the meal prep. A documentary on sharks played, the camera trailing thresher sharks as they moved sleekly through the sun-dappled water. On Wednesday after work he would go again to Spinelli’s to pick up more cuts of meat, but today, Sunday, was for the bulk of the week’s prep. He sorted through the fridge and the cabinets before he began, looking for anything that might have expired. Most of the leftovers he tossed. Richie had finished all but two of the meatballs, so Eddie shrugged and ate those before dumping the Tupperware in the sink to wash.
He tied off the trash bag and carried that outside to the building’s dumpster. The documentary changed to one focused on whales, or dolphins, or possibly both.
In the kitchen he laid out the groceries: produce, the fruits, dehydrated things he needed to prepare with milk or water and butter. Meat would come after this, when he was sure he wouldn’t contaminate anything.
Meal prep on Sunday took up a good couple hours. Eddie didn’t mind. Myra had: “I can’t do anything in the kitchen when you’re in here,” she would complain. Or: “Sweetie, shouldn’t you leave that to me?” So badly had she wanted to take care of things, to take care of Eddie.
“Myra, just let me do this,” he would say with more impatience than she deserved. Or: “Myra, you do enough around the house, can I just do this one thing?”
“Are you sure about that lettuce, Eddie Bear?” “I don’t like the look of that salmon.” “Oh, sweetie, you know I can’t eat pork. It makes me gassy.”
“I like knowing what goes into my body,” he would argue. “It makes me feel better to know that I put my hands on the food first.”
“Oh, but Eddie!” “Oh, but Eddie.” “Don’t be silly.” “You know I love to cook for you, Eddie, honey bear.” “You don’t ever let me do nice things for you.”
“Myra,” he would say, “for God’s sake, it’s just fucking food!” and she would shrink back with her eyes flashing and a hand at her throat and her teeth ready to come out just as his teeth were out.
Myra, for God’s sake! Oh, but Eddie! Let me do this. Let me do it. Every conversation they had about food a conversation about how unhappy they were with each other.
“Don’t you want me to help you?” she would say.
“Don’t you want me to help you?” he would say.
They walked stiffly around each other in the kitchen, not touching, Myra driving the knife against the chopping board so that it jumped, Eddie slamming the cabinet doors.
Why won’t you be more spontaneous, Eddie? We don’t have to plan every meal out in advance. You hate it when I’m spontaneous; you say that it scares you, that you don’t know who I am.
Eddie closed his eyes in his apartment kitchen and breathed. He didn’t want to have Myra here in this kitchen, in this space. Why she was here, a ghost moving around him, he knew. Their phone call the day before had gone about as well as he could have expected which was to say poorly, with shouting and tears, on his end as well as hers. He felt her breath on his neck. Her hand landed heavily on his wrist, stopping his hand with the knife as he made to feed a stalk of celery to it.
He thought of the batter on the hardwood floor, the batter on Richie’s foot. How Richie’s toes had curled with shock and he’d sworn, jumping, the frying pan gripped firmly in his hand.
Eddie opened his eyes. The kitchen was empty, of course. No one else was home. Who else would be there? Only Eddie could call the apartment home.
He chopped the vegetables and parsed through the fruit, picking and choosing what needed to be cut, what he needed to juice or to freeze. Tupperware, glass jars, ziplock bags. He scrubbed the cutting boards and washed the knives, mindful of scraping everything off into the trash first.
Then the chicken, the beef, to chop and to rub with seasonings or juices and then if needed to grill, fry, cook safely through in the oven.
The day moved on outside. On the television now sea turtles moved through the water. He looked across the half-bar to the TV, watching as a turtle glided through midnight blackness. His hands went still over the chicken he kneaded with salt.
A long and pebbled fin cut through the water with ponderous grace. The strange head with its overbite beak turned from the camera. The black eye vanished. Then too did the turtle vanish, slipping away into deep waters. A low sound like a bowl, rung with a bell rolled through it, sounded at the back of Eddie’s head.
He blinked sleepily. The chicken was wet under his fingers. His hands began moving again without thought, kneading. Pounding. He felt again like a man struggling out of a dream.
The timer over the stove went off. He washed his hands. The beef slices in the oven were ready to turn over. He turned them then returned to the kitchen, finishing the seasoning and bagging each thin breast. With a sharpie he wrote the date prepared on each bag and the date he intended to cook the chicken: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; a chicken breast for lunch on each day.
Eddie was putting the last of the containers away in the refrigerator when he heard a key in the door. He straightened. Richie came in, hair tousled, laughing as if he’d too much energy to get out and he had no other way to vent it.
“Welcome back,” said Eddie.
Richie shrugged out of his leather jacket. Grinning, he came into the kitchen. His curls were damp somehow. He tossed the jacket over the back of one of the chairs.
“Hey, Eds. Look out, I’m grabbing a mug.”
His hand brushed over Eddie’s elbow. Eddie leaned forward to let Richie get to the proper cabinet. His heart pounded. His mouth was stinging again. Eddie glanced up at Richie, whose chest was so near to his back that it would take only one good, strong breath for them to touch.
“Coffee,” Richie explained. “I’m dying. Is it weird if I zap water in the microwave? You’re not a kettle snob now, right?”
“Dude, you drink instant coffee,” said Eddie, shuffling out of the slight circle of Richie’s arm and chest. “I don’t give a fuck what you do.”
“Hey, I’m gonna take a shower. Um, do you have any clippers?”
“Why, are you buzzing your head?”
“Nah,” said Richie. He scratched at his jaw. “Uh, I was with the guys—”
With the guys, thought Eddie. He washed his hands again just to busy them.
“And they were giving me shit about the beard so I told ‘em that joke you made about Fozzie the Bear and fuck me. So, um, I’m just going to shave it off tonight.”
Eddie’s brow creased. He looked at Richie. “What, just because some assholes made fun of it?”
“Well, I only grew it because my face was so cold,” Richie said. “It’s not a big deal. I mean, you thought it looked stupid too, you just didn’t say it. You were being nice.”
“When the fuck have I ever been nice to you?”
“Is that a joke?” said Richie. “You’re always nice to me. It’s kind of offensive. Like, wow, Eddie, can’t you bust my balls a little over here?”
“So, what, if I’m not busting your balls then I’m being nice?”
“Eddie,” said Richie, “my love. Eddie, my own. My darling, my only. You’re so fucking nice they oughtta put you in the meet and greet hall with the princesses at Disneyland.”
Eddie stabbed two fingers at Richie. “Fuck you.”
“Aw, c’mon! That was funny!”
“No. Fuck you. I’m not a fucking princess.”
“No, you’re like, a savage Bambi,” said Richie. “Like if Bambi got a taste of man. The hunted becomes the hunter.”
“My eyes are proportionally normal to my skull!” Eddie yelled.
“Ahhh, Bambi, no! No! Deer was never meant to eat of the flesh!”
Eddie threw a towel at him and Richie fell over giggling.
“I’m not nice,” Eddie seethed at him. Richie held his hands up all okay, okay, whatever you say, man. “I’m an asshole. I am notoriously a complete dick.”
“That’s not what the nice lady down at the corner said. She said you were an angel. She said you were single, Eddie. Hey, Eddie,” said Richie, “I think she has a crush on you.” He waggled his eyebrows.
“Mrs Kwon is married!” said Eddie. “She has grandchildren! You met them.”
“They were super cute,” said Richie. “Oh, my gaaawd, Edward, were you gossiping about me with Mrs Kwon?”
Eddie turned on his heel. “Take your fucking shower. No, I don’t have any fucking clippers! But I have shaving shit in the medicine cabinet. There’s scissors.”
Richie said, “Oh, scissors,” like it was a personal god damn hardship that Eddie didn’t just have electric clippers sitting around in his apartment. Eddie was civilized; he went to a barber.
While Richie finally showered, Eddie mopped the kitchen floor and got down on his hands and knees with a towel to work out the worst of the moisture from the hardwood. It helped tremendously with his temper, which was spiking between his eyes with a severity suggestive of an iron railroad tie.
The water turned off. Eddie got his elbows into the dry scrubbing. Dark hair fell into his eyes. He sat back on his haunches and scowled at the floor, the towel clenched in his hand.
The lock of the bathroom door popped. His head snapped up. Clad in a towel tucked around his waist, his beard clearly hacked with scissors, Richie came into view over the half-bar. He bent so he could glare at Eddie in the space between the ceiling-mounted cabinets and the bar. Muscle and fat folded at his hips. An astonishing amount of black hair showed damp and curling across his chest. He wasn’t wearing his glasses.
“What the fuck,” said Richie, “is this?”
He held up the straight razor and the soap brush.
“That’s a straight razor and a soap brush,” said Eddie.
“Okay,” said Richie. “But where’s the shaving cream and the normal razors that normal human beings use?”
“I’m sorry,” said Eddie, “did I fucking offend you by having some class?”
Very, very carefully Richie said, “Eddie. The only time I have ever seen this shit in my life is in Peter Pan when Shmee shaved a seagull’s ass.”
“How can you remember that but not know how to shave with an actual razor?”
“Because I wasn’t born in the Great Depression! Do I have to go down to Mrs Kwon’s and buy a frigging Gillette?”
“Go back in the bathroom and sit on the toilet,” said Eddie. He struggled to his feet. His right knee popped. Oh, god damn it, he thought savagely at the twinging in his back.
Richie looked suddenly wary. “Are you going to slit my throat?”
“Would a nice man slit your throat?”
Eddie slammed his hands on Richie’s bare chest, tried not to immediately go into a stroke at the scratching of Richie’s chest hair on his palms, and shoved him around and back towards the bathroom.
“I don’t know,” said Richie, letting Eddie steer him through the door, “are you a nice man?”
“I am according to you.”
“Well, history has proven I’m a moron, so I’d like to repeat the question, are you a nice man, Edward Kaspbrak?”
He stumbled a little. Eddie plucked the razor out of his hand by its faux-ivory handle and grasping Richie’s shoulder firmly in the other hand, he pushed Richie down onto the toilet. Richie splayed across it with his legs wide and the towel straining apart, the fold barely holding at his waist. Another inch or so and all of Richie’s dick would be out and proud. Eddie, again, did not stroke out.
Richie squinted at him. His overbite flashed as he said, lips only just moving, “What’re you gonna do with the razor, Eddie?”
“I’m gonna shave you, numbnuts,” Eddie snapped, grabbing the brush next, “since you already did a hackjob on your face with the scissors. Why the hell is there so much hair in my sink?”
“Because you do it over the sink!”
Eddie flipped the faucet on and ran the brush under it. “Do you have any idea how bad the plumbing sucks in this building?”
“Holy shit, Edwina, next time I’ll do it over the fucking toilet.”
Eddie thundered down on him with the Crabtree & Evelyn soap bowl in his right hand and the brush held in his left fist like a knife.
“Don’t fucking call me Edwina, Richard.”
“Oh my god don’t kill me,” said Richie, “I’m too stupid and ugly to die.”
Eddie slapped him across the face with soap. Richie flinched.
“Don’t move,” Eddie ordered him. Richie looked up at him through those meager eyelashes of his and went wholly, horribly still.
This was a ritual Eddie knew. It was a ritual he performed three or four times a week, as he required or, more like, desired. He dipped the brush against the soap. The illegible writing smeared beneath the badger hairs. With easy and regular turns of his wrist he made a creamy lather of the soap.
Richie’s eyelids flicked. He followed the movement of Eddie’s hand. When Eddie bent and leaned to him to more carefully coat Richie’s cropped beard, Richie’s eyelashes rose and his eyes, pupils dilated, ring of blue, stared directly at Eddie.
Eddie ignored him. He held Richie’s hand in his fingers. The skin was rough, short hairs nipping at his fingertips. Richie’s breath passed hotly across his scarred cheek. He let go to make more of the lather, the soap scent rising clean and sharp between the two of them. The knob in Richie’s throat bobbed. His chest swelled as he inhaled. So too did his shoulders. That Fleischer Superman, fists heroically on his hips, stared at the shower wall with cape rippling. The muscles of Richie’s upper arms tensed. He put his hands on his knees as Eddie layered the left side of his face.
“You should take better care of your hair,” Eddie murmured.
Richie made a noise in his nose, a sort of mm?
“Whatever shampoo you use. It sucks. You’re destroying your hair.”
“It’s all gonna fall out anyway.”
“Don’t move your mouth,” said Eddie sharply. He went for a third pass, to lather up Richie’s chin and the top of his thick throat.
“What are you, my dad?” whispered Richie. “You know. Like a dentist? ‘Hey, how ya doing’ while you got gloved hands in my mouth.”
“This isn’t a conversation, I’m just telling you,” said Eddie. “Your hair’s supposed to curl.”
Richie huffed but said nothing. Now Eddie rinsed out the brush and set it aside on a dry washcloth. The soap, he toweled off. He twisted the lid in place. Then he lifted the razor and looked at it, held up to the light. Richie’s chest swelled again.
Eddie didn’t say anything else as he shaved Richie. He wanted to concentrate. This was his ritual and now he was giving it to Richie. With a slow and scraping stroke, he took a line of hair from Richie’s cheek. His jaw peeked through, the skin pink from the razor. Another stroke, another line of hair. Eddie leaned near to do the delicate work around the mouth. The slight dip beneath the lip, the creases at the corners. The soft skin, just a strip, beneath his nose.
Richie’s chest rose and fell. His shoulders were a line, held hard, that shuddered and then fell into an upside down parabola like surrender. Eddie cleaned the razor after each stroke on the towel Richie wore. His pale thighs showed, the hair black. Skin over muscle, over vein and bone, shadowed by the towel he then gripped together over his unseen cock. Eddie didn’t look for it. He was looking at the apple in Richie’s throat as it worked and worked again.
Now the hairs of the throat. He strapped the razor clean. Pressed the sharp edge to the skin just north of Richie’s adam’s apple and cut steadily through the cream, lifting the hairs out of his skin to leave only smooth, ruddy flesh behind. Richie’s breath warmed his forehead, his temple, his ear.
Eddie hummed lightly as he shaved Richie’s neck. Not the Barber of Seville, but some other tune he couldn’t then place. Whatever it was he stopped humming it as he performed the final glancing blow and wiped the hairs and soap on the dirtied towel.
He stood. He rinsed the razor in the sink. Richie stayed seated on the toilet. He was looking huge-eyed and blinded at Eddie. Eddie lifted the glasses off the counter and, unfolding the arms, he gently pushed them into place on Richie’s face. He watched as Richie’s pupils widened then contracted.
Richie swallowed. His fresh pink face was so bare beneath Eddie. He looked searchingly at Eddie and said, “Eds.”
“Don’t call me Eds,” Eddie told him. “You should get dressed. You have to get there early, right?”
“Yeah,” said Richie.
“Okay,” said Eddie.
Richie said again, “Yeah,” and, “I should. Get going. Yeah. Thanks. Eddie,” and he stood up from the toilet on bare and hairy feet, his toes long, his legs long, every part of him leaning over Eddie as if he were Clark Gable and Eddie Claudette Colbert, the spoiled socialite fleeing the influence of her father.
But Eddie’s father had died when he was just a child, and It Happened One Night was only a movie.
“C’mon, Richie,” said Eddie softly. “Just go. I have to take a shower anyway.”
Richie touched his glasses. He said, “Sure.” He went.
Eddie closed the door. He locked it. He sat on the lid of the toilet, still warm from Richie, and he listened for the front door. He listened for a long time. It was all he seemed to do these days, was to listen for Richie to leave. And tomorrow, thought Eddie, he’ll fly back to Los Angeles and everything will go back to normal and you can forget this. You can forget you tried to be brave for one day.
He leaned his head back against the wall. The tank bit into his shoulders. He closed his eyes. The bathroom smelled of the shaving soap and of Richie’s cheap shampoo. Oh, his beautiful curls. Eddie practiced his breathing exercises. Then he showered in the cold water like a sexless man, his hands mindful and his head emptied. His heart ached. He let it ache. Let a heart hurt and it would learn to survive.
When he exited the bathroom he was alone again. He stood there at the threshold anyway, dripping around his own towel. The washing machine was running. Richie had set it before he left. For one wretched moment, Eddie wanted so ferociously that his stomach hurt with it and he wanted to cry; and then it had passed.
He went into the bedroom to dress. He stopped at the door. Something enormous and soft sat on the bed, in front of his three foam pillows. The something was a black canvas teddy bear in a red tie. The tie was embroidered. It read from top to bottom, E D D I E. Tied to the bear’s left wrist with a purple glitter scrunchie was a slightly crumpled envelope.
Eddie walked into his bedroom like a stranger would. He looked at the bear. It had large embroidered brown eyes and felt eyelashes sewn into the fabric. His hands were itching. His lips were itching. He pulled the envelope out from the scrunchie and opened it. In the envelope was a Valentine’s Day card, one of the plain ones you wrote your own message inside. The front of it had two sketched brown bears playing in a watercolor creek. Inside of the card Richie wrote:
Sorry – stupid joke. But you always gave your mom a bear for V-Day. Didn’t make sense. You’re Eddie Bear, right? So whatever. He’s probably crushed but if you shake him a little then his stuffing’ll even out. Miss ya, Eds. --R
Eddie held the card in his hands. He knew what song he had hummed. He’d had it stuck in his head all that July, back in 1988. I’m wishing, he thought: I’m wishing.
He turned to the lower bedside table drawer and opened it. In the box of Polaroids, he found the tickets, both of them. Why had he wanted to keep them secret? He’d wanted to surprise Richie. It seemed now after the last couple of days a bad joke. Eddie put the Saturday dining/show ticket in the box. He held the Sunday ticket pinched between his thumb and the card.
Eddie went to his closet.
At twenty minutes past eight Eddie slipped quietly in to the dining room at the club. A table near the door he’d come through had empty seats. He took one. A waiter appeared out of the dimness to ask if he’d like something to drink.
“A water,” he said, distracted by Richie up there under the theatre lights, pacing in his red jersey jacket and trailing the microphone cord across the stage behind him. He’d worn the jacket, Eddie thought: the jacket and the trousers and the nice polished shoes. “Um, and a gin and tonic.”
“Would you like the menu?”
“Uh, no, no thanks. I’m not eating.”
“I can’t tell you how flattering it is,” Richie was saying as the waiter peeled back into the shadows, “to be in the same company as Dane Cook and Jeff Dunham. To be the holy spirit in that trinity.” Scattered laughter. “There’s me, the guy who robbed Louis CK, and the puppet-fucker.” More laughter at that, louder, sustained.
The waiter returned with both of Eddie’s drinks on a tray. He nodded his thanks. The waiter smiled.
Richie went on: “Of course I’m Jewish or at least half-Jewish, it’s a complicated formula and it really depends on what kind of Jew you are if I count or I don’t count or I’m an embarrassment to the nation. Half my childhood friends were Catholic and I thought they had rules, Jesus. But it’s nice, I love arguing with authority figures, so this is great. It’s a good fit. Finally! My people.
“I had a friend as a kid, his name was Stanley, Stan, and I’m not gonna say his last name because um, because his family doesn’t need this. Not that any of you would ever be so uncouth as to Google this guy. Yeah, I see you with your phones out. ‘C’mon, Rich,’” he put on an egging gangster voice, “‘name drop this little twerp, gimme the skinny on this kid you sat next to in the fourth grade, me and the boys, we wanna see if he’s on the up and up.’”
The diners laughed again, more so at the delivery, Eddie thought, than what Richie was actually saying. He had that particular skill even as a child at selling a joke no matter how lame or how weird the joke was. Eddie took a sip of his gin and tonic and wondered what Stan would have said or thought about Richie cracking wise about him on stage.
“Stan wasn’t a twerp even if he looked like one and acted like one,” said Richie. “You could be forgiven if you thought he was a twerp. I thought he was a twerp and he was my best friend, and you should’ve seen what I looked like. You know when you look at a frog and you think, man, what the fuck happened to that frog? That’s what I looked like. So I was very popular in my Buddy Holly glasses with my best friend, Stan, who was five feet tall in the fourth grade and had a paid membership in the National Audubon Society when he was like, seven.
“So as you would imagine we were cool. We were cool, and we were Jewish in Maine. I’m a Diet Jew but Stan was that classic Coca-Cola flavor Jew. His dad was the rabbi. At his bar mitzvah, Stan dropped the f-bomb and then he dropped the mic. None of these things are jokes. These are true events. And I was like wow, holy shit, this is the coolest person I’ve ever met, probably, but I still thought he was a twerp, and then he moved away and the next time I heard about him he was dead.”
The room was silent. Eddie clenched his hand around the glass of gin and tonic. On stage Richie ducked his head. He fiddled with his glasses then squared his shoulders and looked out unseeing at the audience.
“That’s not funny. It’s not a funny thing to tell people. But I used to tell a lot of jokes that weren’t funny either and I don’t think Stan would’ve liked any of ‘em, not because he was a prude or anything but because the jokes sucked. That’s not the fault of the twelve unpaid interns I had working in a sweatshop turning out the Alpha Kappa Phi Beta-approved chucks.” He stuck out his chin as in a display of apologetic defiance: the politician repenting at the podium, for making the hard choices no one else could make. Eddie, grinning, saw the parallel clearly; so too did the audience, which began again to laugh first awkwardly, then with sincerity as Richie strutted and in a Southern drawl declared: “‘I should’ve given them a living wage and health insurance. I confess to you, I did not. I let the devil lead me astray with the promise of that almighty dollar, and I did gladly walk with him on that sinner’s path. Lord, forgive me! Lord, deliver those interns unto a blessed land where they might find fair compensation.’
“So I write my own jokes now,” Richie said normally, “but in honor of those interns, three of whom we lost to the great Pussy Juice Soda gag of 2012, I’d like to do a dramatic reading of other people’s work.” He reached into his jacket and from the interior pocket withdrew two sheets of paper, curled so as to look like parchment.
Richie tucked the microphone into his elbow and made a show of shuffling the two pages, a pointless exercise that built hilarity among the diners. His brow creased. He adjusted his glasses. The microphone shared with them all the muffled whispering of his elbow’s movement. Eddie laughed.
Faintly they heard Richie go, “A-ha!” With a flourish, he retrieved the microphone. “Okay, here we go.” He stood with his hips cocked, one leg thrust out. The stage lights caught on the red loafers and gleamed richly there. “Celebitchy, September 14, 2019: ‘Rich Tozier’s coming out is the biggest step back for gay rights since Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie got together for The Simple Life.’”
The audience exploded. The glass sweated under Eddie’s hand. He took a drag of the gin and tonic.
“Perez Hilton, that’s no relation, September 3, 2019: ‘A real triumph for all the self-hating twinks of New Jersey.’ That’s a fun one. I’m a big fan of TMZ. They’ve covered all my blow-outs. The drug orgies, the hazes, that time I threw up in Bill Murray’s lap. I e-mailed Perez asking if he meant this was good news for the self-hating twinks or if I’m supposed to be a twink—” At this he stopped, made a single sweeping gesture encompassing the whole of his body, and shrugged. “But he never got back to me.
“Uh, Breitbart, August 30, 2019: ‘Rich Tozier used women for years.’ Very bold of Breitbart to speak up for women’s rights but, and fuck me for saying this, they aren’t wrong. Breitbart, September 19, 2019: ‘Rich Tozier’s America: the lies, the drugs, the agenda.’ The agenda!” said Richie. “I have to pay a man to pay my bills for me because I forget I have them!”
Now he had the audience entirely. A grin flashed across his face. He put a hand out, palm up to the ceiling, and shrugged with it: what can I say? I’m just a mess of a guy! The crowd loved him for it as he went on, quoting a host of entertainment gossip sources Eddie didn’t know and didn’t care to know, “continuing my grand tour of the Rich Tozier Lost His Damn Mind Extravaganza!” shouted Richie to the giggling delight of the couple at the next table over.
Alone in the back corner Eddie looked at the shadow-cast faces of the other diners. They were by and large indefinably post-college, late twenties to perhaps their mid-thirties. Mostly white, mostly men, casually dressed in plain color t-shirts or tight polos. Eddie in his buttoned cardigan and pleated slacks was comparatively over-dressed. Beers sat warming in their hands or on the tables, here and there a cocktail or even a tell-tale salt-rimmed fat belly glass.
The Enlightened Frat Boy, thought Eddie perhaps uncharitably. He voted for Clinton while calling her a bitch, or he voted for Trump but said it didn’t matter, all the candidates are the same anyway; or he’d forgotten to vote at all. He’d liked Rich Tozier’s 2015 shit better than this, but he wasn’t, like, a homophobe, and he thought Rich was still pretty good even if he wasn’t a laugh riot these days.
What this man representative of the audience liked best of all was the closing half of the evening’s act: Rich Tozier tearing himself apart on-stage and tossing the pieces out to the audience and saying hey, laugh at this. Laugh at me. I’m a stupid piece of shit, huh? Look how fucked up I am. Check out this five car pile-up if you want to get some good laughs in tonight, bro. Don’t you feel good about yourself? Doesn’t it make you feel good that your life is so much god damn better than mine?
Rich laughed on-stage. His shaved throat and jaw showed sleek and still ruddy from the razor, the cream. The cord had tangled. He shook it out with a long flick of his arm. His shoulder flexed with the motion. His wrist snapped. He was wearing the white watch again, the same watch he’d worn on that talk show. It stood out from the deep red of his jacket and from the black button-up he’d worn under the jacket. He took loping steps across the stage as he started on a report of the dating scene: here’s what it’s like to try dating guys in Los Angeles when a year ago you were telling jokes about having to pee in a urinal right next to another guy.
“Yeah, it turns out,” said Rich, and he had to lift his voice over the wave of laughter in the crowd, “it turns out, most self-respecting gay guys in LA have like, a fifty yard restraining order against my dick. Specifically against my penis.”
Eddie tapped his fingers against the glass. He downed the rest of the gin and tonic. It burned under his tongue; his nostrils itched. He drained the water too, and he stood and he left the room while the laughter rose around him, cresting like a rogue wave to smash everything in its path. Richie grinned under the lights and waited for it to hit.
Richie had disappeared into the desert black with Ben. Without Richie there, pressing his leg against Eddie’s leg, Eddie shivered and wound the blanket more tightly around him. Beverly sat on his other side and put her arms around him.
“Happy New Year, Bev,” he said muffled into the blanket.
She swayed him with her, a gentle motion that reminded him not of, say, his mother rocking him, but of the way the surf rolled under you at the beach, coming in and going out and coming in again.
“Happy New Year, Ed.”
“Happy New Year, Edward,” she said sing-song.
He made another disgusted sound in his throat. “I wish you guys wouldn’t make fun of my name.”
“Mm.” Beverly rested her chin on his shoulder. Their breath mingled whitely together. “I think you like it. When Richie picks on you.”
“He’s a pest. Don’t you ever just want to.” He flapped his hand under the blanket. “Flick him away?”
Beverly hid her smile and her half-breathless laugh in his shoulder. “What would be fun about that? We’d have to start hiring entertainment.”
“You’ve always encouraged him,” said Eddie. “I saw you laughing at the restaurant. When he was making fun of me.”
She rubbed her chin against him. Her lips pressed to his ear. Slyly, Beverly murmured: “When he was f-l-i-r-ting with you.”
“He wasn’t flirting,” Eddie grouched. “He was trying to break me, psychologically. Like a fucking… hairy bridge troll.”
“Fee-fi-fo-fum,” said Beverly, “I smell the spiking blood pressure of a Kaspbrak boy…”
Eddie bucked his shoulder under her and she pulled back, laughing openly. Her eyes glittered in the draining firelight. She was so beautiful, their Beverly: her own Beverly. A part of him loved her, had loved her always, not as Bill had loved her or as Ben did now love her, but as he might have loved a sister if he had ever had one.
“I’m happy for you.” Eddie felt his face flushing at it. He looked quickly away. “Um. You just look really healthy these days.”
Lightly she stroked a hand down the suggestion of his arm. Eddie wound his jaw and then, ducking his head, he dug his hand out from the blanket to clasp her hand in the cold deep winter night of New Mexico, as the year changed over from one to the next.
“So do you,” said Beverly. “Eddie Kaspbrak.”
She shifted their hands so that their fingers briefly interlaced, her long and beautifully arching fingers slipping neatly into place alongside his own too-long, too-thin fingers.
He repeated it, turning their hands over so that hers showed and then his did. Beverly’s breath misted. She rested her head on his shoulder.
She said, “When I was seven, my daddy broke two of my fingers,” in a very quiet voice, so very quiet she sounded not at all like Beverly but like a girl, very young. With the first finger of her free hand she touched a nail to each of the three knuckles that had cracked so long ago.
Eddie let go of her hand. Beverly turned her face to the fire. He had only let go so he could wrap his arm around her like she had wrapped her arms around him. With his right hand he clasped her hand again. Very softly he pressed a chaste little boy’s kiss to her temple. Her eyelashes lowered, thinly red. A bird-boned smile flicked at her lips.
“Oh, Eddie,” she said, squeezing his hand. “You always know how to hold a girl.” Beverly leaned just far enough away to cock her head and look at him through her tumbling, wavily bangs. “Why didn’t anyone ever steal you away?”
“If anyone tried to steal me,” he said, “I’d bite them. Do you have any idea how many bacteria live in the human mouth?”
She leaned forward again, as he did too. Their noses touched. He smiled helplessly at her.
“Well, somebody should steal you,” Beverly said. “Somebody should throw you over their shoulders and just run.”
“That’s not really likely.”
“I think you’d like it. Being stolen.” She reached up to tidy his hair, fine and delicate movements so unlike his mother or Myra straightening his hair so he looked the part of the Good Man. “Like Rapunzel. Running away with the thief.”
Eddie smiled. It felt wistful to him. He knew how his scar would make the smile look crueler than he meant it.
“Fairy tales aren’t real,” he told her.
Bill called, “Hey, Ben, Mike found some prosecco, is it cool if we open it?”
“He already opened it,” Mike fired off, “don’t listen to him. Don’t let him pull me into this narrative.”
Bill flipped Mike the bird, or he tried to: he stuck his ring finger up instead then in his confusion stuck up his first finger and his thumb. Mike laughed so loud he had to sit heavily on the log next to Bill, and Bill slid cackling into him.
Beverly tucked her cheek more firmly to Eddie’s shoulder as they the both of them looked to see Ben and Richie tramping back out of the darkness, laden with scrub and twiggy branches.
Ben said, “Oh, shit, I forgot we had that. Yeah, it’s cool,” and smiled pink-cheeked and shy at Beverly nestled cozily against Eddie, Eddie and Beverly like parentheticals closed about each other.
“Hey, Marsh,” Richie shouted, “what the hell? I leave for five minutes and you’re already picking up on my man? You know, Eddie’s mama warned me about gals like you.”
Beverly said, “Fuck off, Richie,” as Eddie said, “Beep-beep, asshole.”
“Ben!” Richie rounded so quickly on Ben that half his load of scrub fell out of his arms. “Are you not alarmed? Are you not threatened? By these hussies? That’s right, Edward. That’s what I said. You hussy. You slut.”
“You left him all alone,” said Beverly. “He just looked so cold…”
“Did you call me a slut?”
“Eddie’s pretty small,” Ben said. “He gets cold faster.”
“What the hell, Ben!” said Eddie.
“And he’s so cute, too,” said Beverly. Ben met her eyes and grinned. She lifted her hand, still joined with Eddie’s, and waggled her fingertips at Ben.
“I can’t believe this,” Richie was complaining as he dumped the rest of the scrub he’d gathered directly into the firepit. “Here I am. Freezing my ass. Working hard as a provider for my Eddie. And Marsh just swoops right in. And you’re supporting this! Hanscom!”
Beverly unlaced their hands and winked at Eddie. “See ya around, Eddie,” she said to him. Then she leaned in and pressed a pursed, closed lip kiss to the corner of his mouth. Eddie giggled.
Richie stamped his feet and, hands in his pockets, thrashed his arms like a man caught in the throes of deep and true agony.
“Hope you can forgive me,” Beverly said to Ben. She took half his load from him.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I’d wait for you.”
Beverly’s lashes dipped. Her cheeks dimpled. Ben pinked again.
“Oh, my god, kiss,” called Bill. He’d fallen over with his head in Mike’s lap. “Kiss. Kiss.”
Mike carded his fingers through Bill’s graying hair and laughed again, his laugh so warm it seemed to fight back the cold of the night for a moment.
“It is New Year’s,” Mike said.
“Kiss so this god damn year can finally be over,” Bill said.
Ben shook his head, grinning at them, and crouched to sort the limbs out beside the firepit. Beverly crouched beside him. Her hair fell redly like a curtain before them. Somewhere in that little space, half-hidden, lit by the fire, they kissed.
Richie wiggled his way back to Eddie, his steps loose-limbed, knees bowing out. The desert earth crunched under his boots.
“Hussy?” Eddie said to him.
“You threw me over,” Richie complained. “Just because Beverly has perfect hair and perfect lips and perfect breasts.”
“Beep-beep,” said Ben warningly.
“He’s not wrong,” said Beverly, and she fell against Ben giggling at his expression.
“Am I supposed to be holding out for you?” asked Eddie. “Dude, your joke doesn’t even make sense. And don’t call me a slut, what the fuck.”
Richie sat in the dirt rather than on the log next to Eddie. Grimacing, he pulled his legs into a loose criss-cross applesauce.
“Sorry,” he said. “I was wrong. You’re not a slut.”
“Thank you, Trashmouth.”
“No, I’m serious,” Richie protested. “I’m trying, uh, not to be meaner. With my comedy.”
“How’s that working for you?” asked Bill. He’d closed his eyes, still resting in Mike’s lap.
“Go kiss your wife, Bill. Oh, right, she’s not here.”
Bill managed to get the right finger up that time. Mike got his up, too.
“See, dude,” said Eddie, “that was pretty dick-ish. As a joke.”
“That didn’t count. That was Bill. I’m not being compensated for this event, am I? No? Nobody’s forking over my appearance fee? Then I can say whatever the hell I want.” Richie looked Eddie dead in the eyes and over-enunciating he said, “Balls.”
Eddie pulled the blanket up to his mouth to mask his laughter.
“But I’m serious,” Richie said, “I’m not fucking around here! New year, new me. Same Dick Tozier, but on a whole new channel. No more potshots at women.”
Beverly said, “Women’s rights!”
“No more weird almost-racist bits!”
“Almost?” said Mike.
“The fat jokes? Hilarious, but gone!”
Whatever Ben said, he muttered it only to himself.
“The line-straddling homophobia to cover up for my own, uh, stuff, we’re just phasing that right out.”
“So that’s your whole act,” Bill said. Mike had brushed the hair back from his forehead. “What the hell’s left, Richie?”
Richie melodramatically deflated. Morosely, he kicked at the firepit. “Man, fuck if I know.”
“You’re left,” Eddie suggested, and Richie tipped his head back to peer over his glasses at Eddie. Eddie shrugged and shifted uncomfortably under the blanket. “I mean, if you’re serious about cutting out the asshole crap. You’re still funny, Richie. You can do this. Yeah,” said Eddie. “None of that shit was really you anyway.”
Richie blinked sweepingly behind his glasses. His pupils were thick, so very black that in the little light of the fire and the dancing shadows it cast against the night, his eyes seemed shadows too.
“Eddie’s right,” said Beverly, and one by one the other Losers agreed with them.
“Well,” said Richie. “Shit. You assholes are gonna make me cry.” But he was looking at Eddie as he said it, and when he smiled something shy and nearly like how Ben had looked to see Beverly again, he had smiled at Eddie.
And in February he turned all that meanness on himself on that little stage in that club in Manhattan. There, Eddie stood up and he left to pay his bill and to wait the rest of the hour out in the lobby. He wouldn’t linger in that dark room to watch as Rich Tozier cut into his own belly and pulled out purple-blue ropes of intestine and bowel for those men to behold and laugh. Eddie couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t bear to look at Rich on that stage laughing along with those who laughed at him, at those gutted coils he held out as if to say, Isn’t it funny?
Isn’t it funny that I want someone to love me?
He thought of the firelight, the sparks spitting up between them from the fire pit at Beverly and Ben’s over New Year’s. He thought of Richie licking Cool Whip from the corner of his mouth. He thought of the weight of Richie’s head in his hands, how Richie had tilted back his head so that Eddie could stroke his throat slowly with the straight razor.
He thought of Richie standing in Eddie’s apartment with the bedroom light behind him and his eyes glittering and dark and the muscles of his jaw unkind lines as he said, “I love you and I’ve never loved anybody else,” Eddie’s words in his own voice.
Eddie asked for another water. He nursed it. When he closed his eyes, he saw the embers, flurrying out of the splintering wood; and he felt Richie leaning against him, heavy and warm, and wanted. Yes. And wanted.
The decorative clock in the lobby chimed. It was nine o’clock. The show had ended. Eddie set the glass down. He turned to the doors. They opened.
Eddie walked to the stage. The lights were up in the room, highlighting the tables with their dishes, their glasses, meals half-eaten, napkins crumpled and tossed on the cloth. His hands swung as fists at his sides. He beat at his thighs now and then. Every third stride, maybe.
Of course Richie had lingered. They wanted photos. They wanted autographs. Richie wanted attention. He pal-ed around with a couple of the guys and took a photo with them, his long arms over their shoulders. Smile jaunty, chin stuck out. He looked like an asshole.
Richie turned to Eddie’s call. So did the guys congregated around him in the shadow of the stage. It occurred to Eddie how he must look with his jaw set and his brow low, marching up like this. Eddie, try to relax. Eddie, you look so intense.
“Hey, Rich,” he said. “I need to talk to you.”
The men surprisingly tightened around Richie.
“Hey, man, be cool.”
“No, it’s fine, he’s with me,” said Richie, stepping in front of them. He looked startled to see Eddie, startled and worried, a single crease like a gull’s wings across his forehead. “Eddie, hey, what’re you doing here?”
“I need to talk with you,” he said again. He looked at the little crowd, five or six men still hovering close by, fans wanting their fair share of Rich Tozier. Eddie said, “Alone,” and glared at them.
“Uh. Sure,” said Richie, “um, just, gimme a minute—”
Eddie turned his glare on Richie. “I need to talk with you now.”
“Tozier, I just wanted—”
“Sorry, guys, but uh, this is important.” He didn’t break eye contact with Eddie. “Yeah, Eddie, there’s this room back, uh, backstage.” He jerked his thumb to a door, hidden in the wall next to the stage. Eddie nodded and started walking. “Listen, I’m really sorry about this, guys, I’d love to chat some more, but this really is important, I gotta just, I really just gotta head out. Yeah, yeah, I’ll see you at the next show, right? Yeah, I’m definitely hitting up Brooklyn next month.”
In the hallway Eddie waited for Richie with his arms crossed, his arms crossed and his heart a stinging jellyfish in his breast, a man o’ war twisting. Posters lined the walls, promoting different acts, musicians through the years. Eddie studied a poster for RICH TOZIER: TAKIN’ THE TRASH OUT 2009. Richie with a cigarette dangling from his lips, a woman’s manicured hands holding a light to the cigarette, another pair of hands pulling on his tie, a third set flat on his belly. He looked directly into the camera, something like a smirk or a sneer playing at his lips. No glasses.
Finally Richie ducked through the door. He ran a hand through his shaggy hair. His face was still pink-flushed.
“Uh, over here, Eddie. They probably won’t give a shit if we talk in here for a couple minutes.” He popped open a door and gestured Eddie up the short run of steps into a small room with two more doors and a vanity, set up with a wide mirror and a spindly chair in front of it.
“I didn’t know you were coming,” Richie said to Eddie’s back. “Uh, I definitely would have asked for M&Ms on the rider if I knew you were going to show up, but I just got a beer. Did you uh, did you see the show?”
“I saw the show,” said Eddie. He let Richie come around front of him. Richie peered at him through his glasses, already slumping some so that they were, if you pretended, of a height.
“Cool, cool,” said Richie, “very cool. What’d you think? I’m still workshopping some shit. You could tell, right? It’s really rough around the edges and in the middle and at the start and you know. Everywhere.”
“Some of it was good,” said Eddie. “I didn’t like when you made fun of yourself for a half hour.”
Richie laughed. “Oh, c’mon, Eddie, that’s the business. It’s comedy. Shit, you make fun of me all the time.”
“Not like that.”
“Yeah, you’re right. You’re worse.”
Very quietly Eddie said, “Richie, I want you to sit down.”
Richie’s smile faded. A kind of sharpness came to his eyes. An animal wariness. He’d stopped slouching. His shoulders filled the room.
“What’d you want to talk about?”
“I want you to sit down, please.”
“No,” said Richie after a moment. “I think I’m gonna stand.” He pointed a finger at Eddie. “I think that you can’t just boss me around whenever you want and—”
“I love you,” said Eddie.
Richie’s finger drooped. His hand fell.
“I love you,” Eddie said again. “I’m in love with you. Sit down, Richie.”
Richie sat down. His face had gone lax. He looked up at Eddie like a man would look at a ghost. He licked his lips. He said, “Eddie.”
“No,” said Eddie. “Beep beep, Richie. You have to listen to me talk, okay? You have to let me start and you have to let me finish and if you interrupt me one time then I’m taking back my key and I’m walking out of this room and you can go fuck yourself, nod if you understand.”
Richie nodded. He licked his lips again.
Eddie rubbed his hands together. He tried not to pace. He knew he was going to pace.
“Okay, so. I already said it but. I love you. I do love you. I’m in love with you. And I didn’t say it again after we left Derry but that’s because I was fucking, I had a fucking hole in my body and you left first, and no! Do not talk! I am talking right now, Richie!”
He cut both his hands through the air, and Richie subsided in the chair, his arms folding across his chest, so fuck him; fuck Richie. Eddie pivoted and paced back the way he’d come.
“And I’m sorry but I didn’t know you wanted me to say it again and it’s still hard for me, it’s fucking hard to be brave, I know you’re under the delusion that I’m not a coward but I am scared!” he shouted. “All! The time! Richie! I am terrified! Every god damn day of my life! I don’t know how to love someone! I’ve never fucking done it before! And if I say I love you then how do I know that if you say you love me too that you’re not just saying it because you think that’s what I need to hear?
“And yes,” said Eddie, his voice cracking, and he hated it, he hated it, he hated his voice and his hands that wouldn’t stop squeezing at each other, “yes, fine, yes, I want you to love me too, but that’s not a bad thing. That’s not fucking wrong of me to want somebody to love me back if I love them, but it’s okay. It’s okay. I know you don’t love me and that’s fine and you don’t have to love me back and I am not my mother, Richie!
“And I love you,” he said again, “and I hate it when you cut yourself down like you were doing out there because you’re so, you’re so smart and you’re funny and you were so brave to come out, and—” His breath was sticking in his chest. “And I used to want it so bad.”
Eddie stopped his pacing. His hands clenched in front of him, over his scar. He was rabbit-frightened and furious too, and he looked at Richie who looked back at him with an expression he had never seen on Richie before, something even more alien and more wonderful than the way he had looked at Eddie when he had reached up to brush his knuckles across Eddie’s naked chest.
“When we were kids,” Eddie said. “I used to want you to kiss me. Because if you kissed me, then it was okay. Because I didn’t do it. It wasn’t because I wanted it. It was because you wanted it. And I used to wish you did want it, and you didn’t.”
Richie said, “Eddie. Eddie, listen to me—” and he rose out of the chair with his hands held upright to Eddie, beseeching.
“But I’m not a kid,” said Eddie. “I don’t have to wait for you.”
And because Richie was already coming to him, Eddie reached out and took Richie’s face in his hands and he felt Richie’s breath catching too and he kissed Richie the way he had wanted to kiss Richie oh, for years. Their mouths slanted. Richie clutched at his cardigan sleeves. His teeth were hard under Eddie’s lips. His lips were just flesh.
Then Richie sighed against Eddie and his head tipped back and he melted against Eddie, so smoothly he melted against Eddie, and for a moment as Eddie held him and kissed him and touched him, Eddie believed that Richie loved him, too. Richie’s lips turned out beneath his. Eddie ran the tip of his tongue across Richie’s teeth and Richie, making small helpless sounds, opened his teeth and let Eddie in. Just for that moment. That one, lovely moment, as Eddie ran his tongue across Richie’s tongue and Richie shivered against him as if to say, come in, come in, I’ve waited for you.
Here I am, said Eddie with his fingers curling over Richie’s jaw. Here I am, he said with his lips tugging warm and wet. I’m here. It’s me.
Then Richie’s hands let go of Eddie’s cardigan and he held Eddie’s wrists instead.
“Eddie,” he said, his lips brushing at Eddie’s lips.
Eddie shivered. He felt the strength in Richie’s hands. He felt his height as Richie stood, their bodies nearly sliding along each other. Fever-hot desire flicked through Eddie, so bright he nearly shoved Richie back onto the chair and climbed on top of him.
Richie pressed his forehead to Eddie’s forehead. Bitter-strong tears pinched Eddie’s eyes. He wouldn’t cry. He blinked them away.
Richie said, “Eddie, I—” and it was Eddie who stepped away. It was Eddie who pulled his hands free, and it was Eddie who looked clear-eyed and aching up at Richie Tozier with his kiss-mussed lips and his curly hair a mess and his glasses, tipped to the left.
“I’m going home now,” said Eddie. His mouth hurt. “You can come. Or you can stay here. That’s your choice to make. I made mine. Because I’m scared, but I’m not. I’m not pretending anymore. I’m alive,” he said. “I’m alive, and I’m real. That’s me.”
And because he couldn’t bear the lines pulling at Richie’s mouth, he couldn’t bear the misery of his eyes, those eyes Eddie had unknowingly dreamed about for so very many years, he stepped in bird lightly to press another kiss so gently to Richie’s cheek.
“That’s all I wanted to say,” Eddie said quietly to Richie’s bare skin.
Then he left. He went home. He didn’t cry. He didn’t scream. He was calm in a way he thought he had never been calm before: as though everything in him, he’d pulled out and examined and put neatly back in its proper place.
He turned on the light outside his front door. He put his shoes in the cubby. He drank a glass of water. He didn’t take a trazodone. He went to bed and he left his bedroom door open. And he waited. He waited a very long time. Eddie waited until he unwillingly drifted into an uneasy sleep.
It wouldn’t have mattered if he’d stayed awake. Richie didn’t come.
What was the heart but a muscle? Strained or bruised, it persisted; it beat so long as it might beat. This, the proof both terrible and wondrous of life: that to live you must continue to live.
He woke as he woke every morning. Now it is four in the morning; now it is five in the morning; now it is six and the minutes come relentless. The biologic computer machine of the human mind in its neuroses perceived time as a subjective creature; one second might draw out as another second did not. The hours of the night however regulated might linger.
Eddie sat on the edge of the bed in his rumpled button-down shirt and boxers with the brown afghan across his lap. He looked out the window into the courtyard where the trees waited in their long cold sleep for the days of thawing. The sky lightened. Day had come. Day did come no matter the formless hours of night.
Across the way and a floor above, a woman opened the curtains of her own room. The ill-defined shape of a child jumped on the bed. The woman turned to catch the child under the arms and sweep them laughing away and to her chest.
The phone was quiet on the bedside table. No one had called. No text messages, waiting to be read. He breathed through nose and mouth alike, because he must breathe and it hurt to do so. Another flaw of the human body that also misunderstood time or insisted on living despite the holes pushed through it, the lung broken, the bones splintered, the blood spilled.
And if he had waited to tell Richie until they were both again in the apartment? Then he would have trapped Richie. No, it was better to have done it like this, so that Richie had the choice to stay or to come or to go.
Calmly Eddie thought: You will survive this. He would. Perhaps there was no pain he could not now survive. That was the gift IT had shoved into him with claw and serrated leg. It was a terrible gift, one his mother had tried so very hard to keep from him even as she stuck Eddie with her own fine needles, the burn touches of her soft hands and softer lips.
The gift is pain. If you are to live, you must live with it. Eddie closed his eyes. He tried again to breathe. His lungs operated as they were designed to operate, oxygen conducted to the bronchi that like the branches of a tree split and so split again into twig-like bronchioles that in their turn then gave way to alveolar ducts, to alveolar sacs, to the alveoli microscopic and vital. It was his heart that pained him, his heart and the traitorous viral disease of his brain that was anxiety.
In the medicine cabinet he kept an orange bottle with a white cap, half-filled with clonazepam 0.5mg, generic for>klonopin printed in small tidy letters at the bottom of the label. Each tablet had a line to divide it. A thumbnail pressed with care to that line, and a small measure of leverage, would split the tablet easily.
He closed his eyes and drew in another slow breath. He held it five seconds. He let it out slowly through his mouth. This, Eddie repeated. Repeated. Repeated. His toes were cold, the tips pressed to the hardwood floor. The slippers were a few inches to the left of his feet. He wanted the cold.
“There’s no shame in using the klonopin,” said Dr Greene. “It’s there to help. That’s why you have it.”
Well, Eddie thought, I’m the fucker that has to live with this. So how’s about you go fuck yourself, doc.
It wasn’t an especially kind thing to think of his therapist. His head started to pound. Dick, he thought. Dickhead. Stupid broken motherfucker. Why’d you say anything?
“You know why,” he said to his fisting toes. His hands fisted, too, gripping at the afghan. “You know exactly fucking why. You’re Eddie Kaspbrak, you asshole. And you’re not scared. You’re not fucking scared anymore.”
And the thing inside him, the thing that was always inside him, anxiety or fear or depression or his mother or IT or maybe just his own god damn self, it said to him:
Don’t tell lies, Eddie. Of course you’re scared. You’re always scared. You’re scared of everything. You told Richie the truth last night and now he knows and maybe he did want you a little, maybe you didn’t imagine everything, maybe it did mean something when he touched you and when he held you and when he made you eggs one morning and then yesterday he made you pancakes, but now he knows all of it and he didn’t come. Did he? You gave him the choice and he did exactly what you would have done if your mother had ever given you the choice to stay or to go, because—
He heard his voice, thirteen years old and frantic: Because that’s what love is, you turd, it’s not like in the movies, it’s not the prince kissing Sleeping Beauty and she wakes up from a spell, you’re not a baby anymore, Jesus Christ, grow up, what, d’you think Dad died because Mommy didn’t love him enough? You know Mom says she loves you and you tell her it back because you’re a good boy, Eddie, but what the fuck does it even mean, what the fuck does it mean if you say you love somebody, all you’re saying is I’m lonely and don’t go away because if you go away then I’m stuck with myself and who the fuck wants to be stuck with you anyway? Who the fuck wants to be stuck with anybody? You got up in that church and you kissed Myra and you said you’d love her forever but you didn’t even love her then did you, you coward, you liar, you wastoid, you were just scared and you’re scared now and you’re always gonna be scared. You did one brave thing down there when you saved Richie but then you told him you loved him and you thought that was brave too but it wasn’t, you saved his life and now he owes you, and you said you aren’t Mommy but you are, you’re just like Mom, you’re exactly like her, no wonder Myra didn’t love you, no wonder your girlfriend left after she met Mom because she saw you were just like her, no wonder Richie didn’t come.
Eddie covered his face. He shook. His eyes stung. He wasn’t going to cry. He wasn’t.
“It’s not true,” he said to himself.
That was who it was, who always spoke to him. Eddie had always hated Eddie. Some days he managed to look at his reflection and be proud of his body, or he could look at what he’d accomplished at work and be proud of that, or he could scream defiance into someone’s face when they told him you can’t do that, Eddie, you aren’t strong enough, Eddie, you’re just going to make a mess of it, Eddie. Some days, he was the Eddie he might have been.
But you know the truth, Eddie. And it wasn’t the clown that spoke to him; it wasn’t his mother or the ghost of his child self. It was just Eddie.
He dug the heels of his palms into his eyes, left to left and right to right. Spots bloomed behind his eyelids. His shoulders trembled.
After a time, it passed. He cupped his hot face in his fingers then slid them to his mouth, to his collar, to his lap. His hands folded. Eddie exhaled. He was so very tired.
It wasn’t true, any of those things. He had to remember that. Maybe he didn’t believe it right then at 6:42AM but later, after he had showered and eaten breakfast and had two cups of tea, he would try to believe it, and he would. He wished life could be like it was in a film, that you could realize how much of everything you thought was bullshit and then you were cured and you’d never think of the bullshit again. The audience would cheer for you and Richie would take Eddie up in his arms and lean him forward and kiss him like in a black and white film, their lips crushed, Eddie’s arms up between them, the curve of his back a line of surrender and the music swelling to a last crescendo telling the theatergoers here’s the end and the end is happy.
But fairy tales weren’t real. Richie had been right about that a very long time ago. You had to wake up every day and keep trying.
A little grey-plumed bird lighted on the tree branches outside Eddie’s window. The branch was too thin to support the bird’s weight and it fluttered its wings in disarray and hopped instead to the window sill. Affronted, the bird picked at the feathers of its chest.
Eddie watched as it paced the sill, its small head twitching back and forth, then down. He thought Stan would have known its name. How Stan had loved the birds.
“I miss you, buddy,” said Eddie to the bird. It shuffled on the sill and then took flight again, dipping low into the courtyard beyond where Eddie, still sitting on his bed, could follow.
Eddie’s heart beat in his chest. It did so with soothing regularity. Maybe today he would use a sick day. He’d a week of PTO that would expire by the end of March. He thought that Tanner might be able to navigate the day on his own. If any fires remained on Tuesday, Eddie would put them out.
He looked for his slippers and put them on. Even with the silky fur lining, his toes were chilled through. Eddie made the bed and unplugged his phone to take it with him.
Somewhere down below the bird was twittering, calling out for someone to hear, for someone to come. Eddie listened to it singing until, in the living room looking at the air mattress and its sheets in disarray, he couldn’t hear it anymore.
After he sent the e-mail to management and to payroll re: taking a personal day, Eddie cleaned. He’d put one of the cans of chunky soup to warm in a pot on the stove. Too much sodium and so early in the day, but he wanted the comfort of it: the noodles, the chicken broth, the over-cooked carrot and celery. For the same reason, that wanting to be soothed, he changed out the button-down and boxers for an over-sized white knit sweater and flannel lounge pants. If he was going to spend the day sad, he intended to do it as cozily as possible.
Richie had taken his duffel with him the day before. If Eddie had noticed that, would it have changed anything he’d said or done? It didn’t matter now. He stripped the sheets from the air mattress and bundled them into the laundry. The air mattress he unplugged and sat on for several minutes so the air would begin to push out.
He put the TV on as an afterthought, just to have the noise going. His head was still too full of racket. TBS was playing a Meg Ryan movie, and after a moment of pushing at the air mattress he looked up, recognizing the dialogue.
She was in a black sweater carrying books through the store. You’ve Got Mail, he remembered. Myra loved this one but he had fallen asleep both times he’d tried watching it with her.
“Last night,” Meg Ryan was saying in voice-over, “I went to meet you and you weren’t there. I wish I knew why. I felt so foolish.”
Eddie sat again, watching, listening idly to the air streaming out of the mattress as Meg Ryan sat at her computer and wrote. She’d insulted Tom Hanks in a scene before, he remembered that much.
“I was able for the first time in my life to say the exact thing I wanted to say at the exact moment I wanted to say it. And of course afterwards I felt terrible, just as you said I would. I was cruel. And I’m never cruel. And even though I can hardly believe what I said mattered to this man, to him I am just a bug to be crushed… But what if it did?”
And Eddie sat there, watching Tom Hanks reading the e-mail on his own computer but seeing instead how Richie had looked up at him from that chair in the dressing room with his mouth turning down at the corners. How he had looked at Eddie after Eddie had kissed him, with his eyebrows knitting over his eyes and his eyes, his eyes sad almost as Eddie stepped away and the words he’d said sitting there in the air between them.
“I so wanted to talk to you,” Meg Ryan said softly. “I hope you have a good reason for not being there last night. You don’t seem like the kind of person that would do something like that.”
How Richie had stood there, his hands falling to his sides, watching from behind those old, familiar black frames as Eddie turned away from him and left.
“The odd thing about this form of communication is you’re more likely to talk about nothing than something but I just want to say that all this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings.”
Eddie’s breath hurt in his throat. He fumbled for the remote; he turned the TV off. In the quiet, his breath was too loud. The air mattress sighed under him. His legs were nearly to the floor, with only the layers of vinyl between Eddie and the hardwood.
He had thought it the brave thing to do, the right thing, to leave Richie there. To give him the choice.
What would Richie have done if Eddie hadn’t gone down those steps and out that door? What would he have said? Eddie pressed his hand over his chest, rubbing again and without thought at his scar, as though it were the scar that ached and not the rest of him.
All this nothing, he thought.
His phone buzzed on the half-bar. Eddie turned to look at it. As he did so, from out in the hallway came a sudden burst of noise: a dog barking, the scrabbling of claws on tile, Mrs Zhou wailing, “No, Sweetie! No! Naughty girl, come here!”
Eddie forgot the phone. Stuffing his feet in slippers again, he went to the front door and pulled it in to step out into the hall. He was still thinking of Richie, and of Meg Ryan in her black sweater with her blonde hair cut short, and perhaps that was why Sweetie caught him.
Her honey gold ears flopping, tongue flapping out the corner of her mouth, Sweetie barreled past him toward the end of the hall where the door to the stairs sat. She winged his leg as she went by and Eddie staggered, thrown off so that he had to turn his tumble into a lunge for the glass wall opposite. He lost a slipper in the tackle: a cleat blown off when the lineman sacked the quarterback. Richie flew out of his head.
Mrs Zhou, at the door to the stairs with leash and collar in hand, made a swipe for Sweetie, but the dog skidded on her haunches and whipped around for another pass back toward the other end of the hall, where the elevator was. Mr Zhou – Andrew – had come out of the apartment. He was in a button-up, slacks, and black socks, all his tattoos covered up.
“Come here, Sweetie, come here, baby girl,” he cooed at her. He crouched at her approach. Elastically, Sweetie bounced around him and kept on to the wall.
“I’m so sorry, Mr Kaspbrak,” said Mrs Zhou, “please, just go back inside. This is my fault. This is all my fault.”
He’d never seen Mrs Zhou distraught before. Her black hair was a mess of flyaways, her coat unbuttoned; she’d kicked off her high-heeled shoes in the corner. Eddie was mortified to see her so upset; it was as if he’d thumbed through a Victorian pin-up magazine and found a sketch of her in crinoline and lace.
He turned his shoulder to her and joined in the calling to Sweetie.
“Please, please,” said Mrs Zhou, as though on the edge of tears. “You don’t need to help. This is because I didn’t tighten her collar.”
“It’s all right, bits!” said Andrew to her. “She’s an escape artist.”
Eddie crouched some and held his hands out to Sweetie. “Good girl. Good girl, Sweetie.”
She looked at him as she raced by. He hadn’t thought a dog could look as if they laughed; but her eyes twinkled and she made a happy, growling bark at him and bounced high on her back legs as she rounded Mrs Zhou, circling her three times and evading each grasp at her close-cropped curls. A spot of high color marked either side of Mrs Zhou’s face.
“Shuang, no worries!” Andrew called out to his wife. He smiled hugely. “We’ve got her cornered. Sorry about this, Eddie, you don’t mind?”
“No, it’s fine,” he said, grabbing for Sweetie’s tail and managing only to punch at the air. “What are neighbors for?”
“See?” said Andrew to his wife. “What are neighbors for, huh, bitsy?”
Mrs Zhou flushed ferociously. “Not in front of Mr Kaspbrak, Mr Zhou.”
He laughed his foghorn life: rocks ahead, better beware. “Sorry, sorry. Mrs Zhou. Wife of mine.” Bitsy, he’d called her, and Eddie’s ears burned to hear this endearment that so embarrassed Mrs Zhou to be called in front of him.
Sweetie barked twice, two quick high snaps that said pay attention to me! Pay attention to me! and pausing in her exercises she pawed once at Shuang Zhou’s knee and whined. “Oh, Sweetie,” she sighed, “that’s a good darling girl,” and she held out the collar.
Sweetie immediately abandoned her. As she bolted panting back again, Eddie threw himself at her. He ran his shoulder into his doorframe. Sweetie bounced between Andrew’s legs; he collapsed too, laughing and groaning as well when his head glanced off the window.
Maybe Eddie wouldn’t get a dog. Curled on his side, he tried for her leg and missed. Sweetie yapped cheerily as she kept going on this lap and then made a disgruntled sound, a whine in her throat.
“Oh, thank you,” said Mrs Zhou breathlessly. “Thank you. Sweetie, that was so naughty.”
A very familiar, tumbling voice said, “You got a collar?” and Eddie, still rubbing at his side, looked over his shoulder to find it was Richie after all, standing up in jeans and a leather jacket with Sweetie cradled on her back in his arms. Eddie’s heart stilled.
“Yes, right here. Oh, Sweetie, what a naughty girl! What a very rude girl!”
Richie didn’t mind: he giggled through his nose as Sweetie, now repentant, licked frantically at his mouth and chin. Her long-haired tail swept swiftly back and forth. Mrs Zhou got the collar back on.
“Hey, Eddie, you okay?” Andrew offered his hand to Eddie and Eddie took it, letting the gigantic bastard heave him effortlessly to his feet. His grip was firm, his hand huge. Eddie found it tremendously annoying. He was thinking of Richie’s hand, not quite so large as Andrew Zhou’s, certainly hairier. “Sorry about all that. She really just hates that damn collar.”
“Language!” said Mrs Zhou. Now that she’d Sweetie under control again, Richie maneuvering to set the squirming goldendoodle on her feet, she was fussing with her hair and the lines of her coat.
“That fiddling collar,” said Andrew with a fond flick of his eyes toward the ceiling. “She do all right on the walk?”
“Yes, she did everything she was supposed to do,” Mrs Zhou said, “until we were coming out of the stairs and then she slipped right out of her collar. Sweetie! Why would you do that?”
Uncaring, Sweetie pulled to the end of her leash so she could sniff at Eddie’s knees and nudge her wet nose against his arm till he reluctantly, forgivingly rubbed at her snout. He was looking at Richie, looking at him, and feeling the beat of his own heart so jarring that it moved in his feet as well as his chest, his throat, his wrists.
“Hey, thanks for helping out.” Andrew approached Richie with a hand out to shake.
“Oh, sure. No problem. Just happy to be here.”
“Aren’t you…” Andrew snapped his fingers twice. “Yeah, you’re that guy from uh, shoot, what was that thing last year, Shuang?”
“I don’t know what thing,” she said, bundling Sweetie inside again. She spoke crisply over her shoulder: “You have to be more specific if I’m supposed to remember everything you’ve watched.”
“The movie about the lifeguards,” said Andrew. “Yeah! Rich Tozier. Hey, cool. Bitsy told me you were here and I didn’t believe her. Rich Tozier caught my dog.”
“Tell your friends,” said Richie dryly, “I could use the good press.”
“Yeah, yeah. Rich Tozier, animal rescuer.” Andrew’s smile was lopsided, carelessly charming. His eyes moved briefly. He glanced from Richie to Eddie, who stood there dumbly with his arms at his sides, the whole of him struck still at the look of Richie.
“That would really help my image, if you could do that.”
Andrew said, “Yeah,” with another quick sidelong glance at Eddie. “Well, I’d love to stay and shoot the shit with you, but I gotta get set for work.” He clapped Eddie on the shoulder, nearly rocking him. “Hey, thanks again, Eddie. We would’ve got her. She’d have gotten tired eventually, right?”
Eddie said, “Yeah, eventually,” but he was looking again at Richie. He hadn’t stopped looking.
“Come over after six, we can do drinks,” said Andrew brightly, and he too ducked into the Zhou’s apartment.
Richie’s hair was a mess, tangled and dark, like he’d snagged his fingers in it trying to card the strands. He’d done that as a child, too, when the curls were thicker, and pulled long black hairs from his scalp that he would tickle along Eddie’s nape.
How much could he have changed from the night before? A suggestion of hair shadowed his jaw, only just so. The skin around his eyes seemed puffy, as if he hadn’t slept and maybe, thought Eddie, he hadn’t. The strap of his duffel hung over his shoulder. The bag was pushed to his back.
“Your plane,” said Eddie. “You’re going to miss it.”
“I forgot to give you your key back.”
“You could’ve just mailed it to me.”
“People open mail all the time,” said Richie. “I’m not sending your apartment key through the mail.”
“You’re gonna miss your flight,” Eddie said again, really emphasizing this. It seemed to him that Richie, being Richie, had somehow forgotten he had a plane scheduled to leave JFK at ten that morning.
“Eddie,” said Richie, “I know for a fact you have at least one two hundred thousand dollar watch. I already missed my flight.”
Eddie’s voice pitched higher and noisier. “Did you at least reschedule it before you came over here?”
“No, Eddie!” said Richie. “That’s what I have a god damn management team for! Now are you gonna let me in or are we just gonna shout at each other like a bunch of assholes right out here in front of the whole street?”
“Those windows are fucking bulletproof,” said Eddie, “nobody on the street can hear anything in this building, just everyone else that lives here.”
But he went into the apartment anyway and Richie followed close on his heels.
“Why would the windows be bulletproof?”
“Because it’s New York City, Richie,” Eddie snapped, “Jesus, how the fuck should I know?”
“You live in St. George,” said Richie, pitching his duffel toward the couch. “On Staten Island. The violent crime rate here is like negative three thousand percent, and I think the bodega lady knows your birth date and your social. Who the fuck cares about bulletproof windows?”
Eddie rounded on him. “What are you doing here?”
Richie kicked the door closed like a donkey would punch a man in the thigh. Eddie wanted to scream. He was aware that none of his emotional reactions were rational, but here was Richie standing in his apartment like Eddie hadn’t kissed him and Richie hadn’t bothered to come only now he had.
“Um,” said Richie. “I. Uh. Well, I have to return your key.”
Eddie had precisely two seconds to realize he was about to strangle Richie and then the loud crackling, hissing sound of liquid spilling out of a pot and onto a hot stove interrupted him. He swore and ran for the kitchen. Grabbing a pot holder, he picked the pot up by its handle and put it on the cold back burner.
“What the hell is that?” said Richie. “What, are you dehydrating soup for the winter? It’s winter right now.”
“Stop!” said Eddie. “Shut up! Fuck! I burned the fucking pot.”
“You’ve got to watch that shit, man.”
“Oh, my god, you think so? You think I gotta watch what I put on the stove?”
Richie held his hands up in ceasefire position. “Dude, I have no idea where this hostility is coming from but I got basically no sleep so my shields are down.”
“Oh, you didn’t sleep?” said Eddie. “That’s funny because I didn’t get any fucking sleep either.”
He slammed around the kitchen, grabbing mugs, filling them with water from the sink, and sticking them together in the microwave.
“You left your coffee.”
“Holy shit,” muttered Richie. “You uh, you forget about your like, Tibetan copper kettle there, Eds?”
“I’m trying not to have a fucking panic attack, asshole,” Eddie snarled, “I don’t have time to wait for the kettle to heat up. Get the spoons.”
“Do you have any idea how much I had to tip the Uber driver to even get to your place?” Richie got the spoons. “Nobody wants to fucking drive two hours from JFK to this stupid island for rich assholes.”
“My apartment has one bathroom!”
“Yeah, congratulations, Daddy Warbucks,” said Richie, “I used to live in Manhattan, I know exactly how rich you have to be to have your own bathroom in New York City.”
The microwave beeped. Eddie took out the mugs. They were the red ones, ridged on the sides. He thought, unwanting, of Richie pulling a face at the tea Eddie had served him that first night but drinking it anyway. Eddie grabbed the spoons out of Richie’s hand and fixed his tea and Richie’s coffee.
“Thanks,” said Richie.
“No problem,” said Eddie.
“Are we still yelling at each other?”
“I don’t know!” said Eddie. “Are we?”
“You’re the one who started the shouting, I didn’t do a damn thing.”
“You missed your flight!” Eddie yelled.
“Because I had to come here and tell you what a huge asshole you are to your face!” Richie yelled.
Eddie very carefully did not slam the mugs down on the table. He had no desire to mop the floor again. Hardwood floors in a kitchen were a nightmare and symptomatic of poor architectural design. So he put the mugs down normally, in the manner of a normal person.
Then he turned to Richie and said, “What?”
And Richie said, “I said—”
“I’m the asshole?”
“Yeah,” Richie said, “you’re the asshole. And you literally said that you were an asshole to me yesterday so you don’t get to fucking pretend like you’re not because I caught you, Eduardo, you set the fucking trap on yourself.”
Eddie closed his eyes and clenched his hands into fists. His entire body clenched. In about thirty seconds he was going to put his hands on his face and then just tear all the skin off his body in a single, smooth motion and then he would kill Richie or he would kiss him or he’d do something else equally insane.
“Eddie,” said Richie, and he looked at Richie again not wanting to. Not wanting to look at him at all. Richie said, “That’s not what I wanted to say. I mean, it’s not the only thing I wanted to say,” and he sounded as tired as Eddie felt. “Can we talk?”
Looking away, Eddie pulled the near chair out and sat lightly on the edge of the seat, his knees tightly pressed together, his feet tucked to the back legs. He pushed the mug of coffee across the table toward Richie.
Richie sighed roughly. He pulled his chair out too. The feet scraped across the hardwood floor. He sat heavily and the chair scraped at that. Under the leather jacket he wore a too tight grey sweatshirt with the logo of a Los Angeles radio station splashed across it in glaring beachy colors.
Eddie took up his own mug and sipped at the tea, to keep secret the minute trembling of his lips. To have Richie here now after how long the night: small organs and finely strung nerves shivered inside Eddie, touching against one another like the frail motions of fingers feeling at something spun of glass and put on a high shelf.
Perhaps he had thought it would be like a movie. That Richie would come into the apartment and Eddie, roused from his bed, would go to him, and without the need for speaking they would touch one another’s faces.
So he sipped at his tea and then he set the mug down so that it clicked quite clearly against the wood top of the table. His hands encircled the mug. The tips of his fingers made a tent-like v through the handle, turned to Richie. He swallowed. He lifted his eyes to Richie.
“What did you want to talk about?”
He expected a smartass remark from Richie. It was why he had given him the opening. To play dumb, so that Richie could cut the feet out from under him and Eddie could then stir with anger and in his anger be once again brave.
Instead Richie ducked his head. He stared into his mug of coffee. Light steam twisted from it. He fiddled with the cuff of his jacket. His tongue flashed; he licked at his lips.
Eddie’s mouth was stinging, not from the heat of the tea, but much like it had stung yesterday without explanation or warning. As if a ghost had leaned close to him and brushed their unfelt mouth across his lips.
“Yesterday.” Richie gripped the mug in one hand. His thumb traced the arc of the handle. When he spoke, his voice was low. It rasped. “Um. When you said that uh. You knew I didn’t love you. That.”
He cut off and rubbed the heel of his free hand hard against his hairline. His shoulders, ever slumped, were drawn taut in their parabolic shape like the wood of a bow as an archer pulled the string.
“I had to talk to Ben,” said Richie. “Um. That’s where I was most of the night was I had to call Ben. It took a couple tries to get through to him. He’s in uh, Chile right now, working with some native groups about I guess sustainable wood harvesting? If you didn’t know that already. That’s not really relevant.”
“You talked to Ben,” said Eddie.
Richie blew his breath out. The curls on his forehead shuddered with it. “Yeah. He’s, like, the most emotionally intelligent person we know, dude. Even without the fucking, the master’s degree and the math shit, Ben’s like a super genius at feelings. So, yeah, I talked to Ben, and um, what he helped me figure out is that, and you cannot make fun of me for saying this—”
“I’m not going to make fun of you,” said Eddie.
“Yeah, you say that now.” Richie’s mouth pulled. He took a hasty, long draw on his coffee then, coughing a little, lowered the mug again. “You, uh. You really fucking hurt my feelings last night. And I’m serious, if you make a joke—”
“How the hell did I hurt your feelings?”
Richie stared incredulously at him. “You said, ‘and I know you don’t love me.’ You said, ‘it’s okay that you don’t love me back,’ or whatever, whatever thing you said. No shit that hurt my feelings!”
“Why the fuck would that hurt your feelings?” Eddie stood abruptly. The chair squealed behind him. He heard it fall to the floor. The tea sloshed in his mug so he put it down on the table before he spilled it. “I was being— I was being respectful, Richie, I was being, I was trying to— So you’d have a choice!”
“I know I have a choice!” said Richie. “When the fuck have I ever given you the impression I wouldn’t tell you to back off my dick?”
Eddie paced. “Richie, I need you to just—”
“Of course it fucking hurt my feelings!” said Richie. “You gave me so much shit on Friday, like I was supposed to know you were, were taking me out on a date—”
“I made reservations!” Eddie barked. “Obviously it was a date! Literally any person alive would have known it was a date!”
“I’ve been in the closet for thirty fucking years!” Richie belted back. “They just killed a guy in Derry for being gay. And I don’t know if you noticed or anything but you married a woman!”
“And I’m divorcing her! I called my lawyer on Saturday and I told her to file the paperwork,” Eddie said, slashing his hands through the air, “and I called Myra to tell her and she screamed at me and I screamed at her, and I told you I’m bisexual, I fucking told you I’m bisexual!”
“So what does that mean!” said Richie. He threw his hands wide in the air. “Like I’m the only gay guy in New York City? Like we’re the only living queers in the continental United States? I’ve had a clown in my head since I was thirteen fucking years old telling me that any guy who looks at me twice wants to beat my ass with an iron pipe.”
“Why the hell would I beat you up for being gay?”
“Eddie, if you tried to gay bash me, I’d have to go to the hospital from laughing so hard I tore my abdominal muscles,” Richie told him. “You’re a fucking French fry.”
“You,” said Eddie, striving for serenity, “are four – inches – taller – than! Me! And why the fuck are you making gay bashing jokes?”
“I don’t know, because of the decades of trauma!” Then Richie dug a hand under his glasses, a thumb to the inner corner of one eye, the knuckle of his first finger to the corner of the other eye. “I don’t want to fight. I didn’t come here to fight with you. Eddie, I just want to talk to you. I don’t want to fight.”
Eddie’s chest pistoned. His eyes pricked again. That was all the warning he got, and then he was crying, terrible crying, awful crying, and he clapped his hands to his face and shook his head violently but it was too late. The tears wouldn’t stop. Richie had seen them.
Richie said, “Eddie. Eddie, don’t cry,” wretchedly, as though Eddie were tearing something out of his chest, flesh and blood and palpating muscle.
“I’m not crying,” Eddie wept. “I’m not— I’m not my mother.” Crocodile tears, fat wet tears rolling down soft cheeks: look how you’ve hurt me; look what you’ve done. Eddie, you’re breaking my heart.
He couldn’t hear Richie’s footsteps over the vile pounding of his own heart, over the wet mucal noises in his nose and his throat. But he felt his hands on Eddie’s arms, pressure through the thick knitted cables of Eddie’s sweater.
“Don’t touch me,” Eddie said, flailing with his arms to break the hold. “Don’t, don’t fucking comfort me, I don’t need you to comfort me, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not—”
Richie clutched him again. He said, “Eddie, you’re not your fucking mother. God damn it, Eddie, just listen to me,” and he pulled Eddie into his arms and held him, held him with both his arms folded across Eddie’s back and the smell of his well-oiled leather jacket rising to engulf Eddie.
“I hate crying,” Eddie sobbed into his chest. “I hate it.”
Richie rested his cheek on top of Eddie’s head and rocked him. Rocked him. Swayed with him there in the kitchen with the mugs cooling on the table.
“I know. I hate it, too.”
Eddie closed his eyes. His eyelashes, tear-sticky, clung to each other. “Richie. Why are you crying?”
Richie said, “I’m not crying,” and he turned to press his wet face into Eddie’s hair, and Eddie without meaning to laughed, just once, at the absurdity of it.
“I’m trying to tell you my feelings here,” Richie said, throat nasal, “and you’re laughing. You asshole.”
Eddie kept laughing. He said, “I feel so stupid. Jesus. Rich. We’re in our forties.”
Richie’s arms tightened around him. His neck smelled of sweat. He hadn’t showered.
“Eddie,” he said, “we’re fucking clowns. You get that, right? We don’t stop being idiots just because we get grey hair and hip replacements.”
“No,” said Richie. “No more beeping. You have to listen to me.” He leaned back, just far enough Eddie could see the wetness of his eyes, the sulky look to his mouth: yeah, you caught the Trashmouth crying.
“You haven’t said shit worth hearing,” said Eddie.
“You just haven’t been listening,” Richie said. “I’ve been trying to tell you. Eddie. I’ve been telling you this whole time and you just haven’t been listening. Eddie, I flew here to be with you. I made you breakfast. I got you that stupid teddy bear.”
“And fuck you,” Eddie said, scrubbing at his itching, damp face. “Fuck you for that. It wasn’t funny.”
“And then you said I didn’t love you,” Richie said, “and I must’ve forgotten how to talk to you, because I thought you knew, I thought you came to the show to tell me it wasn’t going to work—”
Eddie looked at him and said, “What?”
“Will you just let me tell you,” said Richie.
“Tell me what?”
“Just close your eyes,” Richie asked him. “Just close your eyes and shut up and listen.”
Eddie said, “Richie,” and then he stopped, thinking of how Richie had let him talk last night even if Eddie had to remind him twice to sit down again. Thinking of how Richie looked at him now, like how he had looked at Eddie in the bowels of Neibolt as he told Eddie he was brave. He was brave.
Eddie, be brave.
So he closed his eyes. He tried to listen.
The first shy touch of fingertips to his cheek made him jump. Richie turned the touch soothing, his fingers smoothing warmly over the length of scar, the arc of bone. The leather creaked, so minute a sound. Then there were lips brushing dryly across the rumpled, shining scar tissue.
Eddie’s breath caught.
“Keep your eyes closed,” murmured Richie to the fragile skin just beneath Eddie’s ear. “Okay? Can you do that?”
Eddie said, “Yes,” in a voice so far away he heard it as a child’s voice, frightened and longing.
“Okay,” said Richie.
He cupped Eddie’s jaw in both his hands. Stroked those large, rough, winter-cracked hands slowly down the hateful goose-ish length of Eddie’s neck as if it weren’t hateful a shape or a curve. His nose fitted to the other corner of Eddie’s jaw. His breath came softly out from his lips. Eddie trembled to feel it on his throat. He trembled.
Squared fingertips trailed the jutting wing of each collar bone. Richie bowed his head and left in the small hollow at the heart of the clavicle a kiss, so fine and little a thing Eddie could picture it lost in that very hollow.
With his hands Richie traced the shape of Eddie’s shoulders, his palms gliding over the sweater. Down, down, to follow how the shoulder in its curve slid to the biceps to the elbow to the forearm. The wrist, where the heart beat and told its every secret to Richie as he kissed the soft skin on the inside of the left wrist then the right. The palms, creased with their fortunes: he kissed these too. And the fingers, yes, those spidering fingers that had never played the piano or held violin, and the thumbs made to grip.
Eddie swayed on his feet even without Richie to rock him as he had rocked Eddie like kids at a middle school dance as the lights dimmed and a slow record played. He’d never danced like that with Richie. How he’d wanted to, at the winter dance in 1990 as Richie threw his powder blue suit jacket in the air and struck a John Travolta.
Would Richie have touched him then as he did now? Richie slipped his hands underneath Eddie’s sweater. As a man in a dream, Eddie helped Richie peel away the cable sweater. He hadn’t put a t-shirt on underneath. His chest was bare. The sparse black hair clustered across his pectorals, the little trail that began at his navel: and the scar, punched into him and radiating white stress around it.
Richie said, “You saved my life, Eddie. Edward Kaspbrak,” and his hands covered Eddie’s breast and the leanly muscled belly as he bent further still to kiss the lip of Eddie’s scar. He trailed such touches all around the puckered edge and when he had finished the circuit Richie framed the scar with thumb and hand and turned his head to kiss the skin an inch from Eddie’s left nipple, just over his heart.
It was with his body that Richie spoke to Eddie, and Eddie looking astonished down at the tangled brown-black curls of Richie’s head: he heard what Richie said.
I love you. I’ve loved you so god damn long I can’t remember when it began. Do you remember, Eddie, that you were born the day before I was born? Five weeks premature. That’s you, Eddie. As if you couldn’t wait to meet me.
And it doesn’t work like that. It never works like that. Nobody meets someone when they’re eight years old and knows I will love you forever. But I did. I did know. I didn’t know that I knew but I did.
Fairy tales aren’t real and soulmates are Hallmark bullshit but do you remember, Eddie, do you remember when we saw each other again and I hit that gong but it was like I was hearing a bell going off because I saw you and I didn’t remember anything but I remembered the way you screamed when I reset your arm. Do you remember, when you fell through the floor of that fucking house and you broke your arm? And you screamed at me, you said ‘do not fucking touch me,’ but I did.
I mean, Jesus Christ, Eddie, what do you want me to tell you? Do you want me to tell you I never loved anybody else either? Do you want me to tell you I waited my whole miserable life for you even when I couldn’t remember your name or your face? Like there was something ripped out of me and when I saw you in that stupid hoodie and your little polo in that restaurant I realized it was my heart that was missing, it was my heart the whole time, and there you were and it was like I was Sleeping Beauty and I’d stabbed my finger on a sewing machine but now I’m waking up again, I’m waking up and it’s a fucking nightmare but you’re there too and you tell me that you love me and then you die, I’m holding you and you tell me that you love me and you’re dying, there’s a hole in you where your heart’s supposed to be and you’re dying, and I—
Dreamily Eddie opened his eyes. He turned his face up to Richie’s face, bowed to his. He knew why his lips hurt. He thought his body had known longer than he had.
“You did kiss me,” Eddie said. “In the cistern. When I was dying.”
Richie shook his head, and Eddie stopped the shaking with a hand on Richie’s cheek, and Richie whispered, “Yeah.”
“You kissed me,” said Eddie again, remembering a pain-laced moment, remembering pressure lightly on his face.
Richie shrugged. He touched his glasses. He looked at Eddie and did not look away.
“It worked for Ben,” he offered. “When we were kids. And Beverly was in the deadlights. And…”
Eddie shivered in the kitchen. He was shirtless, shirtless with his nipples hard from the cold and the heat of Richie’s body so very near to him.
“That movie we saw,” Richie said. “When we were kids. We saw it with Stan. You probably don’t remember. Um, with Snow White.”
“I remember,” said Eddie. “You hated it.”
“I didn’t hate it.”
“You definitely hated it,” Eddie said, “you were a total asshole after it was over. Stan walked away because of how big an asshole you were being.”
“I didn’t hate it,” Richie protested again. “I just didn’t want you guys to think I was a pussy.”
“I told you I liked it!”
“You always liked fairy tale stuff,” Richie said, “I was supposed to be cooler.”
“You were never cool,” Eddie said, “you were never even for ten minutes cool. You kissed me.”
“Of course I kissed you. I love you,” Richie said. “I would’ve. I mean, Eds, what the fuck. They could have put you in a casket and I would have kissed your fucking embalmed lips.”
“Because you love me,” said Eddie.
“Because I love you,” said Richie.
Eddie reached for him. He ran his hand over Richie’s curls. “I wish you’d take better care of your hair.”
“Can we focus?” said Richie. “Can we focus on the fact that I just told you I love you?”
Eddie smiled. He felt it pinching his nose, his cheek that Richie had so tenderly kissed. This scar, that I love, because it’s your scar; it’s Eddie’s scar; it’s his, so I love it.
“You already told me.”
“But you weren’t listening.”
“I didn’t know I was supposed to be listening.”
“Yeah, so I talked to Ben,” said Richie, as Eddie stroked his face, his clean-shaven jaw, his short, square neck. “And he told me more about that thing, they’re love languages. And my love languages are acts of service and physical touch, but I think your love languages are yelling and constipation.”
“Richie,” said Eddie, “shut up.”
“Okay, okay,” said Richie, “I think they’re words of affirmation, and maybe quality time. But definitely also yelling.”
“Myra and I yelled.”
“Yeah, but that was bad yelling,” said Richie. “That was like, mean yelling. We don’t mean yell at each other, we do uhhh, love yelling. We just talk really loudly.”
“I don’t think we’re supposed to argue that much.”
“Oh, please,” Richie said, “like you can even get a boner if you don’t argue for an hour first. I know you, little man.”
“Richie,” said Eddie pleasantly, “if you make one more fucking joke about my height, I’m going to strangle you.”
“If you strangle me,” said Richie, “do it with one of your silk ties.”
He didn’t want to give in. He didn’t want to believe it. None of this is real, he thought. People don’t love like this. Don’t people hurt each other? Aren’t they cruel? Isn’t the world just as swollen with venom and hate as Derry?
But, he thought. Hadn’t Eddie loved in Derry? Hadn’t Richie loved him? Hadn’t they saved each other there in the rot-pitted bowels of IT’s ancient, rotted apple core lair?
The Victim of the Sleeping Death can be revived only by Love’s First Kiss, he thought: the spellbook the evil queen had read from as she prepared the poison apple with which to kill Snow White. The prince had bent to kiss Snow White and she had coughed out the bit of apple that had stuck in her throat.
Eddie lifted his hands to Richie’s jacket. He tugged at the shoulders and the shoulders slipped lowly. Richie’s chest moved with the work of his breathing. He let Eddie take the jacket from him, and he stood there in the kitchen in that grey sweatshirt rucking up his belly. It had a cartoon tiger on the front of it, boasting that whatever LA rock station had the wildest tunes.
“Take off your shirt,” Eddie said.
“Make me,” said Richie.
“Take off your shirt,” said Eddie, “and then maybe I’ll kiss you.”
Richie said, “You’re so fucking bossy,” and he hooked his hands under the hem and pulled the sweatshirt over his head, his chest flexing with the motion, hair so thick on him, his shoulders so wide, all of him square in a way Eddie could never have imagined when they were children preoccupied with who could spit a loogie farther. Richie always won at distance but Eddie won at volume and texture.
“There,” Richie grumbled, “now we can all look at the Trashmouth’s trashbod.”
Eddie planted a hand in the center of Richie’s chest. His fingers parted, crushing through the hair.
“I like your body,” Eddie said.
“You’re the one with abs,” said Richie. “And biceps. And a tight chest. And an ass.”
Eddie stepped forward. Richie mirrored him but stepping backwards.
“I’ve been wondering.”
“How I got so much hair on my chest?”
“Where that third tattoo is.”
“Oh,” said Richie. “That one’s personal.”
“Is it a tramp stamp?”
Richie snorted. “Yeah, and it’s your mom’s name.”
“That’s gonna make this weird.”
“What’s it gonna make weird?”
“What I’m about to do to you,” said Eddie, and he pushed Richie onto the couch.
He wasn’t the sort of person to do things like this. Everyone who knew Edward Kaspbrak agreed. He was a sensible man, maybe high-strung, definitely aggressive, very meticulous with his work and even more so with nutrition, exercise, etc. Myra had on several occasions said how nice it was to be married to a man who so disliked risk-taking. She couldn’t have stood marrying a man who did things like jump out of airplanes or drink when he had a cold or get frisky in the middle of the day.
Edward Kaspbrak would never shout at a man he had thought left him then push him onto his neat couch that he vacuumed every Sunday. Edward Kaspbrak would never crawl on top of him and sit very purposefully with his ass in that man’s lap, and he would surely never take that man’s wrists in his hands and pin them over his head and lean down and bite his lip so that the man sighed, “Eddie,” and gave his throat up to him like a treasure or a gift or something to plunder.
That wasn’t the sort of thing Edward Kaspbrak did.
Oh, but Eddie did. He did do this. He held Richie’s hands pinned over his head long enough to forget he meant to hold them so, then Richie broke the hold and slid his hands over Eddie’s bare and wiry back with his thick fingers digging.
Edward Kaspbrak would never say, “Touch me, please, just touch me, I want you to touch me, please,” but Eddie would and Eddie did and Richie touched him. Richie grabbed Eddie’s ass and squeezed and hitched him higher in his lap so that through his flannel lounge pants Eddie’s slow-thickening cock ground across Richie’s coarsely haired stomach. Richie kissed and licked at the juncture of Eddie’s neck and shoulder, and for the first time in a very long time, perhaps the first time in his entire life, Eddie felt as if his body were something someone could want: desire: love.
He planted his hands on Richie’s chest and pushed him flat again. There was so much of Richie to touch. Eddie thought, what are you doing, what am I doing, it isn’t even ten in the morning, and Eddie leaned down and scraped his teeth over Richie’s nipple so that Richie shouted and bucked and turned them over in a frenzy that left them falling off the couch and onto the deflating air mattress.
Then Eddie was laughing, laughing as Richie said, “Fuck, my knee,” and Eddie said, “Bro, I think I dislocated my shoulder,” and Richie said, “Hold on, I can set that,” and Eddie said, “Do not fucking touch me,” and Richie said, “Dude, if I leave you with blue balls, that’s a war crime,” and Eddie said, “Okay, you can touch me,” and Richie touched him, he touched him, he touched him.
Sweat salty on Eddie’s tongue and lips. He bit at Richie’s ear, his jaw, that fucking neck of his that looked so god damn strong, when had Richie gotten strong, when had Richie gotten so fucking big? So huge that when they laid on the floor together, Richie leaned over Eddie and covered him with his body, and his hands hid half of Eddie’s face when he cradled that face and kissed it to say again I love you. I love you. Eddie, Eddie.
His big dick, fat and heavy with blood, rubbed at the crease of Eddie’s hip. Eddie said, “Asshole,” he said, “You fucker,” he said, “Touch me, Richie, for Christ’s sake, just fucking touch me,” and Richie shivered all over and put those big hands of his down Eddie’s pants and stroked Eddie’s dick so that Eddie moaned as he’d never moaned before in his fucking life.
Love me, love me, want me, touch me; and Richie did, he did. He touched Eddie with his steady hands and kissed him with his wide mouth and the faintest whisper memory of hair on his jaw, and Eddie was drowning in it; he was bleeding out in Richie’s hands; he was loved, God, that anyone could love him, that Richie could love him, and he felt it like the moment before a bird took flight, as it fluttered its wings and then spread those fine bones so thin and hollow yet strong enough to sustain flight. He felt it like that. Standing on the tips of his toes at the edge of the cliff, his heart trembling, his belly a den of hot and knotting things, the water cool and green with algae so far below him: and he only had to spread his arms like wings and leap—
“Richie,” he said, “Richie, I love you,” and Richie kissed him desperately, as if he were as hungry as Eddie for someone to want him, for someone to love him.
“I love you,” said Eddie deliriously, as Richie stroked him and rocked into his hip, “I love you— Richie— Richie— When I saw you— When I saw you again, in Derry— Richie.”
And Richie kissed him again, bruisingly, his glasses mashing into Eddie’s nose, his breath a hot pant that slid into rhythm with Eddie’s own panting so that they were one thing, breathing, their sweated chest sticking together, Richie’s hands too rough on Eddie’s cock and not yet rough enough.
“I thought,” Eddie said, swallowing and swallowing, “I thought— Richie. I thought Richie. I thought, it’s true. It’s true. That you can see someone and— And—”
“Like a bell,” Richie groaned out into Eddie’s throat. “Like a fucking bell was going off in my head—”
“Come on,” said Eddie. He reached into his pants. He laced his fingers with the fingers of Richie’s right hand. Richie shuddered. His hips hitched. “C’mon, Richie. C’mon. I got you. I got you.”
He did. He had him. He’d always had Richie. He’d only forgotten for a time.
At the cusp, on the verge of the leap, Richie pressed his nose to Eddie’s cheek, scar tissue under the bridge of cartilage, and Richie said very quietly, not a joke, “I love you, Eds,” as in wonder, as in that breathless moment as you jumped from the rocks and your heart leapt into your throat and you thought, childlike, for only that moment, that you might fly. You might never fall.
And you did fall. You always fell. Only a bird could fly. A man never could. And the water was hard when you struck it and the water was cold, and the air tore out of you and rose as a sheet of glimmering silver bubbles. You rose too. You broke through the surface. You sucked in a breath of air that made your lungs hurt with the hugeness of it.
Eddie came apart in Richie’s hands. His lungs emptied in the shock of impact. Richie kissed him, hungry and slanted across Eddie’s mouth, and Eddie wound his arm around Richie’s bared shoulders and held him close, as if they were in the water together, as if they were bobbing in the water with their legs tangling and Richie’s glasses speckled with water so he could hardly see, and Richie gasped into Eddie’s mouth and then he was there with Eddie, he was really there.
“You love me,” said Eddie dazedly, “you love me. You love me. You love me.” He believed it. He knew it was true. His heart was cracking open inside him but it didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt at all. His heart was splitting and all that came out of him was love, and when Richie, crying behind his glasses, kissed him again, it was love that Richie gave to Eddie in exchange. That was the only thing you could give. Eddie thought, all you could ever give someone was love. Maybe they would love you too. Maybe they wouldn’t. But you could give them what you had.
Richie, shivering from orgasm, shivering with cold, sweating on top of Eddie and clinging to him as he’d clung to him once in the dark and the stink and kissed him, touched Eddie’s face with his dirtied hands and said, “You love me,” and Eddie touched Richie’s face in turn with his own sex-stained hands and said, “I love you,” and Richie closed his eyes and pressed his sweaty forehead to Eddie’s shoulder, and Eddie knew that Richie believed him.
Of course he believed Eddie. It was true.
“You look happy!” said Dr Greene.
Eddie set his saddlebag down by the chair then sank into the leather with a comfortable stretch.
“I feel good. Yeah. I, uh, I’ve had a couple busy weeks, but it was good. They were, um, productive.”
Dr Greene smiled at this. It made her eyes crease into soft crescents.
“I’m really glad to hear that. I have to admit it, I was maybe a little worried when you rescheduled your last appointment. You don’t normally change appointments.”
“No, it was, uh.” Eddie shrugged. “Scheduling conflict. I had a um, friend was coming into town for a business thing, and I wanted to spend more time with him.”
“Oh? What was he in for?”
“He’s a stand-up comedian, actually. He did a couple shows in Manhattan over Valentine’s Day weekend, you know the weekend before? And I hadn’t seen him since um, that big get together over New Year’s that I did with my friends.”
“Well, that’s great,” she said with sincere cheer. “God knows I’m always trying to make more time for my friends. It doesn’t help when they live out of state and they don’t want to make the drive, so you’re always the one going out to them.”
“Yeah, it’s not always the easiest thing,” said Eddie. “And we’ve talked about it before, that I. I have a hard time sometimes, remembering to make space for people. But that’s something I’ve been working on. We’re actually going to meet up in Chicago next month for a couple days. He’s got an apartment there and uh.” Eddie rubbed his palms together. “Yeah. So I’ll just be staying with him for the week.”
“For a week? That’s quite the change,” said Dr Greene.
“Well, we’ve been friends for a long time,” Eddie said, “and he had to fly back to LA on Tuesday and he told me about some shows he was doing in Chicago in March and offered for me to come if I wanted. There’s this steak place he says I gotta eat at.” Eddie widened and rolled his eyes.
“The Chicago Chop Shop?”
Eddie puffed up. “How does everybody know about this place but me?”
“I used to go there with my sister,” Dr Greene said, laughing. “She lives in Des Moines so we used to do a weekend in Chicago every few months.”
“Is it really that good?”
“The Chop Shop? Oh, yeah,” said Dr Greene. “Better than Peter Luger’s for sure.”
Eddie massaged his temple and groaned. “God. Richie’s gonna love that.”
“Yeah,” said Eddie. “My friend.”
He looked at the wall behind her. She’d a bookcase, floor to ceiling, set in the corner between one bank of windows and the next. A row of succulents decorated the middle shelf. Eddie shifted in his seat. He folded his hands then unfolded them.
“Actually, um. He’s my friend but uh. We’re seeing each other. Romantically. And—” He colored some. “Well, we’re seeing each other.”
“When did this start?”
“A while ago, I mean, we just weren’t on the same page. And of course I had everything with my wife, so that was a thing I had to deal with. A thing I’m dealing with.”
“How are you dealing with it now?”
He took a breath. “Uh, I filed the divorce papers. On the twelfth. I was putting it off because I kept thinking it was going to ruin Valentine’s Day but you know how we talked about how I didn’t actually want to do anything with her on Valentine’s Day and I just felt like, if I didn’t do it then I was going to keep putting it off. And I feel like an asshole doing it that close to the holiday but I did it and I can’t change that so it’s done.”
Dr Greene was smiling again, gently. She said, “That’s good, Eddie. Sometimes the healthiest thing you can do is the one that hurts at first. And it’s okay that you feel guilty but if you feel like it was the best choice you could make then it was the best choice you could make.”
He nodded and focused again on his hands. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah. I think it was the best choice. She deserves better. I deserve better.”
“And now you’re seeing your friend.”
“Yeah. It uh, it’s a change,” said Eddie. “I’ve never dated a friend before.”
“How does it feel?”
He thought. The smile pulled irresistibly at his mouth. He rubbed at his nose and then gave up, grinning abashed at Dr Greene.
“It feels good,” he said. “It feels great, actually. I, uh. I really love him. And he loves me too. And I know it’s not going to be easy because that’s not how relationships work but uh, when I’m with him, and even when I’m not with him, I want to do the work. I want to put in the hours. Uh, we talk at night,” Eddie said, “and the first thing he always says is ‘how was your day?’ and the first thing I always say is ‘how was your day?’ and then we argue about who has to go first and usually we go at the same time, and it’s just really… Just really stupid.”
“But you like it,” said Dr Greene.
“I do,” said Eddie. “I really do.”
“I know it’s early days for you, but you say you’ve known each other for years. Are you just having fun for now? Do you have plans?”
Eddie glanced to the ceiling. He thought of the birds roosting outside in the winter bare trees, and he thought of the apartment in Chicago and of Beverly promising she’d drag Ben to Illinois with her so they could do brunch together. He thought of the things he wanted to do to Richie and the things he wanted to do with Richie.
I’m going to fuck him, Eddie thought. I’m going to take care of him and he’s going to take care of me. I’m going to marry him. He thought of Richie pushing his cold feet into the warm skin at the back of Eddie’s knees. He thought about Richie’s third tattoo inked on to his right butt cheek, a smiling cartoon daisy that shouted SUN’S UP ASSHOLE. Eddie had laughed so hard when Richie at last revealed it that Richie had threatened to perform the Heimlich.
He’d make Richie his shitty instant coffee and Richie would buy gluten-free flours to make pancakes. They’d get a cat. They’d get two cats. Eddie was going to tie Richie to the headboard and spend an hour making him cry. He wanted to stroke Richie’s curls out of his face and put his glasses away from him when Richie fell asleep in front of the TV. He wanted to wake up too early in the morning with Richie tucked around him and sleepily kissing his shoulder and murmuring stay, stay.
He wanted to see what the flowers and the leaves would look like on the trees outside his apartment window, in the courtyard. He wanted to learn the names of the birds that would hide in those branches, so he could say their names out loud and listen for Stan. He wanted to hear Richie laugh, and laugh, and laugh. He wanted.
“Not yet,” Eddie told Dr Greene. “Nothing solid so far. But there’s some things I’m thinking about. Some stuff we’re talking about.”
“And you’re happy,” said Dr Greene.
Eddie smiled and it was easy to do. He didn’t think of his scar or of the medications he took in the morning. They were only pills he had to take. Richie took pills, too, and Flintstones vitamins he called his power-ups because he was an asshole. He was an asshole and Eddie loved him.
“Yeah,” said Eddie. “I am.”
End credits song, if I may:
The moment of your greatest joy sustains.
Not axe nor hammer,
Can take it away, and it remains.
And it pains me to say, I was wrong.
Love is not a symptom of time.
Time is just a symptom of love.
--Joanna Newsom, Time, as a symptom.
Thank you tremendously to everyone who has followed along with this. I realize this transformed into a very different thing very quickly than how it started, and I'm not certain I could have finished the undertaking without the tremendous support and encouragement that you have offered through every step, every whiplash chapter. It is of course my greatest hope that it will have been worth it: the time, the emotional investment, the waits, the wildly missed deadline. (A week after Valentine's Day!) I genuinely could not have done this without your kindness or your passion.
I will over the next several days be replying to comments, both past and new. Thank you for your patience and for your understanding as I juggled this fic and the rest of my life, haha. Over the next few days I will also be consolidating author's notes/references to this end note over the next few days, so as to smooth the reading experience.
Long author's notes aren't really my style. My feeling is that if I wanted to say something, I should have said it in the story, and if I didn't accomplish that then no author's note can make up for what I didn't manage with the work. I hope I did accomplish that.
A couple of PWP one-shots will be following this. So, er, stay tuned? Well, anyway. Come, uhhhhh, yell at me on twitter @zenyanna.
Thank you again for everything. <3