by Jesse Gordon
As a child,
I was a connoisseur of fear: fear of falling, fear of heights, fear of
school bus seats and fear of grimy public toilets, fear of mad cow
pointy-glass Halloween candy—I collected phobias like other
comic books, and when I wasn’t whittling away my time being
something, I was meticulously cultivating the art of fearing fear
were neither the cause nor the solution. They adequately provided the
from the start: food, clothing, shelter, regular doctor and dentist
When I sneaked out nights to take in the ten o’clock news,
emerged from their bedroom (bleary-eyed and fuzzy-haired), turned off
television, and whisked me back to my bed.
would always ask, “Why ever do you like to watch such things
as car crashes,
bank robberies, and medical mishaps right before bed? You’ll
fill your head
with worries and nightmares!”
quite the other way around, actually. I had been born with an anxious
Watching the news, violent movies, pulling away from my parents at the
store so I could catch a glimpse of the accident in the parking
lot—it was my
way of confirming that I was not the only person in the world who
certain amount of misery. No mixture of coaxing or coddling, no bedtime
told with motherly love could settle me enough to sleep with the lights
keep me from dreading the coming of each new day.
didn’t quite know how to deal with me, and so they left most
of the treatment
for my condition to time and the hope that I would someday
“grow out of it.” I
might have easily become an introvert—one of those people who
lived alone in an
ultra-clean apartment and who stocked a warehouse of soaps and
cleansers in every cabinet, cupboard, and drawer—had I not
made friends early
on with someone I can only describe as an angel in human form.
name was Vincent Nguyen, and I met him in the second grade. I had
earned a solid reputation as a freak-child in the classroom (avoiding
fountain, wiping down my seat before lessons, meticulously grooming my
and fingernails after using pencils or crayons), so friends were a
fact, most of my interaction with other human beings was restricted to
lunchtime episodes involving certain boys who felt it appropriate to
their preliminary masculinity by making me the victim of every
there ever was. Often, I would sit alone at one end of the playground,
my best not to cry as I wiped mud from my shirt, picked spitballs from
random teacher would happen by, ask what was wrong, and politely nod as
pointed at my attackers and blubbered something unintelligible.
became obvious that I was the Boy Who Couldn’t Be Helped, and
I might have otherwise gleaned was quickly replaced by a flustered
put a lid on a million frightening burdens treacherously packaged in
however, never shied away.
particular afternoon, during P.E. class (one of the few occasions when
allowed myself to be forced into shorts and T-shirt), I had relegated
sitting apart from the other children after skinning my knee on the
Vincent—still a distant acquaintance, at this
point—came over to me, put his
arm around my shoulders and asked what was wrong.
instinct was to recoil, to brush off my neck and shoulders with an
corner of my shirtsleeve—but Vincent’s manner was
so accommodating, so warm
that I couldn’t help but feel immediately and inexplicably
comforted by his presence.
(As an added bonus, he didn’t have that sweet-and-sour smell
“Not in the
mood to play?” he asked.
said, shaking my head. “I don’t like playing with
the others—they always throw
the ball so it hits my glasses, and they never let me make a shot, and
call me Kenny-Wenny when I fall.” I don’t know why
I mentioned that last part
up front; “Kenny-Wenny” was a name I abhorred more
than life itself—I didn’t
need to go around introducing myself as such.
dumb, I know,” Vincent laughed. Then he leaned in close and
whispered into my
ear, “See James over there?”
nodded. James was one of the taller, more popular boys, and he often
the maladjusted for bonus social points.
him playing with his ding-dong in the classroom.”
The two of
us bowed our heads together and started giggling fiendishly.
point forward, we started spending our lunches together, every single
the week. A month into it I realized that I’d made my first
Once my mother discovered our
relationship, she literally jumped at the opportunity and made sure she
connected with Vincent’s parents, made sure it was clear
their son was always
welcome at our house for after-school
get-togethers or weekend sleepovers. Luckily, Mr. and Mrs.
nice folks, and sympathetic to my situation.
It was an
odd pairing: Vincent was Asian, dark-haired, and athletic; I was
blue-eyed, and lanky. Spotting us together on the street, one might
wonder what two boys such as ourselves had in common. Indeed, we were
different and had wildly varying tastes as our own individual
developed over the years. Vincent liked rollerblading, swimming, and
to punk music; I stuck to video games and comic books—yet
there was always a
reason for us to be together, always a reason we wanted to see each
other on a
A lot of it
had to do with what Vincent and I liked to call
“fear-stomping.” I was an
emotional mess early on, and Vincent picked up on that—but
unlike other people,
he seemed to thrive on weeding out my innermost turmoils.
The game went like this: He and I
would sit somewhere private and I would divulge whichever one of my
happened to be most distressing at the moment. He would then nod and
for a moment, studying the details of our surroundings as if trying to
rearrange the elements themselves. Whenever he fixed his gaze upon me
there would be this gleam in his eyes, an overwhelming excitement
“Come on,” he would say, grabbing my
hand and hauling me to my feet. “Let’s go over there.”
was never the same place twice. For instance, if we’d been
sitting in my
parents’ backyard, there
been a section of dirt behind the hedges, a shady spot beneath the
or a choice patch of grass beside the garage. Indoors, we’d
move ourselves to
some overlooked corner of the dining room or into the crawlspace
washing machine and the linens closet—or, if we happened to
be walking through
a hallway at the time, we would press ourselves up against the wall and
sideways as if navigating the edge of a deep chasm. I never fully
how it worked, but once we got there,
once we settled ourselves again, Vincent would smile and ask me how I
fine,” I would always answer (save for the unfortunate
occasion or two when I
was suffering from a cold or sore throat).
“No...how do you feel?”
It always took a moment to ponder the
question and take inventory of my senses, which, well, twitched
whenever I realized something had happened. (It was more
of a mental twitch than a twinge of pain—like being jostled
while napping in
the backseat of a moving vehicle.) Vincent would ask me if I was still
of such-and-such, and I would smile and cock my head sideways, asking
in the world I would be afraid of whatever it was he thought was
unvarying response was to grin triumphantly as he stood up and slammed
into the ground.
think too much about the mechanics involved until I was eight. Vincent
sleeping over my place, and (after an hour or two on the Nintendo)
settled in for the night when I felt something crawling up my leg. At
thought it was just an itch, so I reached under the covers,
loose a bloodcurdling scream when I felt whatever it was scurry onto
of my hand. I threw back the sheets and leaped out of bed, brushing
as I pressed into a corner at the opposite end of the room.
rolled up in his sleeping bag on the floor. When he heard the
lifted his head and asked what was wrong.
was c-crawling on me,” I stuttered. I pointed at the bed.
Vincent turned on the light and went to inspect the danger zone. After
searching through the rumpled bedsheets, he found the culprit: an adult
it in his hands and walked over to where I was cowering.
“It’s no big deal.
I flinched away, raised my leg so
high my knee poked my chest. “I don’t want to see
it, take it away, take it
bite. If you let it live in a corner of your room, it’ll keep
away the ants and
mosquitoes during the summer.”
I hated bugs—I couldn’t have been
more terrified if I’d woken up with an ax-murder lying next
to me, but
Vincent’s voice was so soothing, so self-assured that I just had to open my eyes again and take a
Vincent, opening his hands ever so slightly.
I saw the insect, missing two legs,
half-dead already, slowly crawling about on the flesh turf of
palm—and I realized how ridiculous I must have looked,
huddled in the corner because of this.
I was still afraid, but my embarrassment greatly overshadowed my fear.
Vincent said, nodding towards the bedroom window.
“We’ll let it outside. Some
other insect will eat it.”
croaked, but followed nonetheless.
out into the backyard. Vincent crossed the patio, stepped boldly onto
grass; he was halfway to the back fence when, realizing I had remained
upon a safer terrain of solid concrete, he stopped and faced me.
coming?” he asked.
down at my feet, imagined my toes entangled in the blades of
Forest—and promptly shook my head. “I can watch
from here,” I answered.
(Besides, it was chilly, and the two of us were in our underwear; there
every reason for us to get back inside as soon as possible.)
gave me a look and made his patented fear-stomping motion with his left
I set out
across the yard. The grass was cool and damp beneath my feet. I might
stepped on a snail, or a piece of glass, but the promise of eradicating
of my fears spurred me on until I was beside Vincent, walking shoulder
shoulder with him.
We ended up between the shed and the
fence, where a narrow concrete step afforded us a place to sit. Alone
(and out of the moonlight), I knew we were there—and
suddenly I was no longer afraid of insects. Vincent handed me the
daddy-long-legs, and I let it crawl down my upheld arm. It tickled.
moment, I released it onto the ground. Then I turned to Vincent and
do you do it?”
shrugged. “I take you to a place where you’re not
afraid.” He drew a line in
the air with his finger. “They’re like bubbles,
floating all over—a jillion of
them, all the same but a little different, too.”
confused. “What’re like bubbles?”
looked at me again. His eyes wandered down my frame, and he smiled.
I wanted to
ask him more, but his attention had apparently wandered to other
put his hand on mine. Then he slid his other arm around my shoulders,
in close, and kissed me.
At eight, physical affection beyond
bedtime kisses from my mother was a far-off theory, an unimportant
entry on a
hormonal to-do list
that hadn’t yet
been inked. In school, girls sometimes kissed boys, but I had never
kissing other boys. I didn’t know what this was, and so I
neither did I respond. I simply froze, inexplicably curious, but unable
connect imagination with a physiological response.
Vincent pulled back, letting me go. I watched him carefully, and he
pass through a maelstrom of emotions, all at once. Finally, he stood
said, “I’m sorry. We should go back
a hundred newly-formed questions in my mind, questions about
brotherhood—but I knew there was something else too,
something between us that
I dared not rattle at this early juncture.
foot had fallen asleep.
took Vincent’s lead, stepped back into the yard—but
not before cutting a
roundabout path along the perimeter (which I thought was odd). As we
from shadow to moonlight, I felt something fall away, a second skin, an
invisible cloak woven from the breeze itself. Insects no longer
but, in a way, what Vincent and I had done behind the shed...it had me
trembling for another reason—something I couldn’t
even begin to understand. I didn’t
hate it, I didn’t like it—I didn’t know
what it meant to me.
For now, I
was glad to leave it behind.
passed, and the memory of kissing Vincent receded into a mental closet
cluttered with English lessons, mathematical figures, comic book plots,
video game high scores.
fear-stomping expeditions continued throughout. Soon riding a bicycle
required my knees and elbows to be wrapped in five layers of padding;
past the butterfly bushes no longer had me holding my hands over my
ears out of
a fear that a bumblebee would puncture my eardrum; bedtime was no
ritual battle between darkness and light. When I was eleven, I finally
how to swim. The following summer, I rode my first roller coaster and
stop talking about how awesome it was for weeks afterward.
By the time
I reached my mid-teens, I was a relatively normal young
by most people’s standards, but able to interact with family,
teachers without breaking into a sweat or losing control of my pulse.
Vincent and I were closer than ever,
often passing up opportunities to go to parties or to the movies just
could be together and gossip, listen to music, or shoot some
with other friends, the sort of people I met at school and who sort of wanted to hang out but who were
often too busy. Vincent always made time between homework, chores, and
entered his teens) girls, and he never complained of social suffocation.
high school, got a job at the local office supply store over the
started computer programming classes at UC Irvine in the fall. Vincent,
decided on a business degree, enrolled as well.
He and I
were still best friends—better than ever, for all intensive
couldn’t help playing audience to the tiny voice at the back
of my head that
routinely uttered worries of varying importance.
two major ones: One was undefinable, an out-of-reach whisper of
pertaining to skin and skin, wet kisses, and passionate
behind an unmovable mental screen that went nameless for all my virgin
The other was something I had wondered about since my elementary school
what life would be like without Vincent Nguyen.
concern was perhaps the most potent of all my collected worries.
never told Vincent about it. For starters, it was too much of a downer
acknowledge amidst all my other “fear-stomping”
accomplishments—and how would
he react to the fact that I had become so attached to him I would most
wither and die if he ever stopped coming around? Perhaps he
wouldn’t mind at
all, perhaps it was another part of being best friends with someone you
of as a brother...but there was always the chance my one ultimate fear
the straw that broke the camel’s back. So, I never mentioned
it, and the years
gradually took care of the rest.
I turned twenty-one, everything changed.
on my birthday: Vincent called me after work and announced he was
throwing me a
party, whether I liked it or not.
I have an exam to study for—I have laundry to do,”
I protested, but Vincent saw
through my usual delay tactics and said he and a couple of friends
would be over
at seven o’clock.
We met by
the swimming pool (I shared an apartment with a night-owl UPS junkie
Neil, which worked nicely, because though we got along well enough, it
rarely had to deal with him face-to-face). Vincent had bought a cake;
dozen or so school acquaintances had brought a variety of beers and
coolers. Technically, we shouldn’t have been drinking out on
the deck, but
everyone agreed that the risk was worth it if my turning twenty-one was
to be a
singing to me, the girls took turns offering hugs and kisses. Then the
changed into their swimwear and took to splashing in the pool. Vincent
held back, appropriating a pair of lawn chairs for ourselves and
a subdued conversation. I could tell he was in a nostalgic
mood—his eyes had
that certain sheen, that distance in his gaze that betrayed his
thoughts, which were most certainly worlds away at the moment.
said. “Twenty-one. You’re a big boy now,
replied, blushing. It had been a running joke that, since
twenty-first birthday (earlier in the year), I had been temporarily
as the “baby boy” of the group. At his party, there
had been enough alcohol to
stock a corner liquor store (and enough people to soak it all up,
trace, by dawn). I had gotten only halfway through a can of some
before transforming into a complete and utter beef stew—but
it had been a good
excuse to leave early, to get myself out of the way before the lights
and the snogging began.
took another sip of his wine cooler. “Do you still see Shayla
from time to
“Yeah. At school. Between classes.”
never asked her out?”
myself squirming. “No.”
other stuff keeping me busy.” I thought for a moment, grasped
at the first
excuse to enter my mind. “I don’t have the time for
a relationship right now.
With school and work...I’d want to spend time with her, not
just ignore her,
sighed. He’d been down this road with me before.
“It’s not that bad.”
asked, pretending I wasn’t keen.
lowered my lashes, obscuring Vincent from view.
forward. “You’re still a virgin.”
My eyes were on the verge of
watering, and I didn’t know why. I knew Vincent had gone the
route that many
teenagers do, dating different girls, developing his sex life between
reports and algebra tests...quietly trying to unwind me along the way.
never so much as kissed a girl (yet I had
kissed Vincent, so long ago, hadn’t I?), let alone fooled
around with one—but
so what? What did it matter? I didn’t have to rush headlong
into something like
physical intimacy just because maybe I had the slightest fear of
through my twenties without ever knowing the joys of loving a woman.
it wasn’t so much a fear as it was a precaution against
stress—rejection, if I
enough, if I did something wrong.
I was curious and, bearing the weight of too much alcohol in my
more than a little wistful.
like?” I asked, unsure if I was referring to the sex act
itself or to the
freedom associated with inborn confidence.
Vincent smiled and offered a deep
sigh. As I studied his face intently in the gathering darkness, I was a
surprised to find him looking there
It had been
years since we last went fear-stomping.
began, nervously crinkling the beer can in my hand.
himself back into reality. Then, finishing off his drink and setting
down on the concrete, he moved beside me and put his arm around my
“It’s easy as breathing,” he
“Once you realize that all the different places are here, and all the separate times are now...you’re just catching
different transparencies as they happen
to overlap, aligning them how you like. Most of the time it
it gets a little sloppy.”
his words, not understanding, and was about to ask him what he meant
suddenly (and quite unexpectedly) he started nuzzling my neck.
gay. Males held no tantalizing qualities for me whatsoever. I was
women, had enough of a heterosexual drive to have bolstered chronic
masturbation all throughout high school as I’d frequently
boldly making love to any and all girls who happened to catch my eye.
course, I’d never had the courage to ask any of them out, but
I’d been horny
enough to brave all the risks of permanent blindness and hairy knuckles
relentless Kegel workouts. I’d never had a girlfriend, but
that didn’t mean I
Vincent knew this. Vincent, whose
affinity for women had often sparked intense jealousy on my behalf,
knew me, and that’s what
was most confusing
as I felt his lips against my skin.
away slightly, tried not to make my confusion too obvious. My first
that someone would see us, but when I glanced over Vincent’s
shoulder I saw the
rest of the group, splashing and laughing, absorbed in their own
too much,” Vincent whispered, giggling.
“I’m not just some stranger, you know.”
his gaze, unsure of what he meant. For a moment I was transported to a
backyard on a night when two boys had sneaked out to set a
and had entered into an embrasure that had infinitely more to it than
How had I
forgotten? How had I left that memory there, hidden behind the years, a
portrait lost to dust and cobwebs at the back of my mind?
I was heading dangerously into the
crest of a phenomenal buzz, and, looking into Vincent’s eyes,
intensity there, I suddenly felt a shadowy echo of something long-lost
own inhibitions. I couldn’t actually feel
a sexual attraction towards him, but I could remember
one, I could remember distant sounds of laughter and
passion as an alternate pair of best friends (who’d taken a
after sharing their first kiss) expressed their love for each other via
A part of
me considered that it didn’t seem all that impossible. It was
just two friends
messing around with each other, two friends having fun. Vincent and I
close enough to do something like this and not feel threatened by
it—yet I was
unable to simply throw myself into his arms and reciprocate the
knew he wanted me to feel. My sexuality had already been hard-wired.
sorry,” I said slowly. I didn’t want to hurt his
feelings. “I...I’m not gay.”
shrugged, still smiling. “Neither am I.”
were just kissing me.”
it a birthday present,” he said, and got to his feet. For a
moment he simply
stood very still, gazing around the deck as if looking for something;
found it, he turned to me and held out his hand.
“Let’s go for a walk.”
have been the beer, it might have been genuine curiosity, but I found
standing, taking Vincent’s hand and allowing him to lead me
out of the pool
There was something I had to know...something.
lodge, flanked by a legion of juniper bushes, stood adjacent to the
Vincent stopped at a spot between the rear of the lodge and the
staff parking lot, where the soil was slightly recessed and the leaves
there,” he said, crouching and pointing. “Follow
I thought, laughing. We haven’t
onto my hands and knees and followed him along a brief path of mud and
At first I was abhorred by the thought of what I was doing to my
only for a moment, as suddenly we emerged into a hidden cove, a spot
within a world.
“How do you
feel?” Vincent asked, scooting forward on his knees and
taking me in his arms.
unable to answer verbally, so I merely returned his embrace, fell with
the ground. It was like seeing a loved one after many, many years of
I’d never had a lover before, so I couldn’t compare
it with anything else, but
I knew that I’d somehow missed Vincent all these years and
that I wanted him
more than anything in the world.
Any and all
inhibitions evaporated as we groped at each other’s clothes,
peeled away the
layers of fabric. We spread our shirts and pants on the ground and lay
together, and, at Vincent’s tender direction, I learned what
it was like to
I found myself giggling almost hysterically at the wonderful audacity
“What’s got you?”
Vincent asked. He reached for his pants.
I replied, gathering up my own clothes. “I’m just
wondering why we haven’t been
together more often.”
smiled. “You know what they say about having too much of a
him as he dressed, caught every motion, every flex of every muscle as
slipped back into his pants and shirt. At last, I donned my own clothes
once the both of us were just several layers of mud and grass away from
presentable again, allowed myself to be swept up in his arms as he
“I want you
to promise me something,” he said.
He took my face in his hands, brought it level with his. “It
means a lot to me.
Once we leave here, things will go back to the way they
were—I want you to
promise me that you’ll keep this time and place with you
approvingly and ducked through the shrub façade.
I followed—and once I was outside
again, something in my head turned over. I shuddered, standing straight
Vincent and gazing into the darkness of the parking lot as if it were
transplanted back lot to Dracula’s castle. Vincent seemed
off-center as well,
though when I looked at him he appeared jovial enough. Still, something
changed, something to do with us.
wasn’t much time to hone in on what had just happened. If
there was any
misalignment to the world, any crookedness to Vincent’s
expression, I missed it
as I belched wretchedly and proceeded to vomit with the force of an
sighed and grabbed me under the arms before I doubled over completely.
what we’ve done to you, birthday boy,” he said.
evidently been caught in the shower, for he answered the door wearing
but a towel. Scowling, he stepped aside and allowed Vincent to help me
said. “What’s this all about?”
key,” Vincent replied, navigating me into my room and setting
me on the bed.
Neil came to stand in the threshold.
He leaned against the doorframe
folded his arms. “You smell like crap, Ken.”
awkwardly, reaching to remove my shoes and finding the laces unbearably
hilarious. “Blame Vin. He’s a rough
lover—shook me up just a little too much.”
said, suddenly straightening and backing out of the room. I saw him
alarmed look at Vincent, whose face had just turned Casper-white.
didn’t know...you two...”
to nod my head, to proclaim with unwavering assurance that it
inappropriate for two best friends (who both happened to be male) to
around with each other for fun when Vincent cleared his throat and
between Neil and myself.
sleep,” he said, chuckling. Then, turning to face Neil:
“He’s drunk out of his
gourd—been talking out of turn all evening, poor
I fell back
onto the bed; I was half-undressed, shirt and pants dangling off wrists
ankles, as Vincent left, closing the door behind him.
I wished he
wouldn’t worry so much.
morning I awoke with a wretched headache. Not only that, but I awoke
startling, ultra-crisp memory of Vincent and myself lying clasped
behind the laundry room and doing the unthinkable.
I sat up, rubbed my temples,
extricated myself from the mess of my own soiled clothing. I had no
I’d done what I’d done with Vincent. That precious
half-hour behind the laundry
lodge made complete sense on its own, but when dropped into the path of
time, it was like replaying someone else’s
memory, as if I’d somehow eavesdropped on my twin
brother—except I knew it was
I thought, remembering everything about my first time with crystal
clarity. My first sexual
It hit me
hard—boy, did it hit me hard, because it made absolutely no
hindsight, yes, I could somewhat imagine being overrun with desire for
man; now it did absolutely nothing for me. It made me nauseous, in fact.
I made a
beeline for the toilet. There was no way of telling how much of what I
was the result of too much liquor and how much was related to the cold
facts: I’d gone over the edge, crossed into uncharted
helped. I dressed in fresh clothes; I sat at the edge of my bed for
hour as I tried to decide what to do next.
I couldn’t recall the slightest
indication of Vincent’s ever coming on to me. No curious
games of “Doctor” when
we were children, no subtle glimpses or pokes in the boys’
adolescents—and certainly nothing at all when we’d
finally become adults. There
was that first kiss, behind the shed
of my parents’ house, but it was an afterthought, a shadowy
dream—besides, we’d been young; passing curiosity
was to be expected. (And if
Vincent had been attracted to me,
hadn’t he simply brought it up? He knew he could tell me
I left my room, went out into the
kitchen. It was one o’clock; Neil was already in bed for the
afternoon. As I
cooked myself a late breakfast, I repeatedly played over the events of
night’s birthday festivities in my mind, and I was certain it
hadn’t merely been
the result of too much alcohol. The only excuse I could think of was
Vincent had done it for me, done it
with me to help loosen up my sexual
inhibitions—but still, he was a man, I was a man; one plus
one didn’t equal
two. Not to me.
It was too
much to keep bottled up. I looked down at the stove. A bubbling omelet
back at me from the frying pan. With a sudden distaste for food of any
dumped it all into a plastic container, shoved the container into the
and went for the phone. Shayla’s number was on speed dial.
Thankfully, I caught
her while she was home.
It was a distinctly male thing to do,
and I hated myself for doing it, but I had
Shayla out on an impromptu date, and she accepted. We went to see a
the AMC, had dinner at Denny’s, and returned to my place for
Amazingly, I was able to enjoy myself thoroughly—Shayla
pointed this out as we
were sitting together on the couch. I laughed and, before my brain had
intervene, swooped in for a kiss.
As luck would have it, Shayla had
been harboring an attraction towards me for some time, and she
wasn’t too shy
about letting it loose. She admitted she’d liked me that way since our high school days, I
told her much the same—and
we proceeded to make out for the better part of an hour. Eventually we
so worked up that I knew there was no turning back, and I used the
of the moment to test out my theory. With Neil at work for the evening,
and I were alone to fornicate to our heart’s content.
Miraculously, I enjoyed
every minute of it—no fears, no worries, no sultry images of
behind my eyelids.
Shayla curled up with me afterward
and told me that she loved me. I had, of course, loved her since the
but had been unable to take the steps leading from cafeteria
hand-holding, kissing, and beyond. Now everything I’d kept
locked away for all
those years had been released all at once, and I convinced myself that
Vincent and I had done behind the laundry lodge had been a necessary
method of stamping out my fear of intimacy. And really, if that was the
how else could he have taught me love and trust without actually making love to me?
hadn’t the slightest idea how I was ever going to face him
almost entirely certain no rumors were started, as far as Vincent and
were concerned. Neil still treated me with the same pleasant
the rest of my school chums appeared jovial as ever when word spread
blossoming relationship with Shayla.
I saw Vincent from time to time,
between classes, and we occasionally stopped to swap a word or two
and that, but otherwise we made excuses not to see each other. There
was no out
and out apathy between us (at least, none that I picked up on), but I
something had changed. With the passage of a single weekend,
we’d grown far
enough apart to justify a decade’s worth of social
stagnation. This alarmed me
to no end, one, because it meant I was losing my best friend; two,
order to rectify the situation, I knew I would have to talk
with Vincent—and that scared me to death. I wasn’t
concerned about the possibility he was gay, or bi, even; it was
something like a favor I knew I could never return—something
that would forever
set us apart, now that it was out in the open.
Weeks and months passed, and I forced
myself to keep any overt agonizing on the back burner. I had school, I
work—I had Shayla—to
keep me busy.
wonderful. A little on the shy side, she was easygoing, somewhat
about her looks (she always complained about her lanky
frame—that made two of
us!—and supposed “buck teeth”), but
otherwise as emotionally sturdy as a fellow
with my history could ever hope for. She had a small, like-minded group
friends who made me feel welcome from the beginning. They were quite
beaten path as far as style was concerned, and I loved it. We were our
little sub-subculture: listening to our own music, laughing at our own
and content to spend eternity wrapped in our own little social clique.
It would have been easy to forget
Vincent, to move on into adulthood and leave my childhood crutches
my conscience was stubborn. I thought of Vincent whenever a
allowed my mind to wander. I had dreams about him in which we were
hanging out, going to the movies, shooting hoops, sampling from various fast food
joints—it was like a mirror of my
waking state, except whenever I tried to talk to dream-Vincent, my
up and my tongue went limp. I was always trying to ask him something, but it was like talking under
water. I would often wake
up trembling, feeling suffocated, as if I didn’t fit properly.
Eventually it started affecting my
sex life. On one occasion, Shayla caught me crying out
Vincent’s name during
our lovemaking. Not, mind you, out of any sort of amorous
fantasy—but I had been
preoccupied with him all day,
trying to think of an excuse to call him; the orgasm merely overloaded
already smoking synapses, and I ended up embarrassing myself beyond
persistent. After repeated attempts to elicit the truth, she dragged me
bed and to the kitchen so we could talk over tea (we were at my place,
was at work).
“I heard a
story once,” she said, setting the kettle on the stove and
then leaning back
against the refrigerator, “about you and Vin making out in
the bushes behind
the laundry room.”
God, I thought. There had
both wasted off our asses,” I said. “It was
late—it was nothing.”
Ken. I’m not ostracizing you or anything.”
have been a homosexual activity, but it doesn’t make you
the other way.
continued: “Lots of straight guys do things with each
other—it’s sort of a
favor, a ‘help me out and I’ll help you
out’ kind of thing. Guys’ brains are
wired like that: if they don’t clean the pipes often enough
they get clogged,
and then they’re no good whatsoever—you have to do
some regular maintenance.
Now, you can’t always hook up with a girl at a
moment’s notice, so you rent an
adult video and flog the dolphin with a pal or whatever.”
(like now) it was hard to tell if Shayla was being scientific or
Regardless, I reminded her again that I was not gay.
shook her head and sighed. She came over to me and sat on my lap.
You’re missing the point. What happened...happened.
That’s all. Things like
this—it’s part of life. Maybe a little awkward, but
it doesn’t mean you should
run away from it all.”
know what you mean.”
haven’t seen Vincent in six months.”
months? “Of course I have. I saw him
passing. I’m talking about spending time with him,
going out together,
doing things like you used to.”
slouched my shoulders. “It’s hard...I’ve
got a lot on my mind lately.”
have a lot on your mind.”
True—but usually I had Vincent to
help me worm my way through. Now I was stuck because my fears were all
around around him. Worse, it had nothing to do with the convenient
his paradoxical physical attraction towards me. Even if it did, I wouldn’t have minded
much. In fact, at this point, I would
have welcomed the simplicity of such a scenario. Anything but the
truth I knew existed somewhere between the folds of this reality and
the folds of this reality and the next.
echoed inside my head, and suddenly I was shivering all over with a
notion set free.
looked concerned. “Ken?”
Swept up in my own thoughts, I didn’t
respond at first. Instead, I worked it all out, this lifelong equation
suddenly found an answer. You see, I’d had my suspicions over
the years: It may
have been my imagination running away with the rest of me, but I had an
how Vincent Nguyen accomplished the art of fear-stomping. It involved
from here to there, and now that I
thought about it, there was more
just a metaphor, a convenient, private place to play a childhood game
fear of parental ridicule. There
somewhere else entirely, another world, another dimension—a
wrinkle in the
fabric of time and space that only Vincent knew existed.
And that’s what was bothering me: the
fact that somewhere out there, Vincent and I shared a love for each
made our relationship in this world
look like a formality. When we were there,
we were equals. I didn’t have to lean on Vincent for support,
and he didn’t
have to put up with me in exchange for whatever brotherly affection I
muster. The sex didn’t matter either. We were probably lovers
in the physical
sense, but it was the spiritual aspect that had taken a hold of me,
feel so utterly empty since leaving that secret spot in the bushes
everything had felt right. He’d told me to remember—
—and now I
my face in her hands. “Kenny. Yoo-hoo...are you
I came to
my senses again and nodded. “Yeah.”
to tell me what’s going on?”
I shook my
head and got up, leaving her on the couch. I went into the bedroom and
dressed; then I headed for the front door. On my way out I caught
right back,” I said.
chilly and quiet as I stood in the fluorescent darkness with my hands
pockets and studied the juniper patch behind the laundry lodge. It
plain and insignificant now, like an amusement park after
hours—but I knew
there had once been magic here.
around and making sure no one was watching me, I quickly crouched down
slinked into the bushes. It wasn’t so easy this time, as many
of the leaves and
branches had filled in, but I made it into the cove. Unlike my previous
however, the place was cold and wet and cobwebbed. I felt no spark of
no feeling of utter contentment...not even an afterimage. The place was
empty space, hollowed and meaningless.
felt like that.
was to suppress. I carried on the following week with a noticeable pang
gut as I ignored all but the most important mental processes.
after work, I made my way homeward feeling like a threadbare rag doll.
looking forward to my bed, to green tea steaming in my favorite mug and
evening news on the television when, quite suddenly, I found myself
Vincent’s doorstep. I knocked. He answered, and before he
could say anything, I
like myself, had become emancipated once he’d turned eighteen
high school, and, as such, he now shared a two-bedroom house with a
friends who worked their asses off to make the rent (as well cover the
necessary monthly liquor and condom costs). The den was his, and he
in, patting me on the back and saying how good it was to see me
typical prattle that’s usually intended as a distraction from
together on the sofa and, for several minutes, listened to the sounds
occasionally passing on the street. Every so often we said something
meaningless. At one point Vincent fired up his PlayStation and handed
me one of
the controllers. Techno music drifted in from somewhere across the
felt like a door-to-door salesman taking up a total
Vincent sighed midway through our second game. “You sounded
pretty intense at
the door...you said you needed to talk to me?”
I nodded, realizing I could have been
using my time to gather my thoughts. Instead, I was caught off-guard, and I blurted
the first thing
that forced its way out of my mouth:
birthday, when we messed around together—what was that
turned to me and smiled, and I was surprised to see an amused
expression on his
year,” he said, “and that’s still on your
I started gasping for air. “It’s
not—I mean I didn’t—I’m not
here about that—well,
I am, but it’s not just—it’s
I had to
clamp my mouth shut again, otherwise I surely would have kept babbling
infinity. After a few measured breaths, I managed to think more
so was able to communicate without sounding like a record being played
“I’ve been thinking about
said. “I don’t know why. Shayla says I’m
overreacting, as usual, but...it’s not
so much what we did, it’s
why. I think I’m missing
think I’ve been missing the point ever since we were
leaned back, gazed off somewhere between this world and the next.
“I know you’d
never been with anyone before Shayla. All the girls, they used to talk
and hang with you, give you all these signals, but they
didn’t know what I
know—they didn’t know how scary it can be to bare
yourself so completely to
someone. I guess...I guess I just wanted you to know what it was like,
know, to be with someone like that...so maybe you’d be less
afraid when it came
to your girl.”
He shook his head, then scrunched up
his face slightly—as if he’d never considered the flip side of the coin.
course not,” I replied, perhaps a little too adamantly. I was
trying to handle
this coolly, as a close friend should. I kept telling myself Vincent
me a simple favor. Now that it was over and done with, now that I had
answer, I should have been secure enough that the means to an end
anymore. So why did I still have a knot in my stomach?
Because I knew.
For a while
I’d had my hunches, my insane little notions about how it
worked, but now,
after I’d made such a powerful connection to the other side,
I fully realized
the strange truth about Vincent Nguyen (he’d tried to tell me
before, but I’d
disregarded it as metaphor and symbolism): that he was somehow able to
between separate realities as if they were all one in the same. One,
was typical, introverted me; another, where I was somebody else,
daring and carefree.
“Vin,” I said. “When we were
it was like heaven, it was everything I could have ever wanted. I was free there. It was a hundred times
better than all the other fear-stomping trips we took. Every time
I’m there I’m
whole. I come back here and
I’m just myself again. I mean, I have a part of the other me
from that place
because I know when I’m there I’m not afraid, but
it’s like remembering it all
and not actually being able to live
know what I was trying to tell Vincent, nor did I know what sort of
wanted from him. My words had a noticeable effect, though: He left the
started pacing about the den as if looking for something else to do,
else to go.
overlaps, you know,” he said. “Every second, every
decision every person in the
world makes creates a new spin-off universe, a new possibility. Layers
layers of worlds where all our ‘what might have
beens’ exist. Most people only
see one at a time, but ever since I can remember, I’ve seen
everything at once.
You’d think it would be overwhelming, but I liken it to being
a spider or a
centipede or something. To a human it might sound crazy to have to
those legs, but not to the insects. For them it’s built
I was glued to the sofa, gripping the
cushions with my fingers as I went down a mental checklist of
how do you know to get from here to there?”
Vincent turned and faced me; he was smiling
deviously. “Ever wonder why certain events seem to happen at
Well, each event, each cause is an
overlapping portion of each reality that leads to an effect.
Most of the time you just take what comes, but if you can
see what you’re looking for, you can step in certain places
and enter the
reality of your choice.”
between dimensions?” I asked.
not really going anywhere when you do it. At least, I don’t
Everything’s kind of happening all at once, but
it’s the way you see things
that keeps you thinking about one reality at a time.”
I bit my
lip, thought for a moment. “So...in one of these, er,
alternate outcomes, I’m
not afraid of all the things I am here?”
“I mean, if
I’m so much better off there, why can’t I just stay
Vincent sighed and sat back down on
the sofa. “It’s not about being better or worse,
higher or lower. It’s just
where you are. It’s how your mind was set at birth. Think of
it like a movie:
You can go to the theater, pretend you’re part of the action,
but you can’t
actually live inside the
can,” I said.
“Well,” said Vincent, shrugging,
“yeah, but it doesn’t mean I do—it
doesn’t mean I should.”
I thought for a moment, then said,
“Vincent...in that other world, are you and I...are we...you
took a long, hard look at me, and I could almost see movement behind
the shadowy reflections of moments trapped on the other side of a
could only imagine. “You’re not gay,” he
“I know. Not here, but there...I
mean, when we went into the
bushes together, we were there,
“Does it matter? We’re best friends here.”
are other places where we’re best friends too.”
have pushed the issue further, but the look Vincent gave me made it
was no longer interested in talking about the subject. So I let it drop
suggested I take my leave.
On the way out (and this took me
quite by surprise) he touched me affectionately on the shoulder and
“Maybe somewhere else we were lovers, and maybe it was you who lead me,
took care of me...and maybe I didn’t appreciate it like I
should have...so I
guess I’m repaying the favor, that’s
all.” His caress lingered for a moment,
then he seemed to come back into himself and he socked me in a more
masculine fashion. “Now, let’s forget about all the
details and swear to meet
each and every Friday for pizza and Army
his hand and agreed.
Vincent’s subtle suggestion that I
simply live life and leave the questions alone carried me successfully
new year. In late April, Shayla and I got engaged and split the rent on
single-room studio wedged beside a Chinese
fast food joint and a Latino night club (go figure). At a
cool $500 per
month, there were no frills, but neither Shayla nor myself minded
around in our birthday suits in lieu of the financial burden an
twenty-second birthday we went to the Olive Garden. Vincent happened to
dating an Irish gal named Blaney at the time, so he brought her along
and we had a grand time reminiscing over manicotti and Straccali
Vincent and I had an impromptu bread-eating contest. Blaney seemed
enough, and allowed us to run rampant, so long as we didn’t
drag her into it;
Shayla, the ever-vigilant health enthusiast, warned me that too much
would upset the balance of my stomach, and she watched the proceedings
frown on her face.
end of the evening, I became the slightest bit tipsy and, upon seeing
almost-full plate, I asked, “Why aren’t you eating?
Are you afraid you’ll find
some Italian’s severed finger in the marinara?”
hungry tonight,” Shayla replied, managing to keep her
smile—though I could tell
her patience had been stretched thin.
I nevertheless missed the point
completely and wrapped my arm about her shoulders. “I
can’t stand to see you
like this! Please, eat
something—you’re anorexic!” I laughed and
patted her flat tummy.
she said, shrugging out of my embrace. “You can be a jerk
sometimes, you know
that, Ken?” She left the table and stalked off towards the
Vincent nor Blaney had an explanation as to why my awkwardness had set
off. Usually she was able to put me in check whenever I acted out of
Tonight, however, something seemed to be bothering her.
fifteen minutes; when she didn’t return, I knew for sure
I’d set her off.
Dreading an argument, I found myself standing outside the
women’s room and
begging for her forgiveness while people, in passing, gave me dirty
Eventually she came out and threw herself into my arms. Her tears were
against my neck.
so sorry,” I murmured, thinking that I was a horrible person,
that I’d never
drink again if this was to be the outcome.
you,” Shayla said. She dabbed her face with a handful of
“It’s...I’ve been meaning to tell
you...it’s just hard to get things out
My heart leaped
into my throat.
still holding me, bit her lip and looked towards the exit. “I
need some fresh
It was cool
outside, the sky overcast. We sat together on the curb at the edge of
restaurant parking lot overlooking the Macy’s side of the
out I have Crohn’s Disease,” Shayla said, her arms
stretched out over her
knees. “I’m going to have to have surgery,
you find out?” I asked (I didn’t have the slightest
clue how to deal with the
situation, so I defaulted to basic curiosity—stalling until I
something to say besides, “I’m sorry”).
I mean, I’d been having stomach problems since last year, but
I always thought
it was a bad food combination or something. When I started avoiding
completely because of the cramps, I knew there was a problem.”
always been slim (though she’d started going to the gym with
me over the last
year to add a certain wiry strength to her frame). I’d always
svelte physique was due to her being a vegetarian, or that
she’d simply been
born with an overachieving metabolism; looking back, I was able to
specific moments when I’d had my doubts. Like on the hot,
stifling evenings at
home when I would be at the computer and she would be on the bed,
with her back against the wall, notebook propped on her legs. Every so
would glance over my shoulder, catch a glimpse of her with the reading
casting shadows over her collarbone, ribs, thighs—all the
places where her
flesh seemed to be thinning ever so gradually. She would catch me
staring and I
would smile, tell her she was beautiful while the questions stewed in
should have asked her about it sooner, I thought. Could’ve made it easier on her by being
there through the whole ordeal.
A shoulder to cry on, a friend to confide in—someone to help
with the burden.
And yet, I couldn’t imagine going
through life knowing what I did now. I was used to being the charge of
who possessed a certain amount of strength and leadership ability; to
tables turned so that I was the one
who had to be strong for the both of us...it made me want to be a
miles away and twenty years ahead.
Vincent, hand in hand with Blaney, calling our names from several cars
spotted us and waved.
“Don’t mention this—please,” Shayla whispered,
brushing herself off. She waved back cheerfully.
I didn’t know
how I was going to get through the night.
At home, Shayla and I curled up
together in bed and watched the first quarter of The
Cider House Rules before the VCR threw a fit and refused to
play the tape any further—at which point we simply turned the
completely and went to sleep.
Shayla dozed off, but I was wide awake, holding her until I knew she
and then slipping quietly from her side, pulling on my clothes and
studio without a sound.
the air smelled like rain. I drove for an hour, eventually falling into
around the UCI campus. I kept making the same mindless circle, never
pulling into any of the lots, until I was almost out of gas. I found a
station and spent another fifteen minutes or so rooting around the
looking for change; I bought five dollars’ worth of unleaded.
Finally, at about two-thirty, I
pulled in front of Vincent’s house and sat for several
minutes with the engine
running. Raindrops began pelting the windshield; rivulets leaked
crack in the window and trickled down onto the seat. Plop...plop...plop...
go talk to him, I thought. You know
there’s no chance unless you talk to him, make him see reason.
trapped, constricted, and I knew it. I’d come here looking
for answers once
before, but I hadn’t known the right questions.
I knew now.
pelted my face, soaked my clothes and plastered my hair against my
I got out of the car and crossed the street. By the time I reached the
door, I was shivering from head to toe—but only a small part
of it had to do
with being wet.
half asleep when he opened the door and let me in. I don’t
think he knew
exactly what was going on until I collapsed onto the floor and started
groveling incoherently at his feet.
begged. “Make me stronger. I don’t want to be
myself, I can’t do it anymore, I
can’t be there for her the way she needs me, oh, I thought
I’d learn to be
strong for her if something bad ever happened but I can’t, I
can’t face her,
please, I need you to help me...”
wound up in the den, sitting on the sofa, with Vincent’s arms
around me. He
spoke to me softly, whispering in my ear and telling me to calm down,
be all right if I just slowed down and explained to him what the
Shayla,” I explained. “She’s, er,
sick—it’s kind of a serious thing. She told
me tonight and...and all I could do was sit there. I didn’t
know what to say or
do—that’s how it will always be. As long as
we’re together, I’ll never know the
right words, I’ll never be strong enough to deal with any of
it. All my life
I’ve always been afraid something terrible like this would
happen, and now it
has and I don’t know how to deal with it.”
“Sure you do,” Vincent said, calmly,
soothingly. “It’s different when it’s
someone else. It’s your first time now,
but you’ll know how it is as you go along. When
you’re with a girl, she’s your
world. Even if you have no clue how to make her feel better,
you’ll be there
for her—you’ll make
it work, somehow.
We all go through it; it’s relationships.”
I shook my head. “No, but see—in that
other place you took me to, I didn’t have any of these fears.
I was sure, just like you are. I
anything—I know if you just showed me how to get there, I
could take care of
Shayla and everything would be all right.”
“Oh...I see.” Vincent let go of me,
got to his feet and folded his arms. At first he looked stern, like he
give me the “older brother” lecture about being a
man and learning to deal with
life on my own; instead, he let out a long sigh and covered his face
What have I
done to you?”
this is my fault. I stepped across the line when I took you behind the
room. You didn’t know any better—I was selfish. I
saw an opportunity to please
myself and now look what it’s done to you.”
the slightest clue what he was talking about, so I started grasping at
“Vin, we’re best friends, right? You showed me what
I can be.”
advantage of you—”
ashamed of what we did. Not anymore.”
this life without being able to love you like I do—”
please. It’s not like that. It doesn’t have to
better, but breaking the rules anyway because sometimes I too wonder if
aren’t a million other places we could be together. I opened
the Pandora’s box,
Ken, and now look where it’s left us: stuck in a world where
we both know we’re
just shadows of something better.”
I got to my feet. “It
doesn’t have to be this way. You, me,
Shayla—there are other versions of us out there, right? Why
should we suffer if
we have the solution?”
Vincent shook his head. “You don’t get it, Kenny. That’s not how
He scowled and clenched his fists, trying to think of the right words.
like...when I first started driving and my parents let me use their
my dad gave me the keys, I had to promise not to take it joyriding, not
over the speed limit, not to mess with the radio stations—it
was a privilege,
but I had to stick within the guidelines or else I’d have the
keys taken away.
This gift that I’ve been
allowed to use it as long as I keep to the guidelines. As much as
I’d like to
go hopscotching through all the lives where I’m rich and
famous and a porno
star or whatever, it just doesn’t work that way. If I shoved
my other selves out
of the way so I could live their lives, what would they think? What
would I think if they
started poking around my life here?”
looking at me. When I didn’t answer, he continued:
“The places I’ve taken you,
like observation points—hidden spots in each reality. You can
absorb the vibes
so that when you come back to your own reality you carry the memories
you—you’re not actually taking
anything away. That’s allowed. Anything else would upset the
balance. We each
have the rights to our own reality and not anyone
else’s—not even if it’s
another one of ourselves;
way to change that.”
fell silent and walked to the window, peering outside. Rain smeared the
made it look like ice melting.
appropriate, I thought. The
I went to
him, placed my hand on his shoulder. “What about Shayla? If I
tell her there’s
a way she can live a life without ever having
Crohn’s—you wouldn’t turn her
away, would you?”
tensed, and he turned to face me. There was a dangerous light in his
“Don’t go there, Ken. Everything I’ve
ever told you about this—it’s between you
and me. You tell anyone about fear-stomping or alternate universes and
ever saying anything even remotely related. They’ll never
believe you anyway,
and if they did, it’s all just false hope. No one can do
anything about it, and
that’s the way things are.” He turned back to the
window. “I can’t help you
He was asking me to leave—I knew
that, but I stayed out of desperation—out of sheer
frustration. Grabbing his
shoulder, I demanded he face me. “Just this once, Vin! One
last time, then it
will all be okay, see? God gave you this gift so you could use it! Don’t be
With a powerful shove, he pushed me
backwards so that I fell hard onto the floor. The air was knocked from
lungs. “You don’t get it,
do you? It can’t be done!
If I just whisked us
all away to Shangri-La, you’d get nothing meaningful out of
it. You’d come out
the other side knowing that all you have to do is come crying to your
Vincent every time something goes wrong. You won’t have
Shayla, you won’t have been there with her at all;
you’ll have sneaked off into
some other world while another version of her still has to stay here
her own battles.”
got to my feet. “Please...don’t make me do this
mistakes,” Vincent continued. “I was in love with
you in that other world. We
were best friends—more than best friends, more than anything
I’ve ever seen or
felt in any universe. I should have appreciated it for what it was and
on, but I didn’t. I’ve been painting over a
crumbling canvas ever since...I
can’t do this anymore.”
he growled, and grabbed me by the shirt collar, shoved me
towards the door. Each time I tried to turn around for an encore
shoved me harder, ignoring my pleas until I was outside, at which point
slammed the door in my face.
“Damn you,” I whispered, sloshing my
way back to the car and sitting inside with the dampness all over me. I
and cursed Vincent’s name, prayed to God that just once he would understand what it felt
like to be me. So what if I
was being completely illogical? Vincent was just as bad!
Eventually I calmed down, resigned
myself to the fact that there was to be no divine intervention, that I
go back home to Shayla and face the unbearable. Worse yet, I had to do
knowing that I’d stooped to my lowest in coming here to
Vincent’s and begging
for a quick fix. I could have spent my time researching
Crohn’s, coming up with
real ways for Shayla and I to cope.
was bitter and alienated.
quarter to four I arrived back home to find Shayla awake and watching a
rebroadcast of the evening news. When she saw me (wet as a lily pad)
in through the front door, she flicked the television off and went into
bathroom for a dry towel.
“ Where have you been?” she asked.
“Driving around,” I replied, peeling
off my soggy clothes and sitting at the foot of the bed as she helped
dry. I wanted to tell her to go back to sleep, tell her she needed her
not to worry about me, but my brain was locked into self-pity mode. I
around the room—the only
studio offered (besides the bathroom). There was the television in
front of me,
propped on Shayla’s clunky dresser; to the left, tucked into
one corner, was
the desk; to the right, humming away beside the bathroom door, was the
refrigerator that could barely hold a six-pack. No kitchen, no dining
chairs for guests—and this was our home, our life: Shayla
McRae, suffering from
Crohn’s, and Kenneth Filatov, suffering from
life—while meanwhile, in some
other perspective, none of this misery even existed.
shouldn’t have gone,” Shayla said.
“It’s dangerous driving in the rain.”
said, spreading my arms, “I’m still here.”
moping again.” She started massaging my shoulders.
“And more neurotically than
“Who says I
went to see Vincent?”
that’s where you went, judging by the way you were cursing
his name under your
breath a minute ago.”
did you tell him?”
ferally. “Why would I do that?”
way home from the restaurant you looked like you wanted to.”
didn’t...not really. This was something else.”
other thing, then.”
relationship with him. Ever since your twenty-first birthday.”
the sex thing.” I turned to face her.
Shayla studied me for a moment. “No,
it’s not that...it’s something else
you’ve had on your mind this whole time,
something you won’t tell me.” She smiled and gave
me a look as if to say, tell me.
I bit my
lip, felt my pulse quicken—felt an imaginary noose tighten
around my neck.
Every time she talked to me like this, my insides froze up, and I was
with the same dilemma: Do I bare myself to her, share my collection of
and uncertainties so we can suffer together? Or do I keep it all to
maintain that illusion of stolid certainty until an ulcer eats its way
the lining of my stomach?
I wanted to grab Shayla, to shake her
and hit her and scream at her to just let it go; I wanted to scream at
body, at her cells, at the malady festering in her intestines; I wanted
explode, implode, even—anything to defy this fear and
anguish, this not knowing if she
would live or die—and
then, as Shayla waited patiently for me to come around, she did
simple: She took my hand in hers and squeezed gently, just enough so
could feel her strength, her warmth—
could have had anyone, I thought. In
high school, when everyone was pairing off, determined to find someone
their senior year, she was waiting for me. Why? Because she thought I
Funny? Worth her time? Or was it because she was in love, so she
didn’t need a
reason to be with me? Ever since the beginning she’s had to
put up with me, and
yet she’s still here.
And that’s how it clicked. Nothing is
ever perfect, but my love for Shayla was, and I knew it was the same in
possible reality—whether we were rich or poor, healthy or
sick. What I’d felt
with Vincent had been a primer, a spark to ignite the flame.
intended for me to fall in love with him directly (despite the fact
another world we were lovers);
merely wanted me to fall in love.
Shayla into my arms and kissed her passionately. I felt the heat, like
sunlight, rising off her body. I felt her pubic hair tickling my thigh,
her pulse as she became aroused, and something came free within me,
I’d been suppressing for the longest while. I held her at
watching her smile, watching her muscles work as she moved against me.
sexual, yes, but it was also the most spiritual moment I had ever
for here I’d been counting all the cracks and imperfections
in my life when the
beauty was all around me.
I just needed to look.
rang just before dawn. Shayla and I were still tangled up together in
Though I tried to be careful about it, I couldn’t help waking
her as I reached
for the receiver. Blaney was on the other end; her grief-stricken voice
crackled through the speaker.
me a questioning look after I hung up. “What was that
Blaney,” I said, my voice faltering.
“There’s been an accident.”
Dawn was a
sliver of light on the horizon. For the second time that morning, I
in front of Vincent’s house. It was still drizzling as I
crossed the street; I
didn’t mind much, for I was wearing the same clothes
I’d worn to last night’s
Vincent’s parents were with him at
St. Joseph’s hospital. Blaney and Shayla had gone too, though
I hadn’t been
able to follow. I’d gotten as far as the waiting room before
absolute terror and apprehension concerning Vincent’s
condition—so I’d hung
back, moping around the waiting room and thinking that as long as I
actually see him, there was a
fanciful chance his injuries weren’t real.
After a while,
Blaney and Shayla had come to me and explained the situation.
pretty banged up,” Blaney had said. “A couple of
broken ribs, fractured
collarbone, broken ankle. God only knows what he was doing driving
the rain in the middle of the night.”
offered to make a run over to Vincent’s place for his
but I’d cut her off mid-sentence and insisted on going
—and here I
myself in using Blaney’s key. Vincent’s roommates
were still asleep (and
blissfully unaware) as I slipped into the den and fumbled for the light
I started a disorganized search for Vincent’s wallet, but my
hands were shaking
so badly I had to stop and sit down for a moment.
I thought, I’ve been born into the
equation after all. Maybe Vincent was wrong and this is merely a
a rough draft where he dies prematurely, Shayla becomes horribly ill,
and I end
up completely alone for ever and ever.
as I’d so recently discovered while making love to Shayla,
this life was
perfectly okay. Maybe I’d just been demanding too much
attention from the
universe lately—and now I had it. Vincent would still be
asleep, safe in bed,
if I hadn’t come here in the first place. My anxiety might
have been contagious:
I might have affected him enough with my worryings that he’d
been unable to get
back to sleep. If I’d only left things alone...but this is
where I was, this is
how things had turned out; I could only accept and live with it.
Resuming my search, I found
Vincent’s wallet lying beneath one of the PlayStation
controllers on the floor.
I picked it up and flipped through, checking for his insurance card
tucked away behind his school ID). I couldn’t help finding
as well: photos of friends, family...several of me. There was also a
folded notebook paper, completely covered in handwriting, that happened
out. I shouldn’t have wasted time prying, but I unfolded the
paper anyway and
found that it was actually a scribbled list of places and descriptions:
Bowling Alley on Euclid and
nuclear war (CLOSED); Disneyland—Fear of roller coasters
Beach—Fear of sharks (CLOSED), and so forth. The
title at the top read,
“Kenny’s Victories,” and I realized I was
looking at a checklist of my life.
Every fear that Vincent and I had ever stomped was
here—seventy-eight, in all.
However, most interesting was the one at the bottom, a scribbled entry
squeezed in beneath all the rest: Irvine
Church—Fear of death (OPEN).
I couldn’t recall ever having faced
down death, though now that I thought about it, death was
quite a potent fear. Glancing at the entry again, I thought
about it for a moment...and I wondered if Vincent had possibly seen all
emotional pitfalls in advance, from that early occasion when
he’d removed an
ailing daddy-long-legs from my bed right up to my twenty-first birthday
I thought. “Open.” Like
we’ve stepped into. Doorways.
I knew where the Irvine Bethel was
(the Nguyen family had taken me there on several occasions). The area
mostly apartments and dormitories—UCI’s sprawling
along the San Diego Creek Channel. Pulling into the parking lot, I
chose a slot
towards the church entrance, where a row of baby sycamores, heavy with
stood watch. The air was still and damp as, with Vincent’s
wallet tucked in my
pocket, I left the car and strode towards the main building. Of course,
no actual idea what I was doing
I might have been looking for spiritual satisfaction, or for quavering,
doorways—I had no guarantee of finding either.
There was a
courtyard behind the church; it was a miniature campus housing the
center and various continuing-education classrooms. I walked around for
while, looking this way and that, feeling ever more adrift as the
slowly brightened—until, quite by surprise, I saw it: the
anomaly I’d been
half-heartedly betting on.
It wasn’t something that could be seen
with the naked eye; rather, it was
the feeling I got when I passed a
park bench outside the eastern end of the community center. I stopped
stared, feeling a chill come over me, feeling the pull of an eternal
within arm’s reach. I was sure, had Vincent taken me here for
session, that we would have sat together on the bench and I would have
latest worries melt into blissful oblivion. Maybe I needed him with me,
maybe I could do it alone simply by moving myself into the specified
location...if this was a portal to
another reality, all I had to do was sit—
sat cross-legged on the sidewalk and took out Vincent’s note.
My eyes darted
over the list, though I wasn’t reading; I was thinking about
all the pros and
cons, remembering all the times I’d supposedly
“conquered” my fears by merely
anointing them with the assurances of alternate realities. It had made
livable, but it had not fixed the underlying problem.
I looked up at the bench again. But
this could be the last time, the chance
to say goodbye to fear-stomping for good. This location is last on
list; all I have to do is sit there, relax a moment, and everything
After all, once you got rid of your
fear of death, what else could
possibly bring you down?
I thought of Shayla, then, and knew
she was probably still at the hospital and wondering where the hell I
was. If I
jumped worlds, she might not have to worry at all—or she
might suddenly find
herself the fiancée
of a man who was
somehow no longer hers, a stranger wearing Kenneth Filatov’s
doppelganger whose distant gaze would betray his origin during
conversations...an alter-ego who would gasp and pant and look
whenever we made love.
of Vincent, laying in his hospital bed and looking up at me whenever I
Would he notice the subtle differences, the face behind the
face—would he know
what I’d done?
Would he know?
my feet, I let out a long, slow breath and looked around at the grass
trees. At some point during my reverie life had been restored to the
around me: Birds sang from their perches; cars moved to and fro on the
the sun poked through the haze and illuminated the glistening asphalt.
the only way, I thought, and I realized I’d come to
a final decision while
still driving to the Bethel: This life was for me, and I would live it
best of my ability—good, bad, and ugly.
Vincent’s note and tossed it onto the bench. Then, turning
and starting back
towards my car, I shoved my hands in my pockets—and
discovered the note,
reverted to its formerly crumbled state, now occupying my right jeans
My brain hiccuped, and I faced the bench
again. The piece of paper I’d tossed there
was, of course, gone.
the new one from my pocket, unfolded it. Instead of Vincent’s
list, I was now
looking at a letter (written in my own handwriting) addressed to myself:
I know it’s
been hard for you in this life. You’ve come such a long way,
and yet there was
still that one fear you could never quite name, the one thing you were
afraid would take you by surprise when you least expected it. When
sick, I knew it was time to face the unbearable, but this was something
wasn’t sure how to help you with, exactly—until I
realized the parallels
between our two realities.
here twice before: once, when Vincent removed the spider from your bed;
on your twenty-first birthday. Our two worlds overlapped and it became
to see yours over all the others. I’ve since realized it was
accident, because I’ve gotten to know a part of myself
that’s inspired me in
many ways. All the Kennys out there, we’re all the same
person, of course, but
it’s the memories and experiences that shape each of our
realities and make us
already explained to you how the universe works: action, reaction,
effect, parallel polarity, and so forth. You see, in my world, he was
student and I the teacher. I’ve cared for him, as your
Vincent has cared for
you, until this moment, until this test. Both of you had a similar
I think you’ve both picked the right one—I
couldn’t be prouder.
means something, in this reality and every other. Even if Vincent
his gift of omni-sight, he might have done the same thing anyway,
subconsciously. He will heal. Likewise, Shayla will flourish because
your love. Your friends are whole because they have you; they, in turn,
you whole—this is no mistake. You just have to look.
P.S. Save this letter; it might be
worth something to the
My heart hammered in my chest. I
looked up, looked at the trees and the sky and the buildings beyond; I
the air and felt the breeze against my skin—I felt the
presence all around me,
and I knew this was where I wanted to be. This was where I belonged. Maybe things weren’t
perfect, maybe accidents happened
and Vincent was stuck on the sidelines for a while, but he would pull
through—so would Shayla. I would see to it that they did.
back towards the car.
© 2007 Jesse Gordon
Jesse Gordon's work has previously appeared in Anotherealm, Bewildering
Stories, Deep Magic, Sword's Edge, and Aphelion (both under my own name and
as "A.J. Thompson").
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