Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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Fear Stomping

by Jesse Gordon


As a child, I was a connoisseur of fear: fear of falling, fear of heights, fear of sticky school bus seats and fear of grimy public toilets, fear of mad cow burgers and pointy-glass Halloween candy—I collected phobias like other children collected comic books, and when I wasn’t whittling away my time being afraid of something, I was meticulously cultivating the art of fearing fear itself.

My parents were neither the cause nor the solution. They adequately provided the basics from the start: food, clothing, shelter, regular doctor and dentist visits. When I sneaked out nights to take in the ten o’clock news, they promptly emerged from their bedroom (bleary-eyed and fuzzy-haired), turned off the television, and whisked me back to my bed.

My mother 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!”

It was quite the other way around, actually. I had been born with an anxious mind. Watching the news, violent movies, pulling away from my parents at the grocery 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 endured a certain amount of misery. No mixture of coaxing or coddling, no bedtime story told with motherly love could settle me enough to sleep with the lights off or keep me from dreading the coming of each new day.

My parents 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 household 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.

My angel’s name was Vincent Nguyen, and I met him in the second grade. I had already earned a solid reputation as a freak-child in the classroom (avoiding the water fountain, wiping down my seat before lessons, meticulously grooming my hands and fingernails after using pencils or crayons), so friends were a rarity. In fact, most of my interaction with other human beings was restricted to lunchtime episodes involving certain boys who felt it appropriate to exercise their preliminary masculinity by making me the victim of every schoolyard prank there ever was. Often, I would sit alone at one end of the playground, trying my best not to cry as I wiped mud from my shirt, picked spitballs from my hair.

Sometimes a random teacher would happen by, ask what was wrong, and politely nod as I pointed at my attackers and blubbered something unintelligible. Inevitably, it became obvious that I was the Boy Who Couldn’t Be Helped, and whatever sympathy I might have otherwise gleaned was quickly replaced by a flustered attempt to put a lid on a million frightening burdens treacherously packaged in child form.

Vincent, however, never shied away.

On one particular afternoon, during P.E. class (one of the few occasions when I allowed myself to be forced into shorts and T-shirt), I had relegated myself to sitting apart from the other children after skinning my knee on the asphalt. Vincent—still a distant acquaintance, at this point—came over to me, put his arm around my shoulders and asked what was wrong.

My first instinct was to recoil, to brush off my neck and shoulders with an upturned 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 most other children—especially boys—did.)

“Not in the mood to play?” he asked.

“No,” I 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 they 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.

“They’re dumb, I know,” Vincent laughed. Then he leaned in close and whispered into my ear, “See James over there?”

Looking, I nodded. James was one of the taller, more popular boys, and he often humiliated the maladjusted for bonus social points.

“I caught him playing with his ding-dong in the classroom.”

The two of us bowed our heads together and started giggling fiendishly.

From that point forward, we started spending our lunches together, every single day of the week. A month into it I realized that I’d made my first real friend.

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. Nguyen were nice folks, and sympathetic to my situation.

It was an odd pairing: Vincent was Asian, dark-haired, and athletic; I was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and lanky. Spotting us together on the street, one might surely wonder what two boys such as ourselves had in common. Indeed, we were quite different and had wildly varying tastes as our own individual personalities developed over the years. Vincent liked rollerblading, swimming, and listening 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 daily basis.

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 fears happened to be most distressing at the moment. He would then nod and look away for a moment, studying the details of our surroundings as if trying to rearrange the elements themselves. Whenever he fixed his gaze upon me again, there would be this gleam in his eyes, an overwhelming excitement about...something.

“Come on,” he would say, grabbing my hand and hauling me to my feet. “Let’s go over there.”

There was never the same place twice. For instance, if we’d been sitting in my parents’ backyard, there could have been a section of dirt behind the hedges, a shady spot beneath the maple tree, 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 between the 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 slide sideways as if navigating the edge of a deep chasm. I never fully understood how it worked, but once we got there, once we settled ourselves again, Vincent would smile and ask me how I felt.

“I feel 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 afraid of such-and-such, and I would smile and cock my head sideways, asking him why in the world I would be afraid of whatever it was he thought was bothering me.

His unvarying response was to grin triumphantly as he stood up and slammed his foot into the ground.

That’s what “fear-stomping” was.

I didn’t think too much about the mechanics involved until I was eight. Vincent was sleeping over my place, and (after an hour or two on the Nintendo) we’d just settled in for the night when I felt something crawling up my leg. At first I thought it was just an itch, so I reached under the covers, scratched—and let loose a bloodcurdling scream when I felt whatever it was scurry onto the back of my hand. I threw back the sheets and leaped out of bed, brushing myself off as I pressed into a corner at the opposite end of the room.

Vincent was rolled up in his sleeping bag on the floor. When he heard the commotion, he lifted his head and asked what was wrong.

“S-something was c-crawling on me,” I stuttered. I pointed at the bed.

Getting up, Vincent turned on the light and went to inspect the danger zone. After a moment’s searching through the rumpled bedsheets, he found the culprit: an adult daddy-long-legs.

He cupped it in his hands and walked over to where I was cowering. “It’s no big deal. See? Here.”

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 away, please!”

“It won’t 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 look.

“See?” said 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 Vincent’s palm—and I realized how ridiculous I must have looked, red-faced, standing huddled in the corner because of this. I was still afraid, but my embarrassment greatly overshadowed my fear.

“Come on,” Vincent said, nodding towards the bedroom window. “We’ll let it outside. Some other insect will eat it.”

“Gross,” I croaked, but followed nonetheless.

We crawled out into the backyard. Vincent crossed the patio, stepped boldly onto the grass; he was halfway to the back fence when, realizing I had remained banked upon a safer terrain of solid concrete, he stopped and faced me.

“Aren’t you coming?” he asked.

I looked down at my feet, imagined my toes entangled in the blades of grass—Bug 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 was every reason for us to get back inside as soon as possible.)

Vincent gave me a look and made his patented fear-stomping motion with his left foot.

Oh.

I set out across the yard. The grass was cool and damp beneath my feet. I might have stepped on a snail, or a piece of glass, but the promise of eradicating another of my fears spurred me on until I was beside Vincent, walking shoulder to shoulder with him.

We ended up between the shed and the fence, where a narrow concrete step afforded us a place to sit. Alone together (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.

After a moment, I released it onto the ground. Then I turned to Vincent and asked, “How do you do it?”

He 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.”

I was confused. “What’re like bubbles?”

Vincent looked at me again. His eyes wandered down my frame, and he smiled. “Places.”

“Oh. Okay.”

I wanted to ask him more, but his attention had apparently wandered to other matters. He put his hand on mine. Then he slid his other arm around my shoulders, pulled me 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 seen boys kissing other boys. I didn’t know what this was, and so I didn’t recoil—but neither did I respond. I simply froze, inexplicably curious, but unable to connect imagination with a physiological response.

Momentarily, Vincent pulled back, letting me go. I watched him carefully, and he seemed to pass through a maelstrom of emotions, all at once. Finally, he stood up. He said, “I’m sorry. We should go back inside.”

There were a hundred newly-formed questions in my mind, questions about friendship, brotherhood—but I knew there was something else too, something between us that I dared not rattle at this early juncture.

Besides, my foot had fallen asleep.

I stood, 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 passed from shadow to moonlight, I felt something fall away, a second skin, an invisible cloak woven from the breeze itself. Insects no longer terrified me, 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.

#

Time passed, and the memory of kissing Vincent receded into a mental closet cluttered with English lessons, mathematical figures, comic book plots, and video game high scores.

My fear-stomping expeditions continued throughout. Soon riding a bicycle no longer required my knees and elbows to be wrapped in five layers of padding; walking 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 longer a ritual battle between darkness and light. When I was eleven, I finally learned how to swim. The following summer, I rode my first roller coaster and couldn’t stop talking about how awesome it was for weeks afterward.

By the time I reached my mid-teens, I was a relatively normal young man—still conservative, by most people’s standards, but able to interact with family, friends, and 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 so we could be together and gossip, listen to music, or shoot some hoops—not like 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 (when he entered his teens) girls, and he never complained of social suffocation.

I finished high school, got a job at the local office supply store over the summer, and started computer programming classes at UC Irvine in the fall. Vincent, having decided on a business degree, enrolled as well.

He and I were still best friends—better than ever, for all intensive purposes—but I couldn’t help playing audience to the tiny voice at the back of my head that routinely uttered worries of varying importance.

There were two major ones: One was undefinable, an out-of-reach whisper of something pertaining to skin and skin, wet kisses, and passionate embraces—all trapped behind an unmovable mental screen that went nameless for all my virgin years. The other was something I had wondered about since my elementary school days: what life would be like without Vincent Nguyen.

This second concern was perhaps the most potent of all my collected worries. However, I never told Vincent about it. For starters, it was too much of a downer to fully 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 likely 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 thought of as a brother...but there was always the chance my one ultimate fear would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. So, I never mentioned it, and the years gradually took care of the rest.

Then, when I turned twenty-one, everything changed.

It started on my birthday: Vincent called me after work and announced he was throwing me a party, whether I liked it or not.

“I’m tired, 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 named Neil, which worked nicely, because though we got along well enough, it meant I rarely had to deal with him face-to-face). Vincent had bought a cake; half a dozen or so school acquaintances had brought a variety of beers and wine 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 memorable event.

After singing to me, the girls took turns offering hugs and kisses. Then the group changed into their swimwear and took to splashing in the pool. Vincent and I held back, appropriating a pair of lawn chairs for ourselves and settling into 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 unspoken thoughts, which were most certainly worlds away at the moment.

“So,” he said. “Twenty-one. You’re a big boy now, eh?”

“Yes,” I replied, blushing. It had been a running joke that, since Vincent’s twenty-first birthday (earlier in the year), I had been temporarily left behind 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, without a trace, by dawn). I had gotten only halfway through a can of some discount ale 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 dimmed and the snogging began.

Vincent took another sip of his wine cooler. “Do you still see Shayla from time to time?”

I shrugged. “Yeah. At school. Between classes.”

“That’s it?”

“Well...yeah.”

“So, you’ve never asked her out?”

I found myself squirming. “No.”

“No?”

“I’ve got 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, you know?”

Vincent sighed. He’d been down this road with me before. “It’s not that bad.”

“What?” I asked, pretending I wasn’t keen.

“Girls. Love. Intimacy.”

“Oh.” I lowered my lashes, obscuring Vincent from view.

He leaned 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 book reports and algebra tests...quietly trying to unwind me along the way. I had 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 breezing through my twenties without ever knowing the joys of loving a woman. Even then, it wasn’t so much a fear as it was a precaution against disease, emotional stress—rejection, if I wasn’t good enough, if I did something wrong.

Nevertheless, I was curious and, bearing the weight of too much alcohol in my bloodstream, more than a little wistful.

“What’s it 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 bit surprised to find him looking there again.

It had been years since we last went fear-stomping.

“Vin,” I began, nervously crinkling the beer can in my hand.

He blinked himself back into reality. Then, finishing off his drink and setting his bottle down on the concrete, he moved beside me and put his arm around my shoulders.

“It’s easy as breathing,” he said. “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 works...sometimes it gets a little sloppy.”

I pondered his words, not understanding, and was about to ask him what he meant when suddenly (and quite unexpectedly) he started nuzzling my neck.

I wasn’t gay. Males held no tantalizing qualities for me whatsoever. I was attracted to women, had enough of a heterosexual drive to have bolstered chronic masturbation all throughout high school as I’d frequently imagined myself boldly making love to any and all girls who happened to catch my eye. Of 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 with my relentless Kegel workouts. I’d never had a girlfriend, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t straight.

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.

I pulled away slightly, tried not to make my confusion too obvious. My first concern was 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 affairs.

“You worry too much,” Vincent whispered, giggling. “I’m not just some stranger, you know.”

I returned his gaze, unsure of what he meant. For a moment I was transported to a moonlit backyard on a night when two boys had sneaked out to set a daddy-long-legs free and had entered into an embrasure that had infinitely more to it than mere childhood experimentation.

How had I forgotten? How had I left that memory there, hidden behind the years, a framed 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, seeing the intensity there, I suddenly felt a shadowy echo of something long-lost to my 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 different road after sharing their first kiss) expressed their love for each other via physical means.

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 were 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 affection I knew he wanted me to feel. My sexuality had already been hard-wired.

“I’m sorry,” I said slowly. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. “I...I’m not gay.”

Vincent shrugged, still smiling. “Neither am I.”

“But...you were just kissing me.”

“Consider 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; when he found it, he turned to me and held out his hand. “Let’s go for a walk.”

It might have been the beer, it might have been genuine curiosity, but I found myself standing, taking Vincent’s hand and allowing him to lead me out of the pool area.

There was something I had to know...something.

A laundry lodge, flanked by a legion of juniper bushes, stood adjacent to the pool. Vincent stopped at a spot between the rear of the lodge and the management staff parking lot, where the soil was slightly recessed and the leaves had thinned.

“Down there,” he said, crouching and pointing. “Follow me.”

There, I thought, laughing. We haven’t done this in years.

I dropped onto my hands and knees and followed him along a brief path of mud and pebbles. At first I was abhorred by the thought of what I was doing to my clothes, but only for a moment, as suddenly we emerged into a hidden cove, a spot that was special, secluded—

—a world within a world.

“How do you feel?” Vincent asked, scooting forward on his knees and taking me in his arms.

I was unable to answer verbally, so I merely returned his embrace, fell with him onto the ground. It was like seeing a loved one after many, many years of being apart. 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 love someone.

Afterward, I found myself giggling almost hysterically at the wonderful audacity of the situation.

“What’s got you?” Vincent asked. He reached for his pants.

“Nothing,” I replied, gathering up my own clothes. “I’m just wondering why we haven’t been together more often.”

Vincent smiled. “You know what they say about having too much of a good thing.”

I studied him as he dressed, caught every motion, every flex of every muscle as he slipped back into his pants and shirt. At last, I donned my own clothes and, once the both of us were just several layers of mud and grass away from being presentable again, allowed myself to be swept up in his arms as he smoothed my hair.

“I want you to promise me something,” he said.

“Anything,” I replied.

Seriously.” 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 always. Promise?”

I nodded, smiling crookedly.

“Say it.”

“I promise.”

He smiled 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 beside Vincent and gazing into the darkness of the parking lot as if it were the 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 had changed, something to do with us.

There 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 opened fire hydrant.

Vincent sighed and grabbed me under the arms before I doubled over completely.

“Look at what we’ve done to you, birthday boy,” he said.

#

Neil had evidently been caught in the shower, for he answered the door wearing nothing but a towel. Scowling, he stepped aside and allowed Vincent to help me inside the apartment.

“Jesus,” he said. “What’s this all about?”

“Lost his 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 and folded his arms. “You smell like crap, Ken.”

I laughed 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.”

“Oh,” Neil said, suddenly straightening and backing out of the room. I saw him flash an alarmed look at Vincent, whose face had just turned Casper-white. “I didn’t...I didn’t know...you two...”

I started to nod my head, to proclaim with unwavering assurance that it wasn’t inappropriate for two best friends (who both happened to be male) to mess around with each other for fun when Vincent cleared his throat and stepped between Neil and myself.

“Get some sleep,” he said, chuckling. Then, turning to face Neil: “He’s drunk out of his gourd—been talking out of turn all evening, poor guy.”

I fell back onto the bed; I was half-undressed, shirt and pants dangling off wrists and ankles, as Vincent left, closing the door behind him.

I wished he wouldn’t worry so much.

#

The next morning I awoke with a wretched headache. Not only that, but I awoke with the startling, ultra-crisp memory of Vincent and myself lying clasped together 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 idea why 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 linear time, it was like replaying someone else’s memory, as if I’d somehow eavesdropped on my twin brother—except I knew it was me.

God, I thought, remembering everything about my first time with crystal clarity. My first sexual experience—with Vincent.

It hit me hard—boy, did it hit me hard, because it made absolutely no sense. In hindsight, yes, I could somewhat imagine being overrun with desire for another 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 threw up was the result of too much liquor and how much was related to the cold hard facts: I’d gone over the edge, crossed into uncharted territory.

Showering helped. I dressed in fresh clothes; I sat at the edge of my bed for nearly an 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’ shower as 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 childhood dream—besides, we’d been young; passing curiosity was to be expected. (And if Vincent had been attracted to me, why hadn’t he simply brought it up? He knew he could tell me anything.)

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 last 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 that 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 smiled back at me from the frying pan. With a sudden distaste for food of any kind, I dumped it all into a plastic container, shoved the container into the fridge, 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 to know.

I asked Shayla out on an impromptu date, and she accepted. We went to see a movie at the AMC, had dinner at Denny’s, and returned to my place for the wind-down. 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 time to 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 became so worked up that I knew there was no turning back, and I used the excitement of the moment to test out my theory. With Neil at work for the evening, Shayla 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 Vincent dancing behind my eyelids.

Shayla curled up with me afterward and told me that she loved me. I had, of course, loved her since the ninth grade, but had been unable to take the steps leading from cafeteria conversations to 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 what Vincent and I had done behind the laundry lodge had been a necessary bridge, a method of stamping out my fear of intimacy. And really, if that was the case, how else could he have taught me love and trust without actually making love to me?

Still, I hadn’t the slightest idea how I was ever going to face him again.

#

I was almost entirely certain no rumors were started, as far as Vincent and myself were concerned. Neil still treated me with the same pleasant detachment, and the rest of my school chums appeared jovial as ever when word spread about my blossoming relationship with Shayla.

I saw Vincent from time to time, between classes, and we occasionally stopped to swap a word or two about this 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 knew 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, because in order to rectify the situation, I knew I would have to talk with Vincent—and that scared me to death. I wasn’t necessarily concerned about the possibility he was gay, or bi, even; it was something deeper, 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 had work—I had Shayla—to keep me busy.

Shayla was wonderful. A little on the shy side, she was easygoing, somewhat self-conscious 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 of friends who made me feel welcome from the beginning. They were quite off the beaten path as far as style was concerned, and I loved it. We were our own little sub-subculture: listening to our own music, laughing at our own jokes, 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 behind, but my conscience was stubborn. I thought of Vincent whenever a moment’s respite allowed my mind to wander. I had dreams about him in which we were together, 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 mouth froze 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 my already smoking synapses, and I ended up embarrassing myself beyond belief.

Shayla was persistent. After repeated attempts to elicit the truth, she dragged me out of bed and to the kitchen so we could talk over tea (we were at my place, and Neil 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.”

Good God, I thought. There had been rumors.

“We were both wasted off our asses,” I said. “It was late—it was nothing.”

“Relax, Ken. I’m not ostracizing you or anything.”

I wasn’t convinced.

“It may have been a homosexual activity, but it doesn’t make you gay.”

I looked the other way.

Shayla 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.”

Sometimes (like now) it was hard to tell if Shayla was being scientific or sarcastic. Regardless, I reminded her again that I was not gay.

Shayla shook her head and sighed. She came over to me and sat on my lap. “Jesus, Ken. 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.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You haven’t seen Vincent in six months.”

Six months? “Of course I have. I saw him yesterday.”

In passing. I’m talking about spending time with him, going out together, doing things like you used to.”

I sighed, slouched my shoulders. “It’s hard...I’ve got a lot on my mind lately.”

“You always 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 centered around around him. Worse, it had nothing to do with the convenient excuse of 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 untouchable truth I knew existed somewhere between the folds of this reality and the next.

Between the folds of this reality and the next.

The thought echoed inside my head, and suddenly I was shivering all over with a crazy notion set free.

Shayla looked concerned. “Ken?”

Swept up in my own thoughts, I didn’t respond at first. Instead, I worked it all out, this lifelong equation that had 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 idea of how Vincent Nguyen accomplished the art of fear-stomping. It involved shifting from here to there, and now that I thought about it, there was more than just a metaphor, a convenient, private place to play a childhood game without fear of parental ridicule. There was 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 other that 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 could 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, made me feel so utterly empty since leaving that secret spot in the bushes where everything had felt right. He’d told me to remember—

—and now I had.

Shayla took my face in her hands. “Kenny. Yoo-hoo...are you there?”

I came to my senses again and nodded. “Yeah.”

“You want 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 got dressed; then I headed for the front door. On my way out I caught Shayla and kissed her.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

#

It was chilly and quiet as I stood in the fluorescent darkness with my hands in my pockets and studied the juniper patch behind the laundry lodge. It seemed so plain and insignificant now, like an amusement park after hours—but I knew there had once been magic here.

Looking around and making sure no one was watching me, I quickly crouched down and 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 visit, however, the place was cold and wet and cobwebbed. I felt no spark of passion, no feeling of utter contentment...not even an afterimage. The place was just empty space, hollowed and meaningless.

Sometimes I felt like that.

#

My instinct was to suppress. I carried on the following week with a noticeable pang in my gut as I ignored all but the most important mental processes.

On Friday, after work, I made my way homeward feeling like a threadbare rag doll. I was looking forward to my bed, to green tea steaming in my favorite mug and the evening news on the television when, quite suddenly, I found myself standing on Vincent’s doorstep. I knocked. He answered, and before he could say anything, I blurted:

“Vincent-thank-God-you’re-here-we-need-to-talk.”

Vincent, like myself, had become emancipated once he’d turned eighteen and graduated high school, and, as such, he now shared a two-bedroom house with a handful of 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 showed me in, patting me on the back and saying how good it was to see me again—all the typical prattle that’s usually intended as a distraction from the underlying discomfort.

We sat together on the sofa and, for several minutes, listened to the sounds of cars 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 house. I felt like a door-to-door salesman taking up a total stranger’s time.

“So,” 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:

“On my birthday, when we messed around together—what was that about?”

Vincent turned to me and smiled, and I was surprised to see an amused expression on his face.

“Half a year,” he said, “and that’s still on your mind?”

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 just...”

I had to clamp my mouth shut again, otherwise I surely would have kept babbling on into infinity. After a few measured breaths, I managed to think more coherently, and so was able to communicate without sounding like a record being played backward.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” I 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 the point—I think I’ve been missing the point ever since we were kids.”

Vincent 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 to you 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, you know, to be with someone like that...so maybe you’d be less afraid when it came to your girl.”

“So you’re not...?”

He shook his head, then scrunched up his face slightly—as if he’d never considered the flip side of the coin. “Are you?”

“No, of 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 had done me a simple favor. Now that it was over and done with, now that I had my answer, I should have been secure enough that the means to an end didn’t matter 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 shift between separate realities as if they were all one in the same. One, where I was typical, introverted me; another, where I was somebody else, somebody more daring and carefree.

Somebody without fear.

“Vin,” I said. “When we were together 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 it.”

I didn’t know what I was trying to tell Vincent, nor did I know what sort of reaction I wanted from him. My words had a noticeable effect, though: He left the sofa and started pacing about the den as if looking for something else to do, somewhere else to go.

“Everything 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 and 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 control all those legs, but not to the insects. For them it’s built in.”

I was glued to the sofa, gripping the cushions with my fingers as I went down a mental checklist of questions. “But 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 certain times? 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.”

“Like, between dimensions?” I asked.

“No...you’re not really going anywhere when you do it. At least, I don’t think so. 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?”

“Well—”

“I mean, if I’m so much better off there, why can’t I just stay there?”

There—I’d said it.

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 movie.”

You 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 know, together?”

Vincent took a long, hard look at me, and I could almost see movement behind his eyes, the shadowy reflections of moments trapped on the other side of a reality I could only imagine. “You’re not gay,” he said.

“I know. Not here, but there...I mean, when we went into the bushes together, we were there, right?”

“Does it matter? We’re best friends here.”

“But there are other places where we’re best friends too.”

I might have pushed the issue further, but the look Vincent gave me made it evident he was no longer interested in talking about the subject. So I let it drop and suggested I take my leave.

On the way out (and this took me quite by surprise) he touched me affectionately on the shoulder and said, “Maybe somewhere else we were lovers, and maybe it was you who lead me, you who 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 typically masculine fashion. “Now, let’s forget about all the details and swear to meet each and every Friday for pizza and Army of Darkness.”

I slapped his hand and agreed.

#

Vincent’s subtle suggestion that I simply live life and leave the questions alone carried me successfully into the new year. In late April, Shayla and I got engaged and split the rent on a 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 sitting around in our birthday suits in lieu of the financial burden an air-conditioner would entail.

For my twenty-second birthday we went to the Olive Garden. Vincent happened to be dating an Irish gal named Blaney at the time, so he brought her along as well, and we had a grand time reminiscing over manicotti and Straccali Chianti. Vincent and I had an impromptu bread-eating contest. Blaney seemed amused 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 wheat would upset the balance of my stomach, and she watched the proceedings with a frown on her face.

Toward the end of the evening, I became the slightest bit tipsy and, upon seeing Shayla’s almost-full plate, I asked, “Why aren’t you eating? Are you afraid you’ll find some Italian’s severed finger in the marinara?”

“I’m not 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.

“Christ,” 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 women’s restroom.

Neither Vincent nor Blaney had an explanation as to why my awkwardness had set Shayla off. Usually she was able to put me in check whenever I acted out of turn. Tonight, however, something seemed to be bothering her.

I waited 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 looks. Eventually she came out and threw herself into my arms. Her tears were hot against my neck.

“I’m sorry, so sorry,” I murmured, thinking that I was a horrible person, that I’d never drink again if this was to be the outcome.

“It’s not you,” Shayla said. She dabbed her face with a handful of toilet tissue. “It’s...I’ve been meaning to tell you...it’s just hard to get things out sometimes.”

My heart leaped into my throat.

Shayla, still holding me, bit her lip and looked towards the exit. “I need some fresh air.”

“Okay,” I said.

It was cool outside, the sky overcast. We sat together on the curb at the edge of the restaurant parking lot overlooking the Macy’s side of the mall.

“I found out I have Crohn’s Disease,” Shayla said, her arms stretched out over her knees. “I’m going to have to have surgery, eventually.”

“When did 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 could find something to say besides, “I’m sorry”).

“Last week. 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 meals completely because of the cramps, I knew there was a problem.”

Shayla had 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 thought her 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 recall 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, sitting naked with her back against the wall, notebook propped on her legs. Every so often I would glance over my shoulder, catch a glimpse of her with the reading lamp 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 my head.

I 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 those who possessed a certain amount of strength and leadership ability; to have the 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 thousand miles away and twenty years ahead.

“Ken? Shay?”

It was Vincent, hand in hand with Blaney, calling our names from several cars away. He spotted us and waved.

“Don’t mention this—please,” Shayla whispered, standing and 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 television off completely and went to sleep.

Well, Shayla dozed off, but I was wide awake, holding her until I knew she was asleep and then slipping quietly from her side, pulling on my clothes and exiting the studio without a sound.

Outside, the air smelled like rain. I drove for an hour, eventually falling into orbit around the UCI campus. I kept making the same mindless circle, never actually pulling into any of the lots, until I was almost out of gas. I found a gas station and spent another fifteen minutes or so rooting around the seats 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 through the crack in the window and trickled down onto the seat. Plop...plop...plop...

Just go talk to him, I thought. You know there’s no chance unless you talk to him, make him see reason.

I was 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.

The rain pelted my face, soaked my clothes and plastered my hair against my forehead as I got out of the car and crossed the street. By the time I reached the front door, I was shivering from head to toe—but only a small part of it had to do with being wet.

Vincent was 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.

“Please,” I 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...”

Somehow I 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, it would be all right if I just slowed down and explained to him what the problem was.

“It’s 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 could handle 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 might 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 with his hands. “Ken...Ken...Ken. What have I done to you?”

“Vin—”

“No, no, this is my fault. I stepped across the line when I took you behind the laundry 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.”

I hadn’t the slightest clue what he was talking about, so I started grasping at straws. “Vin, we’re best friends, right? You showed me what I can be.”

“I took advantage of you—”

“I’m not ashamed of what we did. Not anymore.”

“—living this life without being able to love you like I do—”

“Vin, please. It’s not like that. It doesn’t have to be.”

“—knowing better, but breaking the rules anyway because sometimes I too wonder if there 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 it works.” He scowled and clenched his fists, trying to think of the right words. “It’s like...when I first started driving and my parents let me use their car. Whenever my dad gave me the keys, I had to promise not to take it joyriding, not to go 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 given...I’m 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?”

He paused, looking at me. When I didn’t answer, he continued:

“The places I’ve taken you, they’re 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 with 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; there’s no way to change that.”

Vincent fell silent and walked to the window, peering outside. Rain smeared the glass, made it look like ice melting.

How appropriate, I thought. The universe is weeping.

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?”

Vincent tensed, and he turned to face me. There was a dangerous light in his eyes. “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 I’ll deny 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 anymore.”

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 selfish!”

With a powerful shove, he pushed me backwards so that I fell hard onto the floor. The air was knocked from my 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 ol’ pal Vincent every time something goes wrong. You won’t have suffered alongside 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 and fight her own battles.”

I slowly got to my feet. “Please...don’t make me do this alone...please...”

“I’ve made 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 moved on, but I didn’t. I’ve been painting over a crumbling canvas ever since...I can’t do this anymore.”

“But Vin—”

“Go home,” he growled, and grabbed me by the shirt collar, shoved me towards the door. Each time I tried to turn around for an encore groveling he shoved me harder, ignoring my pleas until I was outside, at which point he 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 cried 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 had to go back home to Shayla and face the unbearable. Worse yet, I had to do it 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.

Instead, I was bitter and alienated.

#

At a 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) stumbling in through the front door, she flicked the television off and went into the 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 me get dry. I wanted to tell her to go back to sleep, tell her she needed her rest and not to worry about me, but my brain was locked into self-pity mode. I stared around the room—the only room our 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 small refrigerator that could barely hold a six-pack. No kitchen, no dining table, no 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.

“You shouldn’t have gone,” Shayla said. “It’s dangerous driving in the rain.”

“Well,” I said, spreading my arms, “I’m still here.”

“You’re moping again.” She started massaging my shoulders. “And more neurotically than usual.”

“Har-har.”

“Did you tell him?”

“Tell who?”

“Vincent. About me.”

“Who says I went to see Vincent?”

“I assumed that’s where you went, judging by the way you were cursing his name under your breath a minute ago.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, did you tell him?”

I grunted ferally. “Why would I do that?”

“The whole way home from the restaurant you looked like you wanted to.”

“Well, I didn’t...not really. This was something else.”

“Oh. That other thing, then.”

“What other thing?”

“Your relationship with him. Ever since your twenty-first birthday.”

“I’m over the sex thing.” I turned to face her. “Really.”

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’ll listen.

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 faced with the same dilemma: Do I bare myself to her, share my collection of fears and uncertainties so we can suffer together? Or do I keep it all to myself, maintain that illusion of stolid certainty until an ulcer eats its way through 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 her body, at her cells, at the malady festering in her intestines; I wanted to 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 something very simple: She took my hand in hers and squeezed gently, just enough so that I could feel her strength, her warmth—

—her love.

She could have had anyone, I thought. In high school, when everyone was pairing off, determined to find someone before their senior year, she was waiting for me. Why? Because she thought I was cute? 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.

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 any 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. He’d never intended for me to fall in love with him directly (despite the fact that in another world we were lovers); he’d merely wanted me to fall in love.

I pulled Shayla into my arms and kissed her passionately. I felt the heat, like captured sunlight, rising off her body. I felt her pubic hair tickling my thigh, felt her pulse as she became aroused, and something came free within me, something I’d been suppressing for the longest while. I held her at arm’s length, watching her smile, watching her muscles work as she moved against me. It was sexual, yes, but it was also the most spiritual moment I had ever experienced, 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.

#

The phone rang just before dawn. Shayla and I were still tangled up together in bed. 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.

Shayla gave me a questioning look after I hung up. “What was that about?”

“That was 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 pulled up 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 dinner.

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 succumbing to 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 didn’t 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.

“He’s pretty banged up,” Blaney had said. “A couple of broken ribs, fractured collarbone, broken ankle. God only knows what he was doing driving around in the rain in the middle of the night.”

She’d offered to make a run over to Vincent’s place for his insurance information, but I’d cut her off mid-sentence and insisted on going myself—

—and here I was.

I let 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 switch. 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.

Maybe, I thought, I’ve been born into the wrong equation after all. Maybe Vincent was wrong and this is merely a dead-end life, a rough draft where he dies prematurely, Shayla becomes horribly ill, and I end up completely alone for ever and ever.

Maybe.

Or, maybe, 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 (which was tucked away behind his school ID). I couldn’t help finding various photographs as well: photos of friends, family...several of me. There was also a piece of folded notebook paper, completely covered in handwriting, that happened to fall 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 Lincoln—Fear of nuclear war (CLOSED); Disneyland—Fear of roller coasters (CLOSED); Huntington 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 barely squeezed in beneath all the rest: Irvine Bethel 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 my 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 love-fest.

Closed,” I thought. “Open.” Like gateways...places we’ve stepped into. Doorways.

#

I knew where the Irvine Bethel was (the Nguyen family had taken me there on several occasions). The area was mostly apartments and dormitories—UCI’s sprawling campus suburbs—scattered 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 dew, 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, I had no actual idea what I was doing here; I might have been looking for spiritual satisfaction, or for quavering, glowing doorways—I had no guarantee of finding either.

There was a courtyard behind the church; it was a miniature campus housing the community center and various continuing-education classrooms. I walked around for a while, looking this way and that, feeling ever more adrift as the overcast sky 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 and stared, feeling a chill come over me, feeling the pull of an eternal expanse within arm’s reach. I was sure, had Vincent taken me here for a fear-stomping session, that we would have sat together on the bench and I would have felt my latest worries melt into blissful oblivion. Maybe I needed him with me, or 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—

—and worry no more.

Instead, I 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 my life 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 Vincent’s list; all I have to do is sit there, relax a moment, and everything will be better.

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 skin, a doppelganger whose distant gaze would betray his origin during conversations...an alter-ego who would gasp and pant and look shamefully away whenever we made love.

I thought of Vincent, laying in his hospital bed and looking up at me whenever I visited. Would he notice the subtle differences, the face behind the face—would he know what I’d done?

Would he know?

Rising to my feet, I let out a long, slow breath and looked around at the grass and trees. At some point during my reverie life had been restored to the world around me: Birds sang from their perches; cars moved to and fro on the highway; the sun poked through the haze and illuminated the glistening asphalt.

It’s 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 to the best of my ability—good, bad, and ugly.

I crumbled 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 pocket.

My brain hiccuped, and I faced the bench again. The piece of paper I’d tossed there was, of course, gone.

I pulled 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:

Kenny,

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 always afraid would take you by surprise when you least expected it. When Shayla got sick, I knew it was time to face the unbearable, but this was something I wasn’t sure how to help you with, exactly—until I realized the parallels between our two realities.

You came here twice before: once, when Vincent removed the spider from your bed; again, on your twenty-first birthday. Our two worlds overlapped and it became easier to see yours over all the others. I’ve since realized it was a fortunate 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 different.

Vincent has already explained to you how the universe works: action, reaction, cause and effect, parallel polarity, and so forth. You see, in my world, he was the 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 choice, and I think you’ve both picked the right one—I couldn’t be prouder.

Your life means something, in this reality and every other. Even if Vincent didn’t have his gift of omni-sight, he might have done the same thing anyway, subconsciously. He will heal. Likewise, Shayla will flourish because she has your love. Your friends are whole because they have you; they, in turn, make you whole—this is no mistake. You just have to look.

Your truly,

Kenneth Filatov

P.S. Save this letter; it might be worth something to the quantum physicists.

My heart hammered in my chest. I looked up, looked at the trees and the sky and the buildings beyond; I smelled 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.

I started back towards the car.

The End


© 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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