Two Thousand Miles
You know the days of the weeks by the red crosses on the calendar, and you are close to something, right here and now in the fall.
The fall! The candy-wrapper leaves on the ground and the clarity of the sky like a good comeback that makes you laugh through your nose in surprise. Every step you take is extra-careful, oil slicks on the soles of your shoes and though the season is over and it broke your heart, there are things you can try that might make you okay again.
You aren’t supposed to leave but you can’t think of any good reasons to stay. Everyone in Hollywood is half-famous, and lip-gloss shiny. You aren’t exactly at your best, tired of movie shoots painting the street signs to look like New York and making you feel lost, and after a month of text messages and phone tag, Rich Harden says to you, “the solution to all our problems is to drive for days in no particular direction.”
But you’ve got direction. You are barely into Canada, just across the border with the cop lights flashing in the rearview mirror and animals rustling in the underbrush. You’re going home, not your home but his, two weeks into November and filthy snow chucked into the trees.
A road trip, entirely different from the ones you’re used to. Driving around until you find the bad part of town where the gas is cheaper, eating fast food until your eyes are heavy and your heart hurts. Listening to your mind slow down and your breath start to draw even again, counting each mile with a joy that grows in your chest like a weed.
Harden knows this highway and he gets brighter the farther north you go, hands rattling on the dashboard and turning saintly on the radio dial. You feel astonishing today. You could live like this forever.
Harden has borrowed your best cashmere scarf and tugs the ends to make it slide across the back of his neck. He spills Coke while he’s mistranslating the French words on the signs, and you’re mad at him for a split second, but that passes. In British Columbia you have the power to forgive anything; you feel like you’ve dodged the draft. Harden apologizes for hours, my oh my how you love to see his mouth forming the words.
He falls asleep sometime after dark and the silver-red dashboard lights flick like moths across his face, and you get stuck in your head the irreparable idea that you can do no wrong. You don’t know where you’re going, because he’s the one who grew up here and he can point out north with his eyes shut, but waking him up is an impossible thing, for a guy like you, in a car like this, with your throat closed up the way it is.
You haven’t been this far since Triple-A. Two thousand miles up the coast from your home and you’re ninety-five percent sure that you missed the exit. The towns are spreading out, the woods thickening and the moon rising. Harden has started to snore, slumped down in such a way that there’s no chance he won’t wake up with his neck aching.
Expectations are high. You’ve been waiting around for most of your life, crossing off days, hanging out at the beach to stare at boys’ faces, fucking with your hair. Rich Harden walked into the world all, hey, didja miss me? Just what you’d been looking for.
You’re not sure why he invited you. He’s got better friends and so do you. Bobby Crosby is sulking somewhere over being left out. Maybe it’s the four-five times you’ve given him head over the past two and a half years of your friendship.
But you’re not supposed to think about that. You’re certain that he doesn’t think about it, because you’re fairly sure he doesn’t remember. He was always drunker than you were when it happened, and it doesn’t make you feel guilty, only smart enough to recognize the possibilities in the brief moments they were visible.
And now sometimes you dream about Rich Harden on his stomach and you lying atop him, your arm curled around his head so that his face is fit into the inside of your elbow. Of course there are other things to concentrate on in the dream, but you always end up focusing on the strange gasping sounds that you have heard him make four-five times, his breath feeling like equatorial summer against your heroin veins.
It’s the highway, is what it is. It’s the two Vicodins you took at the last truck stop, making you warm under the surface of your skin, your ears ringing. It’s Rich Harden asleep in the shotgun seat, and you’re starting to recognize the landmarks by stories he’s told you. It doesn’t matter why you’re here. All that counts is that you are.
“So hey,” you say quietly, not really trying to wake him up. “It’s okay to assume that me sucking you off occasionally isn’t going to fuck up our friendship, right?” Harden keeps sleeping, his eyelids flickering. You grin at the road.
“I think you’re really cool, Richie.” You beat out a little rhythm on the steering wheel. “I’d take half of you over three of anybody else, swear I would.”
Harden sighs, and you glance at him, hooking your thumbs under the steering wheel. Harden’s eyes are still closed, his lips moving so slowly it looks like he’s underwater. Asleep. You wish you could be asleep. You wish you could pay for a single motel room with only one bed, and wake him up, say, oh sorry this is all they had left. I can sleep on the floor. And knowing Rich Harden as you do, he’ll say, fuck no, it’s cool, the bed’s big enough.
Dot dot dot.
You kinda wish that all your plans for having sex with Harden didn’t involve him being drunk or you telling a lie. But you’ll take what you can get.
The green highway sign aims you towards Vancouver, and Harden must have told you seven hundred times where he’s from, but you still get Victoria and Vancouver mixed up. He said something about a ferry, but you must have been hearing things, because he wouldn’t have suggested a road trip to somewhere that you needed to get to by boat. Makes no sense.
The rush of the painkillers is coming and going like a tide, and you’re in a high place when Harden wakes up. He shudders slightly and your hand is halfway to crank the heat when he says your name, says, “Z?” all quiet and rumpled.
You say “hi” back, just as soft.
He sits up and winces, his neck popping. You nod understandingly. Tough, sleeping in the shotgun seat. Hard on the joints.
“Where are we?” he wants to know, and you do too, you pass him the map and tell him about the towns you’ve passed. You make up wild animals, moose and wolverines, and he laughs like he doesn’t believe you, unfolding the map on his knees and pushing his fingers across the blue and red and green roads.
He says, “The ferries have stopped running. We’ll need a place for the night.” You’d heard right, after all, you’ll have to take a boat. You’ve always liked boats. More than airplanes, not as much as trains. You slide into Vancouver on two wheels, and Harden holds onto the door and calls you crazy, tells you, “slow down, man, there could be ice.”
There could be. You could lose contact with the ground entirely, and go flying over the guardrail, flipping midair and breaking trees like matchsticks, Eberhard-Faber No. 2s. You smile and a motel’s neon sign holds a central place in your eyes, rubbing elbows with the moon, the letters jittering on and off.
Everything is working out. Harden gets out of the car and stretches, crick-snap, and the air is cold, jeans and T-shirts and coffee-warm skin. You dance around, rubbing your arms, and huddle next to him as he opens the back of the car. He rolls his eyes at you and lets you rub against him as he pulls out sweatshirts and shoves one over your head. He’s laughing at you and you’re blind. You give him a hug and even that’s okay. The lines that you aren’t supposed to cross have vanished. Maybe it’s Canada, it doesn’t count because you’re in a different country.
You get the sweatshirt on and Harden hands you your scarf apologetically. You make a grand forgiving wave of your hand and dramatically wrap the scarf around you, the Coke sticky and chill on the back of your neck. It’s okay. You’re still rich, he’s still here. Nothing can go wrong.
Harden leaves a message on his parents’ answering machine while you get the room. You flag him down through the window and communicate with your hands, one room, you and me, okay, okay? Your face is reflected in the dim glass and you look rather more panicked than you’d intended. Blame it on to Vicodin.
Harden gives you a bewildered smile and a thumbs up. His breath blows out white and you remember that you aren’t going to be with him for Thanksgiving, there’s a plane ticket in the inside pocket of your roller suitcase.
San Diego is waiting. But not tonight. You pay for the room gleefully, not quite your date-rapist fantasy because there are two beds, but close enough.
The room is tiny and wallpapered in yellow flowers. Half the television stations are in French and you take another painkiller in the bathroom, cupping your hands and the water rolling down your forearms, wetting the sleeves of your T-shirt. You’ve taken off Harden’s sweatshirt, but left it tangled on the pillow of the bed you’ve claimed, thinking about scent and warmth and all the things that a bloodhound could track if you ever lose him. You won’t lose him. You’d let every finger on your left hand be broken before you let him go.
Harden comes in with his cheeks hard and flushed, his neck pale. His teeth are chattering; you can hear them from across the room. “R-r-r-really fuckin’ cold.”
You want to open up your arms, charmed by pharmaceutical-grade opiates and the blue of Rich Harden’s eyes. Body warmth, baby. You settle for tossing him the sweatshirt, and he wraps it around his shoulders like a cloak, climbing under the covers on the other bed until only his chapped nose and brushed blonde-brown hair shows above the blanket. He’s got thin skin. That must suck.
You find some old surreal British comedy show and Harden makes happy noises to show he approves. His eyes spark and fly and you watch him watching television, thinking about those four-five times and he was always drunk and you rarely were.
He gets so loose when he’s drunk. All his knots untie. You would swear that he’s four inches taller lying down hammered than standing up sober—if that makes sense. Rich Harden, like everything good in the world that’s ever been off-limits to you, sprawled out with his legs and arms making an X to mark the day, and all you wanted was your hands up his shirt and under his belt, feel him up like a drunk freshman, you wanted to know if his skin was clean enough to squeak under your palms.
Yeah. Fucking irresistible; you can’t be held accountable.
You were always so scared during it, waiting for him to jerk you up by your too-long hair and sock you, bloody your nose and split your lip and that’d be real fun explaining to the coaches, and so it turns out that remembering it is even better. You don’t have to be afraid when it’s just in your head—how unique.
In your head, he’s not intimidating at all, and way more responsive than he ever was in real life, petting your neck, fingering your ears, pushing his thumbs into your mouth. He arches up and gasps your name, clinging to your head, and he doesn’t choke you and you can breathe without trouble through your nose and you never lose the rhythm between your hand and your mouth. You can take him in your throat like you were born for this. His belt doesn’t knock you in the chin repeatedly and you don’t scrape your cheek on his zipper bad enough to bleed. It’s not messy or awkward and your knees don’t hurt from kneeling on the pool deck and you’re not insane with fear over getting caught. There is no drool or funny sounds. He’s not mumbling half-incoherently, “fuck, girl, just like that,” and you’re not so fucking heartbroken by the whole thing that it burns in you like a grassfire drunk on gasoline.
In your head, you’re perfect. And him too.
Christ, he’s perfect all the time.
He’s warm enough by now to kick the covers off and ask you to grab him a Coke from the minibar. You look around carefully and then inform him that there is no minibar. His look of dismay is without parallel. You say, “Settle down, there’s a vending machine like five feet away,” and he smiles joyfully, tells you that you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to him.
You pounce on him, moving before you have a chance to second-guess it. You flare into regret for a brief shattering moment, because some of the lines must still be there, but he’s laughing under you and wriggling around, little-brother wrestling on the carpet before Saturday morning cartoons, though you do not have a little brother and don’t know what the fuck is happening in your head right now. Feels right, feels good, and his fists alight jokingly on your shoulders. He could shove you off but he doesn’t.
You scramble under the blankets, your knees pinned against his sides, the bellow of each breath he takes pushing you away, pulling you back. You dig into his pockets with your eyes fixed on his face, laughing face, pretty northern boy who invited you home with him, and there are shiny flat spots under his eyes, sleep-crust in the corners. He’s excellent.
You rip a crumpled dollar bill out of his pocket and roll off him, breathing less than steadily, your heartbeat kicking against your ribs. You grin and he echoes it, mirrors it, something.
You fall out into the hallway and take a deep breath. You get his Coke and one for you, and pace around for awhile, trying to figure out what you’re doing. Why you’re here in Canada and if maybe you shouldn’t have taken that last Vicodin and your hands look strange, puppet-like. You are beyond your control.
Back in the room, Harden has taken off both sweatshirts and you can see his forearms and it shouldn’t affect you like it does. But it does. You toss him his Coke and he flicks the top, but it explodes anyway, and he licks his hands and arms as you watch the Coke patter onto his shirt. Really, really not fair. Your mouth is dry.
The surreal British comedy has given way to hockey highlights, and Harden is of course entranced. He sucks absently at the mouth of the Coke and you clench your hands on your knees so hard bruises form under your jeans.
You ask him, “What are we gonna do when we get there, anyway?”
He shrugs without looking at you. “I dunno. Sleep a lot. Mom said she was making cookies. She always makes like nine dozen, which is nice. You can see my high school. My old tree fort. We might go fishing if my dad’s feeling up to it.”
“Won’t the water be frozen over?”
Harden rolls his eyes. “The ocean doesn’t freeze, man.”
You’re pretty sure that some parts of the ocean do, but you’re feeling agreeable. Some guy on the television gets his teeth knocked out, blood bouncing on the ice. Harden whistles, like, good hit. It looked illegal to you, but what do you know?
“You told them I was coming, right?” you ask.
Harden glances at you, chewing on his lower lip. “Yeah.”
“It was cool with them?”
He laughs. “Man, you’re a dream come true,” he says, stopping your breath for a second. “They’re so worried about me being all lonely and shit. ‘You gotta make friends to have friends. Being shy never got nobody anywhere, Richard.’”
You blink at him. “They call you Richard?”
“Only when they’re trying to make a point.”
“And, wait.” You sit up. “You’re not shy. You, like. Challenged Mulder to a drinking contest the night we met you.”
He laughs again and stretches his arms over his head, yawning. “I actually beat him in a drinking contest the night you met me, but that’s neither here nor there.” He looks over at you, rubbing his stomach slowly. “I’m not shy anymore. I used to be, though.”
You feel trapped, as purely as if your hands were cuffed to the bed. Harden’s holding your gaze like it’s something precious. A slick little runner of tension weaves between the two of you, and you damn that last Vicodin, because you’re hazed and you’ve got no idea what’s going on right now.
“Rich-” you start, and you’re gonna say something about being shy, being careful, not trusting the evidence, but Harden beats you to it:
“I’m not shy and I was never really that drunk, Zito.”
Every one of your veins draws taut; you go perfectly still, staring at him. He smirks at you, which is what he does best and always makes you want to lick the corner of his mouth.
“What?” you manage.
He eyes you like a convenient exit, and shakes his head, his mouth thinning. “Nothin’,” he says, crossing his arms over his chest and turning his attention back to the television, and you want to howl.
You want to get him drunk. But the nearest liquor store could be in the next fucking province for all you know. You make fists under the blankets and daydream plans for revenge, the television ratcheting through violence to commercials and back again, Rich Harden looking pissed off in the next bed.
After a little while, it occurs to you that you just missed your chance. You jerk with the sudden realization, and Harden cuts his eyes over, his lip sneered. You can feel it like a phantom limb, sickly imagining what you could be doing right this moment if you’d only paid better attention.
You stand, shaky, and mutter something dumb and leave the room. You’re still in just your T-shirt and you want to cry, it’s so fucking cold. You run around the parking lot a few times, until your skin feels hot again and there’s sweat chipping into ice in your hair.
He brought you home for Thanksgiving. Though not really, because you’ve still got a family of your own and a plane ticket in your suitcase, but the details hardly fucking matter. He brought you home for the week before Thanksgiving, to meet his parents and hang out in his old tree fort and motherfucking fish with him, and how stupid can you get?
You could have had everything, now you can’t even go back inside. You’re freezing, they’ll find you in the spring when the snow melts, hands clawed in curveball grips, your face gray. Rich Harden won’t even tell them where to look, he’s done with you.
This isn’t good. You don’t often have to pay for your mistakes, but you’ll pay for this one, a million times until you have to declare bankruptcy and get sent to debtors’ prison. Or Australia. You sit down on the ice, cover your face up with your hands. The painkillers are wearing off.
Harden sounds tired. You don’t want to look, but you hear his feet crunch on the ice and then his warm hands are attached to your wrists. There’s an optical illusion when you look up at him, the parking lot light rounded behind him, limning his head and shoulders.
“That wasn’t meant to scare you off, man,” he tells you, and pulls you up. He’s not wearing a jacket either, nor a sweatshirt, and you can see him shivering, goosebumps traveling down his arms. “God, but you’re difficult.”
You blink at him, confused. You were supposed to freeze to death. He punches you in the chest, but not hard, and then hugs you very tightly, cold around you and his soda-sticky hands clenching in your shirt. You’re even more confused.
“Because apparently subtlety is lost on you,” he says muffled into your throat, “pay attention for a second.” He puts his hands in your back pockets and kisses you. The novelty of heat is enough for you to kiss back, and then it’s good. His tongue is in your mouth and that’s good. You’re licking his teeth, you’re standing here in the below-zero weather, making out with him in shirtsleeves. Good.
He pulls away and you smile idiotically at him, glassy-eyed. Going to Canada was the best idea you’ve ever had, though you think it might have been his idea.
“I’m sorry, dude,” you tell him, thinking giddily that you get to have sex with him now, how fucking amazing.
Harden grins. “I know, I know. Come on.”
He takes you inside, and you both start trembling. You don’t care, it won’t last. Your blood goes like a song. There’s a week left before Thanksgiving, and right now there’s you and him, and two thousand miles is exactly how far you had to go. Everything makes sense. And you, you’re.
You’re blown away.