This story first appeared in Plazm, fall 2007.

Brothers

No one ever asked them how they got together. Friends were afraid the question could bring about a total collapse; strangers they somehow managed to scare off.

To Robert, it had been the result of an airplane crash. He had once been close friends with a woman on the plane. When she died he was beset with confusion, sadness, guilt, and obscure fear. After the memorial service he stepped out of the church into the gray, prematurely simmering spring afternoon. Though he could have telephoned his mother, countless old friends, a guy in a band he was kind of seeing, he instead called at work a man whom he had met recently and had a good feeling about. In his voice he believed he heard understanding, tenderness, strength.

George remembered the first night with more seeming indifference, though he could call up the details when it served. He had read online about the crash—a small plane, a short article in the Times—and his reaction comprised horror and fascination with what he believed to be deep empathy. When he discovered that his attractive new friend Robert had actually known the woman, he experienced an arousal that he could never admit; likewise he was afraid to confess how vividly he had imagined the plane’s last moments: the pilot’s stunned inaction as mountain materialized out of cloud, the final extinguishments. Nor did Robert mention that he had done the same. What, they had fantasized separately, at times obsessively, could it have all been like?

Oh no, I can’t make it that early, George said. I’ve got dinner plans. How does nine work for you?

They met at a quiet bar, drank cocktails, kissed in the back room during a quick downpour that cleared the sky. They went to George’s apartment as if it were preordained—and it’s true, he had decided days before to sleep with this sweet, distracted man at the earliest opportunity. Here it was: sloppy, drunken necking and awkward sex, a real first time. Neither brushed his teeth before passing out. In the morning, the sun streamed too early through eastern windows where the curtains had been left gaping. They woke hung over, pained by the light, staring at a distance of inches at someone who—each realized now for the first time—looked a lot like himself. It was a new world.

*

A black signboard framed in dull brass spelled out the designations of a family reunion and a wedding. Robert marched to the desk and gave his name.

You’re with the wedding group?

Yes, sir.

Behind the counter stood a young but furrowed manager with metal-rimmed glasses and a button-down collar, signs of wife and children and minivan respectability. He peered into a monitor, and frowned.

I’m sorry, gentlemen, but it seems we’ve got a mixup. We’ve got you two signed up for just one queen-sized. Is that what you wanted?

George, ever anticipating some disaster, just pursed his lips.

Let me see if I just can get you two. . . .

He rattled the keyboard, already searching for a new room.

No, it’s no problem, really, Robert said. It’ll save us a few bucks. And anyway. . . (He paused here, for smile and a knowing glance at George. It was that glance that did him in.) . . . it wouldn’t be the first time. This is my brother.

Robert slipped his hand around his sibling’s shoulders and shook him. It was a TV parody of family.

You know, I thought you two were some relation, the man said. I just wasn’t sure enough to say it. You never want to embarrass anybody. Or yourself.

He and Robert began chatting; but George refused to play along. It made his skin crawl. He wrestled out of Robert’s grip as soon as it was seemly and went to the rack of travel brochures across the lobby. There were caves in the region, apparently.

They rode the elevator up to their room accompanied by an elderly couple with pale chicken-legs in knee shorts and gray pates in identical floppy hats. A few floors below Robert and George they lugged off matching bags with quiet dignity. The metal doors slid jerkily shut; Robert thought it a good moment for a kiss. But when his hand touched the other’s arm, he shoved it away.

That man didn’t believe you for a second. What if he’d asked me for ID too, what then? You’re such an idiot sometimes.

Baby, come on—

And your little back-slapping all-American act. Cute.

Robert shut up. Hours later he’d think of the perfect thing to say and begin fuming; until then he would see himself as rightly chastened, deserving scorn.

When they got to the room George went straight to the sink, splashed cold water on his face, registered a silent complaint (to be stored for use later if necessary) against the roughness of the towels: Couldn’t they have stayed at a better place? But when he returned to the suite Robert’s hands found him, and this time he didn’t shove them off. He hated himself when he was getting fucked, and loved it too, curled up with his hands gripping his knees. His “brother,” meanwhile, felt relieved: He could still entice George, no matter what, and a cold, consoling part of himself insisted he’d be difficult to replace.

The glow after orgasm lasted until the first squeal of the telephone: Fellow wedding guests had looked up Robert with the hotel operator and sought him out; he sat naked on the edge of the bed and drawled niceties. The nasal tone of his voice drove George crazy, and so did the expressions he’d heard a thousand times: Oh yeah, totally, he liked to say. Super, that’s really super. Can’t wait to see your smiling face.

*

Though it never became essential to their sex life—George claimed an aversion to “theatrics,” as he put it, though to himself he could admit that he was also just lazy—the brothers idea became explicit early on. The first time they mentioned the resemblance aloud was after the third, fourth, or fifth time they had sex. (Each fuck seemed so keen and memorable at first, all except the very first later collapsing into “at the beginning.”) They were naked, padding to the bathroom separately, stepping into the kitchen for glasses of water. Each had already sniffed out the other’s closet narcissism—takes one to know one—and so it was no accident that they collided in front of a full-length mirror. Robert, ever tender and slightly taller, wrapped his arms around George from behind. The mirror reflected the discomfort on George’s face, only half suppressed.

Robert, who had been smitten from the first meeting—who was desperate without knowing it—said, Check it out; we look alike.

You’re right, said the other, who was repulsed by the excitement in the other’s voice. And yet even he, at this moment and others staring at Robert’s face, could not help but be fascinated, but indulge a part of himself and play along.

They looked in the mirror at each other, at themselves. Four hands, two dicks. Their nipples were the same burgundy and the same shape, that of a coin placed on a railroad track. Robert moved closer to put real fingers against reflected lips, touching both his image and the other; George stood suddenly stiff and sober, and took Robert by the hand.

They would frame themselves in the mirror many times but put their brotherhood into words only rarely. More often the observation came from someone else, a stranger or even a friend. The response was pleased or weary, depending upon who answered: Yeah, we get that all the time.

*

When Robert returned from the hotel lounge—the mid-afternoon cocktail was one of the great pleasures of weddings—he grinned a bit. Anger had caught up with him once the drinks slowed him down a step, though not visibly, he felt; certainly he’d betrayed nothing to his college friends when he met them alone because his boyfriend had preferred to stay in his room and read. At the door he fumbled the key but kept his mask up; inside, the airless room’s half light gave his buzz a hallucinatory tweak. A figure sat with a paperback in his lap and a beam of sun across his waist, the rest of him in shadow.

It’s splitting you in two, Robert said.

The other looked up quietly. Robert could not see his face but recognized disdain in the tilt of the head.

The sun, he added.

Oh, right.

Robert grasped the globe at the end of one of the bedposts. It was slippery with polish and just a little too big to fit in his hand.

Well, you missed some good boozing. My old chums are all very excited to meet my kid bro.

Silence, then. Too obvious or a bull’s eye, Robert couldn’t tell; for George, as always brilliant at withdrawal, simply turned to the window and shook his head, and folded his arms across his chest with spiderly precision.

I’m kidding, I’m kidding, Robert said; his voice squeaked. And what’s the big deal? I mean, come on, we’re on vacation. Everything’s different. We’re free, basically.

He crossed to sit on the chair’s cushioned arm, in lieu of his lover’s lap, and he did something almost deliberately stupid. After arranging his five fingertips delicately against the back of George’s neck, he added: Relax.

Anyone who knew George even just a little—let alone one who often seemed to know him uncannily well—would know that it was impossible for him to relax. Robert in particular might especially have avoided that choice of words. The first time he’d been putting his cock up his ass, he’d whispered in the tenderest voice possible—again stroking the back of his neck—Relax, just relax. The sex had ended there that night.

Funny, he said, wriggling away. Ha ha ha.

Oh come on. If it really matters that much we’ll say you’re just another friend of Darren’s and mine. We drove down together.

Who knows about us?

Who knows? Who cares who knows? Those who know, know. Those who figure it out, fine. No one cares.

No one cares.

Jesus Christ I hate it when you repeat what I say. I mean, is it like we’re going to be the center of attention? We’ll be marching down the aisle? We’re at a wedding with a bunch of strangers. It’s the way you always seem to want it anyway, anonymous.

George glared in a special way he used to indicate he was dealing with an irrational person. It involved locking eyes with the lunatic, lips poised between incredulity and sneer; you then turned slowly away, eyes ever riveted, as if the other party were so mad that you couldn’t risk letting him out of sight while you made an unhurried, nonstartling move out of reach, out of the room. Which, summarily, he did.

*

Every weekend Robert suggested they take the old ecstasy tabs, imprinted with smilie faces, that he kept in a film canister in his freezer. They never did; instead, it became a running joke. For Robert the idea was to share peak experience with someone he loved; he needed this to feel complete. In a way, the joke came to serve the same function. Even as its butt, it was something he and George shared.

For his part, the abstemious George, who derided Robert’s actually limited inclination towards “excess,” had a surprising pot habit. He used it almost medicinally, preferably with total furtiveness in (or better, before) social situations. It loosened his laces, and he discovered that when he was more comfortable, people around him were more comfortable. That was fine with Robert: He liked pot too. But George felt ashamed at what he considered his own weakness, even as he thought himself a coward for his inhibitions. He saw the good times he had while high as fake; thus preferred not to smoke with Robert. The phony pleasure reminded him that he thought the whole romance a bit phony.

One night after a cancelled shopping outing—the more fashionable George had by this time begun to dispense sartorial advice and items from his closet with a bent more sadistic than erotic or familial—Robert had managed to drop a couple of tranquilizers down the other’s gullet. They drank wine and sat around George’s apartment listening to out-of-date music, the CDs of youth, on his boom box. Robert, by contrast, had a shabby and incommodious apartment but a thorough and of-the-moment collection of LPs, CDs, and even esoteric cassettes, and a component stereo with speakers forty inches tall. In a cruel moment or two, George, wearing something stylish yet understated, would mock him, in his thrift-store clothes, for his adolescently misplaced priorities.

George yawned.

Feel like doing something? said the other.

Ha. Do I look like it?

Not any more than usual.

They lapsed back into silence. Robert had not really been interested in doing anything, going anywhere; but the manner of the rejection, and its mere fact, formed a hard pit inside the haze he’d diffused into. He found George’s cigarettes—the shrink-wrapped soft pack a weird skin within a skin—lit one and offered his lover one, which he took without a thanks.

After he finished he lit another immediately.

You chain-smoke now?

He shook his head, cool. The sudden onset of Robert’s arrogance always drove George crazy, though he never understood that he was the cause of it.

C’mere.

What?

Stick out your arm.

Why?

Jesus Christ, Georgie, would you just give me your arm? He added, with a malicious smile, Trust me.

And so he did as told. They sat across a table from each other with their right inner forearms pressed against together, tender skin against tender skin. Bafflement, and despite the pills, anxiety began to seep into George’s face.

The other wedged the cigarette’s filter end between their arms. It had burned slightly less than halfway down.

What is this?

Sit still. Unless you want to lose.

When George tried to focus on the cigarette, waves passed before his eyes. Then he looked beyond Robert to the mirror they liked to pose in together, lost himself for a moment in the golden lamplight curving like a blade along his cheek and chin. He noted the slackness on his face and shook his head. Before he could move, or speak, Robert grabbed both forearms with his free hand, clasping them together. The grip was nothing, but George chose not to break it: If he thought he could win, he’d never back away from a chance to be top dog.

In the gap between their arms, infinitesimal red-orange worms devoured the cigarette at a slow pace; their excretions flew up into the air and fell in gray-black flutterings: ash clung to a few fine hairs. For a long while the burning continued to seem to both of them abstract, symbolic, distant.

George felt something collect in his armpits; a nervous sweat always made him feel like a bedwetter. Meanwhile Robert’s stare began to transform, detachment turning into something like hate.

And then George snatched up the cigarette and snubbed it out.

What the fuck? You lose.

This is a stupid game. We’re not playing it.

It’s stupid because you just lost, Robert said, and slapped the table. Too hard: The sound was shockingly loud, an empty wineglass tipped over and a red bead rolled around inside it. Even through the painkillers and the exultation his palm stung.

It’s a stupid game. What do you want, scars? Are you crazy?

Oh, right. Of course. Now you get to be the responsible one. Fuck you.

Fuck you.

The CD had ended, which neither of them had noticed until this moment. They looked at opposite corners of the now-silent room, the expletives and the flat slap ringing inside their heads. As the excitement ebbed, the drugs began to slow things down, making not just their bodies but the situation seem heavy and clear but refracted, as if seen through a crystal ashtray. Robert weighed leaving, threatened it with shiftings, grumblings, and shuffling through his bag.

George stood up crookedly, steadied himself, fixed the tail of his shirt with the delicacy of one trying to conceal intoxication. Then, mid-swivel, right before he disappeared into the bathroom, he locked eyes with the other—as if he were dealing with a crazy person whom he couldn’t turn his back on until safely distant. It was the first time Robert had seen this mannerism; he saw it for the last time some months later in the less-than-fully satisfactory hotel two states over.

*

The balance of that long afternoon’s attempts to disport themselves together: a cursory exploration of the hotel; a steam-room session; a cold shower; cable TV scanned while lying side by side in bed, touching little fingers and calves, brushing a bicep with the back of a hand and cool fingernails. In the afterglow of the sauna, the needy and assertive one wrapped his arms round the other; in that same afterglow George accepted being clutched as if by a child.

That night there were drinks and heavy hors d’oeuvres in a small mansion that, in the quaint but economically depressed old town, had been turned into a reception hall and catering business. Men in sports coats and ties, or just coats, or just striped or plain oxfords bent the creaky boards; women in sandals and bluntly colorful pumps clacked and shuffled and wrestled with their shawls. Robert kept wading into scrums of conversation, being embraced and smiled at by people who’d known him years ago. The other couldn’t believe he’d left his marijuana at home.

Yes, George knew that, on the inside, Robert was as socially anxious as he was; it was one of their pastimes to contest who was more alienated, in an endless loop of whining over sunnyside eggs and on the pillow. (So much of their interaction took place in bed and at breakfast, far away from any public observation and even their own precise memory, that after it was all over the romance truly did possess the nebulous quality of a dream.) But while George would always prefer to hide or pose aloof—converting a handicap into a sign of strength—Robert’s sense of isolation manifested itself as maddening social aptitude, a mania for patter beneath which he was nakedly hungry for response. He was awkward but quick and kind—and thus George threw that word out as a slur sometimes: You’re very kind, he would say, when Robert brought him coffee the way he liked it without having been asked, or proffered a movie ticket purchased thoughtfully in advance.

Poised near a lamp with a damask shade dripping fringe, he watched him kiss a blond girl on the cheek. The woman smiled. He screwed up his face into a mock-chagrined swirl; they both burst into laughter. Then he gripped her shoulders and shook her like a doll. This was the gesture—too fond, too blatant—that made the whole performance angering. It wasn’t brilliant, but nor was it faked, and it was better than anything George himself could do.

Someone grabbed his arm: the groom, a tad underdressed in a patterned blazer with elbow patches, khakis, an orange necktie patterned with shields. He shook George’s hand warmly, making stern yet droll eye contact. They had met a few times and always liked each other.

George. How are you? Glad Robert dragged you down here.

Ha. It wasn’t dragging.

Mmm-hmm.

It’s a lovely place you found for this dinner.

And the groom, a history buff, then began a bit of a disquisition, actually absorbing, on the building and the story that unfolded through its renovations. He was from an old family with no money, which managed to inform every word and gesture with a self-awareness that seemed more historical than personal. George had a WASP fetish; the combination of weariness and reserve were undoubtedly the reason.

When he had finished speaking, he sighed and looked around.

Well, I should find Robert; he’ll be insulted if I don’t soon.

I haven’t seen him in a little while. He wandered off.

If I’m looking for him I just wade into the middle of the biggest crowd I can find. He’ll be in the middle of it.

They laughed. For all his own discontents George hated when people made fun of Robert’s foibles; it was a sign of real trust that he permitted jokes about it. The groom spun away, only to be snagged by his bride-to-be, a short, benign woman who worked in book publishing. She piloted him into another salvo in the endless barrage of How-are-yous. He was tall and handsome, if filling out, and he handled the exhausting business with masculine aplomb. Left by himself, with the damask lamp, George imagined himself as the WASP’s boyfriend.

Robert appeared with the woman he’d been laughing with—narrow-faced and pretty in a minor, possibly vapid way, her blue irises flecked with black like a thousand perforations.

Hey. Thought you looked lonely over here.

Thanks for rubbing it in.

The other’s face, inflated with champagne’s bubbles, crumpled. It was satisfying to watch.

*

The fights. They were epic, integral, predictable; yet for their predictability in every aspect, while in the fray and afterwards, when the brothers regretfully and with a sense of disbelief would survey the scorched earth that had resulted from something as petty as a disagreement over a movie they’d just seen or the size of a tip to a cab driver, each seemed freshly appalling and unique and all damage incurred permanent. Which it was, of course; but after a fallow period pollen would drift into the charred ruts and new growth would root in the ashes.

Example: One wants to go to an event with his friends, loud music and cheap beer, while the other prefers to attend something practical and reserved, a dinner related to his work. Fine. They arrange to meet afterward in a nondescript, conveniently located bar at a given hour.

George runs over an hour late. This seems to the offender both an honest accident—subway problems, no taxis—and, more honestly, a display of power; that is, a display of honest indifference.

Meanwhile, at the bar, as the minutes pile up, Robert becomes predictably furious, his heart pounding; yet rather than withdraw and retain his dignity, he waits around to vent. But this would-be aggression is a cloak for weakness: He’s in love even if the other demonstrably isn’t.

So Robert sits and drinks and with vengeful stabbings of his finger plays a touch-screen trivia game he sucks at. He leaves angry messages on George’s answering machine, checks his own messages, calls and hangs up, begins to wonder if he’s somehow in the wrong. George, meantime, as his train approaches station by station, has begun to wonder why he acts like such a dick. But on the walk from the subway stop to the bar he manages to reverse himself completely: His “brother” can just go fuck himself if he doesn’t like it. If he were a reasonable person, if he had any balls, he’d be gone—gone gone—by the time he walked through the barroom door.

He pushed through the thick velvet curtain just inside the entrance and saw Robert on a stool with an empty whisky glass in front of him, looking handsome and sad. You fucking asshole, he thought, what are you doing here?

Hey. Sorry I’m late.

No response. Neither of them moved.

Cabs—you know it’s impossible. Then there was some unbelievable problem with the train. The E running on the F.

He should just walk out. Why didn’t he?

OK, you’re mad. I’m really sorry. I know I should have—I don’t know, we need to have some kind of a better system or something. I—

And then he shut up, because the more he talked the weaker he got; he became scared and wondered what unaccountable thing he might hear himself saying. Fish swam in a tank, coolly, at the end of the bar. Some pricks shot pool, a giggling woman with cheap-looking bangs and a light-skinned black guy with grapefruit biceps. They seemed to be having a good time.

Let me ask you a simple question, Robert said. Does it seem remotely decent to be an hour late to meet someone?

This was how he liked to start—calm and falsely rational. A simple question: Logic would make it all clear. The more he went on, the stronger and angrier he would get. What most irritated George was the tone pervasive even at the outset: the morally superior, the instructive. When he took this route George felt like a scolded child and reacted like the surly brat he’d never in fact been (as a boy his world had been too small to dare alienate anyone; he’d never risked voicing the resentment that welled up inside at his few friends or parents when he found he had an ineradicable need for them, who in fact were beyond his control). He’d become sympathetic only later in the fight, when Robert had been crushed and lay weeping next to him in bed or ranted histrionic on a streetcorner. Both had actually happened, a couple of times.

For the moment, George just said:

No.

He pursed his lips, crossed his arms, drew together his heels.

*

They lay in the hotel’s queen-sized; it was big enough so that there was no need for them to touch. George tossed emphatically, Robert lay with his arm thrown across his forehead: He had drunk too much. In response to a particularly dramatic clutching at bedclothes, he said, finally:

What are you thinking about?

What am I thinking about? One thing I’m thinking about is what that woman said at the party.

Which woman?

Or no, my mistake—you said it, while you were gabbing with her. Your old lab partner, the blonde.

What did I say?

Hmm. You didn’t seem that drunk.

I said what?

She asked you about a mutual friend, someone she thought you would be in touch with. It was someone you were close to in college but you said you hadn’t talked to her in years.

Oh, Teri. The one who got Lyme disease.

Right. You went to visit her at her parents house in New Hampshire when she took a semester off.

OK, so?

You said it was funny—you used that word, “funny,” which seemed odd to me—funny that you can be so close to someone at one point and then before you know it they’re gone, out of your life. They’re nothing to you.

Oh, said his brother. He sat up. He had to acknowledge, finally, that something bad had been brewing and he’d preferred to ignore it. Now his heart raced; he was fully awake. After a silence, he said, as if he couldn’t care less:

Do you think that will happen to us?

Who knows? he replied, in a similarly flat voice that between them coded unmistakable malice.

Could happen, sure, Robert said (he felt he had to be cavalier). Happens to a lot of people, lots of relationships. Happens to most. We can’t remember everyone, can we?

No, we certainly can’t.

The air conditioner cut off; now there was just sweat and spite.

No matter what they swear in the middle of the night. No matter how they cried.

You just can’t tell.

No matter how they wrapped their arms around you when they were finally forgiven for the shit they’d pulled.

With this George threw back the sheets, ripped off the blanket, and went to lie down on the love seat.

You know, I think there’s a bus I can take back on Monday. Why don’t you just take the car and leave now? Or maybe in the morning—wouldn’t want you to wreck it half asleep, it is rented in my name. I’m serious, go ahead. Wake up in the morning, get yourself a nice breakfast from room service—on me, since you never even offered to split the hotel bill—and hit the fucking road.

Silence. Then came a tired voice from a dark corner.

This was a mistake.

Moving to the sofa? Was that the mistake?

I am sorry, you know. I should have known I wouldn’t be able to handle it.

Shiftings in the dark: the other, familiar with his habits, realized that he had turned on his side to face away, hands clutched before him like tiny forepaws. Likely the pillow would slip over the head in a minute. And in fact, more shiftings ensued.

On two or three occasions they had argued, quietly or otherwise, until dawn; like bad drug trips those fights went on and on with intention and control quickly slipping away, each desperate flight down a new corridor leading to a new, more awful horror until actual hate, cankerous and rare, caught them up and consumed them. Their faces turned scaly, their lips black, their tongues green, their hair into snakes. The next day would be spent apologetic, disoriented, embarrassed, numb, together; they would occasionally touch hands tentatively as if they were sense organs newly molted.

This time, almost by miracle, they managed to fall asleep simultaneously, mid-dispute, with the one in bed and the other on the raspy couch. In the morning they woke up refreshed, if sour. Reflex kindnesses and shallow entreaties were exchanged; each offered and received them with a cold core.

*

Sex could be tender or violent. The brother in the weaker emotional position held—as these things go—the dominant position sexually. The masochistic George wanted to be abused because he felt worthless, sure; but he also wanted Robert to make him suffer for the torments he inflicted on him. It was simple: He wanted to be paid back. It had to be personal, not theatrical, because theater was just another kind of phoniness.

Sometimes dishing it out took the form of actual bondage—tying up with belts, t-shirts, eventually a coated acrylic rope. More frequently there was struggle and symbolic humiliation: George would signal Robert with a particular anguished look on his face at the outset of “lovemaking,” to which the other would respond with a knowing, aroused glint in his own eye, then a sneer, a yank of the hair, a shove. Or at the end of a quietly antagonistic evening Robert might grab him from behind, smack his head stunningly into the wall or headboard, strip his pants to his ankles, and try to cram his cock, unlubricated, into George’s ass. He might get on his knees and suck him off, but as a kind of joke: Oh, you’re so big; Mmmm, you taste so good. After taking the load in his mouth he might clamp his lips against George’s and make him swallow his own cum. Once (and he congratulated himself for this one endlessly; to Robert it was a high point of their relationship) he made a show of brushing his teeth when he was done, then ambled into the kitchen and started rattling through the cabinets. You want a sandwich? he called. I’m hungry.

Along the way he might slap George, choke him, try to bruise with his grip or draw blood with his nails. Often he’d top it all by spitting in his face—for this act as much or more than coming on his face broke him. He’d cry—which is what he wanted. He believed brutality, carefully circumscribed, was the only way he could feel anything real at all.

For his part Robert felt glory and purgation; but afterward he would be overcome not by remorse, but by a sense of having woken from a nap like a plummet into a chasm. Bewildered, he would find himself in a familiar environment strangely and unlocatably altered. It would be George’s room, with the big yellow comforter kicked to a heap on the floor, the familiar books on the shelves and the same neatly framed paintings Robert had asked about on his very first visit; for him they still radiated mourning and intense excitement. There was the same classic bells-and-white-enamel alarm clock from George’s midwestern home whose tick-tick-tick-tick had initially kept Robert awake but eventually became precious: a week after the final breakup he would march to a drugstore checkout and, with a shame and violence bizarre to the clerk who took his money, slam an old-fashioned alarm clock on the counter. But after dishing out gross abuse he would carry back into the everyday world something of the other that he couldn’t shake. He himself might cry and need to be comforted, and once or twice he would have to be talked down like a psychotic on a ledge. He would apologize for being scared and unhinged; his brother hated weakness; in the worst instances he apologized and apologized until all he could do was say, I’m sorry. And though he thought that George only despised him at these moments, it was in fact then that he felt closest to him, when they were both raw, and both aware of how they were immotively suspended between fantasy and something real.

*

It was a cliché, yes, but Robert always cried at weddings. He cried less from his sense of exclusion from the institution, or exclusion from love, than for an obscure feeling he had: A trip down the aisle to most people connoted a beginning, but to him it seemed a kind of ending. This ceremony in particular lay him low, shifted the internal balance he had established over a jittery few hours during which he and George had remained quiet, polite, like lushes miserably hung over, wishing for ice packs and sunglasses and the relative comfort of the horizontal. When the couple at the altar began to exchange vows—their own homely alterations of tradition, the small and local meeting the grandiose—his eyes filled with tears. He held back, not wanting his companion to see him cry and be disgusted.

The other, so often remote from what was happening around him, did notice. At the tears despair churned inside him like a barbed-wire eel; and yes—another cliché—the pain he felt was localized in his chest, around his heart. He wondered sometimes whether all this really might give him a heart attack.

After the recessional Robert excused himself, not bothering to provide a reason. He walked across the grounds of the old gothic church to a low stone wall and climbed over it. He squatted on its other side where, safely out of view, he cried like a little boy. Eventually he slumped to a sitting position, watching the grass and weeds undulate in the occasional breeze, occasionally looking up to the scatters of clouds in the sky. It was, as so many had remarked in the nervous chatter before the ceremony started, a perfect day. He tried not to resent anyone for it.

When he stood he saw that he’d scuffed his shoes, and he heard his mother’s voice scolding him. He’d have to call her after this miserable weekend was over and pretend things were still okay with the boyfriend. It was just too embarrassing to break up at a wedding.

At the reception they were seated at the elbow of a pair of academics, the husband bearded and bald, his wife long-haired. Both were graying slowly, naturally, with a pronounced eschewing of dyes: Thus they declared themselves free of affectation. And yet, though they could be imagined smoking surreptitious grass and padding a college town’s cloying main street in sandals, they were too lacking in pretension to be caricatures. The rest of the table was filled with youngish friends of the groom, sympathetic and nerdish and even fun; George saw their decency instantly, resented the easy rapport his “brother” had with even the strangers among them. A desire to be decent—he thought of the groom and his dignity—led him to attempt conversation, but he was too used to watching from the sidelines. The first sips of alcohol made him feel not giddy but leaden, the night of little sleep catching up to him; the static inside his head congealed into an ever more irritating pulse, then a sharp-edged throb: a headache before even having a run at a drunk.

A quintet’s arrangement of a big-band-era standard came to a neat end like an expert tug and snip of a stitch. May I have your attention? the van-dyked saxophone player said.

All that guy needs is a beret, Robert said. George smiled indulgently and waited for the laughter to die down. Then he said to Robert quietly but audibly—still smiling—That was mean.

Robert flushed and sputtered. The singer went on: May I have your attention . . . and the rest of the table turned away. It had been nothing; but he registered it all the more acutely for the curtain of silence that had drawn abruptly around the nascent spat.

. . . what a lovely couple, the sax player pronounced over the newly married pair; they looked radiant and pristine. As applause faded, he leaned into the microphone and addressed them in his plush voice: Are you ready for your first dance? Then, raising his horn to his lips and cueing the band with a nod, he launched a rendition of “The Tennessee Waltz.” More clapping and benevolent smiling; someone at their table stage-whispered, You know she’s from Tennessee. The pair spun slowly. Despite the hundreds of eyes on them, they beamed at each other like they were the only people in the world.

Robert, bitter, projected himself and George into their place, while George’s satisfaction at his recent pettiness began to curdle. They watched the newlyweds execute the prescribed steps. As the moments wore on and Robert felt the table’s focus slacken, he spoke, to spite his recent rebuke—or typically unable to contain himself, thought George, when he saw him open his mouth.
You know they’ve only been practicing for a couple of weeks? With everything else they forgot completely about it. Robert waited out the final swell of applause that rose to meet the sweetly smooching finale, and after some girl at their table had gushed, That was beautiful, he went on: You know it’s funny how people have to learn how to dance, to dance at their own weddings. Lessons and stuff? From a certain perspective it’s unimaginable.

Hidden in the cloud of diffuse and dilating gab lay a sharp instrument aimed at George. The conversational gambit was the kind of thing that drove him crazy. Of course the professors took interest, and began going on about the differences between the generations, about the weddings of their youth—oh, they were wild—and about a book a colleague in the sociology department had co-written on the subject of wedding dances with someone at Berkeley. It was all very unguent. Robert said, I wonder if black couples have to learn to dance for their weddings? I mean, have any of you ever been to a real black wedding? I haven’t . . .

The deft multiplication of deliberate indelicacy and earnest discussion and liberal self-reproach led George to leave the table.

*

The one who was not so into it—“it,” the relationship, the thing they were doing—regularly surprised those who knew him by revealing he was a masterful fantasist. Most people glimpsed his ability, and the deep aversion to reality it entailed, only when strange asides broke the surface of his everyday conversation: a few fish flipping out of the sea into the air, or on occasion a whale sounding. He’d be listening to his coworkers talk about, say, someone’s weekend trip to the country, and an anecdote about the sighting of a little black bear picking through campsite trash would lead him to ask if alongside there were two other, bigger bears picking through the trash, a Mama and a Papa; and then, when the mood was on him, he would describe the trip the weekender might have taken with the bears to their house, where they dined with Goldilocks and Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin. It was all very charming up to a point, especially since, coming from George, it was so unexpected.

But there was something a little nervous-making about the way the usually furtive George grew animated, and something cracked about his precision and choice of detail—the unflattering cut of Snow White’s dress and the way she moved the porridge around on her plate like an anorexic, Goldilocks’s bad teeth and slatternly way of leaving her legs splayed, Rumpelstiltskin’s slurping and belching in contrast with his oddly mannered way of speaking. When he noticed himself getting carried away—without being able quite to stop it; stopping it was like stopping an ocean liner—he imagined himself beginning to slaver. He could almost feel bristles threading out through his skin and his jaw elongating with bone-pains like those of adolescence as his true identity as an unreal creature, half human and half beast, laid itself bare for all to see. Typically he would at these moments excuse himself hastily and go hide, in a washroom if possible, where he could in privacy pad away the sweat on his brow.

Those who saw his talent in full found it indelible. Abed, in the crepuscules just before sleep or just after waking, he would retreat into realms unavailable to any but himself, and if someone was with him he might hear a descant quite different from his typical halting and guarded way of speaking. These conjurings swallowed up his “brother,” empathic and susceptible; the depths they hinted at were one of the things that made Robert, like others before and after him, fall in love with an otherwise impervious man.

*

At least there was no attendant.

George noted to himself yet again, with a self-gratifying snarkiness, that it was not that fancy of a place, not that nice of a wedding. He focused hatred on the washroom’s décor—the ineptly joined seams in the faux-damask wallpaper, the thin, mauve-painted metal of the partitions between stalls. He entered one and sat on the toilet’s closed lid and clutched his knees.

He spent a lot of time in circumstances of enforced socializing staring at his feet in stairwells, or exploring the architecture, or standing outside smoking: Though his desire for cigarettes was limited, if not spurious, he would purchase a pack in preparation for nights like this one to avoid having to ask too much from strangers. He offered them freely to whomever was in need, then when it was all over stowed them in the freezer, eventually tossing them months later when he would find them iced over behind chicken breasts or a pint of ice cream. And of course he hid in bathrooms. When his brother uncovered this habit, he had breathlessly told him about a passage on this very idiosyncrasy in a book by one of his favorite authors—one whom he, the disdainer, disdained as verbose and self-important. Robert, who imagined romance in the manner of a youth, as a idealistic exercise in which one converts the beloved to the appreciation of those things one loves oneself—in which everything is shared and identities merge—had photocopied the pages in question and presented them to George with a brief, sentimental inscription.

The urinal across the way flushed, startling him. He hadn’t heard anyone come in.

He had forgotten Robert’s gift; the token of affection lay in a desk drawer or random stack of papers, scorned and yet not discarded, kept around by his subconscious so that one day he might rediscover it and flay himself for his failures. But he never forgot that Robert had pinpointed one of his most cherished retreats; it ranked high on his ever-lengthening list of resentments. While trying to achieve a moment of peace—even here, right now—the door could swing open and the familiar, light, uneven step would echo on the tiles and in a stoner-ish drawl a fond voice would call his name. If he wasn’t quick about it, it could happen right now; he’d be caught hugging his lapels in a toilet stall, for god’s sake.

He flushed perfunctorily, waited a few seconds, exited the stall, washed his hands, and walked out of the bathroom to the clop-clop of his shoes on the marble. They were soled with leather hard as wood, very expensive, carefully selected, a source of pride: You could tell a lot about a man from his shoes.

At the bar, with the music swelling—was it Fleetwood Mac, a request from bill-paying parents acceded to by the kids?—he tried to think of a drink he really liked. He’d never outgrown an unmanly sweet tooth when it came to alcohol. The very first night they’d gone out he’d ordered a lychee martini, and Robert had teased him for it.

While his mind wandered, a drunken young woman sidled up to him. She had bleached teeth, unnaturally orange skin, and a sheath-like dress in a shade of peach that was a complement, perhaps unintentional, to her tan.

Hey there, she said. Groom’s side?

Yes, he said, then added after a few moments staring into her expectant face, Yourself?

Bride’s. That’s why I figured I didn’t know you. Hope, she said, extending her hand; a cloisonné bracelet with white and turquoise inlay spun at her wrist. Beautiful ceremony, wasn’t it?

Lovely, he said, it was lovely.

Yes, lovely, she repeated, with a sarcasm that at first he thought was directed at him; but he realized it cloaked jealousy, hunger. He felt gratitude toward her for being so legible beneath her coarse, comedic exterior. She reminded him, with a pang, of Robert.

With a kind of shove towards the bar, said, You’re up, dear. Would you mind getting me a Sea Breeze?

He could be surprisingly amiable when caught off guard. When he waved away the girl’s offer of a dollar for a tip, she smiled, her lips forming a perfect bow. He advanced his elbow and, with quiet hate and loneliness of his own, let her put her arm through his. At the touch—the peculiar babyish flaccidity native to female biceps—he began to think of the last time he had had sex with a woman, one of his friends, a graphic designer, several years ago. They had gotten drunk; afterwards he had frozen her out a bit to make sure she didn’t get the wrong idea. The deterioration in their friendship he considered a function of time, nothing more.

Where’d you come from? the girl asked. He told her and she said, Oh, that must be nice. I don’t get up there as much as I’d like. But now that I’ve got a friend to stay with. . . . She winked. As they clinked glasses he became conscious of something, watching with fixity those now-moistened lips, painted a melony color—not desire, not superiority-reifying pity, but a mutual situational necessity. He wanted her to talk more, a certain process to get underway. He fantasized about the perfect, irrational sabotage of spending the night with her. It would be pleasureless except in the abstract, but it wouldn’t matter: She would be as far away as him from what was taking place, nested inside her own abstractions.

Hola chico, came a voice from behind him. He was embarrassed even before the hand wrapped over his shoulder like it was a knob topping a cane.

Hombre, como estas usted? said the woman, smiling prettily; she provocatively ignored his malice and stuck out her hand palm down, like an invitation to kiss a ring.

He snorted, a bit drunk; it was a worrisome lapse. When he spoke his words slurred, just a little.

Excuse me, I’ve very sorry to interrupt you two, but there’s talk of karaoke. Eh? Georgie? I didn’t think you’d want to miss my rendition of “Stand by Your Man.”

George tensed. But the woman smiled; it was an odd grin, slow to develop and mounting, as of figuring out a sleight-of-hand. She took half a step back, set her hands on her hips, and appraised them as they stood together.

Are you guys related? the woman said.

No, George said. This is my boyfriend.

It reminded Robert of the one time he’d been mugged. As he cut down a side street a large man had shouldered him up against the wall, never even pulled a knife or anything, and yet he’d handed over his money. Give me your wallet; this is my boyfriend. Robert had been able to see people passing on the main street fifteen away, less. He should have shouted but he’d been afraid.

Ha, he said, finally, and grabbed George around the shoulders. He’s kidding. This is my brother.