Nothing to hold back
The nothingness but
That prick of light, the needle-
Point into the numb heart
As you sail through black
Space, from “here” to “there”—
Unwalled, yet squeezed breathless
By the empty dark. The earth rides
Through a long dream of stars, knowing
Light only as differences of darkness…
—Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas, from “Fly-Over Country”
Begin with this: You have never been to Cedar Rapids. When anyone heads your way from Milwaukee or St. Paul or Madison for whatever reason, Cedar Rapids will most likely be their portal mid-sized metropolis in eastern Iowa—the last sprawling stretch calling itself a city, with buildings more than five-stories high, before they get to the tree-lined, grassy-knolled avenues of your stout-hearted town, so stout it mistakes itself for a city.
But you came, tail between your legs or so you say, from Chicago. You settled some months ago in the staid suburban hug of Coralville, a football pigskin’s throw from the academic wet dream of Iowa City. You had journeyed by car through Interstate 80, motoring past the exit signs to throw-away towns with the airy, borrowed names such as Joliet, Marseilles, Malta, Woosung, Ottawa, La Salle, Peru, Le Claire, Cambridge, Princeton, Milan—names which struck you as sad. Almost forlorn, like an empty promise.
On that trip, the ghosts of Chicago still after you, you had maneuvered your beat-up sedan, more than ten years old, towards one of those small towns just west of the Mississippi. It was a dump called Jaspers. It had a seedy-looking strip mall at the center of things where a Wendy’s stood with no signs of life. You could have chosen not to be there in that deadness of a place, but it was the town with the nearest exit for late lunch on the road, and you were hungry enough to eat a squirrel. This was compounded by your boredom of the landscape—the endless stretches of cornfields punctuated only on occasions by generic-looking barns and silos. Barns and silos. An eternity of them.
Revise that: You had no care for boredom or hunger. But it was something to do, a stop in the middle of nowhere, like the rest of your life. Food was the convenient excuse for a short detour into nothing.
In Jaspers, you had a turkey breast and black forest ham sandwich from a sad-looking Subway stop tucked into a corner of a grocery slash gas station. An Indian girl curled your order with a thick Mumbai accent. She seemed frightened, or tired; whatever she was, you didn’t care to know. You thought the fluorescent lighting above her counter, which seemed to contain a scarce supply of the sliced mishmash of her sandwiches to-go, cast shadows below her eyes that made her look old. She gave you your total and then her “thank you” spiel in a thick fog of sounds you could not understand, and you soon found yourself back in your car, behind the wheel, munching away at the sandwich like an absent-minded dog, slicing pieces of it with your small Swiss knife, your only souvenir from a best-forgotten past. And all you could think about was how the Indian girl seemed trapped, like a gerbil in a cage, in that horridly lit space behind the sandwich counter. It was not as if you felt sorry for her—you didn’t, but all you could do was wonder how people could survive with lives like that, like a gerbil in bad lighting, muttering sandwich ingredients for a living.
You turned the ignition on, and looked up the sky through the windshield. It was the bluest blue you had ever seen, not a trace of clouds anywhere. There were only the white streaks of random aircrafts—headed perhaps to Denver, to Des Moines, to Chicago—marring this blanket of cobalt sky. You would think of that moment often, still wondering why it would come to exist in your memory in such persistent details, still wondering why it would come to you paired with some trepidation. Something about the blue. Something about all that endlessness. Something about those jet streams trailing towards an infinity of somewhere else.
In Coralville, you settled in the cheapest one-room apartment you could find that was decent enough, and found yourself a job in Iowa City muttering the names of cocktails and cheap beer in a gay bar called Studio 13. It was in an alley off Dubuque Street; the main strip itself was lined with banks, bookstores, and bars—all that passed for regular life in town. On Tuesdays, the town folk came in for the karaoke and the $3 draft beer. The rest of the weekdays, you rolled your eyes as the deejay spun dance music almost a decade old. On weekends, Saturdays for the most part, between ten o’clock at night and two o’clock in the wee hours of morning, you took off your shirt, flexed your biceps and pectorals, and played flirtatious bartender to the young college boys coming in, their eyes always darting around in the dim light, always hunting. The small space of the dive bar was a beehive of sound and frenetic dancing, the darkness animated only by glow sticks and laser lights and the incandescence of white skin off the twinkie boys showing off—with the sweet abandon only the desirable young could pull off—the promise of tactile misadventures. You had seen all these before, in various incarnations or manifestations, and all you could do—all you ever wanted to do—was shake your head. Not in disapproval. Certainly not in disapproval. Only in the acknowledgment that you had perhaps lived too much, and had seen too much of everything. Nothing holds surprise anymore.
He came in one Saturday night a few months ago. Let’s take this as a necessary dramatic shift in the story. He looked almost out of place in that beehive, an almond-eyed man in his mid-thirties, with spectacles that was slightly too big for his small face. That face, Asian and fragile, was a wonderland of curiosity and amused disbelief, it was almost comic to behold. It was as if he had never seen men dance with other men before, as if he had never seen that much skin in the throng of writhing bodies in the worship of Kylie Minogue, or Madonna, or Lady Gaga.
He ordered a tall glass of strawberry soda, no ice.
You raised an eyebrow and gave a smile that bordered on a smirk. “Is that all you’re having?” you asked.
He flashed a nervous smile back at you and said in an almost apologetic tone, “I don’t really drink.”
“Then why are you in a bar?” you said, eyebrow still raised.
You leaned towards him, your elbows on the counter, your face coming near his. Your calculation worked. You could feel his skin flushing.
“Oh.” He laughed a little, backing away just a bit. “I thought it was a good Saturday night to get away from my hotel room, at least for a while. I was tired of writing.”
You stared down at his lips, made sure he knew what you were doing. “So, you’re one of those famous Iowa writers.”
“Yes,” he said, “except for the famous part.”
“Well, maybe one day, you will be.”
“Maybe,” he smiled. “Could I buy you a drink? A beer maybe?”
You shook your head. “I’m more of a wine guy. Beer easily makes me drunk.” You smiled. “But thanks, anyway.” The man looked away.
Still you considered it part of your job description to flirt just a little. It kept the drink orders coming, or so you were told. You didn’t mind. You liked flirting. You thought of it as a kind of sport. You thought of it as something you did to make other people feel better about themselves.
You were the Mother Teresa of flirtation.
So you said slowly, “So… maybe, if I play my cards just right, I’ll probably end up as a character in one of your stories.” You curled just a hint of a smile, enough to make your one shining dimple pop out.
“I…I suppose so,” he said. You liked how he seemed to be suddenly breathless.
“So I guess you’re here for research then,” you said.
“You…you can call it that.”
“So, let’s say you’re really writing this story. And I am a character in it. What would you name him?”
“What’s your name?”
“Allan is a good name for a character that’s a bartender,” he said.
“And what does Allan the bartender do in your story?”
He looked straight at you all of a sudden. You could catch a glimmer in his eyes that weren’t there before, it couldn’t be drowned out by the stray brightness of a laser beam, or a nearby glowstick being sliced through the air by a dancer in frenzy. And then, in a pace that was deliberate, he said: “Allan... Let’s make him a character with a past. Let’s say, he’s running away from something. Let’s say he’s from some big city somewhere. St. Paul, maybe. Des Moines, perhaps. Let’s just say Chicago. It’s far enough. And big enough. And familiar enough to most people—”
“Let’s say he settles in a small place—like where we are now—where no one he knows can find him. Or so he thinks.”
Something about all this bothered you, but just a little. You had taught yourself well about putting the world in proper compartments, to see everything with stoic regard, to watch out for fools who carried their hearts on their sleeves. This was just one of those stupid things. You knew people had always found you cold in the ordinary unfurling of your days and nights. They didn’t know you were even colder in your regard for the slightest thing: you did not give a damn for anyone or anything.
Still, you went on with your bartenderly motions, you proceeded to make this man his drink—a strawberry soda, no ice—and you pushed the tall glass across the bar towards him. You prodded him: “Go on.”
He gave you his $3, and he took his drink, and slowly sipped from it. He went on: “Let’s say Allan befriends this guy in the bar he’s working in, the guy looked a little lost, and so he takes him into a kind conversation, opens him up, makes him feel comfortable in the middle of all that dance music, all that noise and spectacle.”
“What’s the other guy’s name?” you asked.
“What happens next to Allan and Tony?”
“Tony does not drink.”
“What did he come to the bar for then?”
“Perhaps he was bored. And it was a Saturday night. And the rest of the town was dead for the weekend. The only signs of life were in the bars.”
“Over the music?”
“It can happen. They talk.”
“And that’s it?”
“Tony takes him back to his hotel, just across downtown, near Wicker Park.”
“They have sex in his room.”
It was you who were flushing now. Still, you couldn’t resist wanting to know what could happen next, to this fictional bartender and his fictional friend. You felt your insides shift, already too invested in wanting to know the rest of the story, whatever it was. You didn’t understand why.
“And then?” you asked. You were trying too hard to sound nonchalant.
“And then the next morning, they go to Cedar Rapids.”
“That’s 25 miles away,” you said, as if that mattered.
“It’s a good autumn day. The drive up Cedar Rapids would be something.”
“But what’s in Cedar Rapids?”
“There’s a good Filipino restaurant in Cedar Rapids.”
“Tony is Filipino?”
“I suppose he is.”
“So they’re going to Cedar Rapids to eat in a Filipino restaurant?”
“For lunch, yes.”
“Allan would fall in love,” he said quickly, and with such certainty.
“Oh, come on,” you scoffed. “What about Tony?”
“Tony will break his heart.”
You could slice the thick pause that came after that.
“Well, that’s something,” you finally muttered.
“It’s something, isn’t it.”
He smiled, and downed the rest of his drink. Then he reached across the bar to shake your hand. The skin of his hand felt smooth for you, and his fingers were long and steady. His grip felt both strong and tender.
“My name’s Henry, by the way,” he said.
“Henry,” you repeated.
And so it was that you found yourself in Cedar Rapids the next morning, Henry lying perfectly still beside you in the bed of your small and garish-looking hotel room in South Ridge Drive. The thermostat had gone mad in the middle of the night, and now it was balmy hot. You woke up to sweat and the receding shadows of unrecollected nightmares. “Henry, it’s almost noon,” you said. You were groggy and your breathing was all wrong. “Henry, wake up. Let’s have lunch at that Filipino restaurant you were telling me about.”
You nudged him to make him wake.
But your fingers touched cold, cold skin, and he was very, very still.
“So, is Henry dead then? How did that happen?” The questions come to you quick like bullets, and you turn towards the direction of the inquiring voice. It is the girl. You will find out later on that her name is Yvette, and what you remember most about her is her strawberry blonde hair cut into a bob. On good days, she can probably pass off as beautiful—but there is a blandness to her that fuzzes out the details of her face. Does she have blue eyes, for example, or are they olive green? Is her nose stubby or thin? Everything else about her will register to you later in hazy recollection, in that kind of surprising recall that effortless after-thought brings: the way she wears her daisy dukes, for example. This is what you remember most next about her. This and her strawberry hair. Yvette wears her daisy dukes in great discomfort, much too aware perhaps that she is showing too much skin. She does not seem like the type to show skin.
Revise that: Yvette wears her daisy dukes like a person forced into a fad, and she fidgets like mad. You like the sound of that word, fidgets.
But you don’t give a damn about the girl, more or less. Still, it gives you some amusement: girls in daisy dukes. Iowa City is full of girls who wear daisy dukes, especially in the summer. But you have come to wear flannel shirts, too, like the rest of the boys, and you realize how blending into the landscape can be accomplished without really trying, only with the right kind of sartorial choices.
How easy it is to pretend to be a native in a city where everybody is from somewhere else but not here.
You think about that because the afternoon began with you in a reading haunch on the steps west of the Old Capitol at the center of the town’s university campus, its dome bleeding gold into the clear blue sky.
Later, you hear sounds near you, and you find her sitting on the same landing as you, just a few feet away but close. She lost in her iPod shuffle, and you lost in the ream of papers you call a story. The story is giving you problems, and her coming has struck as an intrusion. You want the space to yourself, in that spot on the steps, looking out onto West Iowa Avenue, which leads into the rest of the city you have never been to.
Later, she says hi, and you say a polite hello.
Later, she makes small talk and then, in the relentless march of how these things go, she admits she’s really from Portland and now lives in small flat in Cedar Rapids north of the city, with two other roommates, all of them coeds. She is studying Psychology, and the other two are in Biology and Dance. She does not know why she is studying Psychology.
“Cedar Rapid’s 25 miles away,” you manage to say. “Isn’t that a little too far for school?”
“Can’t you guys find some place nearer the university?”
“I suppose I should, but I like driving my car. Driving clears my head.”
Later, she comes to know that you are from Chicago. Later, she knows you are writing a story about never having been to Cedar Rapids, which she finds interesting. She says her name is Yvette. You don’t volunteer your name, you don’t even think about it.
“So you’re one of those Iowa writers?” she smiles at you.
“I guess so,” you say.
“You know, you kinda look familiar.”
“I do some bartending on the side, around town,” you say.
“Studio 13,” she says in a quick deadpan. “I’ve seen you there. But I remember you with your shirt off.”
“It’s a living.”
“I want to read it,” she says.
“Your Cedar Rapids story. I live there, I’ll tell you if you got some details wrong.”
“Well, you can’t. It’s not finished yet.”
“Is that it?” She points to the papers in your hands.
“Read it to me.”
You shrug, and for whatever it’s worth and for whatever motivation compels you to obey, you begin reading. “You have never been to Cedar Rapids…,” you begin.
She sits close to you as you read. The words tumble out, you make mental notes about possible revisions, and soon it is late in the afternoon, almost evening. The Midwestern sky hovers between purple and orange, with three jet streams crisscrossing each other in the late summer glow.
Then you come to the abrupt end. This is where we have come in.
“I don’t know,” you finally tell her. Her question digs deep into your head—what exactly happened to Henry? Is he dead? Or just cold? What does it all mean? You turn to her, and you ask, “But does it work so far?”
She takes her time answering. “It’s something. But now I want to see what goes on in Cedar Rapids. It’s got a bit of a film noirish feel to it for some reason.”
“I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know what exactly happens in Cedar Rapids.”
She looks at you, and her face betrays amusement at your expense—as if to her you have just unwittingly played the fool, or she has seen the dark secrets of your tricks. You don’t mind. You tell yourself there is no use for caring.
“Why are you writing this story anyway?” she asks.
“I don’t know. I…I…,” you pause, thinking this through. “It just came to me one day. I just felt like I needed to write this out, to write about this guy—to find out what happens to him.”
“You don’t yet know what happens to him? Or Henry?”
“I just follow wherever they lead me.”
“That’s a strange way of writing a story,” she says, shaking her head slowly. “I always thought writers played God with their characters.”
“They get obstinate sometimes. They want certain unexpected things all of a sudden.”
“Yeah. Some of them. Like suddenly, in the middle of a sentence you’re writing—a description, a narration—they turn to you, and they say things like, ‘I want blue eyes,’ which is crazy because they’re Asian. Or they say, ‘Make me rich, I want a Victorian house in San Francisco, in Inner Sunset.’ Or ‘I want to work in a gay bar.’ Or ‘I’m a transvestite.’ Things like that. Most of the time, what they demand registers something for me. A kind of truth? I don’t know what it is.”
“And of course you obey them.”
“Most of the time.”
“Kill Henry,” she says, smiling.
“I don’t know.”
You don’t say anything.
You don’t tell her either that there have been other versions of the same scene.
She looks around, and then she stands up. “It’s getting late. I need to get back home—and it’s a long drive.”
You nod. You stand up as well, and you gather your things.
“Listen,” she says. “Email me the rest of the story when you’re done with it, if you can. If you want to, I mean. I’d like to know what happens next.”
“Sure,” you say, shrugging, non-committal.
She looks into her bag, pilfers through it haphazardly, and then pulls out a poorly-designed calling card straight off a college dorm inkjet printer. It has balloons and roses. Her name is rendered in stylish cursive, printed in hot pink. “That’s me,” she smiles at you. “I never got your name though.”
“Oh,” she says, and then she frowns a little, on her face that fleeting look of dawning. Then she smiles again. “Well, see you around then, Allan.” She turns to go, descending the stairs with some bounce. When she reaches the bottom, she turns to face you and asks, “Are you sure you’ll be all right?”
You’ll be all right.
You kept telling yourself that as you began to dress with a deliberate slowness. You were summoning every bit of calm you could muster, even as you began to taste the bitter edge of panic rising in your throat. Still, your thoughts raced despite your carefully evened-out breathing. Goddamn it, where is my underwear? My shirt? My jeans, my boots? Your eyes darted around the bright room. Everything looked normal, in its place. This was just an ordinary hotel room, and perhaps it was that very ordinariness that chilled you most—that it had become the context of what was in the middle of the room. Henry, unmoving, cold.
It was noontime, and you could feel the sounds of Cedar Rapid’s traffic invading into the room—and that was when you decided to close the blinds, carefully touching the adjusting rod, with your fingers pinching an inch of the window curtain’s fabric to turn it. You wondered in fleeting consideration what you were trying to do—erase all possible evidence of your presence here? But why? You saw that your clothes, and his, were spread in a mixed muddle all over the blue-carpeted floor, like dark clouds trailing across a wayward sky. You picked what was yours, dressing as you went. You’ll be all right, you told yourself again and again.
You tried not looking, but there was no escaping Henry’s inert body on the bed. He laid sprawled in a generous claim over the bed space, on his belly, his head plopped into the white pillow and tilted to the right. His right arm went straight up, towards the direction of the headboard, and his left was somewhere hidden in the molting of the hotel’s stiff white blankets, which covered the rest of him from the waist down. In the now darker room, it all looked unreal. What is happening here? your mind raced.
Still, even with effort, recalling the steps that led you here, you could not remember what exactly happened that would explain this fact of a dead body. All that came to you were flashes of recollection—there was the strange conversation at the bar and the throbbing dance lights of a late Saturday night. It was almost three o’clock in the early morning when you could let yourself out of Studio 13’s door, half-thinking but invariably longing for the bed rest to come, never mind the twenty minutes it would take to drive from Dubuque Street to your nondescript flat in Coralville. As you walked down the alley towards your parked car, you pulled your coat closer to your body. The Iowan night air was cold and biting. Somewhere close, near Deadwood Tavern, the sounds of beer-fueled conversation drifted towards you, and with it, a shifting form in the shadows by the corner. The form walked towards you, where you had stopped a few feet off, and regarded the man’s smile with both expectation and surprise. “Come with me to Cedar Rapids,” Henry said.
“Now?” you said, and in a beat, you found yourself disbelieving a little that you even cared to consider the possibility of this request from a stranger you just met in a bar. A simple “no,” told in firm declaration, would have been sufficient—but a “now” with a question mark? It signaled something else, so you thought. Perhaps curious acquiescence?
Henry said yes to you, and with some strange compulsion you could not begin to fathom, you allowed him to follow you to your car. You found yourself opening the door to the passenger’s side, and Henry slid inside, and you took off for the direction of Cedar Rapids, a place you had never been.
You remembered that ride for the dark stretch that it was, coming out of Iowa City. For most of that drive, you navigated your car in silence, Henry quiet as the whipping cobalt darkness of the night outside. You drove without a slight idea of what you were doing. You filled that sense of not knowing by concentrating on your hands on the steering wheel, and once in a while trying to decipher the hidden messages of the blinking red taillights of cargo trucks that zoomed along the freeway, all of them speeding along with you to somewhere else. Soon, you knew you were approaching the outskirts of Cedar Rapids by the first signs of scattering artificial light—a multitude of white condensed brightness—and then there were the sprawl of factories and warehouses, and then there was the vapid smell of corn sugar being processed.
You drove on, following only the flimsiest of instincts, not knowing really where to go, until Henry spoke up with a sudden “Turn right, here.” You turned right, followed the rest of Henry’s lead; his directions were short, his voice was unreadable. You passed by sleeping clapboard houses, brick buildings, parked cars, and tree-lined avenues, which soon gave way to bigger buildings, wider streets—a small metropolis hovering in a dream state. This was fly-over country at sleep, you thought—and you felt suddenly its secret gravity, a swallowing darkness that seemed suddenly so familiar.
“Let’s grab some drinks first,” Henry said.
“But you don’t drink,” you said quickly.
“I don’t, but you do.”
You spotted a 7-Eleven blinking bright among the dead stillness of closed stores everywhere. You parked the car, and Henry said, “I’ll go get the beer. Just wait here.”
You saw him cross the dark parking lot with sure strides. The minutes passed, and the thought occurred to you, I could just leave now, drive away, just like that. But you didn’t. You waited, and Henry soon came back, a six-pack of Budweiser in his hands. He gave you a strange little smile. “Let’s go,” he said.
After the last turn, you found yourself along South Ridge Drive, and then you were parallel parking in front of a small hotel—The Blue Sky, it was called—following Henry as he took command of the registration, as he navigated the forking paths towards the elevator banks, as you both rode the lift towards the seventh floor, as he opened the door of the room along the left corridor, seven doors down from the emergency exit.
He flicked open the switch of the side-table lamp, quickly flooding the room with warm light. “What now?” you said.
Without a word, Henry led you to bed. He turned to you, and began to undress you. He ran his fingers through your blonde hair, then gently caressed your face. “You have quite an American nose,” he told you with a little smile.
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing,” he said. And then with his hands slowing down as they reached lower, he unbuttoned your red flannel shirt and began to unbuckle your belt.
“Let’s turn off the lights,” you said, your voice much softer than you needed it to be. What am I doing? you thought—but not with a trace of panic. What there was instead was curiosity, even amusement, the sheer mad acknowledgment that you were flinging yourself into the void of not knowing where you were headed, trusting only the grace of the unknown.
“No,” Henry said, in a slight tone of possessiveness you found somewhat amusing. “I want to see what it is that I have.”
Much later, naked in bed, the blanket around you, you found yourself drinking three cans of the Budweiser in succession as you watched television with the volume turned low. You felt thirsty. You needed the buzz that was now slightly forming in your head.
In the opposite side of the room, on the small couch with a standing lamp beside it, Henry sat with a towel wrapped around his waist. His brown messenger bag was open beside him, and he was writing on a moleskin notebook, occasionally looking at you, his forehead furrowing as he scribbled fast.
You considered him closely, tenderly, but in fugitive ways—your face averted somewhat even as your eyes took all of him in: Henry was lean in that way most Asian men were; his muscles were tight; his skin porcelain but not pale; his black hair fell in clusters around his head, his bangs nearly hiding the furious seriousness of his eyes. He looked beautiful to you. You never thought yourself capable of doing this with an Asian man. You shrugged. A man, period. But here it was, you were here, and you didn’t give a damn. And tomorrow, after that lunch in that Filipino restaurant Henry was telling you about, you would be back in the grind of downtown Iowa City. And you would go on with your uneventful life, the rest of the world flying by you. But tonight, you eased yourself into this rarest of blips—and perhaps that was why you welcomed it without question.
“What are you doing?” you asked as you opened your fourth can of beer, the sound of the tab’s quick metallic hiss somehow comforting.
“Writing,” Henry said.
“What are you writing about?”
“That story we were talking about. In the bar.”
You straightened up a little on the bed. “You were serious about that?”
“And why wouldn’t I be?”
“Nothing,” you said. And you thought about it, soaking in the almost-sweet malt taste of your beer. “And the character’s name is still Allan?”
“Yes,” he said, pausing just a bit from writing, “I suppose so.”
“And the other guy’s name is still Tony?”
Henry smiled. “I guess.” He continued to write.
It was like that for the rest of the night, the stretch of time elastic. Soon, the television began to hiss as the channel you were watching stopped its broadcast and swerved into the static sounds of snow. You didn’t mind or you didn’t care, you didn’t even bother switching to another channel, or turning the television off. You were beginning to feel the narcoleptic reaches of the beer you had drunk, even when you wanted to ask, “What happens next, anyway?” But it felt like the question came out of you—in the messy mumble of your mouth—only in a kind of silly whimper. And you sank deeper into sleep, Henry’s voice spiraling into the last of your consciousness, telling you, “Let’s see what happens in the morning.” But his words were lost to you. The darkness was quick and comfortable, and you were gone.
And in the morning, there he was, lying beside you, dead.
You had begun to pace the floor, to feel the panic settling in—even as you told yourself to stay calm, that you would be all right. Should I call 911? you asked yourself, I didn’t do goddamn anything. But then something caught your eye—something small but bright. There it was. On the coil of blankets around Henry’s body. A dot of red. A dot of red that was slowly spreading.
It was then that a sense of horror began to take over you, and you found yourself approaching the body, slowly and carefully. Then with a quick movement, you flung open the blanket to bare the rest of Henry’s nakedness. On his side, like a violent scarlet mouth, there was a gaping ugly wound. Beneath him, but spreading only to Henry’s side of the bed, the blood had thickened into a kind of Rorschach mark, and had soaked deep into the mattress. Beside Henry’s body, your small Swiss knife hid in the crumpled landscape of the bed, like an unwanted memento, its glinting sharpness now dulled with drying blood.
“But of course,” Yvette emails back two days later. When you began checking your inbox in your morning routine that followed the brewing of coffee, her message blinked at you with some kind of urgency—and now you know why. “Dear Allan, I saw it coming,” she has written. “It’s just too easy, it’s the easiest kind of mystery and suspense anyone can write about. But then again, everyone likes this stuff—the procedural murder drama, if you want to go that way, or some contemporary take on Sherlock Holmes’ locked room mystery. Everybody gets murdered in popular fiction these days.”
“I thought you were a psychology major,” you later tell her over beer in Dave’s Fox Head Tavern. A punk rock band is playing lousy music. You do not like what she has to say. You have invited her for drinks to tell her so—what does she know, anyway? Still, over beer in this tavern, over the din of music and nearby conversations, you find yourself somehow taking to her. “You did tell me to kill Henry,” you say. “And since when did you become a literary critic?”
She laughs as she looks around the bar. “This is the best place to get wasted in Iowa City, did you know that?” she says. “I love the douchebags here.”
“The douchebags in Fox Head?”
You begin to raise your beer glass to your lips.
“Yep,” she says, raising her glass as well and clinks your own with it. “The douchebags here read Faulkner. And Marilynne Robinson. And pretend they are starving writers. A toast to literary douchebags!”
You clink glasses again. You give her an amused look—part scowl, part smirk—and, laughing some more, she tells you: “I should know. I used to date that kind of douchebag.”
“You dated a writer?”
“The worst kind.”
“In what way?”
“Here’s the thing. He kept cannibalizing our life together for his confessional poetry,” she said. “I hated that. It was great at first. But later… Well, let’s just say I couldn’t have an indigestion without it ending up becoming a metaphor for how empty modern life has become.”
Yvette winks at you.
You think of Chicago suddenly—how much of that place, beautiful and haunted, figures in the stories you’ve told, every inch of your fiction thus far a veiled attempt to understand your place in it. The city and its ghosts occur now to you as something distant, a fixed point you’ve ran away from, shielded by—and you laugh at this—acres and acres of corn.
“But I suppose it is sometimes inevitable,” you mutter, looking down at the pool of water forming at the bottom of your glass of beer.
“You think?” Yvette says, her tone a challenge.
You shrug and you drink your beer—you don’t want to tell her anything, not even that old Henry Miller line about the best revenge being the fact of turning someone you used to love into literature.
“Everything is autobiography, I guess,” you finally manage to say, “Sometimes we don’t even realize it when we’re creating something. It surprises you.”
“You know that’s bull,” she says, a fierceness to her voice that you find a little unsettling. You look into Yvette’s eyes, and a part of you begins to wonder. “Sure, it happens, I don’t doubt that,” she says. “But come on, it’s kinda lazy. I mean, how much of your life can you glean for your fiction? And after a while, it kinda becomes boring.”
The music suddenly screeches to a stop amidst some sporadic applause, and the lead singer of the punk rock band tells the room they are going to play their last song. “Thank God,” you say, and you drink more of your beer. Your head is starting to feel light. You have never really been a beer drinker, but here you are.
Yvette leans closer to you from her side of the table. “This story you’re writing, it’s not autobiographical, right? You have never murdered anybody.”
You consider that for a moment.
“Or have you?” Yvette continues.
“Of course not.”
“So what is this about?”
“I don’t know.” You look away. You pretend to listen to the punk rock band.
“Who’s Henry? Who’s Allan? Why are you using your name for a short story? Why is there a murder? Or is it a murder?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you know?” Yvette pushes and pushes. You feel her questions surrounding you like the avenging act of an old ghost who has rediscovered you. You take it all in—you make it all sink deep, so that nothing will show. Not on your face. Not in your voice. Chicago is far away. You’ve in fly-over country.
And then you sigh, and then you tell her: “I just know this—one of them has got to die.”
So one would die. But it could go this way:
You woke to his unmoving body, your skin brushing his. “Henry,” you said, nudging him awake with a gentle shake. But he felt cold, almost clammy to the touch, but not much. There was this softness still clinging to his skin, something that you remembered quite well from last night. You realized after a while that he was not breathing. You turned him around, and his body falls limp against you—but he was facing you now, his arms by his sides.
You leaned close to him. You pressed your ears against his chest. There was no sound, and all you could get was this whiff of his lingering musk coming to you, some animal pungency that seemed suddenly too familiar. You sighed. And you rested your head awhile on his unheaving chest, and when you moved your eyes, the brightness of the noon sun struck you from the open windows. You raised your head, and then you raised your arms just a little, your hand shielding your eyes from the unwanted light. You shifted, and now you found yourself face to face with him. Henry’s eyes, closed, seemed to denote only pure sleep—nothing else. Henry was beautiful. And you kissed his lips, remembering their warmth, remembering their urgency, last night’s pull.
Later, you found yourself sitting on the couch where you remembered him last, when he still alive, scribbling like mad on his moleskin notebook. You stared at his inert beautiful body, its leanness a wasted landscape you could have learned to love in intimate discoveries. And you wondered with some anger how silly for life to give detours like this—Did you need this? To discover something beautiful, only for it to be taken away a little too soon?
Then there was nothing else left to do except the inevitable. You reached for your phone, and dialed. The operator chimed in. “Hello, 911?” you found yourself speaking, a little weary now. Perhaps you even sound sad. You gave your sad report. “My friend died,” you said. “Yes, he’s here with me. He’s on the bed. I don’t know what happened. I just woke up, and he was dead. The Blue Sky. Yes. Along South Ridge Road. Room 707. Please come as soon as possible.”
Later, you would find yourself giving the police your testimony—the whole procedural. Later, much later, there was an inquest. Later, you met Henry’s mother, a quiet Filipina in her fifties named Yvette who stared at you with a look of awful balefulness and strange concentration. “You are Henry’s friend?” she had asked you.
She was standing close to you in some nondescript hospital corridor. The bustle around both of you seemed to swim in a kind of slow motion, and you felt suddenly that you were drowning in it.
“Yes,” you said. You wanted to touch her arm in some form of shared commiseration, but you don’t. “I’m sorry for your loss,” you said this instead.
And you knew—much to your surprise—that you meant it. Because who was Henry really, except this unfortunate one night stand? And yet, something about him, something about that night in that hotel room touched something in you, quieted a little bit the ghosts that stirred within.
“Do they know finally how he died?” you asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “The doctors can’t tell much. His heart just stopped, that’s all they could say.” She sighed. “But I suppose it’s bangungot.”
You took that word in. Bangungot. “What’s that?”
Henry’s mother took a while to answer you. She closed her eyes for a bit, and then with a tiny shake of her head, she said, “Well, it’s a common kind of death that afflicts Asian men, always healthy ones, usually when they’re asleep. Usually when they’re full. I really don’t know what it is. But—well, it’s always very, very sudden.”
You began to imagine Henry on that bed, in that hotel.
“It’s not always fatal, you know,” Henry’s mother continued, her voice dropping a bit. “It’s always just a dream, a nightmare. But it’s when the dreamer somehow…wakes up? Knows he’s having a dream? And yet, he still finds himself trapped in sleep. He can’t move. He’s awake inside, but he can’t move his arms, his legs. It’s like there’s a monster sitting on his chest, and he just can’t … move.” She stopped, and looked at you. “I’m babbling, aren’t I?”
You shook your head, and you smiled a little at her, though you could feel the skin between your brows furrowing. “But it’s not always fatal, you said.”
She gave a small nod, and said, “Yeah… Most just concentrate on moving one finger, maybe even a toe. And then, with some struggle, they could move again.”
“And wake up?”
“And wake up for real.”
And you found yourself shivering inside, the hospital corridors closing in on you. You said goodbye to Henry’s mother, and hurried away—back into the glare of sunlight, back into the sight of clear blue skies. There were no nightmares here, you told yourself. But somehow you knew you were lying.
In truth, in the light of remembrance you keep secret, you want this fiction to go this way:
It certainly wasn’t your first night in Cedar Rapids—you had been in Cedar Rapids before; you had dated someone from the city’s Coe College once, if you could call it that, a one-night stand that had lasted a little more than the usual. In truth, it wasn’t even in Cedar Rapids. It happened somewhere else, some place far, where there were ghosts. And there was a hotel room. That was true.
And there was one particular night you could not forget too easily. That part was also true. You remembered the layout of the hotel room well—it was ordinary, after all: just the usual set-up of the writing desk hulking on one side with a wing-backed chair close to it, the lamps swelling the available warm brightness in the room, the lilac-colored wallpapers gentling into easy blandness, the bed draping down in the cold comforts of the hotel’s white linen. Room 707. It has always been this room, for some reason.
You had met here many times, Henry and you. That night, after so many nights, you had gone with the howl of the strong winds outside. It was raining. It had been raining for many days now, and the chill was unforgiving. You had raced down the corridor after the elevator door opened, knocked on the door of Room 707 with a certain savageness you found strange. When Henry opened the door, you brushed past him, and collapsed on the bed.
“You could say hello,” Henry said.
You closed your eyes instead, wrapping your still wet coat close around your body. Your breathing was getting heavy. You did not care.
“I was actually about to leave,” he said, but you didn’t hear him.
Henry looked at you from where he stood in the middle of the room.
“I’m tired of this,” you said softly, almost in a groan. You felt for the bed’s blankets around you. They were cool to your skin, comfortable. “I’m tired.”
“What do you mean?” Henry came to you on the bed, and sat close by.
You could feel his presence like a dark cloud.
“All this,” you said. “The stupid occasional meetings in this stupid hotel room.”
Henry would not say anything.
You continued, your eyes still closed, “I don’t even know where you live, Henry. I don’t even know who you are.”
Henry was still silent.
“Tell me. How long has this been going on?” you asked. “Us? You and me?”
“Seven months,” he said finally.
“Seven freaking months!” you turned to him very suddenly, sitting up—but you collapsed on the bed again and you pulled the blankets closer around you. You closed your eyes once more.
You felt Henry feeling your head with his hand, and then you felt him jerking away just a bit. “Jesus, Allan,” he said, “you’re burning!”
You didn’t care that you were burning. You were tired.
You felt Henry walking away. You heard a bag’s zipper being opened. Soon, you heard the sound of tap water running. And then you felt him close to you once more. “Here,” he said. “Sit up just a bit. Drink this.”
“What’s this?” you muttered, doing as you were told.
“Water, and some meds,” he said. “You have a fever.”
“Okay,” you said, and drank what he offered you. The pill tasted bitter, but you didn’t care. You just wanted to sleep. You just wanted Henry close by. “It’s raining outside,” you said, “I’m sorry. I had to walk in the rain.”
“What were you doing walking around in the rain for?” you heard him ask you—his voice seemed far, almost disembodied.
“I was trying to get here,” you said, your voice a little weak, “to see you.”
Henry didn’t say much more. But you felt his shifting presence. You felt him arrange your body on the bed to a position more comfortable for you. From the corner of your half-opened eyes, you could see him try to undress you. You moved your body for him, even as a mad chill ran through you. He tucked you in, and then he went to his side of the bed and turned off the lamp. The room plunged into darkness.
In the shadows, you whispered sleepily to him, “Henry?”
“Please don’t leave me now.”
You felt him kiss you on your forehead. You went to sleep.
You would feel better in the morning. You would wake up around noon, Henry beside you. You nudged him awake, and he murmured a “Good morning” before rising. He would take you to a Filipino restaurant for lunch—a feast of pork adobo and tinolang manok with heaps of jasmine rice—and then he dropped you off in your flat in Coralville.
You would never see Henry again after that.
Except for this one time, many months later, you would bump into him in the park, in the middle of a throng of hundreds to hear a certain Italian conductor do his first concert, in public, with the city’s famous symphony orchestra. You were surprised to know you harbored no bad feelings. You found yourself inviting him for coffee afterwards, and he said yes.
In the café, you saw that Henry had not changed much. He had the same thick black hair that fell around him in clusters, the same brightness in his eyes, the same full mouth.
You both talked about old times. He said he was seeing someone. You said you were single, but you dated, once in a while. You both laughed about the craziness of the dating scene, the painful rituals, the miscommunication, the disappointments. You both remembered the hotel room in that crappy neighborhood you both used to meet in. You both laughed at some absurd shared memory. “And by the way,” you finally said. “I want to say thank you.”
“For what?” Henry asked.
You smiled. “I have this one great memory of you. That last night, in that hotel room. I was sick, remember?”
“I do remember that.”
“You took care of me.”
He smiled. You smiled.
“And I asked you to stay with me that night,” you said. “And you did.”
“Well, I couldn’t go home, anyway, even when I really wanted to,” he said. “It was raining cats and dogs. The taxi company wouldn’t answer the phone. And I didn’t want to get wet.”
You felt your smile fading slowly, but you forced it to stay. You felt the invisible knife twist inside you, and the old familiar pain returned. It pulled you open—that clumsy remark. What was I thinking? you looked away, and forced yourself to concentrate on that cloud you spied from beyond and outside this café’s window. You looked at that cloud with a furious swirl of concentration, it felt dizzying. Henry said something else, and you nodded and nodded, but you didn’t hear a word he said. Still, you knew somehow that was how things worked in a cruel world, with this shameless relativity of things, even with memory, even with what you thought was an act of love. The cloud in your sight moved away, and the naked blue sky it revealed winked perversely at you—and you thought about how the heart might as well be a kind of fly-over country, like where you were this moment. The broken ones knew no destination, except this wilderness of so much open spaces where no one looked, where everything was lost in some discarded cartography.
You finish your story. You have managed to find your ending, your reason for telling the tale. Months later, Tony calls you from Chicago. His voice is swift, almost savage.
“I read your story in the goddamn Review,” he says.
“What did you think about it?”
“Stop writing about me!”
“It’s not about you.”
“The hell it isn’t.”
“It isn’t about you.”
“There’s no Wicker Park in Iowa City.”
“It’s fiction, Tony.”
“You used my name. I picked you up in a bar. And took you to my apartment—”
“Stop cannibalizing my life for your fiction, goddamit!”
“Fuck you, Tony.”
And you shut your cellphone down, wanting only silence from ghosts. But, in the gnawing that starts in the hollow inside you, you realize how cruel—sometimes, just sometimes—fiction can be, the kind of exorcism it brings. How devastating to reach for the right kind of denouement you seek with the fierceness you bring to it, only to know that in the breathing world, there are no endings. No resolutions. Life is all an endlessness of empty spaces, and there is no destination to all your wants, to all your pain.