Frank found Mason striding back and forth across the sidewalk, likely to keep warm. Great volumes of snow had been falling each day, and the temperature hovered moist and heavy on the brink of freezing. The wind had a way of blowing the bloated snowflakes around in whirling clouds as thick as fog. When Mason saw his car, he pulled up short, and Frank rolled the down the window.
“Get in, you look cold.”
“It’s not so bad.”
“Are we going to do this?”
“I’m not doing anything.”
“You are, the same shit every time. Now get in.”
Mason narrowed his eyes and leaned into the window. “Fuck you, Frank.”
“Come on, just get in.”
“Fuck you, Frank.” Mason’s eyes flashed with a familiar brightness, and though Frank felt horrible for having incited this, he couldn’t help but to smile because it had been so long since Mason had spoken to him, it had been so long since he had heard his voice and even if it was tinged in anger, it felt good, so very good to hear from him. “Don’t do that. I can’t—stop smiling at me.”
“Okay.” Frank nodded, but he was still smiling and resting his hands on his thighs. He let his expression melt into one of placid warmth; it was an expression that he knew Mason enjoyed, because he had often said so, lying against him, leaning on him. Mason had once touched his face when he made this expression, outlining its contours and smiling down at him. “I’m sorry. Will you please get in?”
“Alright.” Mason came in from the cold, and Frank turned toward him to help with the seatbelt, which he knew was a pain in the ass. “I can do it, Frank. I don’t need help.” But Mason let himself be helped anyway. He let Frank pull on the strap and guide it across his chest and stomach, down into a satisfying click. Then he breathed out deeply. Frank could smell the alcohol on his breath.
“Drunk Mason, never thought I’d see the day.” Frank ran his fingers across the nape of Mason’s neck and at first he shivered, then he smiled. His eyes were damp.
“Yeah, I’m a fucking mess, aren’t I? A real fucking mess.”
“Don’t say that,” Frank said, but Mason pushed him away, laughing. It was a bitter, hard laugh.
“I’ll say it, Frank. I’ll say it again and again—a big fucking mess.”
Sensing that the conversation had terminated, he put the car into gear and pulled away from the curb. This late on a Saturday night, the roads were mostly empty. Mason gazed out the window, silent. He was likely watching the cars on the highway across the lake, running out of town, toward Chicago.
They were on a smaller street, winding casually through Madison’s east side. He pulled up next to a park near one of the smaller lakes. Once, a couple months ago during a happier, warmer time, they had come here together to be alone, to take a break from studying, to test whatever it was that was then only just beginning to form between them against the open air and the clear water.
“I remember this place,” Mason said.
“Mmm.” Frank hummed behind his teeth. “I need to smoke.”
“Are you a baby now?”
They dragged along through the accumulated snowdrifts, ankle high, and wandered through the deserted playground. There was a small brown shelter where they stood while Frank got his lighter going, striking the metal again and again, but finding it difficult because his hands were numb and sore. Mason took it from him, sighed, and struck it into life on the first try.
“Now who’s the baby?” Mason asked. Frank gave a mocking laugh and lit his cigarette by leaning down into the fire. The warmth threaded through the cracks in his lips.
The lake was frozen now and snow mounds gave it a hilly landscape. Had he been braver, he would have walked out there and tested his weight. But he was not and did not. Instead he stuck his hands in his pockets and walked in winding circles around Mason, who for once refused to walk or to do anything except stand still and watch.
“Are we going to talk about it,” Frank asked, pushing smoke out of his mouth.
“Are we going to talk about what, Frank?”
“You know what.”
“If I did, I’d say so, wouldn’t I?”
“No, Mason. No, you wouldn’t. You’d do what you’re doing now.”
“And what am I doing?”
Frank gazed at him in open amazement. Was it the alcohol? Was it his hurt? Was it that Mason simply didn’t care anymore what he did or how he sounded? Frustration laced through Frank. He curled his fingers into a fist and then pinched his cigarette out.
“You’re being ridiculous. Shockingly stupid, even.”
“I guess so, huh? I guess I’m just shockingly stupid these days.”
“Well, you do that then. I’m going home.” Frank pulled his coat tighter around himself and pushed off through the snow. He could feel Mason’s eyes on his back as he went, but he wasn’t going to hang around for someone who had not only discarded him but had rebuffed all of his efforts to help. He knew that he would regret leaving, but his face was hot with shame and guilt; his stomach twisted flipped inside. He was mad enough to hit Mason, to beat that beautiful face of his until it was unrecognizable because maybe then he’d be able to accept that he wasn’t wanted or needed, after all.
“Alright, okay, just stop, alright.” Frank had just reached his car when he turned to find Mason jogging out to him. “I’m sorry. I’m just kind of fucked up right now.”
“Really fucked up.”
Mason leaned against him, though he was taller than Frank. For once, it didn’t bother Frank very much. Instead, he accepted Mason’s weight against him and the two of them leaned against his car, with Mason breathing against him.
“You didn’t return my calls.”
“Any particular reason?”
“Not really, no.”
“Is that really true?”
“I just didn’t want you to see what a mess I was.”
Mason pinched him, and Frank pushed him away. He must have pushed too hard, because Mason lost his balance and slipped down onto the ground with a soft shout. Fear bristled in his blood, and Frank dropped down next to him. “Shit, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Mason said, his eyes already closed. “Let’s just lie here a while.”
“It’s snowing, though.”
“Is that a problem for you?”
“No, not a problem, but you’re going to get sick.”
“Mmm. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“Nice for who?”
“For me? For you?”
“You must be terribly drunk.”
“Should we go?”
“No, not yet. Just a minute.”
The sky was a vast, empty expanse. Even occluded by the snow, which fell in a uniform blanket, there seemed to be nothing at all to it. In China, in the cities of his youth, Frank had often witnessed such a thing, how a place could be so very full and yet completely empty. In the cities of his youth, he had witnessed the rise and fall of many things, some of them fast and some of them slow. Planes and men and kites and balloons. In the cities of his youth, he had learned to track the routes of interstellar bodies across the sky.
Frank had been a boy not afraid of emptiness or loneliness. Only now did he realize that it had meant something about him, only now did he realize that his lack of fear had stemmed from a failure to recognize an emptiness within himself as well. But here, next to Mason, he felt filled for the first time. Not only with love and warmth, but also with all manner of things he couldn’t name. And though frightening, it was fine and good and wonderful.
The cities of his youth came in two forms—there were the cities of boyhood, spare and grey and cold, with few people and buildings. His father used to take him along to town on the back of the bike, gliding on the dusty road into the more densely populated city center. But even there his thoughts had echoed in the cavernous quiet. There were never enough people, never enough things to warrant the amount of land allocated to the name of their city, so that it all seemed very wasteful, but perhaps there had once been other people, more people, even farms. Perhaps there had once been a use for the land and the space that now stood collecting dust, frozen by idleness in pristine condition.
And then there were the cities of his teenage years, far from the coastal mountains, swampy and cramped and teeming. In the musky, bustling crowds, lost among the great throngs of people flowing in and out of narrow streets, he had found a different kind of isolation. The air had been suffused with desperation and starvation. It was nothing to pass a dozen hungry, homeless men and their families in the streets. He lived in a private dormitory just on the outskirts of the main city, in a tiny room. Out his window, he could see the far away gleam of what must have been another city but to him at that distance, it seemed beautiful and clean. There was always construction happening somewhere in the city, and his memories of that time are always superimposed upon a backdrop of buildings being torn down and the screams of the construction crews as they worked in and out of the poor districts, taking apart slums. The displaced people, like a hoard of disturbed bees, would swarm to another part of the city, and tensions rose, because there was never enough space for everyone. No wonder they all lived so fearfully in those days, because at any moment, a city ordinance could send your entire life crashing down on your head.
In his late teens, he boarded an airplane for the first time and looked back on the cities of his youth fondly and with a heavy heart. He was departing to find his own place in the world, though not exclusively for himself. He was leaving so that he could return someday, transformed in all of the ways his parents hoped. He was leaving therefore not for his sake but for theirs. With some regret, he realized that he could have been happy there with his parents. He could have been happy to live a small, contained life. He hadn’t wanted for much. He didn’t need much. How easy it would have been to take up his father’s bike and ride along the same dusty paths of his boyhood into town to collect the fish or the meat—he could have gotten a job doing something vaguely useful, with his hands. Often, he dreamed of becoming a butcher or a chef. He wanted to feel strength in his fingers as he slid sharp steel beneath the skin of fish or through the stomachs of goats; as a boy, he had been riveted by the spurting of blood and the wild, elegant beauty with which butchers took apart entire animals right before their eyes. In another life, he would have been apprenticed to a butcher, and his life would have been wonderful and simple and easy.
But those were the dreams of children and at seventeen, almost eighteen, he was no longer a child. Still, the fondness for those boyhood images weighed on his heart as he settled into his seat on the plane. His eyes stung and his chest constricted. As the plane ascended, he thought wistfully once more—how easy it all could have been, how simple. How beautiful the cities of his youth were as he saw them from above for the first time. How wonderfully self-contained and insular they were floating in a sea of green, loamy land and terse, grey mountains.
It seemed to him then that it would have been nothing at all to return to them, that he could at any moment reverse course and flow back into those cities and find them as they were in his memory, perfectly and completely preserved.
But that was then, and this was now, and many, many years removed from that single magical moment on the plane when it all could have ended differently. To return to those places now would be to admit how very much things had changed. And he had from time to time returned home for a visit, to see his family. He always found them changed, having drifted further away from each other in time. His father was not his father as he remembered him but rather seemed like an old relative to whom his father bore an uncanny resemblance. His mother likewise had changed, and he found her softer, weaker, weathered by time and by life and the steady demands of which he was a part. He knew that they worked hard to pay for his education, which was exorbitant and even though he tried to minimize the burden he placed on them, it was clear that it still cost them dearly.
They wore their fatigue on their faces and in their joints, and each time, he wanted to throw himself down and beg for their forgiveness; he wanted to quit, to say that he would stay with them and work in town. In those moments, the old dream of his boyhood lingered nearby, but he knew that it would have been worse to say this. It would have been worse to quit now after all they had poured into his dream. If he failed to secure a place in the world now, it would have been worse than shameful. So he smiled and hugged them. He kissed their faces and their fingers, and they were happy to see him, very happy.
Mason reached for him, and Frank turned over to accept his fingers in his hair. The snow had melted and turned warm against his face. Mason was not watching him, but he wove his fingers through his hair with a pleasant, insistent rhythm. Frank exhaled.
“We’re going to get sick.”
“I’m already sick.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Do I, though? Do I really?”
“You’re irritating when you’re this way.”
“I’m sorry.” But was Mason sorry? And for what was he sorry? Was he sorry for this one thing in this one moment? Or was he sorry for the whole of it? For not returning Frank’s calls? For disappearing? For worrying him? For being irascible, difficult, and unpleasant in times like this? Frank wanted to ask, but as with most things, he was afraid of the answer. It was a part of his nature he had only recently begun to comprehend, the calculated risk, the measuring of outcomes. He ventured nothing where there was the risk of losing everything, and with Mason, that’s how things were, so very, very extreme. It was either all or nothing and at any given moment, Frank had no idea if they were in feast or famine.
“I’m sure you are.”
“You’re so mean tonight, so incredibly mean to me.”
“You’re the one who didn’t answer. That’s how it is when you don’t treat your friends well.”
“Oh? Are we friends?” Though Frank knew he was joking, this remark stung him. It struck him in the chest so abruptly and so sharply that he stood up and dusted the snow from his back.
“Don’t, please.” Mason grabbed at his pant’s leg, but Frank pulled away.
“Don’t what? I can’t keep letting you do this. I can’t keep letting you run over me and pretend it’s okay.”
“I’m sure you are, but this hurts me too, Mason. It really does.”
“If you know, then why do you keep doing it?”
“I don’t know.” Mason pulled his legs up against his chest and put his chin between his knees. “I really don’t know.”
“You need to stop doing it.”
“Yes, I know.” Here, Mason smiled and Frank turned away from him. If he let him win now, he’d never be able to say no again. “Come on, Frank. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be that way, please.”
“I’m not being any way. I’m just telling you, it hurts when you treat me like shit.”
“Then I won’t, Jesus.”
“Oh, Jesus, you say. When you’re the one at fault.”
“Fine, okay, alright.” Mason stood up, in a single, gliding motion in the dark. Frank took a step backward, but he hit the car and Mason was there against him, cupping his face with his damp, smooth hands. “Okay.”
“Alright,” Frank breathed, the afterscent of smoke and snow drifting upward between them.