10,000 Nights on Earth
By Jonathan Pizarro
[cw: sexual imagery and soft drug use]
You turn left into Partridge Road and you’re almost home. An orange shopping bag in your hand with food chosen irresponsibly. A pack of Doritos, a tub of hummus, pre-cooked chicken breasts and a chocolate bar. A bottle of wine for added stupor. Things to consume on the sofa alone, with someone on the television trying to bake a cake or win a million pounds. A pause in targets and business meetings until Monday at 6am when you do this again but with better intentions, and a steady decline into repeated Friday nights.
The chill and the dark. Streets empty. The only noise is Disclosure throbbing through your headphones. Each row of houses you pass is indistinguishable. A light on at each interval on your way home to break up the shadows. Some evenings, in your distraction, you’ve passed your own house and kept walking until the end of the street, so you keep your eye on the numbers ascending in twos. And then the shape leaning on the gate at number 54, and the nearness makes it familiar.
You stop and struggle with your phone to turn the music off. In the red glow of the tip of his cigarette you see those blue green eyes and his lips like the skin of a nectarine. Smiling and moving, both his hands on you but you can’t make out a word. You shout hang on! and it vibrates at the base of your skull. You see him laugh because it’s probably so loud. Your hands are shaking.
Everything feels dry and moving at a speed outside of yourself. You want some control, just a moment to breathe and accept this is him in front of you. The earphones in your palms, a distant tinny bass. You look at him cast against the light from the window of the house behind him. The balloons tied up to the front gate in bunches. The foil glint of a happy birthday sign above the door. And him, still holding you at each shoulder, rubbing his hands up and down finding the warm grooves he once belonged in.
James. Almost unchanged, in skinny jeans and a faded t-shirt announcing Patti Smith playing Oakland Arena in 1979. He’s still saying something, smiling with the cigarette at the edge of his mouth. Then you focus…
Rob! Jesus Christ Rob, where you been bud? he says and he pulls you close, your chin brushing the softness of his neck. That arch of skin that you remember made him moan with his eyes closed. He’s the only one you allowed to call you Rob.
He smells of beer and smoke, but under all that is something like talc. You drop your shopping bag and hug him back, falling into the shape of his body so perfectly like all the nights you dreamed of him after he left. Thinking maybe it was all nostalgia and romantic grief but no, It’s him. Desire unfurled into reality and feeling as sweet.
Hi James, you say, breezy and sober like you only saw him last week, or he works in the desk next to yours. I live on this street-
What are the odds!, he interrupts you and laughs again. That laugh that takes over a room, and now the road.
I was working late tonight, and yeah…and well…and where do you go from here? What can you say? Here you are. Is this your house?
Like it hasn’t been five years since the last time you saw him. You had watched him in your bedroom, putting his clothes back on and telling you he’d call you. Which he didn’t. So that moment became one of glass. Suspended in post-orgasm. His Superman t-shirt over his broad shoulders. Sitting at the edge of your bed while he put on his boots. The slam of the front door. The phantom feeling of him inside you, slick and pulsing. Lost chances and half daydreams. One thousand eight hundred masturbatory visions.
Here he is. On your street. In your arms. Against your skin again.
No it’s not my house, he replies. I’m still up in the Valleys but I stay here a lot. And it’s my birthday. Come in and have a drink! He hugs you again, a smile and your face in his hands with actual joy. He kisses you on the cheek, exaggerated and impersonal in its warmth like there was an audience on this empty street. You try and remember if you ever celebrated his birthday, the memory lost in a jumble of images more important to you. His thighs rubbing against yours. His tongue inside your mouth. The curve of his back against the sheets as he dozed.
You could protest. It fails somewhere between your mind and your voice to say that it’s late, though.
You wish it wasn’t like this.
You’re tired, you’re dressed in a crumpled work suit and you’re aware that you have the collected grime of an office day on you. You look at him, fresh and smooth with the redness in his cheeks from drink and the cold outside only adding to his charm.
And he takes you by the hand towards the thumping beat, the air of the hallway thick with smoke and the exhaled breath of dozens of people crowded into the front room under disco lights.
He guides you to the glare of the strip-lighted kitchen and hands you a beer. Thank you, but do you have any wine? you ask, and he slaps his forehead, Of course! You only drink vino don’t you. You’re so Spanish. He hands you a thin and crinkly plastic cup with lukewarm cheap white wine. Sugar with the aftertaste of vinegar. You take off your coat and put down your bag. He leads you through to the front room makeshift dancefloor. By the hand again. Saying hello as people pass you. You empty your cup by the time the noise hits you completely.
You can’t talk properly in here. He lets go of your hand, cupping his by your ear. This is Nigerian disco music, do you like it? You laugh and hold his shoulder close, shouting back Is this what you’re into now? What happened to Beach House and Laura Marling? He holds his palms out wide in a mock admission of guilt. Someone pats him on the back, and he turns to hug them. He grabs their bottle of beer and drinks, lips thick and tight around the bottleneck like you enjoyed looking down at him in bed to see on you. That music’s not much for dancing is it? he says, and you think no, it was good for fucking though wasn’t it, James. He wags his finger at you in a sudden moment of inspiration. Okay okay Rob, boyo, wait here.
He goes to the DJ in the corner on a makeshift desk by the Victorian fireplace, framed by the strange peaks of the yellowing wallpaper which the music only allows to become somehow retro cool. All these people dancing around to obscurity, striking poses like it’s 1970s New York City and they’re the only ones invited. You never understood irony.
James was a gateway to this brimming arts scene that exhausted you unless it came from him. Knocking on your door unannounced with vinyl under his arm saying look what I found and playing it in your room, getting up to turn the side over so you could see him naked and in profile, his dick sticking out like the arm of a record player, the curve of his back in the gold light of a spring evening, and to bed again for three more sides of The Best of Otis Redding.
He comes back to you. The wails on the track fade out and the drums roll into the familiar beat of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’. He nods while he looks at you. You find a cup of something on a sofa arm and you wince at the sharpness of rum with the slightest splash of Coke. You finish it by the time he’s at your side and he takes the cup away, holding both your hands in his as he twirls you around.
He remembered your own musical obsession. You think that maybe you’re not just some folded envelope in his memory, some form of mistake when he was trying to figure himself out. This is you, complete in front of him and this is him, holding you and dancing with you and knowing how much you like Aretha Franklin. You put your arms around his neck. Would Nina Simone be too sombre? you shout, your teeth so close to his earlobe, the memory of the softness between them when you would stroke it with your tongue, and he would tell you not to stop. He takes you by the hand again, and the beat vibrates through you into the hallway, past the kitchen and out through the back door.
In the patio a small group of people smoke, their arms crossed tight against their chests. They collectively puff one last time on their cigarettes and throw the stubs on the ground. It’s so fucking cold! a girl says as she lurches towards the inside. Hey Jim, Happy Birthday! A boy waves his hand and the other one behind him shouts Happy Birthday Jim! Happy birthday mate! and jumps onto James before disappearing into the kitchen, closing the door behind him.
You watch it all pass you by like some film you’ve been invited to. You’re alone with him now, with only the bass coming in through the walls to interrupt the stillness. He sits on a bench and you join him, looking up at the clear sky with the faintness of stars if you concentrate enough. Something you choose to do so you don’t have to look at him here without any distraction. There’s no performance of drink or parties or oh my God it’s been ages conversations.
He rolls a joint on his lap, quietly focused while you look at the constellations. When it’s ready, he puts it between his lips and pulls out his phone. He swipes and taps until ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ shakes out from the device. He lights the joint and puffs, chin up and exhaling. Is this sombre enough for you? he asks. Everyone calls you Jim now, you reply. He hands you the joint damp with his saliva and you taste him with the herbal stickiness of the weed. You can call me James, he says.
You called him James when you first met. You’d moved from Málaga to Cardiff to improve your English. In your sixth month working in the deli, they presented this charming seventeen year old boy from somewhere up the Valleys where you’d never been. A town with a name your tongue couldn’t form. His first job. You showed him how to make a sandwich quickly and cut it up. How to wipe down surfaces. How the key stuck in the lock when you opened and closed the deli. He told you about where he was from. That it was boring and there were no jobs. The shroud of mine closures, and an industrious people decimated by the lack of industry.
He asked you about Spain. The food and drink, the warmth and the colour of the water in summer. You taught him the filthiest words in your language, and he schooled you on Soft Cell and Loretta Lynn. After your shifts you hunted for treasure in second-hand shops and drank mojitos in basement bars. And then, like if it was a game, like if it was a tease at 1am and the most natural, most secret thing to do, he walked you home and in an alley behind a church on Charles Street he drew you in. Your face coming up to his collarbone, he leaned in and kissed you. Then you took him home to bed.
Now your questions sit in your throat with the smoke. You pass the joint back and forth between you, and every time you breath out, the questions disappear.
Where have you been for five years?
Why did you disappear?
Did you miss me as much as I missed you?
Did you even look for me? Did you read those messages on your phone? Did you see the missed calls? Did you think when you deleted your Facebook account that I would still at least once a week after too much wine decide to search for you and come up empty?
Did you think of me late into the night like I did, hand under the covers in a loneliness eaten up by the memory of a fleeting love I couldn’t even define?
You shiver. He changes the music back to Aretha and he puts an arm around you, even though he’s in a t-shirt and you’re in your suit. His breath warm on your cheek, the joint long finished but the spice of it lingers.
You notice now in the closeness that time hasn’t frozen. There are lines forming in the corner of his eyes. Stories of experience, of pain and loss and spans of time you didn’t share with him. You were forever lost in desire, the amber of a bedroom with the breeze coming in through the curtains and him changing the record naked. The alleyway behind the church and that first kiss. The way he walked around in his boxers in the morning and made you coffee, leaving it steaming on the bedside table before you saw him at work again like nothing had passed between you. His arm around you older, stronger. The arm that belonged to a boy that is now a man that you don’t really know at all.
The back door opens, and a woman walks through. Skinny jeans and a t-shirt announcing The Smiths playing at the Academy Theatre in London in 1986. There you are! Sorry I’m late, she says behind her fringe, her mouth deep red making its way towards you as he pulls his arm away and stands up, kissing her deep and holding her close. This is Becky, he says and you wave, refusing to stand. This is Rob, he says. Then you stand. Then you say. Lovely to meet you, and hold out your hand and shake hers, It’s Roberto. She laughs and says Excuse me? and he stands there swaying in a marijuana daze like he’s the one watching a film now. My name is Roberto, not Rob, you reply and she says Oh of course. And how did you two meet? Did you…just meet?.
You wonder what is turning in her head, to find her boyfriend on his birthday with his arms around another man. And what stake do you possibly have in this now, this story that no longer belongs to you? We used to work together, in a deli, a long time ago. I just dropped by quickly, to say happy birthday. I really have to go now, I’m in work early. Happy Birthday Jim. You shake her hand again. You shake his hand. You walk into the kitchen.
He’s behind you. Wait, wait, he says. You grab your things and walk through the hallway, the music hits you fully with some strange aggressive electronica in waves up your legs and landing somewhere under your navel, deep in your crotch. He opens the door for you and stands in the threshold, so close you feel his heat through your clothes. I’m sorry too, he says in your ear, chopped up by the bassline and distorted, swirling around inside you. You kiss him softly. The wetness of his lips mixed with yours, connecting you by a strand for just a moment until it breaks. You have to pull your hand away from his grip as you walk out of the door.
Jonathan Pizarro is a Gibraltarian writer exiled in London. His work often explores the borders between Queerness, desire, cultural identity, immigration, language, and the ruins of Empire. His fiction has been published in Untitled: Voices, Fruit Journal and Emerge Literary Journal. He writes a non-fiction series entitled Exiliado on Medium. He is currently working on his forthcoming novel, Sons of Lot. He is an associate facilitator at Out on the Page and tweets too much @JSPzro