By Davey Davis
About Dmitri, Rob knew only the following: that he worked in the radio station on the basement level of the office building where Rob was also employed, and that in the mornings he took his pale green bicycle down the stairs with him. That was all. Dmitri was, otherwise, an unknown, and if it hadn’t been for Magdalene, he likely would have remained that way.
Not present among these initial facts was a name, so Rob gave him one. He chose Dmitri because it suited him, with his wide-set eyes and way the skin over his jawline seemed thin as paper. Rob didn’t learn his real name—which he did not use—until Magdalene introduced them one morning before work. Holding his hand in hers, she described Dmitri’s position at the radio station before launching into the story of how they met, which Rob ignored; he didn’t want to have to think about it when he saw them together. She had been talking quite a bit recently about her new love interest. Rob hadn’t realized until that morning, of course, that it was one they both shared.
Rob and Magdalene worked several floors above the radio station, so he and Dmitri couldn’t drink coffee in the same break room. Dmitri biked to work, so they couldn’t stand together, alone, at the same bus stop. Had they ever even made eye contact, perhaps on their way through the lobby, one moving toward the basement stairs and the other the elevator, before she introduced them? They hadn’t: Rob would have remembered something of that magnitude. Magdalene, who Rob had known since college, was the only thing they had in common, and for this he wanted to feel grateful. If it hadn’t been for her, he never would have met Dmitri, and more importantly, Dmitri would never have met him. But to think that Magdalene—slight, sparrowish Magdalene, her horn-framed glasses magnifying each black iris—was the solitary link between them made it hurt to breathe.
It is true Rob was slightly old not to have fallen in love before. It happens to most people in adolescence or soon after, and he was already a few years out of college. Having fallen in love for the first time at a significantly older age than average, perhaps Rob’s feelings should have been more mature. Not wanting to be unfair to Magdalene, he reminded himself that without her there was no good reason to think he would have ever spoken to Dmitri at all. But he had to admit he resented her for knowing Dmitri before he did, for claiming him before Rob had even the opportunity to be smitten.
He went to his desk, Dmitri and Magdalene falling into the darkness behind his shoulders. He turned on his monitor and settled into his chair, but he couldn’t work: the odds he had overcome just to know Magdalene, just so he could know him, weighed on him almost as heavily as his disappointment. Unable to reconcile the way his astounding luck dovetailed with his brutal misfortune, he could only dizzily, inadequately reckon with the vastness of the universe until it was time for lunch.
The one benefit to Magdalene’s existence, as Rob now saw it, was as a dispensary of facts. As Dmitri’s girlfriend (“My boyfriend,” she had said when she introduced them), she knew everything about the subject of his affection. Naturally, she was happy to share this information with Rob, her dear friend and co-alumnus, without him even having to ask.
Dmitri was Rob’s first love, but this love wasn’t his first romantic experience. There had been a few, the most significant starring a girl from school. Claire had lived in Magdalene’s dorm, and his attraction to her—sitting over a newspaper with a hand-rolled cigarette outside the student union, careless analog pleasures—was immediate and confusing. Only a few days later he happened to be introduced to her, by Magdalene or perhaps someone else, and, exposed to her bergamot cologne and carefully gnawed fingernails, he felt his desire confirmed, its finality like an ink stamp on a passport. To his shock, she agreed to get coffee with him, but she hadn’t even finished stirring in her sugar before stating, in an alarmingly casual way, that she didn’t think of him as anything more than a friend.
I mean, you can’t be into me, she said. Setting her dripping spoon down on the table, she pulled her phone from her blazer pocket, looked at it, then put it away again.
You’re gay, she went on. She picked up the spoon from the table and re-submerged it in her coffee.
It was true that Rob was gay, but it was also true that he desired Claire. He wanted to kiss her wide, brave mouth. He admired her womanly shape, the way it was showcased by a narrow waist that flowered out into soft, generous hips, like an inverted baseball diamond. It was her dismissal, even more than the confusion of his queer friends, that made him retreat so completely: he never talked to her again. Having decided that romantic rejection was not worth the risk, from then on Rob had tried to avoid that sort of thing, and for the most part had succeeded.
A hundred of Claire’s dismissals couldn’t have hurt as much as watching Dmitri brush Magdalene’s temple with his lips, right where her hairline began, and this was how Rob knew he had encountered something new. He hadn’t seen Claire in several years, and rarely thought of her. It was difficult to even summon up what she looked like. When he tried, all that came to mind was the thumbnail of her Facebook profile picture. Even when he went back to her page, the image seemed blurry, inexact.
Dmitri was indelible. Perhaps this was because, unlike Claire, who was a single person, static if also beautiful, Dmitri was a thousand different things. He was himself and yet, also, every detail of himself. He was his green bike and his dark hair, his long legs and his large hands, which held Magdalene’s like little glass figurines. But this indelibility was almost purely physical. At first Rob had expected they would get to know each other, simply through proximity to Magdalene. But though they saw him regularly—sometimes he brought Magdalene’s lunch up to the office, or came over to watch HBO with them on Sunday afternoon—Dmitri rarely spoke. For reasons unknown to Rob, he maintained his distance perfectly, like an iceberg or a moon.
Rob sat at his desk, the universe a rotten cloud diffused through his cubicle, and forced himself to accept the fact of his own failure. Despite his best intentions, he had fallen in love. But Rob was a practical person, and knew he needed to address this issue head-on. He needed a plan of attack. He decided he would ignore his feelings until they went away. Fake it til you make it, as the saying went.
Of course, there was no way of keeping his feelings a secret, at least not entirely. He and Magdalene were close enough that something as monumental as infatuation was impossible to conceal. He wisely chose not to try. Instead, he led her to believe that its subject was someone else, some not-Dmitri person. His substitute—the day clerk at a record store they sometimes browsed during their lunch breaks—was both believable and convenient. The clerk was young and good-looking. He had a crew cut and gauges in his earlobes. The gauges were each half an inch in diameter, and filled with wooden pegs carved into blooming roses.
There’s just something about him, Rob told Magdalene. I can’t really say what it is.
And here I was thinking you were asexual, she said, laughing. Are you going to ask him out?
I don’t think he’d be interested, said Rob.
Though perhaps not the most sympathetic person, Magdalene always tackled her obligations as a friend with enthusiasm. To console Rob, she shared with him her own experiences with lovestruckness. She had been obsessed with a famous musician as a teenager, for whom she had done all of the inappropriate things one does when young and enamored: she wrote fan mail with declarations of ardor and lurid, tacky poems; used multiple phones to call for tickets offered by radio stations; defended her position in the front row of his concerts with the ferocity of a gladiator. She even sent him a Polaroid of her breasts, which she regretted, though less so as time went on, and about which she’d never gotten a response. She took comfort in the knowledge that her face hadn’t been in the photo.
You feel crazy now but you will get over it, Magdalene insisted, throwing her arm over his shoulder. You’ll live through it, I promise.
Rob shrugged. He was dwelling on the possibility of her using Dmitri’s toothbrush when she stayed the night at his apartment.
While still under the impression that Dmitri was someone who could be forgotten, or gotten over, Rob was forced to develop certain techniques to keep him at bay. This isn’t to say he could stop himself from, occasionally, gorging on the details that Magdalene happened to share. These details, revealed during cigarette breaks and through texts, were the normal sort of things—not too personal—that someone might mention about her boyfriend, but Rob cherished them. To compensate for his loss of control, he tried to mentally layer this information over the image of the day clerk, thinking he could superimpose them and transfer his feelings from Dmitri to someone else. Obviously, this did not work.
It didn’t take long for him to realize that if he was going to move on, he would have to stop thinking about Dmitri entirely. He buckled down, disciplining his inclinations. He looked away from bikes in the street, and he came to work early or late to reduce the chances of their paths crossing. He tried to talk about something else when Magdalene brought him up, though this was not always possible. She even seemed hurt, sometimes, that he wanted to change the subject.
Rob found that avoiding Dmitri was the hardest when he wasn’t busy. At home, he fell back on repetition, washing dishes for much longer than necessary, and jumping rope on his patio until he was slicked with sweat. He deep-cleaned his apartment, still sweating, vacuuming cat hair from the futon, using a toothbrush on the floorboards. These were his old stand-bys for times of unease (an uncomfortably long stretch of unemployment, final exams, awaiting the results to potentially significant medical tests), and yet they weren’t working. His desire ached in his jaw, his resentment twisted his guts.
I can’t stop thinking about him, Rob admitted to Magdalene, whose face he’d begun to loathe. Nothing takes my mind off him.
Maybe we should stop going to the record store, suggested Magdalene. But Rob didn’t want to lose his alibi, and besides, sometimes Dmitri came along with them. Rob liked to see his shoulders bend as he flipped through colorful cardboard cases, and hear the parsimonious way he phrased his questions for the day clerk about release dates, EPs, producer credits.
If I see him regularly, maybe that will desensitize me to him, suggested Rob. His hypocrisy was almost as hateful as the way Magdalene cleared her throat after every drag of her cigarette.
I don’t know about that, she said.
And what did she know about being in love! Rob wanted to ask. He sullenly took their empty mugs back to the break room and washed them with cold, ineffectual water.
Because this loving was so new to Rob, its unfamiliar weight was even harder to bear. Like anyone else, he had experienced attachment and affinity, had perhaps even taken it for granted that he could love. He loved foggy mornings and he loved his parents. He loved Motown and Wong Kar-wai and ham sandwiches layered with potato chips. Sometimes he loved how well he did his job, how organized and thorough he was, how pleasant he could be to people on the phone.
Dmitri had changed everything. At first, even his embarrassment (such a humiliating feeling, this captivation) had a way of thrilling him. But as the weeks passed, the burden of his love no longer brought even tangential pleasure. One day, for example, despite his efforts to avoid it, he happened to arrive at work right as Dmitri did. His regret was crushed beneath the thrilling opportunity to hold the door open as he wheeled in his bicycle, green and slick with rain.
Good morning, said Dmitri.
Good morning, said Rob.
They exchanged a few sentences about the weather. As he was preparing to utter another platitude, joyfully anticipating Dmitri’s equally dull response, Dmitri turned his body toward the stairs.
Say hi to Mag for me, he said over one shoulder. His bike glistened on the other. Rob’s heart felt like an ice cube dropped into hot black tea.
Sleep was never any trouble for Rob. He never dreamt about Dmitri, as if his mind reflexively sought to protect itself. But he hated going the long night alone. In the morning, those hours of wasted time weighed on him like a migraine. When Magdalene shared her cigarettes with him now, she did so almost grudgingly. It made what he told her about the day clerk seem like more of a lie than it was, as if he had invented his feelings solely for the attention.
I’m sorry I’ve been so weird lately, said Rob, holding the cigarette discreetly to the side. He felt guilty about how often he bummed them from her, but somehow could never remember to bring his own pack.
This sort of thing can be hard, Magdalene allowed.
I think it’s getting better, Rob insisted. But he didn’t mean it. When Magdalene cleared her throat, he took another cigarette without asking, and could tell by the way she adjusted her glasses that she was annoyed.
Rob went to stay with his maternal grandfather a few months before his death. His second wife, whom he had met at an AA meeting and married two weeks later, had left him after eleven years for reasons his grandfather would not divulge to anyone, not even while piss drunk on a camping chair in his garage.
Think of a tree, his grandfather said. He shifted his body in the chair. Rob sat in the one next to him, running his rubber-gloved hands over the dusty indentations in the canvas. He wanted to finish cleaning the entire kitchen, unaccountably filthy for a man who had stopped eating, before school started up again next week.
This tree, his grandfather went on, gets hollowed out by lightning. But it keeps on growing. Just keeps on growing.
Okay, said Rob.
Think of it, insisted his grandfather.
Rob found this difficult to do. There was only, in his mind, the image of marrowy, crumbling pith, black ashes in the dirt. His grandfather offered him a silver can and he took it, but he set it on the ground, unopened.
That’s the Thunderbolt, his grandfather went on. That’s what it feels like.
Love? asked Rob. He felt foolish even saying it. At the time, he hadn’t known what it felt like to be in love; he was inclined toward dismissiveness. When his grandfather looked away, it was a remonstrance Rob didn’t notice.
Yeah, his grandfather finally said. The large watch on his wrist did not work, but he referred to it as if it did. Yeah. It’s destruction that you survive.
Rob’s mother later insisted she had seen his grandfather’s estranged wife at the funeral, but this could not be confirmed. Nobody else saw her, nor did she appear in any of the dozens of pictures that were uploaded to Facebook a few days after the service.
I’m just positive she was there, Rob’s mother said. She wasn’t easy to miss, you know?
His grandfather died drunk, and was buried with the watch on his wrist.
The summer finally over, it rained almost every day. Rob and Magdalene took fewer cigarettes breaks. They were spending less time together outside of work. She and Dmitri were just spending more time together, she said, but Rob got the feeling she was avoiding him. He resented her for keeping Dmitri from him, because he realized it was just making everything worse. He could tell by the way his masturbating merged with fever dreams of Dmitri entering his room and sitting beside him on the bed. In these fantasies, Magdalene was always in the distance, an obstacle that had been overcome, a threat mitigated by the blameless circumstance of Dmitri’s sudden and unprecedented coming out.
But Rob still talked to her at work, and still texted her afterwards, because he didn’t want to lose her, and this was only partially because Magdalene was his most reliable access to Dmitri. He knew he was being unfair to her; neither had he entirely forgotten their friendship, which in his more sentimental moments manifested itself in the memory of the time she had used all of her sixty-two inches and a can of expired pepper spray to frighten off two young men, would-be queer bashers in wrinkle-free polos, at a midnight bus stop. All of which is to say that Rob’s decision to finally do something about the day clerk was not done entirely out of selfishness.
I think I’m going to ask him if he wants to get a drink, Rob told Magdalene during their next smoking break. Knowing what her answer would be, he pre-empted her question by providing it himself.
Do you think I should? he asked deferentially.
Magdalene was thrilled to be privy to the development of a romance other than her own. She wanted to talk about everything: just how he would do it, what he would wear, where they would go if the day clerk said yes.
But wait, she interrupted herself. Do you even know if he’s gay?
I don’t know. I don’t think so, Rob said. He wasn’t sure if this was the hitch in his plan, or the axis upon which it turned. He did find the day clerk attractive, but he wasn’t sure how much longer he wanted to pretend that Dmitri was anyone other than himself.
But you’re asking him out, she pressed him, her eyebrows drawn neatly together.
I don’t know what I’m doing, said Rob.
The circuitousness of small talk was something for which Rob had a natural gift, and it was made easier by the fact that he wasn’t afraid of Dillon (that was the day clerk’s name). It was easy to set up a date and time for them to get drinks at a nearby bar, all over the greasy, sticker-layered countertop at the record store. The bar was one Rob had been to with Magdalene once or twice, as familiar a place as he could come up with off the top of his head.
He bought Dillon his first drink and took on the burden of the conversation himself, describing his job as they sipped their beers. As long as he was talking, he didn’t have to wonder why he had even asked him out, why he had locked himself into it by telling Magdalene it was what he wanted.
Make sure he knows it’s a date, she had said. In case he is straight.
Rob had been insulted by this at the time, but as the evening passed, and their conversation continued easily and even enjoyably, he began to wonder if maybe Dillon really didn’t think this was all just platonic. But as he wondered how he would suss out the truth, it came about on its own. They were talking about Magdalene, and how she and Rob had gone to school together.
I’ve been seeing less of her lately, though, said Rob. She started dating this guy she really likes.
That guy who comes with you to the store, right?
Yeah, said Rob.
So it’s like a third-wheel kind of thing, said Dillon.
Sort of, said Rob. He didn’t want to lie more than was necessary.
Did you talk to her about it? Dillon asked.
I don’t think I can, said Rob. Sometimes it’s hard to be upfront about that sort of thing.
I’m trying to be more honest, too, said Dillon, misunderstanding what Rob meant. Which is why I should probably tell you that I’ve never really, you know, dated guys before. It’s not that I’m not open to it. It just hasn’t happened.
It followed right behind his surprise, light and sharp as a flyswatter: the desire to tell him about Dmitri, with his green bike and his dark hair and his jaw, about how he didn’t want to hate Magdalene but was afraid he already did. Dillon had turned his attention to the drink menu, examining the laminated brochure for dear life. They were both on their third beer, and Rob wondered if there was a certain level of inebriation at which it was appropriate, even on a promising first date, to tell someone you are desperately in love with someone else. He finally began to feel nervous.
They finished their drinks, and then one of them said something about needing to go home. They stood on the sidewalk under a purple awning, the subject of their conversation pulling out wide enough to encompass goodbye and the circling, probing questions about whether there would be a next time. Dillon suddenly stepped close to him and gripped his waist with his hands. Rob had to lift his face to the kiss. It was soft and firm all at once.
So did you fuck? asked Magdalene. For the first time in weeks, she offered Rob a cigarette instead of waiting for him to ask.
No, said Rob. The word ‘fuck’ sounded guttural when she said it. He imagined Dmitri’s body curved around hers and experienced a lukewarm swell of sadness. It was too early in the morning—they were only just finishing their first coffees—to be bitter.
We’re going out again this weekend though, he went on.
You need to keep me in the loop about this, she said, flicking her hair behind her shoulders, her cigarette clamped in her jaw. I feel like I never see you outside of work anymore. We could go on double-dates!
Rob waited passively as she lit his cigarette, and then her own, with a victorious flourish.
Dillon appeared at Rob’s door with something under his arm.
I thought you might like this. I don’t know why, he said. He smiled.
Might be good second date material, said Rob, taking the case in his hands.
When Rob came back from the kitchen with their drinks, Dillon had packed a bowl and put on the record. Let’s listen to it now, he said, patting the place beside him.
They listened to the whole thing. Every so often, Dillon made a humming noise to signal his approval, but otherwise they were silent.
There was only one song on the album that Rob liked, and that was because it reminded him of Dmitri. The singer, a woman with a soft, tangy throat, sang about being in love with a man she didn’t know. Seeing this man caused the singer (Rob imagined her with long, thin, black braids and pink lipstick) unendurable pain, her love going so far as to choke her as she went down into the lower registers. It was around the second chorus he felt her dark eyes fill with water. He felt it in his own.
The song ended as it began, with nothing resolved and with the singer tortured by needfulness, solitary as the burden that rolled the song into the darkness between tracks. There was something about her voice that made Rob envious. The desire emanating from it felt real, more real than his desire, about which Dillon, who had let his arm slide up against Rob’s as the record played, couldn’t know.
What did you think? asked Dillon.
That was interesting, said Rob.
In an act of supreme self-control, one he would later be proud of, Rob didn’t once think of Dmitri the entire time. But after he finally drifted off, with Dillon asleep beside him, Rob dreamed of Dmitri all night long.
Maybe it was the weather, cold and often rainy, that made Rob and Dillon adhere so quickly. They soon reached the point where it could be said they were “seeing each other”; directly after she intuited this information, Magdalene decided that the four of them would go out to dinner.
Double-dates are so underrated, she told Rob. And I wanna see you two boys being cute together.
She held out two cigarettes between her fingers. Keep the other one for later, she said, with an arch wink.
The day before their double-date, Rob gave himself a haircut. He wanted it to look like Dmitri’s, but subtly enough that no one, except perhaps for Dmitri himself, would notice. He had always cut his own hair and thought he would be able to do it without too much trouble. Looking at himself in the mirror afterwards, he saw this had been self-delusion. The haircut was a perfect copy of Dmitri’s—it would be surprising if anyone didn’t notice. That night, he called Magdalene.
I’m thinking of canceling, he said. He ran his fingers through his hair. Dillon and I haven’t been hanging out for very long, you know. It might be weird for him.
It won’t be weird unless you make it weird. Don’t you want him to get to know your friends? asked Magdalene.
I guess, said Rob. He didn’t consider Dmitri to be his friend.
This isn’t you worrying about him being straight, is it? she asked.
Rob paused before he answered, surprised. No, no, it’s not that, he said. Of course, he had told her what Dillon had told him about never having dated men, but what did that mean, anyway?
Well, I wouldn’t worry about it, she said. Everyone experiments. So what about the double date?
Had she not gone on immediately, Rob would have just canceled it. Bowed out and hung up the phone, lain in bed touching his haircut, wheedling his cat with kissing noises. But as usual, Magdalene worked quickly.
You know, she said, Dmitri was really looking forward to it.
Rob imagined Dmitri posing thoughtfully in front of a closet full of button-ups and jackets, trying to decide what to wear.
Maybe I’m overreacting, he said.
Your hair, said Magdalene. Rob had come upon them waiting in front of the restaurant. She broke ranks with Dmitri, his green bike still leaning against his hip. She threw her eyes dramatically between them, back and forth, her perfectly-pencilled brows animated like machinery.
I cut it, Rob said, perhaps too tersely.
I just didn’t know you were into that look, Magdalene said. Behind her, Dmitri looked away and up the street, like he was waiting on a taxi. Rob felt a hand alight on his shoulder. He turned around. There stood Dillon, his earrings shining like obsidian.
Oh, you’re here! he said loudly, though of course Magdalene and Dmitri had seen him approach. Let’s go inside! he said, seizing Dillon by the shoulders and propelling him through the door.
In its reflection, he saw the shadow of Magdalene’s head, the triumphant way it turned toward the space where Dmitri must be standing.
Rob hadn’t known what to expect, but couldn’t have been surprised that he and Magdalene did most of the talking. Dillon seemed shy but comfortable, his foot touching Rob’s under the table. As usual, Dmitri was almost silent. There were drinks during dinner and then more afterwards.
Magdalene waited until their plates had been cleared away before bringing it up again.
Do you like Rob’s new haircut? she asked Dillon. She gestured with her glass.
Yeah, Dillon said, turning to look at Rob. I think he looks nice.
Very trendy, she went on. She reached her free hand up to squeeze the nape of Dmitri’s neck. Very popular right now.
They ordered more drinks. Dillon and Dmitri began to talk more, or rather, more to each other. Rob went silent, except for when he ordered another drink. Now Magdalene brought up his haircut over and over; with each successive mention, the space in time between her comment and the resurrection of the conversation grew slightly longer.
Dillon and Dmitri were discussing professional ice hockey so animatedly that Rob never realized their feet were no longer touching. Had he ever seen Dmitri look so engaged, he wondered? It took a long time for their conversation to turn to music, when Rob finally felt capable of interjecting. Setting down his half-empty glass, he interrupted them, addressed Dmitri directly. He told him about the record Dillon brought him, trying to come up with something interesting about the singer and her voice. He could hear the desperation in his own.
That sounds cool, said Dmitri. He looked at Dillon when he said it.
I can get you a copy, if you want, Dillon offered.
Dmitri doesn’t need any more copies of himself, announced Magdalene, smiling broadly into Rob’s face.
Shut up, Magdalene, he said.
Did you happen to notice, Dillon, she said, turning to face her boyfriend, that everyone at this table is trying to fuck you?
Rob almost tripped jumping to his feet. I told you to shut the fuck up!
Hey, said Dillon, putting his hand on Rob’s forearm.
I wasn’t talking to you, Rob snarled, his neck twisting. For a moment, he and Dillon looked at each other, and then Dillon pushed back his chair and got to his feet. When Rob didn’t follow him outside, Magdalene did. She smiled, staggering delicately on top of her pumps.
Rob and Dmitri faced each other over the candles. Through the window behind Rob, Dillon and Magdalene were talking on the sidewalk. He was allowing her to hug him. Every glass on the table was empty.
Dmitri, said Rob. I love you.
Dmitri was looking beyond him, towards the window. What? he said.
I said, Dmitri, I love you.
Wide-set and smudged with alcohol, Dmitri’s eyes, for the first time, focused on Rob.
What? he said. He seemed as if he still hadn’t heard him, rather than puzzled or surprised. That’s not my name, said Dmitri. Before Rob could reply, he pushed back his chair and went outside. Rob turned around. Through the glass, he watched Dmitri putting his arm around Magdalene. The notion of living beyond this evening seemed very far away.
He sat back down again, facing Dmitri’s empty chair. If he had looked behind him again, he would have seen the hand he put on Dillon’s shoulder, his jaw in profile moving with the generosity of real interest.