BY SCOTT BROKER
In 2015, we wake up lonelier than we’ve ever been. I can’t stand, we say, as though our muscles have been scraped away, misplaced somewhere else. Winter light stretches across the carpet. It could be a dance floor, a shimmering rug, but it stands as another thing that leaves us untouched. This is frightening. Our heads demand new routes through the ugly terrain. We face each other on the bed without touching. It’s a resolution: This year, we won’t fight loneliness, we’ll become it. You like the idea of going all in. I like the idea of being better than we were, are, have been. And so: no touching on the bed. And so: no New Year’s pancakes. Or maybe: yes New Year’s pancakes, but no funny shapes. We have to eat, after all, and we can certainly eat without all of that sentiment. You stand, stretch, and pull on a pair of sweatpants. In 2014, you would have done the cooking naked. Once or twice, you would have stripped bare just to approach the stove at all. This is 2015, though, and so you pull on the clothes hurriedly. It is a mask of shame, a reenactment of what was maybe once modesty. I wonder if my lonely should be bashful, too. It once was. I decide to allow myself a reimagining, sliding out of my briefs and envisioning a self so sad about work, love, life that its body is a consolation. When we eat, I sit at the foot of the bed and you at the kitchen table. You do your dishes and I do mine.
It will take time, but by the first switch of the clocks, we will have caught our rhythms of solitude. There are requisite trials beforehand: you try overeating, photography, and shaving your beard. I try painting in blues, ignoring calls from friends, and leaving Elliot Smith on the record player late-night, mid-morning, always. We refuse sex, dreaming a canyon in the navy sheets, then we embrace sex but rename it war. During February, we have our month of affairs. You leave condoms in the trash can. I leave condoms on the floor, feigning aloofness or cruelty or both. In 2014, we would not have bought condoms. We would have been clean, happiest far away from that latex boundary. Now, though, the condoms serve as artifacts of other men, other people we might be falling in love with. Once or twice, I masturbate with one of the condoms on when I can’t summon the energy to go out. The act is lonely for me and the outcome is lonely for you. I think of birds, stones, and other resolutions. Jogging to the gym. Accompanying a salad with a smaller salad. This is the trial period. The winter of errors. When we have sex, it is like a collision of batteries. We repel and repeat, over and over again.
Spring wets the roads and raises the flowers. We no longer sleep with strangers, avoid birthday parties, or bruise one another’s backs in the bedroom. We have found our cadenced blues and live simpler now because of them. I take walks across the neighborhood, imagining happier households in the brick stone apartment buildings. I fall in love with the Rodriguez family—a young mother and father with a small son—and when they dress their balcony for Cinco de Mayo, I mourn my own inability to celebrate, to decorate, to speak Spanish. In the morning, I read Conservative news columns and at night I read existentialists that tell me I’m a miasma of potential energy that could become one of these days. I want to ask, When? How? At what cost? but instead I read passages aloud, blanketing you and our lives with what I have decided is a reminder to be disappointed. Your new lonely listens to this and nods. Your new lonely is more considerate, in some ways. A reader of poetry. A listener of jazz. You pick up baking but hardly touch what you create. You sleep on the couch, the armchair. Once or twice, I find you on the floor of the closet, curled in like a fortune cookie. In 2014, the bed was yours, ours, and we’d sleep through anything. Even when we hated each other. Even when we shouldn’t have been able to sleep.
When the summer comes, it presses a sweaty palm down across the entire city. People walk around stripped of everything and on weekends, they rush out into the ocean like army battalions, shouting, Cool me off! Your lonely is still a blushing one and when I walk around the apartment naked, you pull your sweater down around your wrists. You’ll admit to being hot, but you say that shame keeps your inner core cold and desolate. This is the new poetry you speak in. For an afternoon, I have a character lapse, running around the apartment, laughing loudly, pulling at your sweater, your pants. I want you naked again. I want you confident, boastful. In 2014, you have been caught admiring yourself after a shower more than once. In 2014, you were the one kissing my stomach, saying you had never loved a body more. You were my sideline shouter. Now you put your hands over your face as I leap around the living room. We have not had sex in over a month. Our sheets are cleaner than they have ever been. I wrap myself around your neck, kissing. I turn you in the chair and climb onto your lap, kissing. You say: Stop. Then: I’m a jammed gun. I reach down. This doesn’t feel jammed to me. I am still lapsed, still playful. You abide by your new laws of loneliness, though. When I try to kiss you again, it is like your mouth cannot feel mine. I slide down and sprawl against the floor. The heat makes me sweat and I pretend that my smell is a pheromone drawing you in. You stand, make yourself an egg, and wash your dish. I wonder if this would have looked different if I’d waited until fall. In a dream that night, I am on the floor through July, August. A bear hibernating. A season passing. When autumn pulls breezes through the window, we meet in the kitchen. You say, Hello. Do you come here often? And then I wake up.
Children in our apartment building fill the hallways on Halloween, canvasing each floor like crime scene investigators. You and I argue about whether it is lonelier to give no candy—dimming the lights and listening to the knocks—or to give out toothbrushes. Your argument is for isolation, mine is for the monotony of my parents’ middle-age, middle-class, middle-west. We ultimately agree to alternate. Knock one: toothbrush. Knock two: silence. Etc. In the interims between, I try to not think of last year’s October. Then I remember that I should be thinking of last year’s October. This is not a war on loneliness, but an embrace. And so I dwell on our candy bars, our costumes. You took to scaring me and I took to making you dress up like a cowboy even when we weren’t going to a party. The memories are crushing, falling like loose shale from my head to my stomach. I am not sure if you’re thinking of them, too. Are we best off sharing in the good times, hurling stones at one another with each recalled intimacy, or should we let them rest between us like lousy secrets? I’m not sure. You are lying on the couch with your eyes closed. Sheets of paper are spilled on the floor beneath you. You’ve taken to bringing work home with you like your father did. I go for a walk, weaving through skeletons and ghosts, shouts and murmurs. The Rodriguez balcony is dark. They are out trick-or-treating. Or they are in. Sitting in darkness. Not trick-or-treating. The possibilities press outward like surf, leaving it unclear where they begin or end. Moving down the avenue, I notice the way that the fallen leaves cover the ground like the total assemblage of our used condoms, scattered and glimmering in the moonlight.
There are things we still do, things we will always do. We go to work. We call our parents. On Tuesdays, you run through Central Park and on Thursdays, I do. You take guitar lessons. You laugh at children’s jokes on television and movies. I eat canned ravioli for lunch. I ignore wisdom teeth that should have been pulled three years ago. We subscribe to The New Yorker but don’t read it. We talk about protests but never go. Pizza is ordered on Friday nights. Haircuts are had every two months. In bed, late, I take comfort in the normalcies. It is nice to be reminded of permanence. To know that despite a makeover, your best friend is still kind, humble. We’ve lived so long in our efforts, though, that I begin to confuse what is ours from 2014 and what is ours now. In the shower, I find your hair in the drain, matted and wet, and I can’t remember if this is how it has always been, this laziness, or if it is a function of your new lonely. It seems frivolous but I grasp the hair in my fingers, summoning it to tell me something, to reveal distinction. The water pushes it out of my hand and it disassembles against my chest, losing itself in the hair on my stomach and thighs. When we fight, my voice moves from the tenor of anger to the hollow notes of playacting—are we fighting like we did before, or are we fighting to learn something about how we have been worse once? There are ways to be cruel without shouting, after all. November’s cold pushes me back into my clothes and I am reminded that this was once me, but there is no sense of return, no notion of breaking my own rules. In the mirror, I dizzy myself wondering about what has been sloughed off, what has drifted away in the year of newfangled lonely.
It is Christmas. We are exhausted and cold. You say things like, I’d like to sleep through this holiday season. I say things like, You make me feel like a worse person, but only when you are sleeping. In 2014, you wrapped up all of the chairs at our kitchen table as though they were presents. In 2014, we wrote new Christmas carols together. Santa was always gay, Mrs. Claus a beautiful and demanding drag queen. In 2014, we were happier. In 2014, better. In 2014, us. Now we sit across from one another, never beside, donning our loneliness like a sash. Look at how sad we are, we seem to shout across the table, hoping the world can hear us. As you eat your fried rice, I want to ask if we did it, if we beat life to the punch by declaring ourselves so boldly. These days, we wear our own clothing. You wash your dishes and I wash mine. We haven’t had sex since Thanksgiving. We’ve drawn our year to a peak, dissolving into our own waters, mistaking one another for strangers. When we finally collapse into our bed on New Year’s Eve, it feels funereal. Deathly. I face my wall and you face yours. The washing machine spins your darks and insomnia spins me, round and round, until the fireworks scatter the sky. It is 2016 now. 2016 and we are still breathing. 2016 and your hands are finding my side. We tilt inward, meeting in the space between. I push my fingers through your hair. You grab handfuls of me from my back, my legs, my neck. It is a reassembling of jumbled parts. A puzzle of limbs. When the sound outside stops, I move down to your waist, lift your shirt like a lid, and squeeze my body between you and the fabric. Later, we will continue to search, finding relics of where we have been, ascribing promises for where we want to go. We have been better, worse, and just okay. We have been lonely then and lonely now. And we will wake up again tomorrow, the next day. It will be a new year. For now, though, we lie still, synchronizing our breathing, wearing the same shirt.
Scott Broker is a writer originally from Colorado living now in Seattle, Washington. His work has appeared in Sonora Review, Driftwood Press, Pacifica Literary Review Online, and Literary Orphans, among others. He holds a degree in both English and Philosophy from Seattle University.