I’m in my bed on West Fifty Second Street. It’s dark. I can’t tell if my eyes are open or closed. My brain is sluggish, more so than usual. It’s too dark to see, my confusion is brightly mirrored by the absence of everything. I hear the bed creaking beneath me. Old springs. A memory of something from childhood. I place my bare feet on the ligneous floor. The implacable insistence of winter hits my skin like a shock of electricity into my soles and up through the rest of me. I sit on the edge of my bed, blowing hot air into my cupped hands, trying to adjust to the blue-black world around me. A racing pulse, frosty sweat sticking my shirt to my back. I am gripped with something animal, an instinct from I know not where, as if I’m exposed. I feel seen in this total darkness, as if something that is best left concealed has burst to fantastical life. This is why humans fear the dark, it claims our souls unnoticed. I place my feet into my slippers, but they do not feel familiar. Suddenly, nothing is familiar. I don’t remember coming home. It seems I haven’t been to this place in years. Perhaps I’ve never been here at all. As if a place I’ve long imagined, has suddenly become real in the mid-night of someone else’s midwinter. Perhaps I’ve dreamt a future from which I am finally waking up. This must be the fatigue of sleep pressing itself into me. The residue of dream. I have long believed in the veracity of my own inventions, but history is surely no invention of mine. But then, neither are my dreams. I am only witness, not perpetrator. They are cast up from the lake of hell as either truth or torment. I pull back the thick curtains of the window over my small wooden bed, and the faintest of glowing light, flame or moon I cannot tell, creeps in just so. As I turn my head away from the window, toward the room itself, I see, directly across from me, as if mimicking my very posture, a shadow. It is the figure of a man, to be sure. He is indiscernible and as still as the stagnant night air. But I recognize the danger of him. The sight of him takes my breath, stiffens my spine. I am resigned to whatever fate I’ve awoken to. How could I not be? The memories of shadows overtake me in all their furtive avidity. They are everywhere, portentous and unremitting, and they will never stop claiming us. The shadow moves as I do, and I know I am not alone in my room. A stranger has followed me home. But from where? I cannot stop myself from jumping to my feet. I cannot stop myself from dashing as quickly as I can out of my bedroom, through the front room of my apartment, out the front door, down three flights of stairs, and into the midwinter rime that is hovering like an ominous angel over the tranquil city. I cannot turn around, lest I see him fast on my trail. He is coming. The shadows are coming for us all.
First it was Edmond, and then Anthony, lovers never heard from again. William and Joseph, and myriad gossips of countless others. Disappeared into the thickness of obscurity. Taken by shadows, never to return. I knew better than to be alone before sunrise. Why was I home? What had happened? I can feel shards of ice pricking my feet through the thin fabric of my slippers, and the vaporous clouds of my exhaled breath obscures the world in front of me. I can’t make a wrong turn. I can’t stop moving forward. I am running back to the Ariston, the bathhouse beneath the world, where safety lives in esoteric perpetuity, and shadows stick to their otherworldly selves. I will be safe there.
Memories shuffle like playing cards through my bitter mind. I see the faces of men who have been taken, I see the faces of men who have been invited into me, who have known more of my body than I. We are tied together, I can see, we are tied together from the beginning of time, from the moment Erebus emerged from the void of chaos and gave birth to Love. A threaded succession of the male form grasping workworn hands around the blood red filament of all of time. A patchwork of tragic testimony from antiquity to eternity. I think of the passage of time, and its immutable procession. And of Walter. Walter, the man I seek in the dark underworld. It is in these last few months, since I first saw him, that I have discovered a new sense, a craving I never dreamed I could have. And as I run through the sleeping, wintry city, I am filled with the warmth of his embrace. I will feel complete again when his arms encircle me. I cannot recall when last I saw him. The exact look of his face eludes me. I run faster. How long has it been? The fog of sleep or dream hasn’t entirely lifted, but still I run. I pass block after block of brick, of lighted gas lamps, of hobos tucked as warmly into the crevices of buildings as they can cram. I run past parked carriages and street signs whose letters are indiscernible from the white frost of winter. Everything feels at once in front of me, and from a different time. And there is no rear view, there is only forward.
I see the red sign next to the flame of the lantern, the Ariston Hotel. The bathhouse entrance is down a flight of stairs just next to the glowing hotel sign. I grab the icy rail and I proceed down the steps as fast I can. Moving stealthily through the entrance door, opening it just wide enough to pass through and shutting it quickly behind me. I am safe.
“Good Evening, Mr. Galbert,” that would be Henry, the concierge of the bathhouse, an amenable, slightly overweight fellow of middle-age with a wide jaw and a silly overbite. He is smiling at me, as is his usual demeanor. His small yellow teeth seem to be reverting back into his enflamed gums, but his smile is wide enough to suggest his indifference to this fact. He knows my name from the register that all guests must sign before entering. It is not my name. I have invented a surname as I assume others have as well. Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in this particular forest is ill-advised to men of any prominent name. Henry watches as I sign the register. I look up at him, I try to look him in his gray eyes, and I catch myself staring at the plastering of the few remaining hairs on his head that he must intend to present as a natural part. I smile back at him, as much out of pity as courtesy. I pay him one dollar for a private room. He hands me a sheet, and a key, and I am grateful. I leave him to his duties and I enter the dark corridor that leads to the bathhouse itself. To the safety of the others.
The dark corridor from the entrance to the changing rooms is lit only by the ambient light of gas lamps emanating from open archways. Shadows of men moving slowly toward the sounds of hissing steam, exerted breath, and of chatter somewhere in the distance dance across the walls. And I, somnambulating somehow, float through the cavernous dark toward something, someone I used to be.
The changing room is a square windowless space just past an archway covered by a plain white curtain. Inside the room are a couple of benches, some cubbies for shoes and other personal effects, and long bars along the back wall where wooden hangars are placed for clothing. One does not wear clothes in the Ariston. They are real world accessories. No such need for excess barriers impeding our gratification down here. If there is one thing that every man in the Ariston has in common it is the desire for what lies beneath the clothing. The walls are dark. All the walls of the Ariston are dark, covered in wooden slats or thick lacquered paint of deep gray, an ironic and hoary reminder of our intentions. But here in the dark submissive subterranean, our sub-morals seek spiritual excavation. A kind of duality is necessary where rules are created by the tyranny of exquisite deviance. This place is but a shadow of the world above. Where life blurs into fantasy and simple men become eloquent poets. A netherworld, ruled by the exiled in opposition to pious fealty. What is wrong becomes right, in the darkness of night, where our selves are cloaked in novelty. So there’s a kind of spiritual imperative to the dark walls of the Ariston, a willful ignorance. We are the shadow-makers and we obey only the laws of the mirage.
The Ariston is the reflective nighttime other of the selves we know in the light of day. A curse of its own time. When the puppeteers at the fire had no materials to reflect the image of such persons, they remained unknown, but to each other. And who is the less wise? But here we have found in our haven, our sanctuary, a poetic meter of unknown feet, yet what delicious scansion. Dive into the abyss and interpret anyone you like. Until such a time that our own time is history, we adjust the truth to fit our needs, and our needs are fitted just fine by the desire of others. But this is not what I have come looking for tonight. I have spent many nights in the somber embrace of my shadow self, and in the arms of Walter, the man I have returned to find. I fear I will not find him.
I remove my clothes. I wrap myself in the small white sheet that smells vaguely of ammonia and tobacco, and I step back into the dark corridor. The light from the parlor seeps in to the dark tunnel like the morning sun, glowing amber. The color cuts a melancholy figure tonight. Where are you, Walter? I know the shadows are closing in. The hourglass overturned is nearly empty. Our only hope is the other. I don’t want to panic, but I know he’s not here, and I hope he is on his way. I turn a corner, unsure of which direction I’m heading, and I happen upon the darkened entry to one of the steam rooms. Gusts of steam exhale from the tattered white curtain of the rounded archway like vapor escaping between the teeth of an angry dragon. Before I can reason otherwise, I slip into the steam room. I have often discovered Walter in such rooms. I don’t know that i’m looking for him now. As if lost in a fog on the darkest night, I am swallowed. A slow hiss. The pulse of dripping water. The poetic scent of wet wood and skin and sweat. In the miasma, a pall hangs like tapestry. It swirls as thick as oil paint, leaving smears of smoke suspended in space. The heat is overwhelming, and the tickle of menthol sticks in my throat. I hear the wet touching of bodies nearby, but I can’t see them. I want to speak, but as custom would have it, in the dark, speaking is usually disruptive and not at all welcomed. Or is it that I have no voice here?
“Hello,” his voice whispers through the fog like a god beckoning me toward our Arcadia. It is Walter’s, but it is not now
“I can’t see you,” I whisper back.
“I’m right here…” The steam parts and on the bench against the back wall he is sitting and smiling at me. His face is not quite how I remembered, or how I see it when I close my eyes.
“You’re not really here,” I say bitterly. “Where are you?”
“I’m right here,” he says again, this time in a voice that isn’t his, “I’ve been waiting for you.” He pats the wooden bench next to him, suggesting that I sit with him. That was how it happened, once, the second or third time. The first night was all silences. A few awkward phrases and more than one glance that writers call furtive. This is the what the room looked like, what it smelled like. But now it’s drenched in nostalgia, something artificial, too sweet, like the memory of some long-forgotten cake that hasn’t touched your tongue since youth.
“Sit with me,” he says, and I cannot help but give in to the fondness of this creation. Everywhere I turn in the swirling gray haze of the steam I see another version of him, of us, moments imprinted on the walls, on the benches, like a zoopraxiscope of shadows in the air, memories hanging and moving all around us ethereal and permanent like fingerprints we’ve left behind. And I can’t tell the memories from the shadows from men from myself.
“You’ve been running,” he says.
“It’s cold outside. I didn’t want to freeze to death.” He laughs in the way he does that suggests he thinks I’m endearing. I want to kiss him.
“You’re so dramatic,” he says through his impossibly perfect smile. There’s that nostalgia again. If it is nostalgia, then the time on this side of us together is greater than I can imagine.
“I couldn’t wait to see you,” I say, and it’s true. It’s truer than the walls closing in around me.
“Aren’t you tired of running?” He leans in closer, “what are you running toward?” I don’t answer. I should answer. “Or,” he says, “are you running away from something?” I should tell him I want to run away with him. Why didn’t I tell him that? Why didn’t I tell him that I only dream of him, that I am only half of myself when he is absent? Did I say these things? Did he know any of that? How much of life is what we think we know someone else thinks or knows? And what intervals fill the hours between desire and fulfilment? The long silence of loneliness. He pats his legs a couple of times, a sign of impatience. I have not spoken.
“I told you,” I say slightly irritated, “I was cold.”
“Yeah,” he says, as he pulls away from me, “right, cold.” He leans his back on the wall, and closes his eyes. Another long silence. Why doesn’t he understand? Doesn’t he feel the same way?
“I’m getting tired of this life.” I finally say, and immediately wish I could take it back.
“What does that mean?” he asks, with his eyes still closed.
“I hate secrets.”
“Really?” He says, and opens his eyes and stares at me knowingly, and I know why.
“I hate that there’s nothing I can do about this. What does the future even look like? I haven’t thought about the future in so long. I don’t know how I will ever have one.”
“How can you if you’re lost in the past?”
“How can I move toward something that’s lost?”
“You’re feeling sorry for yourself.”
“If I am,” I say pointedly, “it’s because I want to be with someone who would rather I stay a shadow than become a real person!”
“I told you,” he starts more aggressively than I’ve ever seen him, “I would go with you.” He softens immediately, “I told you we could go somewhere far away where no one knows us, where no one would ever find us.” Have I mistaken him. I don’t remember him saying these words. But my pride is stung, nonetheless.
“You didn’t mean it.” I say dismissively.
“How is that fair?”
“How is what fair?”
“Why do you get to decide what I meant?”
“It’s impossible,” I stand up to make my point, “Words are easy, they make moments easier to endure, but when you say things that cannot be, your words, they’re just decorations to make everything seem to look better, but the ugliness of what it really looks like is still there. You can’t hide the truth of this. Not with anything.”
He hangs his head. Why did I say this? How do I put into words the impossible feeling that we share? Will anyone understand this despair, this injustice? Does anyone have to?
A pang of something deep and unendurable hits me, and I want to throw my arms around him. This was the last time I saw him. And what would follow…what terrible, terrible treachery would conclude our story. I would deny that I knew him, I would deny that we had even met, that our paths had ever even accidentally crossed. Our heated exchange made it impossible for me to hear the whispers. We, neither of us, paid any particular attention to the strange new faces of the Ariston those last few days. When the whistle blew and the chaos began, I didn’t know it was the start of the end of my life. For within only a few years, I would be dead and buried in an unmarked grave. Never to have this, never to feel this, never to understand the reason I was born wicked. I didn’t know then, Walter, that our collision would turn to rubble beneath an ever-changing world. That all moments hence would be reft of meaning. Can I change this? Can I edit the text of history? I turn back to Walter, and I’m about to tell him that I’ve changed my mind. That no matter how far we have to run, no matter how much time we have to wait, I’ll be with him. But it’s too late. The steam has filled the room once more, and he is gone. And I stand amid the empty space as I always do. Alone.
I turn to go, and I am face to face with a large man, Norman Fitzsimmons, one of the imposing and awkward new faces that I should have considered. I didn’t think anything of him, and to my detriment perhaps I still don’t.
“Hi there,” he says in that suggestive way that suggests a clever man should properly dismiss him.
“Can I help you?” I say, as if I’m talking to a tourist who doesn’t speak my language. Both of us can feel my impatience.
“What’s your hurry?” as soon as he asks, his eyes wander up and down my body as he licks his lips which, because of the moisture of the steam, makes a wet slithering kind of sound which sends a shiver up my spine.
“I have a room,” he says in a newly pitiful tone.
“That’s nice for you,” I am not even trying to be civil. I just want him to leave me alone.
“Would you meet me there?”
“I don’t think so.” I try to move past him, but he moves at the same instance to block my way.
“Come on,” his confidence has inexplicably returned, “I think we should get to know each other.” Unable to hide his tumescence under his rather small sheet, he seems oddly to be gaining confidence.
I nod, having experience with aggressive men in the past, I know the answer, so I smile and say I’ll meet him in an hour in his room, that he should wait there for me. This is usually effective because it never takes an hour for a desperate gentleman to find someone else who is equally desperate. I think I’m safe, there’s no chance he’ll be waiting for me in an hour. How could I know his intentions? I never suspected the flesh and blood in front of me to ever be as sinister as the shadows from whence they came. How could I have known? The only thing more dangerous than the law, is the law that wants to avenge himself.
“I’ll see you then, handsome.” He says as he brushes an awkward finger across my face. I try to smile, I know it must look false, but I doubt he’ll recognize the difference. The thing about desperation is that it makes everything look equally appealing. Conversely, one of the curses of the inhabitants of this place, and indeed all such shadowy encounters, is that ill-intentions and fear share the same mannerisms. We mistook each other. He disappears into the cloud of steam. I wait a moment before I rush from the stream room back to the corridor and toward the parlor, trying to shake off the residue of his insolent insistence.
The parlor of The Ariston, is more of a lodge than a clandestine refuge. It doesn’t look at all like the kind of place where the underworld thrives. Unlike the men that populate it, it’s face value can be trusted. It’s filled with dark oak furniture and hardwood floors, and entirely illuminated by a giant crystal chandelier and a roaring wall-length fireplace. The room is in a state of perpetual aureate glow. In my imagination, this is the color of nostalgia, of wistful memories, and fêted histories, Versailles in its heyday. It’s the color of memory. The amber dawn when I walked along the Seine in the heart of Paris, and Notre Dame revealed herself on the pink horizon, is, in my mind, painted in this perfect golden sheen. There are round tables throughout the parlor, usually occupied by pairs of men who are discussing current events, or the weather, the opposite of the kind of provocative goings-on that fuel the other parts of our Hadean world. Shadows dance on the walls of the parlor, and here they are never feared. They are the distorted images of men cast from the large flames of the fireplace. There are refreshments and tobacco sold at small vendors on the edges of the massive room, and liquor may be purchased from the circle bar that serves as the parlor’s centerpiece. Sometimes, over the smell of the burning wood, you catch the faint hint of gin or whisky perfuming the air. The only men in the parlor tonight are John Rogers and his friend Theodore Casson. The herd is thinning. John is the most effeminate man I have met at the Ariston. He moves and speaks with a caustic hiss about him that demands either respect or reproach, and I honestly don’t know which he prefers. I often wonder if he is the same man in the daylight. He’s handsome, tall and skinny, not very defined but lengthy, and he’s always draped with his sheet tied in such a way that it clings to his body as if it were tailor-made to fit him precisely. Theodore is an immigrant from eastern Europe somewhere. I never asked, and he never volunteered this information. His accent is thick, his English imperfect, and he is extremely handsome. He has olive skin, curly black hair and deep blue eyes, a contrast that distracts most of the gentlemen here when they first encounter him. He’s one of those people for whom the world feels invited toward. His smile can only be described as glowing, or any such adjective that suggests a light emanating from him, from a place beneath the surface. Of course, it is only the surface given greater meaning to avoid the shallow realization that human beings are drawn to corporeal pleasures first and foremost. Though I do fancy myself a bloke of some substance, I can’t help but feel only drawn toward Theodore for his remarkable beauty. There is surely greater beauty of the soul, but we don’t do much excavating here. John and Theodore are sitting at a table nearest the fireplace.
“George!” John shouts as he raises his hand to announce that it was he who shouted my name, as if being the only people in the room were not enough of a hint. I smile and head over to their table.
“As I live and breathe,” John continues, as I sit across from him, “is a saying I deplore, but customs being what they are..” he trails off into his drink.
“How are you, John? Theodore?” Theodore smiles, and I feel a tinge of something as his eyes twinkle in my direction.
“The world is being lost to the shadows,” John says abruptly, “what are you drinking, my friend?”
“I don’t drink, John, remember?”
“Why should I remember something as foolish as that?”
“You no with the drink?” Theodore, I assume, is clarifying that he understood correctly.
“I don’t drink,” I say, “I promised my sister I would quit.”
“Why?” Theodore asks with a furrowed brow.
“I drank far too often to excess. Which, in turn, can quite often lead to rather foolish mistakes
“Amen!” John says as he grabs Theodore’s leg and gives it a good squeeze.
“My sister is quite demanding.” I add in almost a whisper for fear of reproaching her in public.
“Sisters are always much too demanding,” John begins, “why, my very own used to insist I stop stealing her angora! The nerve!” I shake my head with a little laugh.
“But in all seriousness,” his tone changes immediately to a graver seriousness, “I was worried we’d lost you. I haven’t seen you around lately.”
“Yes,” Theodore interjects, “where you been?” I don’t know what to say. I don’t know.
“And with the seedy lowlifes taking over,” John says as he motions toward Norman Fitzsimmons, who is slithering by the parlor on his way to what I can only hope are greener pastures. I look back at John, who has both eyebrows raised and his jaw slackened, “shadow monsters, I tell you.” Just then, a loose ember sparks in the fireplace and makes a loud crackling sound. I jump in my seat, which makes John giggle.
“Why so jumpy, my dear boy,” he chuckles a little, “afraid of the dark?” He makes an attempt at a ghostly moan as he takes a sip of his drink. John always drinks Manhattans, because as he says, he is like the city itself, a classy ole gal. A shadow moves across the wall, my eyes follow to where its origin is, but there’s no one there. Where are you Walter, I think, where are you? Lost in this endless night. Is there hope still? Was there ever?
“Where is Walter?” John asks as if he’s reading my mind.
“He should be here soon,” I say with less hope than I intended.
John crosses his legs, revealing, rather dramatically, his pink stockinged legs.
“Are those stocking?” I ask, in a scandalous tone.
“They’re not rubbers,” John says in his caustically endearing way.
“Where you get those?” Theodore asks desperately.
“I filched them from Wanamaker’s,” John says and then continues sonorously, “They were marked up ten percent from last week! Imagine the nerve, it’s as if they’re asking us to criminalize ourselves. I refuse to overpay for the pleasure of hiding my sophistication. Blaspheme, I say.
“You steal?!” Theodore can hardly believe it.
“And why not?” John asks, and then looks pointedly into my eyes, “the world is ending. For us. Anyway. Why should the morality that has cast us asunder be respected in any measure by any of us? I take what I like, and in return, I don’t burden the world with my secrets. Social contract!”
The long silence is broken by another crackling in the fire.
“Fewer and fewer of us now.” John says, as he swirls the small amount of drink he has left in the bottom of his glass, clinking the ice against the crystal.
“I can hardly remember their names,” he continues, “the stories of men, of lovers, a procession of lost souls, one after the other down the long corridor of history, arm in arm, sin after sin, dust to dust.” Theodore and I make eye contact, I always hope he will look back when I stare at him, if for nothing but that sense of invitation he inherently offers, but this time, the weight of truth terrifies us. John, not looking at either of us, continues,
“My friend Matthew, dear friend, was last seen in the southwesterly cooling room with a group of men from out of town. Swallowed by the shadows. All. Some who were nearby say they heard the languid screams, the pleas to God, the awful, awful wretched cries of the damned. But no one could stop it. How many men have gone? How many trodden these halls as nothing but memory now? And soon to be vanished, lost forever buried in the rubble. But oh, how we fancy ourselves immortal. Surely, we think, surely someone, someday will dig us out. And hold us in the light and see the colors of our geodes. Sparkled back to the life as priceless deities. Gods from an impossible time. Welcome to the future. The numbers are uncountable, the misery unimaginable, and yet we still return, as if by some terrible, spiritual curse that draws us again and again to suffering.”
John finished the rest of his drink and sets the glass on the table gently. “Do you know what I think it is,” he asks, suddenly his old self again. “I think,” he hesitates, and then smiles, “humans want the wrong things.” This is a line I know. His words move through me, past me, lifting me into the air and placing me in the space between death and eternity, where every man has been that has known what it is to love.
The room is mostly dark. The mattress old and springy. I am face down with my head off to one side. I am naked. I can feel the length of his body alongside me. His hand gently gliding along my spine, softly, perfectly. I have ached in the absence of this feeling. This is why I return. One moment more, turns to days turns to weeks and the craving grows and the pain realer than the air I breathe. I can smell the mentholated air, a scent I associate with an appetitive impulse for him. More of him. Always him. Always more. He tells me of his life. He tells me his dreams. Time is precious when counted in the presence of such happiness. Always more. I traverse the wilds of his existence, an explorer, a conqueror. I want more. He has a tone in his voice that can bring me to laughter, to tears, to desire. He is an ocean of a man, and I, who had not hesitated before diving in to be carried off by the currents of his inexorable beauty, a seafaring dreamer.
“What would we do if the world couldn’t stop us?” I ask him, in a voice dripping with pity.
“That’s the wrong question,” he says.
“We can only know the shadow versions of each other,” I say with irritation, “because the world will not have it any other way.”
“That’s not why.”
“Of course it is.”
“Why should we be beholden to how others see us?”
“Are you serious?”
“We call ourselves victims of perception. But isn’t that just our own perception?”
“You do not think it is real?”
“But this is impossible to change. Why do we care so much to change the opinions of people we’ll never even know?”
“I’d like to have freedom.” I say and I think I’ve won the argument.
“No,” he insists, “that’s not what you really want,” he says with a kind of certainty that stabs my heart. I turn onto my side toward him, I know my face is filled with anger, but I do not to try to mask it.
“Why would you say that?” I say sharply.
“We’re human,” he says, “humans always want the wrong things.” He leans in to kiss me, but I do not let him.
“Oh, then I guess you don’t really want me?” I sound like a young girl in love. Why do such strong feelings of pleasure blister so easily, even at just the hint of rejection? But rather than be embarrassed by this betrayal of immaturity, I am fueled by an indignation to both win him over and prove him wrong.
“I fear we don’t define the word ‘want’ in the same way,” he says in a dismissive tone.
“Then tell me,” I say, “tell me how should I define it.” He smiles and lies down on his side next to me, his elbow digs into the mattress and his hand holds his head up, and he says that want is a desire to be with, not possess. I tell him this is semantics. He tells me I am obsessed with having him entirely to myself. And then he tells me that our families and our world could not allow it. And could never bleed into one another. I cringe at the word “bleed,” and my heart sinks with the meaning of his words. So, I tell him to choose me. No, I beg him to choose me. Always more. And, again, he insists it is human avarice, and that I am not to blame for my drastic position.
“Are you saying you’re not human?” I say with sarcasm, “are you suggesting that you are infallible to the desperation that I feel for you?” Instead of defending himself, he leans over my face, he kisses my forehead, and with a grin he says, “I love you.” And I can feel my spirit heighten, it is more, I think. He is giving me more.
“Let’s get out of here,” I say, and I look into his eyes, and I feel that twinge. I cannot express what feeling accompanies the belief that you belong to someone else, it is something that only lovers know how to define. I am overwhelmed by it, and didn’t notice how the haze swept back in from the steam room and overtook us both. An ominous foreshadow, or the curse of imperfect memory. “Will you come with me,” I say desperately as a cloud begins to separate us. Did he say yes? Did he say no? He blurs out of focus, fading, retreating into thin air. And the air, clogged with the ever-graying shadows, overtakes me, and I let it.
John has finished yet another drink, and he pats Theodore on the head like you would a little kid, and leans in close to him to whisper “let’s go,” gently into his ear. Before I can think to excuse myself, out of the corner of my eye, I catch sight of a figure bolting across the back wall of the parlor. Walter? I look. Nothing. There it is again. I look to the other side of the room, but it’s empty. Another. And then another. They are surrounding us.
“Don’t go,” I say to John and Theodore, who are so enamored with each other at this point, they don’t even look at me, “it’s not safe,” I insist. But they do not believe me.
“Sorry, old boy,” John says, “can’t break a date with Atropos.” He kisses Theodore on the lips, it’s soft, sweet. I feel a pang of loss in the center of me. I push the thoughts aside, I can’t let John and Theodore go.
“Spinning the thread,” John says, and then glances at me directly, “will never change the length of it.” He winks at me, and he is gone.
Just as John and Theodore disappear into the darkness of the corridor that leads to the southwesterly cooling room, is when it happens. Out of what feels like a dream, I see a shadow on the wall farthest from me, near the corridor, all at once and without pause, peel itself from top to bottom off of the smooth surface of the wall and come to life in front of me. I cannot breathe. Transfixed and terrified, I watch as the shadow glides toward and disappears down the same corridor as my friends. I jump to my feet. I scramble to make sense of what I’ve seen, while at the same time trying to concoct a plan of action. I don’t have time to consider what might happen to me, I barrel down the corridor, into the hissing pitch-black. My hands are out in front of me, feeling the wall just next to me. There is no light. I am blind. I walk as quickly as I can, I think to call out John’s name, but I cannot. I open my mouth, and the harsh hot menthol stings my throat. I am voiceless. I am blind. The southwesterly cooling room is at the far end of the corridor, it will not be easy to reach in this dizzying blackness.
The cooling rooms of the Ariston are quite popular. They are the most temperate places for two men to relax together. The southwesterly is often the most populated. And where the many go, most men will follow. It’s the largest of the cooling rooms. It’s illuminated by the ambient glow of streetlights through the small window at the top of the room. There are slatted benches and cots lining the walls, and there are usually a couple of men occupying one or two of them at any given time. I remember Walter in this room. I see him there. He’s sitting on one of the cots, propping himself up on his elbows. His sheet is on the ground near him, and the soft light makes his naked skin glow. He is otherworldly. Apollo, god of light, come to life before me, releasing his bow, briefly piercing the gentle body of this lesser mortal.
“Where will we go?” he asks playfully, he’s flirting with me, in that way he does. His half smile, that penetrating stare, a kind of confidence that doesn’t betray charm.
“If you’ll go with me,” I say, “I’ll go anywhere you want to go.” I sit on the cot next to him. He moves his arms and stretches out onto his back, I lay my head on his chest, and as he strokes my hair, he tells me where he wants to go. “Arcadia,” he says, “A future as far back as antiquity.” He always speaks in contradictions, and I love it. He told me once that time always comes back to the beginning, and that it exists all at once. We are now and then and soon to be, and always will be, and never were.
“Describe it to me,” I say, trying to nuzzle deeper into him, if I could burrow beneath his skin, I would search for no greater destiny. I smell his skin, and it forces my eyes closed. Always more.
“It’s perfect,” he begins, and I nod to encourage him. “The fresh morning has broken, and the sky is clear. It’s the kind of early morning blue that reminds you of youth, when dawn was still a poem. And there we are in a verdant field of tall grass stretched out for what seems like ever. Mountains paint the edges of the scene, and a gentle river runs past us, past the trees, the wilderness, a forest, floral with canopied orchards. And on a bluff of perfect emerald alongside the river, just past the wild, we build our place. We build it from ancient stone and marble painted Egyptian blue, something megalithic. A temple maybe, a place that’s only ours. But all the ours who would ever come. And we live in that moment in that place until it no longer serves as heaven, overgrown with weeds and grasses, abandoned by time and necessity. Until then, we stay as we are now, unbroken from the other. And always.” and then he smiles, “The end.”
He stops stroking my hair, I raise my head to look into his eyes. I love you, Walter. I love you more than I should. I love you more than even I understand. I can’t let you go. I’ve come back to pull you from the ruins. To take you, at long last, into the light of day, to this perfect place you’ve built for us. We have to go. We have to go now.
A scream pierces the dark, I turn at the end of the corridor, and I rush into the southwesterly cooling room. It’s empty. The cots are gone. The walls are cracked, the window is boarded up with planks of wood. And burning just in the middle of the room, a single candle. A vigil of something not just gone, but swallowed deep into the Earth. Forgotten. How do I pull all of this out? It’s rubble, it’s nothing but impermanent imaginings, whispers of shadows, spiritual hieroglyphics on a wall buried deep into the crust of the earth. It is gone.
“John,” I say compulsory, but I know he’s not here. The walls are dull, no longer alive with the images of the men that were once here, and the light casts no shadows on them. Not even my own. I have no shadow left in this place. And I remember. I remember the plan to escape. And I see Norman Fitzsimmons, in his desperate deceit. And I see the others too. Bursting into the rooms. Shattering the walls. Betraying the underworld to the laws of the righteous gods high above. We were all taken that night. And we have never returned. That night. The last night I saw him. Walter. The shadows came for us. And we could not stop them from pulling us apart. Only now I stand alone in the spot where last our eyes locked, with a piece of my soul cut out of me. I thought I could return and find it. I took a step toward the history I truly believed made me who I am, and what I have found in its place is a world where even shadows don’t exist. When once they ruled the domain, bereft of agency, they are now nothing but the lack of light. And these men. What can I do with these men? How do I excavate them, and bring them up to the world? How will you know their names? And love. Or perhaps, the point isn’t their love. History doesn’t record the heart. And once made invisible, a man cannot reanimate. He is gone. And only the poet may resurrect him.
The candle on the floor of what used to be The Ariston flickers,
I stare into the center of it.
The room disappears inside of me,
I pick up the flame,
and I take a deep breath,
and I close my eyes.
flashes of Walter,
And dreams and impossible possibilities of future,
and then and then and now again,
and them and all,
one after another
in the succession that creates the procession of all the things that have made me come to this place and hold this light in the center of this darkness and with these men with all of them and everyone who has ever dared to taunt the shadows of misfortune only to succumb to the shadows themselves and to the ones who came later and who know themselves more than others can even imagine when shadows no longer haunt us nor never can again and they are here and they are together and with the full wisdom of what it means to let go of the history of what should be and into the present of what is I blow out the candle
and I join them