Lauren Quinn’s encounter is a reminder of how fragile people are.

“SO, CAN I ASK YOU SOMETHING?” Angelo flicks over a tentative glance.

I curl my toes around the edge of the mattress, my legs crossed so that maybe he can see up my skirt and maybe he can’t. “Shoot.” I flash him what he’s told me is my Cali smile.

“Why do you write about it—war and trauma and shit?”

I sigh. This was not the question I was hoping for. “I dunno,” I start, pause, search for the right words. “I dunno,” I repeat.

I feel a prickle of dishonesty, and maybe Angelo feels it too. I’ve spent the last five days with him, living his 22-year-old Manhattan life—street art and trespassing and artichoke pizza at 4am. I’ve been sleeping on a semi-deflated air mattress that takes up the majority of his East Village studio—one of those insane rent-control deals that only native New Yorkers have.

I’ve decided that tonight I will not be sleeping on the air mattress. I’ll be sleeping in Angelo’s bed, because I’m going to seduce him.

It has less to do with air mattress than the fact that, over the past five days, we’ve bro-ed down something serious. “Bro-ed down?” he asked me. “Yo, that must be some Cali slang.”

Angelo’s straight outta Queens, his speech peppered with more “Yo, word”s than my own “hella” and “dude”s. I met him a year earlier, in an alleyway in Munich, searching for an abandoned auto parts factory. He was one of the only other Americans that had come all the way to Germany for the DIY street art festival, and he charmed the shit out me—that certain breed of no-bullshit, working-class tough you just don’t find in California.

We’d spent that weekend partying, hanging out, dancing till dawn. He left for the train station covered in glitter and sweat, told me if I ever came to New York, he had the best spot I’d ever stay in, no reason to ever stay anywhere else, I could crash with him whenever, “No problem, yo, no problem.”

And I took him up on it—extended a layover so I could run around New York with him, pretending I was also a fresh-out-of-college art hipster. It was a nice distraction from my final destination—an indefinite stay in a war-haunted third-world country where I’d be writing about the long-term effects of trauma.

Maybe he waited till my last night to ask me why, the same way I waited till the last night to try and put the moves on him.

He glances back over at me, waiting.

“I guess trauma’s just a fascinating subject to me. And I’ve got my own shit,” I admit. “Well, I dunno,” I hasten. “I mean, maybe I do.”

He squints a little, cocks his head at me.

“Well, there’s this one thing, that came up when I started my research on the war, a few months back.” I feel a kink my stomach. Shut up! a voice in me cries. “I don’t know if it’s a memory, I don’t know what it is, more of an image, really, that came barreling outta nowhere. This old guy I know, saw him leaning back in his chair, unzipping a fanny pack of all fucking things, and I got this flash of… a dude, a belt buckle.” I make a sour-lemon face and shake my shoulders. “Creepy shit.”

I feel the swoon of panic, my lips moving, continuing, while my brain screams at me to stop: This is not sexy-time talk. “But it was weird, cause even though it wasn’t a totally clear image, it made this really distinct feeling in me—hot and panicky, and hyper-aware, on alert.” I tell him how when the image came up, I’d felt like an animal—how a dog’s ears will prick, or the way a lizard freezes.

The voice screams at me to stop, but it keeps coming out. I thread my fingers around the edges of a blanket, I don’t look at him, as I tell him how I’d written the whole thing off—“me being dramatic, a pervert”—until I’d randomly told a friend about it in passing, not really meaning to—“kind of like how I’m telling you now,” I laugh—and how she’d been an incest survivor and had looked at me with this uber-understanding eyes and had told me about her experiences with memories and how it’d been so similar to mine, I’d severely lost my shit for a few weeks after that. Since then, a few more images had risen up, always to do with belt buckles and always accompanied by a white panic in my gut, the sound of a thousand bees humming in my blood.

Angelo stares at the ceiling, then asks, “So, you think that by writing about the war and their shit, you’ll understand your own?”

I let out a snort-laugh—maybe this kid has me nailed. “I dunno what the fuck I’m doing. But,” I untuck the pillow I’m clutching, lay it down next to the crook of his elbow and stretch myself long beside him, “I can tell you one thing: this is some fucked-up pillow talk.”

And he looks at me kinda surprised, like he hadn’t known what I was up to. I run my fingertips down the length of his arm and when he looks over at me finally, his eyes seem almost scared. I flash my Cali smile.

It’s been a hot day, maybe one of the last of the year, and the window is still open—sirens and voices of television sets echoing down the light shaft—and that’s our soundtrack as we start to kiss. He smells of cigarettes and falafel and day-old weed and boy—not man, boy.

We kiss like that for a while—me on my side, him leaning in, then pulling back. No hands under clothes or up skirts or anything.

He rolls onto his back, looks at the ceiling and sighs. “You know, when you said all that, it made me think,” he starts. “I’ve got my own shit too. And I think about it all the time, every day.”

And he starts to tell me: how he can remember it all—a dark room—just not how it started, how he’d gotten there. And he feels like he needs to figure it out, needs to know. “I think it would tell me if I were gay or not.”

It’s my turn to cock my head. “Gay?” Over the past five days, nothing about him—not the way he scopes out girls on the street or glumly laments how he’s always put in “friend zone”—has struck me as gay.

“Well, I dunno. I mean, I like looking at girls and I like making out with girls, but when it comes down to it, I mad freeze up. Can’t do it, nahmean? I’ve, you know, had sex with girls and had girlfriends, but it always takes me mad long and I just can’t, can’t…”

“Can’t get it up at first?”

“Yeah.”

“And you think that means you’re gay?”

“Well, I don’t know, what else would it mean?” He rolls over onto his side, to face me; our bellies almost touch when we breathe. “I decided one day—Fuck it, yo, I’m gonna see what this shit is all about. So I watched some gay porn. And it didn’t really do nothing. So then I really didn’t know what the fuck was up.”

He sighs and I watch the troubled muscles move under his smooth skin—one sideways scar on a forehead too young for wrinkles.

“Well, not being able to get it up doesn’t necessarily mean you’re gay. I mean, it could, but it could be other shit too.” I don’t tell him about all the guys I’ve dated with similar problems—sexual dysfunctions and neuroses, how I seem to be able to sniff them out, and how something about them makes me feel safe, and powerful.

Those green eyes search mine and he asks, “Like what?”

He wants me to have an answer, I think, to know something he doesn’t—maybe because I’m older, or because I’ve traveled more than him and he thinks that makes me worldly and wise (“Yo, mad traveler,” he’s introduced me as)—because he knows New York but I know something else.

But I don’t. So I give him the best I know, which isn’t much: “Well, I shut down too. It’s different—I can totally hook up with someone at first. But, you know, one month, two months down the road, it’s like something closes in me. I start to hella clam up, not be interested. I mean, there’s always a little bit of magic that dies, but this feels like something else: repulsion. It’ll be like a chore, and I’ll do anything to not have to do it.”

I say this with my leg draped across his pelvis. I look at the canvases stacked against the wall, buckets of old paint, and I think briefly about how easy it all is: I’m leaving, he’s here, it’s all transitory, and safe—for me.

Angelo’s quiet for a long time. “Yo, I’ve never told anyone this shit.”

We lay there in the faint flood of sirens, never-ending sirens. We kiss a little more. He rolls on top of me and I can feel it—the complete lack of a hard-on pressing into me.

I open my eyes. He meets my gaze and those green irises are swimming with distress. “Hey,” I whisper. I smile and run my hand through his hair. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”

He drops his head and looks down for a long moment—at our limbs, entwined and fully clothed. He kind of collapses down on me and I run my fingers through his hair and think about how I’m not going to get laid in New York. I decide that it’s okay.

It’s late—so late it starts to get early, and the frail light starts to gasp down the shaft. We drift off to sleep, lying there like that: entwined and fully clothed.

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