The Heart is a Poor Judge Ch. 08

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I perk up like a dog to a whistle when I hear other people’s opinions of me, particularly secondhand. I’ve always been vain in that way. So today, as I ask Miguel about his early impressions of me, I am acutely aware of the potential for a conflict of interest. Indeed, my first days of researching and compiling were fraught with fear that my own ego might somehow contaminate an otherwise pure retelling of events. But now I understand how stories are told, and I welcome my ego in.

Miguel stops mid-sentence for the hundredth time in a week: “What do you want me to say? You were…”

I take great care to seem interested only in moving the conversation along: “I was what?”

“You became a mother,” he confessed. I don’t know why, or how, but after that night…it didn’t take long at all for you to seem that way.”

I was already a mother by that point. A few times over. But I know what Miguel means to say, if only he could be less cryptic when it really matters. He means to say that I became a mother to him. And though my heart swells and squeezes against my lungs to hear the words, I derive no sense of pride from what I’ve done. How can I feel proud of my actions when they were simply to validate the life of another?

“I know that doesn’t make any sense,” he adds.

I smile across the table at him. “Of course it does.”

He squirms uncomfortably in his chair, which is bolted to the floor. He settles again, casts a look of defeat at nothing in particular.

“Thursday,” I tell him.

He raises his eyebrows. “Fuck, I know.”

“You ready?”

“I think so.”

“Any parting words?”

He smirks. It’s clear he’s fond of the question. “You want to know the truth? Seven fucking years, and here’s all I’ve got: Most of the guys in here don’t belong. It’s not doing them any good. They never should’ve been brought within ten miles of this place.”

“Gabe’s working on it,” I say. “Can you believe it’s been a year since the Bar?”

“He’s too good for this world.”

“You know he does most of his articling work on that computer you bought way back when. He calls it the blueberry.”

“He didn’t tell me that.” Miguel smiles to himself. “I don’t deserve him, you know that?”

“Of course you do. The two of you deserve to be together.”

For the first time in all these years, Miguel breaks down. “I just can’t believe he waited.” He buries his face in his hands, shaking with silent sobs. “Holy fuck, it hurts. I never let him see. I never tell him how bad it hurts, being stuck in here.” He uncovers his face, looks right at me, eyes red. “But he waited for me on the other side. Just like he said he would.”

;-;

Saturday, July 24th, 1999

The kid fell back from him, cocked his head toward the half-open door to the bedroom. The corner of his mouth drew up into a smirk, daring Miguel to do something, already, for once in his stupid life…to act on feelings that had grown to outsized proportions and then crystallized, so that he ran the risk of becoming frozen.

That simply could not be the outcome. He opened his arms and Gabe accepted the invitation, jumping on him, wrapping his arms around Miguel’s neck, straddling him at the waist. Miguel supported his thighs, carrying him swiftly, laughing, to his bed.

Clothing left their bodies.

Miguel stood a foot apart from Gabe’s naked form.

The kid’s lips parted. “Take me any way you want to. Don’t worry about the pain. That’s part of it.”

An impossible request. Pain was different the moment it fell outside one’s own control, resulted from someone else’s doing. “I won’t make you suffer.”

“I know.” Gabe took his hand and led him to the bed. He requested that Miguel be on top of him.

Miguel got what he needed from a neglected compartment in his top dresser drawer. He returned to the bed and made himself ready to enter Gabe.

Gabe positioned himself beneath him, open to Miguel’s advance. Miguel moved in, felt himself breach the barrier for the first time. He watched Gabe’s eyes carefully. They widened, pupils seeming to vibrate momentarily. Gabe’s body constricted around him, leading him to back out.

“Are you okay?”

In reply, the kid offered an expression so complex, Miguel could have pondered it for the rest of his life.

“I’m sorry, I need you to say yes or no.”

“Yes,” Gabe whispered. Then, more confidently, “Please, yes.”

Miguel pressed himself slightly in again. The act was apparently not as jarring to Gabe as before. He moved in farther. Each millimeter brought him a deeper and more satisfying stimulation than he had ever encountered in his life.

At last, as he constantly probed those eyes for whatever message they might reveal, a breakthrough. Within thirty seconds, the kid seemed to have arrived at a new and profound understanding. “I want you,” Gabe said through clenched teeth. He pawed at Miguel’s hips, attempting to pull him in deeper. “Please.”

Miguel obliged. He looked deeply into the kid’s eyes and, without another word, pushed himself all the way inside Gabe. Miguel gave him porno 64 everything, again and again.

As Gabe whimpered sweetly and ecstatically below, the universe surrounded them both and rang out with stunning inevitability. A still image of Gabe’s face from those early nights in warehouse, back when they hardly knew each other at all, flashed before Miguel. That first smile. Those peculiar expressions which he knew now had utterly transfixed him. Yes, even then, this outcome had been fated. It may have loomed on a more distant horizon, but it was no less fully-formed, and if he only had believed in it, Miguel could have brought it into just as clear of focus–then as now.

Equally inevitable was his release. He knew it more with each passing minute. He wanted infinite minutes. But given the impossible pleasures ceaselessly impacting him, that final discharge loomed like a collision of planets, drawn together in the end by so much more than a simple plotted course through space and time.

Within the deeps wells of Gabe’s eyes, Miguel saw that the kid, too, was nearing the brink. They both panted harshly, rhythmically into the still air of the room. Miguel felt Gabe begin to constrict around him in pulsing contractions and he knew it was happening. He pressed in harder, faster, giving the kid exactly what he wanted until it was done.

;-;

Sunday, August 1st, 1999

He didn’t realize Gabe was gone until he woke up at dawn. Morning light glowed in dueling hues through the walls of the tent. Under normal circumstances he might have been slow to rouse himself, assuming the kid had gone out to greet the early morning. But something about the situation didn’t feel right. He slid a hand inside Gabe’s collapsed sleeping bag: cold as death. He peeked into the small cooler at the corner of the tent. A stubby carton of six eggs lay untouched.

He tugged his jeans up around his waist, pulled his jacket over his t-shirt, slipped on his shoes. He wormed out through a slit opening in the zipper and closed it behind him. The morning air was crisp and raw. The kid was nowhere to be found.

Miguel walked grimly toward the edge of the ravine. He looked over. Gabe lay on the other side of the stream, a few feet up the smooth stone shore against the base of the opposing cliff. He was curled in a fleshy ball, drained of all color.

Miguel turned where he stood and dangled himself over, clung to the stone ledge and then dropped down the ravine wall, scraping through coarse vegetation before regaining footing at the bottom. He splashed across the water, scrambled up to Gabe and pressed against his back and shoulder. Gabe’s skin was ice-cold on the surface, but warmth resided within. He squirmed beneath Miguel’s touch. His face turned up, and Miguel saw that his lips were blue.

Miguel tore off his jacket, pressed his torso hard against Gabe’s, enveloping him, praying for the heat to transfer.

Suddenly bound by the influences of the physical world, Gabe began to shiver. “I’m okay,” his weak voice shuddered.

The shivering grew more violent as Miguel lifted him into his arms and waded knee-deep back across the water. He found the bottom of the trail and took careful, heaving steps upward. He brought Gabe into the tent, placed him inside his sleeping bag, then nestled in beside him, enveloping his madly shaking body.

The following minutes presented a new agony to Miguel as he attempted to elicit some kind of meaningful response from Gabe, who was so far only capable of repeating the words, “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay,” in a haunting slur.

“I used to stay too long in the bath as a kid,” Miguel told him. He tried to sound calm. “I’d play with my toys for what felt like hours. The water got so cold…”

Gabe whimpered against him.

“My mother would finally come in. She’d look at my pruny hands and blue lips and pretend to be mad. I’d be shaking so hard I could barely talk. Then she’d wrap me in this oversized towel–it was the softest thing you could imagine. She’d sit on a little stool and hold me in her lap and rock me back and forth.”

The shivering seemed to lessen against his skin, but still, Gabe did not speak.

“Come on.” Tears welled in Miguel’s eyes. “Didn’t your mom ever do anything like that?”

“Not that I can remember.”

Miguel felt that uncharacteristically deep voice ring against his chest as if it were his own. He moved down against Gabe, bringing their faces level. “Jesus, are you okay? You scared me to death.”

“I’ll survive.”

“You’re still shivering.”

“It’ll go away.” Gabe said. “You know what? I don’t think I’ve ever felt this good in my whole life.”

Miguel refused to let the kid go until sweat formed tiny dewdrops on his smooth temples. He made him drink half a liter of water from a milk-white Nalgene, then disentangled himself at long last to cook them both breakfast at the bottom of the ravine. He turned back for a final word before leaving the tent: “Get out of that sleeping bag and I’ll kill you.”

After breakfast, Miguel did all the packing, making porno izle two trips to the car. No chance he would allow the kid to overexert himself. Not after what had gone down. Gabe looked on with a reluctant face, stomach full of three lightly salted eggs, over-easy.

“You’re a terrible driver,” Gabe told him as the car bucked and chirped away from the locked gate.

Miguel made guesswork of the shift pattern, slopping into second gear and then grinding into third. “Fuck off. You want to know how many times I’ve done this? I can count on one hand.”

Once the going became too risky for an unlicensed driver, and only after Gabe insisted several times that he felt well enough to drive, Miguel resumed his position in the passenger seat. An hour passed. Trees hugged the edges of the gently-curving highway, passing through his vision with an extra flash of lingering brilliance.

“So how did you end up at the bottom?”

The kid looked over. “I’m not sure.”

“I noticed a scrape on your shoulder. Looks like it’ll bruise. Did you jump?”

“I guess.”

“You guess?”

“I don’t remember.”

Miguel waited a beat. “It doesn’t make people do things like that.”

Gabe said nothing.

Ten more minutes passed. Miguel pulled down the sun visor and a few loose CDs fell into his lap.

“Those were my Dad’s.”

Miguel hung one on his finger and dangled it into Gabe’s vision. “Really? Even this one?”

“Yeah. But he said that’s when they started selling out. Mother’s Milk was his favorite.”

“No kidding. I always pictured Big Boss listening to Tchaikovsky or some shit like that.”

“He did.”

“What do you think he’d make of Scar Tissue?”

Gabe laughed. “He’d fucking hate it.”

“Have you bought it yet?”

“No, just heard it on the radio.” Gabe slid the disc into the Alpine deck and kept the volume low. “Did you know Eddie has a scar?”

“A lot of people have scars.”

“Eddie has a big one, all down his side. I don’t think he likes people seeing it. I think that’s why he hardly ever takes his shirt off.”

“A man of modesty,” Miguel reasoned.

Gabe’s fingertips drummed against the rim of the wheel. “How do you think he keeps that up, anyway? With everything else he has going on?”

“His body?”

The kid nodded.

“No idea. But he told me about his regimen once. Sounds pretty brutal.”

The highway gained a lane each direction. Overhead signs grew broad and long-winded, rectangular green sails affixed to curved steel masts.

After a long silence, Gabe cleared his throat. “You want to ask if I saw the Willow Man, don’t you?”

Even to Miguel, the passive unbeliever, the question fell like a machete through the air-conditioned roar. “Do I?”

“You think he has something to do with what happened. Don’t tell me it hasn’t crossed your mind.”

It hadn’t. Distracted by the bliss of their weekend getaway, Miguel had completely forgotten about Gabe’s private battle with that vile apparition. “I just thought you had a bad trip.”

After a pause, Gabe said, “I think I became my father.”

“You what?”

“I had his hands. I looked down and I had his body.”

“Was that before you jumped?”

Gabe shook his head, knuckles white on the steering wheel. “I didn’t jump. I pushed him off.”

“Your dad?”

“No.”

Miguel suddenly could not bring himself to look at Gabe. He stared out his window at the unvaried textures of dry farmland. From the moment the kid admitted he might have jumped, Miguel could not put what happened to Marco’s widow out of his mind. “Gabe, promise me you will never do anything to intentionally harm yourself.”

He felt the kid’s hand land on his shoulder. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I didn’t jump. I pushed him. I didn’t mean to fall. But I had to get rid of him–for good. Please tell me you believe me.”

Miguel faced forward, put on a hopeful smile. He brought his hand up and clapped it over the top of Gabe’s. “Of course I do.”

;-;

Miguel’s phone rang after lunch, three days later. He lifted it off the hook and said hello.

“Is Gabe there?”

“Who wants to know?” (It was Eddie.)

“Answer the question.”

Grinning, Miguel pretended to scan the room, avoiding the curious brown eyes peering over the back of the sofa. A frozen, slightly juddering image of Mia Wallace flickered on the TV screen beyond. “He might be.”

“Thought so. He didn’t pick up at home. Listen, I don’t want you two showing up at Otero’s thing together, understand? Coordinate it in such a way that you arrive at separate times.”

“Oh yeah. What day is that again?”

Miguel waited through Eddie’s judgmental pause.

“Saturday. Four. You really need to keep a schedule of these things, Miguel. It’s important.”

“I know, Eddie.”

“Put Gabe on.”

“What for?”

“I would like to speak with him.”

Miguel waved Gabe over. Gabe muttered curt replies into the phone for nearly five minutes. Miguel wandered around, shuffling papers on the drop-leaf table just outside the kitchen, sex izle pretending not to be interested in the conversation. After it was over, Gabe hung the phone back on the hook and stared at the wall for a few seconds, motionless, before coming back to life.

“What was all that about?”

Gabe shrugged. “Otero’s thing.”

“That’s it?”

A pause. “Eddie clearly knows about us.”

“So? What did he tell you? Look, I don’t need his approval or anything. We can take care of ourselves. But sometimes he treats me in a way that…I don’t know…that says he doesn’t approve, or whatever, and I–“

“He approves,” Gabe said flatly. “Of course he does. He was just offering some guidance on how to do this in a way that’s prudent, and keeps us safe.”

“As if we couldn’t figure that out on our own.”

“It’s just his advice, that’s all. You can take it or leave it. I know he gives you a hard time. But he wanted me to get to know you. He pushed me towards you–I know he did. More than just for work purposes.”

“I seriously doubt that.”

Gabe wore a look of disbelief. “Well, you can stop pretending you don’t care what the man thinks of you. I certainly do. Would you rather he said out loud that he likes you, and he believes in you? I think what he’s doing here says a hell of a lot more. He’s trying to help us, Miguel. He wants us both to be…you know…”

Gabe never finished his thought. Miguel went over to the window, where his gaze traced a path across the brilliant blue water to the horizon. It was true that he held Eddie in secret, tremendous regard. Just as with Miguel’s father, Eddie’s intimidating qualities felt intentional, like he had constructed an entire demeanor around a goal of eliciting fear. But unlike Miguel’s father, Eddie had the substance underneath to back it up.

Gabe’s question had struck a chord. Of course he would rather Eddie said it out loud. Actions were one thing, but a bold, to-your-face affirmation was another–and not completely outside Eddie’s wheelhouse, either. In the past, Miguel maintained an almost crippling hope that one day, someone of Eddie’s ilk would look him straight in the face and say the words aloud: I like you just the way you are. What you are is good, and right.

It was a fading obsession, these days, but one that still flared up more often than he liked to admit.

Saturday, August 7th, 1999

Both of them fashionably late, but Miguel more so, was the agreed-upon chronology. The day crept around with impossible speed. He felt uneasy about attending an event that just one year prior would have been out of the question, as Marco’s lingering legacy simply would not have allowed for it. But times were changing. Fast. Better to stay current than continue propping up tired policies that may as well never have existed.

Eddie had made a couple things clear about the occasion. It was fundamentally an extended family social, for Otero and his. But there were exceptions for special non-family members here and there. Eddie and his wife had attended for the first time the previous year. Miguel should not treat the significance of his inclusion with disregard.

He was feeling the weight of that as he emerged from underground at Old Town’s eastern station, not long past four-thirty. He had approximated the location of Otero’s residence on a city map, a ten-minute walk from the station. While Old Town was not particularly affluent on the whole, Otero’s neighborhood on the east side of it was. The houses here were some of the oldest in the city. These gorgeous Victorian structures (so intimately plotted that spiders spun glistening and lucrative webs between them) formed an ineffaceable living wall, ingrown, draped in deep-green ivy and ornamented by window boxes of overflowing wisteria. Mature citrus trees trimmed the front corners of nearly every yard, bursting over stone fences to both shade and drop their overripe fruit on the sidewalk.

The specific house belonging to Otero would have stood out spectacularly on any normal street, but here it merely fell in among the ranks. Miguel tried his best to do the same in his short-sleeved white button-down and dark gray slacks, letting himself in (as the silver placard on the front porch directed him to do). The smell inside, and to a lesser degree, the decor, reminded him of his parents’ townhouse in Allentown. He held his breath and passed like a ghost through the home, swift and unseeing, into the backyard.

Fifty-odd people roamed its manicured limits, sweating on the lawn, hands clutching tumblers or martini glasses or long-stemmed vessels of white wine. Not a beer in sight. Gabe stood poolside with Eddie and his wife in the foreground of a hydrangea tree covered in fat white blooms.

He went over to them.

The kid was dressed similarly, but had one-upped Miguel with long sleeves and a scarlet tie, a blood rift cutting down his front. He was drinking what looked like scotch (of all things) which he used to gesture at Miguel. “You call that semi-formal?”

Gabe had certainly found new social confidence as of late, especially with Lydia–Eddie’s wife–looking on. During the few occasions they had met, she had struck Miguel as, somehow, both lifeless and ferociously intimidating. A perfect match for Eddie.

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