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I have known them for at least three years, these two; we all went to school together and at one point I dated the blond but it was brief. The timing was off and both of us were swept along by the river of another match. I have flirted with the brown-haired one for years.
I have this fantasy, I say one evening, when all of us are slightly drunk, sitting on my apartment steps on Gardner on a clear July evening. Would you come back? Four o’clock? Saturday?

Sure, they tell me, curious. The word marked by brake lights and bitten fingernails. Everybody facing out. We all hold hands at once, and we are all lonely when we go home, but this is helpful, this hand-holding, this sitting on the stoop of my apartment building, watching while other people look for parking.

I have recently broken up with someone who I did not expect to break up with, and every morning, the earliest time I wake up is suffused with remembering. I can’t seem to beat that moment, no matter how early I rise. I once thought that if I traveled in France, I would have a different brain, the brain of a girl who travels in France. I saw myself, skipping through meadows in a yellow and blue print dress. But even with the old buildings, with the bright, bready smells, with the painted French sunlight, it was still my same brain in there, chomping as usual, just fed this time by baguettes and brie.

In the mornings I write long circular journal entries when I wake up. Too early. Before work. But even though I am making steady proclamations about who I will go for next, and why, and how it will all be different, it is brutal to imagine the idea of meeting a new person. Going through the same routine. Saying the same phrases I have now said many times: the big statements, the grand revelations about my childhood and character. The cautious revealing of insecurities. I have said them already, and they sit now in the minds of those people who are out living lives I have no access to anymore. Awhile ago, this sharing was tremendous; now, the idea of facing a new person and speaking the same core sentences seems like a mistake, an error of integrity. Surely it is not good for my own mind to make myself into a speech like that. The only major untouched field of discussion will have to do with this feeling, this tiredness, this exact speech.

The next person I love, I will sit across from in silence. We will have to learn it from each other some other way.

On Saturday, there’s a knock at the door right at four, and I open it up. Hi! Hi, hi. We’re all joking and nervous, and they brought beer. Me too. I usher them in. My apartment sometimes reminds people of a warehouse; the space is high and elongated and feels empty. The living room is a stripe. It’s too narrow to watch TV in, so I put the furniture on a diagonal.

They both look great, thriving out of control. These are solid men, with square kneecaps and loving mothers, who are still sort of awed by women. They have a line of fur instead of hair at the napes of their necks, sometimes dusting the hinge of their cleanly-shaven jaws. Me, I’m clothed and workman-like in overalls with many pockets. A red tank top, legs covered. They have had crushes on me at some point, and me on them, but everyone knew that friendship was best, and it is in this spirit that they walk through my door. They’re good at the greeting hug routine. There is a wild fondness in the air. We grab beers, twist off, fling bottlecaps into the air.

They’re friends with each other, too. Sometimes they play soccer together.

They said they would do what I asked them to. That’s the agreement. It’s a four o’clock afternoon and the July sun is lazy and inviting and it’s a second floor apartment so it’s always a little warm from the rising heat, and here are these two men I’ve captured, inside my house, wearing worn white t-shirts. One of them has a stain right in the middle from the peach cobbler he ate at lunch, leftover from the potluck he went to Friday night at Janet’s. He is the type everyone gives their leftovers to at the end of the party because they know he will eat them, and he does. Somehow this makes me proud. Whenever these two walk down hallways, or through crosswalks, in their tall boyishness, I feel a surge of pride that is faintly motherly and also not. I want to fuck and birth them at the same time.

Today, they have another beer. Me too. We joke around. We play bottlecap hockey. I serve cookies on a chipped green plate. They eat them, fast. They have sweet tooths, they say. One prefers the chocolate chip; the other enjoys the texture of oatmeal. They’re deep in the stripe, by the windows at its end, and I sit down in the chair that I’ve placed closer to the door. Stay over there, I tell them, as they swallow the last two bites off the plate. Alright, they say. They sprawl out on the carpet, hands propping up their heads, and they know how to own space, how to feel important without realizing it. They have never questioned their right to be alive; it is borne in them, and obvious. One is wearing shorts and has blond hair all over his knees. Like poured milk from a glass carton.

Okay, I say, after the third beer is finished. I bring out tequila. I give each of us two shots. Down, down, down.

Then: Just touch hands, I say.

One touches his own hands. No, I say. His. His hand. Touch that.

It takes until just now for them to realize I want them to touch each other. They have assumed they’ll be touching me. I don’t have shoes on, but I have the rest on, and maybe a ponytail. I’m in the day. Just touch hands, I say. Gently. Please. They look bewildered — not upset, just unsure. They will need my constant reassurance. This is why I will not feel left out.

It’s okay, I tell them. Just feel his arm. Maybe the back of his neck. Just see what it feels like.

The sun slants through the curtains as their two hands reach over and they sort of grab at first but then relax. They explore the knuckles, the wrists, the elbows. They don’t giggle but there is some nervous shifting, some more drinking from beers. Wet barley lips. One is from Oklahoma, and came out west to direct movies. The other lived in Oregon, in a clapboard house with an attic where he gathered bird nests from trees. They remember their first kiss with a girl, the years of masturbating in the shower before their sisters would bang on the door, yelling about hot water.

They are touching each others’ arms now, with freckles, with downy hair. Touch his stomach, I say, to both. Four eyes beam up at me, frightened. It’s okay, I say. It’s for me, I say. Please. And their hands, shaking slightly, reach down under the loose t-shirts and just glance over their stomachs, which have tiny lines of sweat forming in the creases from sitting.

I am in my chair. They feel scared, even from over here, but not awful scared. They’re open-hearted and they can stand it. They have untested liberal minds. They are also getting turned on. Their faces move closer together as one grazes the inner arm of the other.

Kiss him, I say, out loud.

The light through the drawn curtains is a dark red and partially obscures their clean-shaven faces. They lean in, and their cheeks bump at first and finally touch. Their lips, so soft. They are tentative and frightened, faces pressing gently against each other. Lips meet. Boy lips on boy lips. I love watching them. I could watch them for hours. Their heads leaning and listing, the lips learning what to do, how almost-familiar it all is.

One stops. Looks at me. Is this alright? he asks. His lips glisten. Why don’t you come join us —

I’m watching this time, I say. Just watching. You’re so beautiful, both of you.

The other turns to me, eyes overly brightened. Come on, he calls. Come over!

I shake my head.

Absolutely! they both say.

No.

I’m on the weird island, over here. They love me too; I’m not totally absented. We all know I’m in the room.

Keep kissing, I say. I can’t tell you how much I love to watch you kissing.

Their big boy faces drink more beer and then lean back in and I see the erections, poking up from their pants, and they seem hopeful and nervous and vulnerable, and as they keep kissing, hands moving now down shoulders, to back, to stomach, I tell them to take off their shirts, and they do, because today they listen to me. I will not hurt them. I can only get away with this once. And the shoes kick off, and the pants roll down, and there they are, nude and strong, poking each other in the stomach. More beer. More tequila. Eyes closed. The reddish light flutters on the floor and cars honk downstairs.

I tell the one on the right, the one with the brown curls in his hair, to lean down. To try it out. Please, I say again. Please. My voice is so quiet but we all hear everything. He bends down. The one on his knees now has a face combination of pained concern over what this might mean and utter joy too, and he opens his eyes and glances over at me, and I smile at him, my whole body awake. He can see how turned on I am. There’s a furrow of worry in his brow so I reach over to the overall straps and unclip them and pull my shirt up so that there are breasts in the room. Visiting. His face lights up, in part because he likes them, but even more because he knows them, he recognizes the shape, they are a marking point for identity and memory.

And then my overalls are back on and he closes his eyes again, I have relieved some knot in his thinking, and the first one is curled over and he doesn’t know quite what to do but he has some ideas, and his mouth is earnest and effortful.

Their hands grip the carpet hairs. Look at the initial swell of a bicep, that bump after the dip of the inner elbow.

When they switch, they’re laughing now. Everyone’s drunk. No one has come yet. They kiss in between switching, and their hands move all over, into inner thigh, rounded curve of the ass, sweaty necks. I feel the tide fading from my feet. They look up — come with us, come join us, they say, but I’m over here, I say, for today — and they are at once disappointed and also we all know the rhythm has been set as is. Tight calves and legs lifting. Brown curls and blond knees. When they’re kissing again, I could stare for hours. Men love to watch two women kiss, but how I love to watch two men. So clear in their focus. The amazing space created for me when there is nothing demanded or seen.

When they are sleeping I go into my bedroom. It is darker than the rest of the apartment, and only large enough to fit a bed and a dresser. I don’t sit down, but I stand with the furniture, my whole body triggered. And it is only now that I feel the coldness of watching, the interminable loneliness, how the exit will happen, how they will hug me but something will have shifted, how our meetings will be awkward for awhile, and possibly never recover. I slow down my breathing, move away from the clawing inside. After awhile, I hear as they get up off the floor and let themselves out. They leave me a nice note, and one washes the cookie dish, and they even put the beer bottles in the recycling bin, but the rest of the evening is nothing but the trembling edges of something I am so tired of feeling and do not want to feel anymore.

This story first appeared in 2005

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Aimee Bender is the author of the short-story collections The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures, as well as the novel An Invisible Sign of My Own. Her stories have appeared in Granta, GQ, Harper’s Magazine, Paris Review, and several other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.