The protagonist wakes again, the minutes ticking past him, in his room which the morning has unfortunately brightened. Though he had dozed several times past the alarm, sleep won’t take him again. He should have shut the blinds last night to spare himself the first sight of the morning light laying harsh across his nightstand, its dusty surface cluttered with keys and drinking glasses and the empty, balled-up bag of microwave popcorn that he had bought the night before. He turns his face to the pillow, closes his eyes again. He waits for something, some impulse or need, to rise up within him. He searches; job, gym, dog, sex. Coffee. But that would need making, would require three minutes of standing in the kitchen, an empty waiting. Because he knows that he’s empty, he can feel it. He can feel his soul, vacant and scrubbed to a sterilized shine. Could it be that quick, to lose what had filled him? As he lays there he remembers each encounter of the past week; the string of men, each followed by a tight knot of regret or revulsion. He knows this morning that each man had taken a little with him. Nothing rises within him, and he cannot raise himself. He considers the desk and the office and the copy machine waiting for him, considers calling in sick. But then a sigh, a jangle of thin metal tags somewhere to his left, his dog stirring, and within the protagonist duty kicks. Before he can think any further he throws off the covers, pulls himself from the bed. He glances, then looks away from the morning, from the green leaves shuddering outside his window in the wind that pours from the ocean across the city and over the crest of the hill behind his house.
In the shower he reaches over his shoulder with the soap and rubs it across his back, across the small sun tattooed there. In college he had known a man with a delicate green leaf tattooed in the same place, and though they had spent many long afternoons and warm Florida nights together, the protagonist had never asked the man about the leaf. As he turns under the shower’s spray he smiles a little at the memory of the man and that tattoo, and the man’s strong back, lightly freckled from the sun. Why a leaf? he wonders. Such a strange choice. And where’s the man now, and is he still the same? The protagonist smiles again because in some ways he himself has not changed. There are some things he still needs.
He reaches now for his toothbrush, spreads paste across the bristles, and holds it for a moment under the shower’s spray. He brushes reflexively, the brush circling and scrubbing his teeth in a pattern. He remembers the Porsche the man had driven, though it wasn’t his but rather his sister’s, a lesbian and a doctor who lived with her partner in Tampa. Her kitchen drawers had been stuffed with a disturbing amount of sample prescription painkillers. The man stayed with them in their spare bedroom, where he and the protagonist would fuck on the nights they were together, which the protagonist had felt were not often enough. The man had been in the middle of some life transition, unemployed and driving his sister’s Porsche everyday to the gym, to the bars, or to Sarasota where the protagonist lived, an hour away.
The protagonist rinses his mouth in the shower, over and over. He can see himself in the window of the house he had rented that year, his final year of college. The house itself was well-known by other students. They called it the Tree House, for it was built up above a garage; a wooden A-frame house surrounded by trees. He had loved that house. He can see himself standing before the picture window, looking down as the Porsche pulls into the driveway, the sunroof open, music pouring out. He sees the man’s shaved head in the twilight, sees him look up and smile at him, a smile his friends would later call cocky, but that made the protagonist’s pulse quicken. That was their first night. “If I had known your butt looked like that I would have been here three hours sooner,” the man had told him later as they lay in bed.
The protagonist rubs the steam off his steam-less shaving mirror. He examines his stubble, decides to let it grow a few more days. Maybe a change will help. He ducks his head under the shower and stands there for awhile. Isn’t it normal to attribute good characteristics to people simply because they’re beautiful? Or was there really something to the man, something more than his looks, something that made the protagonist come back, again and again? The water courses over his ears, down his shoulders. He searches for that something, back in those warm Gulf Coast nights, but he comes up empty. What he finds instead embarrasses him. Riding in his friend’s car on Bayshore, the protagonist complaining of love, the friend suddenly snapping, “He’s a player. Forget him.”
“How do you know?” the protagonist had asked.
His friend was silent, and then the protagonist knew, and though it hurt very much he let himself picture the two of them together. He felt trapped in that slow-moving car as they inched along the road, sick to his stomach.
Then at a beach in Tampa, where he had driven to meet the man. They sat together, facing the Gulf, the sun sliding lower in the distance. Around them were other men, some who were shaking out their towels, some who lingered in the dying light. The man watched them with that cocky smile. “That one’s cute,” he said, pointing. The protagonist had wanted to leave, had wanted the man to come with him. But the man said “Good night,” and the protagonist had walked away, back to his car. Turning once to see the man’s silhouette among the others. That should have been enough, that could have been the final image.
The man stopped calling. Months passed. Then one night he showed up at the Tree House. The protagonist cleared a space for the man on his bed, pushing his homework aside. The protagonist sat on the floor, looking up at him.
“What are you doing in Sarasota?” he asked the man,
“I met a boy. We’ve been hanging out, having some fun.”
The protagonist had looked down, picked at the nub of the carpet, run his fingertip over the diamond shapes, over and over.
“You like him?” he asked.
“We’re just having some fun. You know me.”
“Yeah. I know you.”
“What, do you miss me?”
The protagonist looked at the man, looked down again. He kept silent.
“You knew I didn’t want more.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“You want to fuck? We could fuck right here,” the man said, slapping the bed.
The protagonist had looked back at the man, and wanted it, wanted it very badly. The man’s skin, the tattoo on his shoulder. He wanted to run his finger over the leaf as the man held him. He laughed a little in spite of himself, though nothing felt funny. He didn’t know what to say to the man.
Instead the protagonist had followed the man to the door, had felt a sad thrill as the beautiful bastard kissed him, quick. The man flashed his smile, then turned and headed down the staircase, two steps at a time. The protagonist had walked quietly to the window, and watched the Porsche pull out of his driveway.
The protagonist steps from the shower and reaches for the towel. The fogged mirror hides his face, but his body is reflected back at him. He allows himself a moment of appraisal, turns to see his profile, and though he’s not entirely satisfied, he sees the work he’s done to shape himself into a man. The kind of man that could have his pick of love. He wishes he could see that thin leaf on the freckled, sturdy shoulder. He’d trace the outline with his fingertip. He’d lick the edges of it, playing the man, promising nothing more than fun.