Photos by Chad Wys
Lately I have run into Troy everywhere. I spotted him at a Whole Foods squeezing summer fruits. I swayed next to him one boozy night at a Wilco concert on the beach. His hair glowed silver in the moonlight, and his skin was as white as the inside of a seashell. Often I attempt to catch his eye, but he never looks at me.
He has even come into the bookstore where I work from time to time. He browses through biographies and spiritual books, dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans with the cuffs rolled up from the bike ride.
I still work at the bookstore even though I am seeing Patrick, who makes more money than Troy ever did or ever will.
Patrick lives in a large house just off the water.
On soft Santa Monica nights you can hear the ocean waves crashing from every room inside.
I have worked at the independent bookstore on Wilshire and Ocean for four years. It has been open for almost 45. The owner, Dennis, is an older gay man who lives in a small apartment above the store and hits on me every chance he gets. During the Vietnam War, his wife at the time, Mavis, took over while he was deployed with the Navy. When he returned they lived together for three more years before he finally broke down and told her the truth. Afterward, Mavis moved to Miami Beach with a Jewish man and started a family.
She sends Christmas cards each year, which Dennis proudly displays next to his register throughout the season. In them, she is surrounded by a big family of adult children and gap-toothed grandchildren and, most recently, a great-grandchild. He loves showing them off to customers, but to me it seems somehow passive-aggressive, and I tell him that, as though she is punishing him all these years later, because in the photos he sends her in return, Dennis is always alone. But that is only how I think of being alone at such an age—as a kind of punishment. I know, though, that this way of thinking is wrong. Just look at Dennis.
A few weeks ago Dennis told us that the rent on the store had been raised. He closed up early that evening and took Madison and me out to the pier. He bought us snow cones before breaking the news. We stood in the warm sand while watching birds skate across the water.
“I can’t afford it anymore,” he said. “It’s simply too much money, kids.” And then he started to cry, putting his hand on top of my wrist and his head on my shoulder. Madison and I tried to comfort him. She wiped a tear from her eye. When he finally stopped sobbing, the sun was a bright orange scar on the horizon. Already a spray of stars was visible in the sky.
Madison and I walked Dennis home that night. We said our goodbyes at the door and watched him through the display of books in the window as he climbed slowly up the stairs at the back of the store.
Madison has worked at the bookstore almost as long as I have, and in that time she has donned the same style hair—a bleach-blond pixyish cut slicked down to her scalp. On Halloweens, when we dress up in costume and host spooky readings, she chooses her character based on her hair: Tinker Bell, Daisy Buchanan, Maria Rainer with tiny paper von Trapp children sewn to her skirt.
“So what do you think?” she said, once Dennis had disappeared.
“Nothing we can do about it, I guess,” I said.
“Well, that’s easy enough for you to say,” she said. She poked me in the ribs, harder than I expected. “Patrick won’t let anything happen to you. We can’t all be so lucky, mister.”
By the time I got home it was almost nine and Patrick was already in bed, a MacBook propped open on his lap and headphones hanging from his neck. A glass of wine sat on the piano across the room. He was composing. I stripped to my briefs and slid under the sheets beside him, wrapping my arms tight around his smooth, brown torso. The door leading out to the terrace was completely open, and I could hear water breaking on the shore below and the whistling of wind in the palm trees.
Patrick is 40, 17 years older than I am. Wisps of white hair collect at his temples like cobwebs. He has written music for television series and direct-to-DVD features, although what he would really like to do is work on a big-budget film. Right now he composes the score for a hit zombie show on FX starring Kate Mara.
“You won’t believe what my boss told us today,” I said. My head rested on Patrick’s stomach, and I mouthed the words into his rib cage. I felt his skin heat up under my breath. I told him about the closing of the store.
Patrick continued typing away on his laptop.
“He’s having trouble making rent,” I said. “I feel bad for the guy. Can you imagine losing everything you’ve worked so hard for, just like that? It’s not like he has much else. Isn’t it sad?”
“Well, it’s not your fault,” Patrick said. “And besides, what do you know about work?” He said it with irritation in his voice, but in such an exaggerated manner that he could play it off as something said in jest, should the need arise. When I looked up at him doubtfully, he kissed me on the forehead, and I could hear Madison’s voice ringing in my ear: That’s easy enough for you to say.
“I know that. I’m just saying. It’s strange. I thought the store was doing so well.” I toyed with the patch of black fur creeping out from under the band of Patrick’s striped boxers. Music bars of varying lengths were stacked on top of one another on his computer screen, reminding me of long empty rows of bookshelves. “But isn’t it sad?” I finally said again.
“Yes. It’s sad, OK? It really is. But now I’m working. And I can’t hear myself think anymore.” He nudged me off his stomach and put his headphones on.
That is how it is with Patrick. Things can turn on a dime, especially when he is composing. Sometimes it is like finding your way through a very big, very dark house. You walk through the house blind, your arms outstretched in front of you, feeling for an exit. But then you bump into a wall—oops, you said this wrong thing—and then you bump into a chair—oops, you said that wrong thing—until finally you find the hole in the wall, a door to step through, a way out.
But I was too tired to find the door that night. So I turned over and went to sleep instead.
That night I had a dream about my crush, Troy.
We were driving through the desert, our skin covered in dirt and dust, and we were laughing. We crossed a bridge suspended over a raging river with big, choppy waves. We stopped there and got out, looking down over the ledge. Sunlight splintered off the surface of the water, burning brighter and brighter like the first light from a blast, until finally I couldn’t see Troy anymore and I was alone.
When I woke up, I thought briefly that the body sleeping beside me was Troy’s.
The next morning I woke up early for work. Generally Dennis does not mind if I come in an hour or two late, so I do. Rather, he pats me on the butt when I arrive at 11 instead of nine, casually, a trail of sand behind me, as though I am just stopping by for a chat, and says something like, “To what do we owe the pleasure, sunshine?” But that morning I wanted to be on time. Patrick had already taken off for the studio to record with the orchestra.
I left through the back door, which dropped me right on the beach. I watched surfers launch themselves out over the water, a cool blue belt that stretched unobstructed for miles. Bikers and mothers with baby carriages passed me along the walk.
When I stepped into the store, Dennis slapped his hand to his forehead in mock (or real) disbelief, looking as though his mind had been blown. Madison frowned at me from her corner. I just smiled. It was my day to buy used books from customers, so I went to my station at the back of the store and stood behind the giant oak desk without saying a word.
I like books. I like how from far away the colors bleed into one another on the shelf like smeared sunsets at the beach. I like how a book can change your opinion of someone, almost instantly, how you think you have them pegged down just by looking at them and then, wham, everything is different. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a beefy bronze surfer propped up against a palm tree, his face hidden from view behind Dispatches or The Red and the Black.
That morning, a tall blond girl with breasts practically spilling out of her bikini top walked in. She removed several hardcovers from her camouflage-print knapsack. They appeared new. I flipped through them. On the title page of each book read the handwritten dedication: “For Kate—I think you’ll like these! Love you, Dad.” It was written in a long, looping cursive.
Guess not, I thought to myself.
Once I had estimated the value of the books in credit and cash I waved Dennis down from across the store for final approval. He picked through the books, delicately, one last time before smiling at the girl and saying, “We’re no longer offering cash for books. Only credit.” He ran his hand over his scalp.
The blond girl scowled at us. She motioned toward the red and white sign in the front window. “See. Cash,” she said.
“Yes. Well, this is a new policy change.”
“You should take the sign down in that case.” She stared at us.
We stared at her.
“I’m taking these back,” the blond girl finally said, firmly. She stuffed the books into her knapsack before leaving.
“Money only comes in now,” Dennis said to me after she had gone, pointing toward the ground in an effort to emphasize the store. “It never goes out.”
Dennis moved to the front window and yanked the sign down. He dragged it back through the store and up the stairs to his apartment, which doubles as storage space. He looked very much like a child throwing a tantrum with the sign dragging behind him like that, like a doll or a teddy bear. Madison approached me then, while he was still gone, and said, “So I was thinking last night. I have an idea.”
“About what?” I said.
Her lip curled in annoyance. “About what? What do you think? About how we can help Dennis save the store.”
Madison and I have never been tight. There is always a razor’s edge to her voice, so sharp that it could cut through cold steel. But she is best friends with Troy, so I try to stay on her good side.
“We should have a fund-raiser,” she said. “You know, something where people will come out and give money to Dennis for the store. Like one of those telethons on PBS. All we need is for a few big spenders to roll in, and Dennis should be fine for at least a few months.” The way she said it, I knew she was expecting Patrick to come out and give big.
“And what happens after that?” I said. I was being genuine, mostly, although I also appreciated that it was the kind of question that would annoy her.
“I don’t know what happens after that. We figure out something more permanent. But for now, that’s all I’ve got, unless you have any bright ideas.”
“OK then. So maybe a reading or something,” she said.
“And then we pass around a donation hat like at a church?” I said.
She ignored me. “Something to show people that this is a place worth saving,” she said. “I mean, come on, this place has history.”
The bookstore has seen countless celebrity regulars throughout the years. On its walls hang glossy framed photos of Dennis with literary icons and starlets, the kinds of photos you see at dim Italian restaurants or movie theaters, blown up behind the bar—Dennis arm-in-arm with Allen Ginsberg, Dennis mid-laugh with Lisa Kudrow, Dennis stony-faced with Gore Vidal. There is even a picture of Dennis and Mavis with Roy Scheider sandwiched in between, holding up a copy of Jaws. I have told him he should take that one down.
Dennis looks different in each photo but still somehow the same. I think it is his smile. His body sags differently as the years go on, his hair thins, but his smile does not change.
Around noon, two or three days after the powwow with Madison—a Friday—I was gearing up for a smoothie on the pier. I had spent the last hour organizing several shelves in Biography & Memoir and my head hurt. And besides, what do you know about work? Patrick’s words still rattled around inside me.
As I was leaving, Troy walked in, wearing swim trunks and a white V-neck T-shirt. He set his surfboard aside at the door before shuffling straight toward Madison, still dripping from his routine weekend swim. He hugged her while she screamed and tried to get away.
I hear about Troy through Madison, mostly. Though overhear might be a better word for it. She spends her lunch hour snacking on a salad wrap and talking on the phone with him outside. Her voice always carries through the glass—weekend yoga plans on the beach, a party in Malibu.
I played with the papers on my desk as they prepared to leave, pretending with all my might to appear busy. Then I sensed them moving toward me, and before I looked up I heard Madison. “So we were just talking about the fund-raiser. Got any ideas yet?”
“Hi,” Troy said, smiling. It was a sweet, walk-in-the-park kind of smile.
“Hi,” I said. I was not able to hold his gaze for very long. His hair is bleached from too much sun, and his eyes are the color of wet sand.
“I think a reading should work, don’t you? People can come in and share passages from some of their favorite books,” Madison said.
“Like who?” I said.
“Well, Troy’s aunt is an assistant to the mayor,” she said, motioning toward him.
“Yeah, I think I can swing it for you guys.”
“That would be great,” I said.
“What about you?”
“You want me to read?” I said.
“No. I mean who can you bring?”
“I don’t know anybody like that,” I said, though I already saw what she was angling toward.
“What about that big-shot boyfriend of yours? Doesn’t he know some stars with that show of his? I bet he’s got a phone book full of people he can call.”
Troy nodded his head.
“He can’t just ask people for favors. It doesn’t work like that.”
“Well, why not? If ever there was a time for a favor, now is the time. I mean, Dennis hasn’t even come down the entire morning. He might be...” She mimed wrapping a noose around her neck and hanging herself, her tongue falling out over her glossed bottom lip.
I glanced up at his apartment door near the top of the wooden spiral staircase. A giant gargoyle knocker he had installed years ago grinned back down at me. It was true. Dennis had not emerged from his nest all morning. I looked back at Madison and Troy.
“What show does he work for?” Troy asked. And then once I had told him, he said, “Awesome! I love that show. I think anyone from the cast would draw in big numbers. Seriously.”
He smiled again. All this time I had been trying to get his attention, and finally we were talking. It made me weak.
“Well, I guess if I ask him, he’ll do it for me. But not like Kate Mara or something.” Troy’s smile faded slightly. “Or I don’t know. Maybe we can get her. I bet a few of the others for sure.”
“Holy shit,” Madison said. “That would be absolutely insane.”
Just then, Dennis appeared at his doorway and walked down the steps. He was smiling and whistling to himself, buttoning up his red cardigan. He was practically skipping.
He said hello as he passed us, flitting his fingers, as though he had just caught us on the street while out on a stroll, before walking out the door and turning the corner. The bell on the door rang twice as he exited.
“I thought he was supposed to be sad?” Troy said.
“Mourning,” Madison said matter-of-factly. She twirled her finger in circles at the side of her head. “It really fucks you up.”
Troy and I nodded together.
I would be lying if I said I have never fantasized about how different my life would be with Troy instead of Patrick. It sounds crazy, I know, but I think about it now and then. A fresh start with someone new.
Dennis lived with a man in the apartment upstairs for the better part of a decade. He met Damon at a gay bar in West Hollywood in the early 80s, several years after Mavis had picked up her things and left. The one time he told me this story, he explained that Damon had acted like a jerk that night, rejecting his offer to dance, flirting with other boys, but Dennis had still somehow managed to rope him in—he called it love at first fight.
The other things I know about the man I know mostly through pictures. There are two of them up on the wall. In one, Dennis has him practically headlocked, his Navy anchor tattoo bulging on his flexed bicep. Damon is black and stringy, like me, and trying desperately to unclasp Dennis’s hold on him. His skin appears as smooth and shiny as wax. A young Kim Basinger smiles mischievously beside them.
I once asked Dennis why he keeps the picture up if things ended so poorly—Damon stepped out on him too many times. He shook his head and smiled, “Come on. It’s Kim Basinger, kid. I can live with it, no problem.”
Patrick took me out to dinner that night at a seafood restaurant on Pico Boulevard. We ate outside, on the deck, near an ivy-covered wall. Purple flowers popped out through the cracks.
I was trying to think of a delicate way to broach the topic of the fund-raiser. I had eaten my way through a cheese plate, a side of buttermilk oysters, and a bowl of lobster Bolognese. For dessert I ordered a chocolate soufflé in order to give myself some more time, even though I was no longer hungry. I knew that if I did not ask him then in the middle of our boozy flirtation, the moony glimmer of the ocean behind us, the sound of forks clattering—the door still open, in other words—I certainly would not ask him at home.
I took a final swig of my whiskey sour. “So you remember that thing about the bookstore closing down? Well, we’re having a fund-raiser to raise some money for my boss, so he can keep the store.”
“Good idea. You come up with that?” Patrick said.
“Well, no, but I’m helping. I’m sort of a big part of it all now.”
“Do you want that?” he said.
“Well, yes,” I said, confused.
“No,” he said. “Do you want that?” He picked at the remaining chunks of lobster in my Bolognese.
“I told them you might be able to help.”
“Help how?” he said. His eyes flashed. I could tell he was suspicious.
Patrick has a weakness for younger men, but with that comes a history of deceit. The first night we spent together, after our third or fourth date, he took my face in his hand and said, “I can’t be taken for a ride. I’ve been fooled too many times before, and I just can’t take it because I am falling for you.” It was a weekend, an afternoon. I was still tangled in a mess of sweaty sheets after sex. The sun slipped in through openings in the blinds. Our bodies appeared dipped in light.
“Can’t you get someone from the show to read at the fund-raiser? I keep thinking they’ll turn the store into a Chinese place and poor Dennis will get hot and sick from all the kitchen smells. I wouldn’t ask if it was just for me, you know that.”
“Not possible. You know that. Why would you even think—”
But already I had stopped listening. I was watching as two men emerged from inside the restaurant and followed the hostess to their table. One of them was Troy. He wore a gray fitted blazer with jeans and blue saddle shoes. I had never seen him so dressed up. The other was someone I did not recognize, but he was handsome too. They sat so that Troy’s back was to me.
I wondered whether Troy had met him online, whether he had scrolled through a series of bright faces and smiles before landing on his, whether dinner was nothing more than a polite prelude to a night of sweaty sex, or whether it signified something else, something more meaningful.
After Patrick paid and we got up to leave, I glanced in their direction one last time. Troy held the other man’s hand from across the table. The stranger tossed his head back in laughter, his hair fluttering in the salty sea breeze.
I imagine they stayed like that for the rest of the night.
On weekends Dennis cleans the framed photos himself. There are more than 30 to get through. I know this only because I came in one Sunday about a month ago—Dennis had trusted a key to me upon starting, winking when he told me I should “feel free to use it anytime”—and found him there, behind a desk, with a dirty rag and Windex.
The photos were stacked one on top of another in small columns of various sizes across the floor. I tiptoed around, feeling very much like Godzilla stalking through Tokyo.
“Look who showed up. Decided to finally take me up on my offer?” he said.
“Maybe next time,” I laughed. “I forgot my boyfriend’s iPod. I promised to listen to his music on Friday, but now he needs it to work.”
He got up and pulled open a drawer and lifted out the iPod. I thanked him.
“Do you need any help with cleaning? I have a few hours to kill,” I said. I had gotten into a fight with Patrick—recently it had been our standard mode of communication—and, honestly, I wanted to make him wait.
“Are you kidding me? I like doing this. It’s a nice little jog down memory lane,” he said. “These are mine, kid. Go out and get your own.”
During the next week Madison and I prepared for the fund-raiser. We had decided to do the entire thing in secret for as long as possible in order to not worry Dennis with the details. Troy was in and out according to his schedule at the yoga studio, which, by the end of the week, meant he was in quite a lot. I wanted so badly to just tell them the truth, that Patrick would not be coming through—that I would not be coming through—but I couldn’t. Madison asked me about my plans regularly. I kept getting the sense that somehow she could see right through my curt responses, as if she were looking through a one-way mirror and waiting for the opportune moment to bust my chops, especially in front of Troy. So my lies got bigger. Kate Mara would be coming too.
One afternoon Troy walked in with an armful of pink and green flyers that read, “Save the Books Benefit, featuring readings by Mayor Pam O’Connor and Kate Mara from Dead Inside.”
It was obvious then and there that this could not go on any longer. It did not matter whether Troy thought I was a fool—I would end up embarrassing Dennis too if I saw this thing out to completion.
But before I could, Dennis returned from shelving books in the back of the store and stopped in front of Troy and Madison. “What do have there?” He started flipping through the brightly colored sheets of paper. He lifted one up and read it.
“We’re fucking saving this store, Dennis!” Madison cried. She raised her hands in the air, and Troy followed her lead. They behaved as though they were rallying the troops for battle. The few customers in the store looked in their direction before smiling and politely turning away.
I was terrified. Instead of breaking news of my failure to two people, I had to break Dennis’s heart as well, his one hope in salvaging the life he had here gifted to him and then taken away in an instant.
But Dennis’s expression turned to stone. He kneeled down and swept the papers into his chest, carrying them over to the garbage bin, shredding them to pieces with his bare hands, dumping them.
“What the hell were you thinking?” he said to Madison. And then he turned to me and yelled, “Did you know about this?” He was shaking, his fists clenched so hard that the blood drained from his knuckles until they were bone-white.
“I don’t understand,” Madison said. “What’s—”
“Let it go.” He stormed away, up the stairs and into his bedroom, slamming the door so hard that the knocker released two hollow clacks against the wood.
“See,” Madison said to us and the customers staring in our direction. She twirled her finger in circles at the side of her head. “Fucks. You. Up.”
While Madison and Troy scavenged through the trash for flyers, I went upstairs to check on Dennis. I had never seen him act that way before. It was the kind of anger I imagined he had bottled up after the war, the kind he had nurtured deep in the jungles of Vietnam in olive fatigues and war paint.
I knocked on his door, and when he did not answer I opened it. Strangely, it was the first time I had ever been in Dennis’s apartment. It was a small studio with old hardwood floors. He sat on the bed with his head in his hands. It was clean and airy, the window open to reveal a view of the hairdressing salon across the street and waxy green palm fronds from the tree just outside. An American flag hung framed on the wall, but that was the only kind of wall decoration I could see.
“What was that down there, Dennis?” I said. I continued to stand because I was still a bit scared. I refused to underestimate the strength of a 60-something year old man.
“I haven’t been honest with you, kid,” he said softly. He brushed stray cotton fibers from his pants. He spoke again only after several minutes of silence. “I lied about the rent.”
“So the bookstore’s not closing?”
“No, it is, but not for the reasons I gave you.”
Then he told me about his plans to move to Miami Beach to be with his ex-wife, Mavis, after all these years. About how her husband had died a few months ago and they had been calling each other ever since, him helping her through it all.
“Are you still in love with her?” I asked, still in disbelief.
“No! Of course not. Still wouldn’t kick you out of bed,” he said, nudging me with his elbow. “But we have history, kid. It’s hard to explain. It’s lonely up here, sometimes. You can’t understand, and I hope you never have to.”
And then I asked him why he had lied.
“Embarrassment, I guess. Who wants to admit that they’re tired of being alone? I was going to tell you once I got there, but it was just easier this way for me, I think.”
I felt something growing in the pit of my stomach, and it hurt.
Later that night, as I lay in bed next to Patrick, I understood the pain at last—betrayal. I hadn’t realized until then that for a long time I had depended on the idea of Dennis being able to live happily alone.
Madison and I say our goodbyes at security. We see Dennis off because, really, we are the closest thing he has to family here in Los Angeles County. All of his other friends have either moved out to small bungalows in the desert or died. He is in a floral-print, short-sleeve button-up and flip-flops. Madison’s eyes are rimmed with tears. People embrace one another around us. They say, “I’ve missed you,” “It’s been too long,” “I love you,” “Goodbye.”
“You’ll land on your feet, sweetheart,” he says to Madison. “I have no doubt about that.”
Then he wraps me in his arms and squeezes my ass. “For good luck,” he says. “I’ll keep in touch. Don’t you worry. I’m going to send you a Christmas card this year, and I want you to do the same. I know how much you hate those.”
The security line seems endless. It folds in on itself again and again. Dennis waves at us until finally he vanishes through the metal detectors and into the crowd.
We watch several planes take off down the runway, each ascending quickly into the air, until it is nothing more than a dot disappearing through the clouds. We are not certain which one is his, but with each plane I picture his face pressed against the window, looking down at us until eventually we disappear too.
Soon Madison tells me that she is leaving and that she expects to see me around. Her voice is fragile and limp, but I know it will not last. It is only the moment.
I stand there looking through the glass at the runway and the ragged brown mountains beyond. I stare at my reflection too. It floats, filmy and transparent, just over the mountains.
I am wasting time.
Thomas Gebremedhin is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Duke University. He lives in Brooklyn and works at Vogue.