Thirty-Seven

Yesterday was France Harrington’s birthday. He turned thirty-seven years old. Thirty-seven, to him, was one of those years that he would allow to quietly slip by without any mention of it being his birthday. But then again, that’s how he felt for every birthday after his twenty-first. If it were up to him, he would have spent last night sitting at home, watching some British sitcom re-runs while eating a carton of ice cream, just like any other night. Perhaps he may have had his own little celebration by substituting his usual vanilla ice cream for a birthday cake flavor instead. But it wasn’t up to him. Not anymore.

Ever since France’s breakup from his first romantic relationship, his younger, prettier and more popular sister, London, took charge of his life in an attempt to revive him. France has told his little sister many times that he is not interested in any type of renaissance. But London has never been the type of person who hears what you say; rather, she hears what she wants you to say. And she wanted France to be as happy as he was when he was with Kevin, while France only wanted solitude.

When London looked at France, she saw a sad old man who has aged much beyond his years. He grew bald prematurely, with the remaining hair turning grey and scraggly much before their fathers’ did. To London, France was a pitiful man. She hated the way that he would mope around, shoulders forward and head down. She felt a sense of accomplishment every time that she could convince – though he would rather use the word force – him to leave his dark, musky and depressing one bedroom apartment in San Francisco. She crowned herself as the savior angel who gave him opportunities that he would otherwise never have. In a sense, she was right; he would never take the opportunity on his own. But it was not because he needed assistance doing so; rather, he simply had no interest.

When France looked at London, his younger sister by six years, he saw a woman who was so concerned with maintaining a classy image that she was oblivious to how truly sad her own life was. London had already been married – and divorced – twice. She was engaged for the third time, and a mother to none. She was the type of person who always felt the fault was everybody else’s, and there was no telling her otherwise. They shared the same parents and many genes, yet it was a mystery how they ended up so different.

France’s thirty-seventh birthday party had forty guests. Of those forty, he knew four intimately – his sister, her fiancée, her fiancées brother, and his wife – none of which he was ecstatic about seeing. Beyond them, he had met a few of his sister’s friends at various parties that he and Kevin had arrived late to and left early from over the years. Essentially, France’s thirty-seventh birthday party was London’s party, on France’s birthday.

By the time that France had arrived, the guests were all drunk on white wine and champagne, just as he expected. Luckily, France thought ahead and brought a flask of whiskey. He fit an entire 375 ml bottle into it, which fit snug into the inside pocket of the only nice blazer that he owned. Typically, he only brought that blazer out of the darkest end of his dank closet for book signings, but his sister made it clear that he better dress nicely for his birthday party. All the guests congratulated him on his new book, just like London told them to do before he arrived. Not a single one named his book or initiated an actual conversation surrounding it and, considering how poorly it sold through it’s entire first month, he figured that no one had read it. Not even London.

France’s first two books were great successes. One was published when he was twenty-two and the other was published when he was twenty-five. He had a keen sense for fiction, especially when the stories involved characters that were nothing like himself but rather like the person who he longed to be – a man in love. Shortly after the second books release he became that man, thus, he no longer had to guess what it felt like to be in love, because he knew.

France met Kevin outside of a coffee shop near his then-new vibrant and welcoming one bedroom apartment a few blocks away from Golden Gate Park. Kevin was reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, one of France’s all-time favorite novels. France wasn’t always the type of person to speak to strangers, but he had a feeling in his gut that he couldn’t explain: a sensation of butterflies taking flight. He sat at the small table right beside Kevin and opened up a novel that he had just picked up from a used bookstore the day before. He pretended to read as he built up the confidence to speak to the blonde beauty beside him.

“Hey!” France yelled, much louder than he meant to. He promptly felt his face grow warm, sure that he was red, he grew even more nervous than he was before he said anything.

“Hey,” Kevin slyly responded with a calm voice and a small smirk.

France was always a bit socially awkward, but he felt it more than ever in that moment. He didn’t know how to follow-up his borderline offensive loud greeting.

“What are you reading?” Kevin broke the silence.

“I—I don’t know,” he closed the book to look at the cover, “A friend gave it to me and said I’d enjoy it.” Lie.

“Are you?”

“Am I what?”

“Enjoying it.”

“I haven’t got very far, but the dedication was nice.”

Kevin laughed and that helped ease France’s nerves, even though he was not intending to be funny. From that conversation blossomed a couple cups of coffee, which led to dinner on the wharf, and eventually became a sexual encounter in France’s one-bedroom apartment. From there, it became a relationship: France’s first, and Kevin’s first with a man.

Kevin was on vacation from Michigan. He recently finished college and instead of getting a proper job, he decided to travel without a map; he insisted that was the best way to travel. He justified his ventures with the fact that he would only be twenty-two once. His plan was to drive along the coast slowly, stopping often, and then to return home. He didn’t plan to fall in love with France.

Kevin was also a writer, but a different kind. He earned his degree in journalism. He told France that he wasn’t the kind of guy that could make up entire worlds and put them on paper. He would rather report what was happening in the real world. He had heard of France’s first book before they met, but did not connect that it was his until he saw the book in France’s apartment shortly after moving in. He read the whole book in a day, and France’s second book the following day. This only made Kevin fall harder for France. He thought that the books were fascinating, and he quickly became France’s biggest fan.

Many of the guests at France’s thirty-seventh birthday party began winding down around eleven o’clock. Some had businesses to run in the morning while other had children at home with teenaged babysitters. Their smiles had shrunken by the hour, by the glass. France had noticed that London, and people like London, were always happy until they got drunk. Then they would give an earful to anybody who would listen to their rich-people problems.

One tall, blonde and extremely loud woman, who France did not recognize at all, broke her heel while going up two measly steps that led to the nearest bathroom. She screamed as if she were being murdered, saying something about being on a waitlist for years for those shoes, and then promptly threw up on London’s fluffy white carpet. Several of the guests ran towards her to help her up. France saw this as his opportunity to slip away. So he walked behind the crowd, through the kitchen and out the front door.

France had been dropped off by a taxicab and the initial plan was to borrow London’s phone to call another to take him home when the party was over. Due to his unplanned escape, that was out of the question. With a good buzz as his companion, and a quarter-flask of whiskey still in his pocket, France decided to walk the seven miles back to his apartment. It was mid-May, so the weather was mostly in his favor. It was bit chilly, but the exercise and the whiskey warmed him quick enough. He used to enjoy walking, back when he enjoyed life. The buzz helped him remember why he enjoyed it so much.

On his walk he thought about a lot of things, but mostly about Kevin. That was probably the whiskey thinking, or perhaps the loud absence of a companion at the birthday party. He missed Kevin dearly, but he knew that they could never go back to how it was. He knew this because he had called Kevin’s phone a few weeks after their breakup to tell him that he left his hairbrush in France’s apartment. Kevin had the most luscious dirty blonde hair that France had ever seen, and he was certain that would convince him to come back. It didn’t. Kevin said that France could throw it away because he already bought a new one.

The second call was about his toothbrush. France had known that Kevin must’ve bought a new toothbrush after nearly a month apart, but he just wanted to hear Kevin’s voice. Again, Kevin told France to throw it away, and then added a request for France to delete his number. The third call was about his midnight blue zip-up hooded sweater. But by the time France made that call, Kevin’s phone had been disconnected. He assumed that Kevin had moved back to Michigan to be near family and left his San Francisco cell phone behind.

Every night of the six months between the breakup and France’s thirty-seventh birthday, he wore Kevin’s midnight blue zip-up hooded sweater as he watched British sitcom re-runs on television and ate his vanilla ice cream. That midnight blue sweater was the only thing that made his apartment still feel like a home. Even he had grown tired of the dark and musky atmosphere that had clouded his life.

France never blamed Kevin for leaving because he always felt like the fault was his. In this case, he wasn’t exactly wrong. France began losing all of his hair in his early thirties while Kevin’s long blonde hair only grew more luscious by the day. France let the grey remains grow unruly and scraggly instead of saying goodbye to all of it. France and Kevin drank a lot of beer, enough for a beer belly to sprout under France’s shirt. Bittersweetly, Kevin’s slender frame was unaffected. France noticed that his appearance was declining, but what he didn’t know what how aware of it Kevin was. France had intended to fix it, but each day he told himself, “maybe tomorrow.”

One day France went to visit London in the suburbs for breakfast and he expected to be there all day; she always had a lot to talk about. Less than an hour after breakfast, London grew sick. She insisted that France go home so that she could sleep it off. So he did. Being gone less than two hours, he opened the door slowly in hopes to surprise Kevin who planned on lounging all day. The bedroom door was closed, but that wasn’t so strange. The living room reeked of France’s cigarettes and Kevin hated when that smell crept into the bedroom. He knew he had to quit smoking, but again, he told himself, “maybe tomorrow.” France slowly twisted the knob on the bedroom door and flung the door open in an attempt to frighten Kevin. He did, to say the least, frighten him.

Bent over on the bed, with his butt in the air, squeezing the corners of the mattress, Kevin shrieked. The big, buff, twenty-something man crouched behind naked Kevin stopped thrusting and looked France in the eyes, confused. France stood in the doorway with the door wide-open, hand still on the knob. His mouth matched the door, hanging open. He had no idea that Kevin was the type to bring another man into their home. He was completely dumbfounded. In France’s mind, Kevin was still the happy twenty-two-year-old that he had met at a downtown coffee shop eleven years earlier.

The man behind Kevin pulled, dripping lubricant onto France’s favorite sheets. The stranger got dressed; Kevin hung his head low as he wrapped the filthy sheet around his naked body. Without a word, France walked out of the room and into the kitchen. He felt stupid and sad. He didn’t know which feeling was worse. He mindlessly walked over to the fridge and poured himself a glass of milk.

The man hustled out of the front door with his dress shirt still unbuttoned and his shoes in his hands. France sat at the small card table where he and Kevin ate all of their meals. They were once a simple couple, with few needs. He drank about three-fourths of his milk before he realized that he was drinking milk. He squinted at the glass in confusion and set it on the table. Kevin walked out of the bedroom and into the kitchen with his pants on, but his shirt was still off. France did not want to admit it, but Kevin looked damn sexy with his boxers tight up against his tummy hair and his sex hair all out of place. It had been months since France saw him like that. And it was only then that France had realized how absent of a lover he had been lately.

“So,” Kevin said in his signature calm tone, avoiding eye contact at first. After a few moments of silence passed, he looked up and saw France’s milk mustache. He squinted his eyes and as his train of thought switched completely and asked,

“Milk?”

France was angry. Not only did he just witness the only man he had ever loved naked, below a stranger but now, he felt belittled by him. France did not know why he poured the milk but, for some reason, he felt defensive about it.

“Why are you drinking milk, France?” Kevin asked gently, in vain.

“Did you not just see what happened? Do you even care that I have been seeing another man?”

Each question grew louder, breaking his signature calm tone. But France was stuck on the phrase “been seeing.”

It was ongoing.

“Been seeing.” France said with a tone of despair rather than an inquiry. He suddenly understood why Kevin hadn’t touched him in months. Then he realized it had been Kevin that was absent.

“Yes, France,” he started, “been seeing. For months! How did you not fucking notice? I’ll tell you how: you have been so busy moping around and growing fucking old that you didn’t bother to see what was happening right below your fucking nose.”

France could not understand why Kevin was so angry when he was the one who cheated, so he took another sip of milk.

“Why. The. Fuck. Are. You. Drinking. Milk?”

France could not say a word. He had so many questions, but it was as if the entire English language had fallen from his memory at that very moment.

“If you don’t stand up to me like a fucking man, I am leaving right now,” Kevin said, lifting his index finger to point at France, “and you best believe that I will not be coming back.” France still couldn’t understand why Kevin was the one shouting.

“You know what? I don’t deserve this.” Kevin said before he turned to go back to the bedroom, “I am packing my shit and then I am out of here.”

He grabbed the two suitcases that found a home in the back of the closet for the eleven years that they shared the one bedroom apartment. France threw the empty milk glass against the kitchen wall and stormed out of the apartment. He was gone for a few hours, aimlessly walking through San Francisco. After he calmed down, he weighed his options. He told himself that they could find a way to work through it. He was not ready to leave all of those years in the trash. But when he returned, Kevin and his suitcases were gone.

On the most lonesome of nights that even British television was not an appropriate companion, France would wear Kevin’s sweater and masturbate to old photographs of him. It did not take long for France to realize that Kevin would always be the one that got away.

While on his walk home, France replayed the whole scenario in his head, again. This happened often, but it happened particularly often when he indulged in whiskey. It was always the same questions that he wondered to himself. Why did I keep quiet? Why did I leave the apartment, making it easy for Kevin to leave? Why was I drinking milk? Then, like always, he grew sad, wondering where Kevin was. Did he catch up to that stranger that was crouched behind him that day? Did he start a new life with him as abrupt as he started his life with France eleven years prior?

France decided to leave the sidewalk behind and walk along the water towards his dark and musky apartment. He knew that it was dangerous, but the whiskey made him feel like he was young again. In his late twenties, he was a child of the night, not caring where he slept, as long as Kevin was there. The feeling of wilderness and carelessness in his soul felt like lifetimes ago. It left before long before Kevin did. And France knew deep down inside that Kevin left because his own wild soul was not yet ready to rest.

France finished his whiskey by throwing his head back and gulping the remains down. Though he was fond of whiskey, it was rare that he finished his 375 ml flask in one night. He was quite drunk and rather sad. France’s legs were tired, and he was beginning to feel the weight of his large belly slow him down.

He took a short break and sat on a short cliff that was between the water and the road. He let his legs dangle off of the cliff and, before too long, quiet tears ran down his cheeks. As France sat on the small cliff beside the road, he thought about dying. He wondered what he would miss if his life ended in that moment. He wondered who would miss him. He figured that London would throw a huge memorial service full of people that France had never met and talk about how much he meant to her. But truly, they would all be there for the after party.

Then a glowing light caught his drunk, wet eyes. It was the most beautiful thing that he had ever seen. It was a full moon, perched low in the sky, seemingly bigger than ever. France watched the moon’s reflection slowly rise in the water below him. He thought that it was the most miraculous thing that he had seen, excluding Kevin’s beautiful eyes.

He began to smile. It was not a fake, polite smile like he wore at his thirty-seventh birthday party, it was a genuine smile. Just like the smile he would give Kevin in the morning as he warmed their tea and woke Kevin with the crisp aromas, luring him into the kitchen butt-naked. France, whose sad tears had been replaced with happy tears, thought of Kevin and reached for the reflection of the moon, wanting to touch its beauty, needing to grasp it in his hands, yearning for something to live for.

He hoped that if he could just touch the smallest part of it then he could feel whole again. He could wake up in the morning, excited for life, just like he did when Kevin was around. He wanted the moon in his hands more than he wanted anything, besides Kevin, of course. He reached so high that his butt lifted off of the ground, slipping, little by little. It was slow, but too quick for his drunk mind to realize what was happening. All he could focus on was the moon. Trying to balance, France fell into the freezing cold rock-filled water. He no longer wanted the moon. He no longer wanted Kevin. He no longer wanted anything.