ISSUE TEN | SPRING 2018
The summer his mother will die is charged and gray with waiting—but rain never comes.
Forrest is between his first and second year at Stonehill College in Wisconsin, far away from south Florida and the private tennis academy that he has always called home, though not far away from his family’s lake house in Michigan, where his mother is gathering her strength for a fight she will lose. That she will die is a conclusion Forrest has already reached, seeing no way out of a stage IV lung cancer with colonies in the brain, and so there is nothing to do except wait. He cannot yet go home because he is trying to win a starting position on the team next fall, which means that he must stay at Stonehill and train his body into shape. To go to the house in Michigan now, to return to its trees and leaves and the quiet of its sunny rooms, would be giving it all up, forfeiting his chance to start.
But his nights are restless, full of sweaty tumult. His dreams come rolling onto him in gauzy, dull waves, full of retreating figures, people he does not know walking away from him, their backs straight and their pace leisurely as they get farther and farther away until they press against the edge of his dreams and become shadows. He often bolts awake in the middle of the night, shivering and febrile. His roommates have come to resent his groaning sleeplessness and the way it fills their small dorm like an unwanted houseguest. And his sweat is turning his sheets sour. The airflow through the thin slit of a window is insufficient to dispel it, and so the dorm has turned musty and stale.
There are three of them in one dorm, which to Forrest seems like an unreasonable number of people to put in one room. But the tennis team is the smallest athletic team on campus, so they’re cutting costs on housing for the summer training camp. In some sense, the guys in Forrest’s dorm have gotten off lucky—some of their teammates are at four per room. The thought of one more body, one more set of sweaty socks, stiff shorts, musty shoes, and more equipment is almost too much to bear. They have tried to compensate for their cramped, dark room by spending as much time outside as possible. In addition to their two-mile run, early morning workout, three-hour practice, lunch, two-hour afternoon workout and evening run, there are one or two hours of rest time each day. Rest typically means rolling out towels near the lake and lying on their backs, sunning their bellies under what little sun there is. The air outside is not unlike the air in their tiny dorms. There is so little wind to stir up the trees or the dust on the ground. Everything feels gritty and still. There are so few waves that the lake has turned the same color as the sky, and, at times, it is difficult to tell them apart. Thunder is a constant, steady heartbeat along the horizon. If there is lightning, no one sees it.
Forrest has a boyfriend, or something like a boyfriend. The boy’s name is Glenn and he is studying physics. Glenn is from a small town out west, in one of the states that Forrest has a difficult time keeping straight in his mind. Indiana, Illinois, Idaho, Iowa—it could have been any of those, a state with flat vowels that vibrate in the nose. Glenn did not go home at the end of the year as Forrest had expected, but had gotten a position in a physics lab on campus instead. In the evenings, during the time that he is meant to rest with his teammates, Forrest goes to Glenn’s apartment on the northern edge of campus, climbs out of his clothes, and gets into Glenn’s bed. Sometimes, Glenn is not yet back from the lab, and Forrest drifts off to sleep, only to startle awake when the door drifts shut, and there Glenn is, standing half-illuminated in light from the bathroom. Glenn is tall and very, very blond. His hair is long and feathers out at his shoulders. He has freckles and full, dark lips. He is incredibly thin, and there is frailty in his arms and chest. Forrest could do him great harm if he wanted to. He could fold his hand into a fist and beat it against the cage of Glenn’s ribs. He could break Glenn, piece-by-piece or all-at-once, he could break him. But Forrest possesses no talent for cruelty—his lack of killing intent is holding back his tennis game.
Glenn is always in a bad mood when he gets home from the lab. He brings low pressure into the room, the sort of chill that will come to nothing good. Forrest knows better than to ask about what is causing the mood, because it will lead to a fight.
Forrest will ask, “What’s wrong?”
Glenn will sneer and answer, “Why are you even asking? You don’t know anything about physics.”
To which Forrest will respond, “That’s why I’m asking—obviously, you’re upset.”
Then Glenn will accuse him of being insincere in his interest, in flattening the complexities of the situation into neatly understood sentences that don’t really mean anything at all. And Forrest will make the mistake of asking what is so wrong about sentences that are understandable, what is so wrong with clarity? Glenn will call him stupid and tell him to shut his mouth. Forrest knows that it is his duty in their relationship to absorb Glenn’s frustration with himself. For the first time in his life, Glenn is not the best, not the smartest, and so he needs someone to serve as a lightning rod for all of that insecurity. Forrest has to be the stupid one so that Glenn can reclaim some sense of himself. And it’s okay, because in the end, Glenn doesn’t mean any of it. They kiss, they make up, and they have sex in Glenn’s lovely white sheets that are cool and clean and don’t smell like sweat until they are done.
Some nights, they climb to the roof in their underwear. At this height, there is some wind stirring around them. Forrest’s bare skin shimmers in the night. Glenn is fond of putting his lips to Forrest’s shoulder and kissing him, saying that he is kissing stars trapped beneath Forrest’s skin, which Forrest finds more than a little ridiculous, but also sweet. There is a view of the lake and the forest that surrounds much of Stonehill College. At an incredible distance, the outline of the mountain is visible against low-hanging clouds, though at an intermediate distance the city is a sea of churning yellow lights. Glenn leans against him, and Forrest exhales. The phantom pressure inside of him where Glenn had been buried mere minutes ago gives way to something melancholic. It’s the forfeiture of the present to the past that gets him. He doesn’t know how to explain this, not to Glenn on this roof in this moment, and so he puts his arm around his shoulder instead, draws him in for a kiss. Glenn murmurs against his lips and lets himself be drawn in, all tension and frustration forgotten for the moment. They will pick it up again later, when they need it to get them started again. But for now, sweet affection is easy for them. Glenn caresses his back, feels the muscles beneath his skin, and Forrest grips Glenn’s thigh firmly. Their bodies come alive again, and they lay out on the gritty rooftop, coming out of their underwear and pressing their nakedness tightly together. This time, it’s Forrest who enters Glenn, sliding into him dryly at first, but then more easily. Glenn wraps his legs around Forrest’s waist and whines when he is opened. There is pain and discomfort for the both of them, but there is more of something else, something urgent and necessary that keeps them going, and again, drawing back, pressing forward, retreating and advancing, strange new turns in the rhythm of their hips. Glenn’s body holds no new mysteries for Forrest, but there is always some new nuance in the pleasure, some unfurling deep within him.
When they are done, they are both dented from the gravel. They laugh as they pick tiny stones from one another, stones that do not hurt and leave painless wounds. Forrest is so tired by the time they get back to Glenn’s bed that he falls right to sleep.
Tennis practice consists of hitting drills. Four boys to each court, striking the ball back and forth. Forrest’s ground strokes are his best asset, the sheer evenness of his ground game. He can rally for hours and not drop. Unlike many of his peers, Forrest’s game was carved from the slow fat of clay courts. He was also much smaller than the other boys his age, and so gritty consistency became the core of his character. It is nothing at all for him to guide the ball along the same line across the net time and time again; he hits with an unwavering form, taking the ball on the rise, absorbing excess pace or adding enough of his own to generate the same ball over and over. Backhand, forehand, backhand, forehand, he moves the ball side to side on the half of the court he has been assigned. His hitting partner is usually Leo, who has a much weaker backhand than forehand. He also lacks control. His shots often come too hard or too soft, too spinny or too flat, bounding high or skidding low. Every shot is unpredictable, and part of the joy in practice for Forrest is figuring out how to neutralize Leo’s wildness and return to him a clean, immaculate shot. The goal of this drill is to improve both control and endurance. Leo has neither. He is flashy and likes to bang the forehand, either inside-out or up-the-line. He hits shots that the crowd remembers, lashing unexpected winners from out of the ether. But he will lose. He will lose because he is afraid of his backhand and because his serve is average at best. Forrest does not have Leo’s power. But he has control and patience. He has faith in his backhand and his forehand—his serve is consistent and accurate. He would like to improve his sliced second serve, but the kicker is good too, nice bounce to it. Forrest’s game is boring. The crowd will not remember him, but he will win, he hopes.
They practice indoors, where the air is still and cool when they first begin. But halfway through warm ups, the combined echoes of their shots are deafening. Soon, the chill is replaced with the heat and the scent of their exertion. Yellow balls, dark with motion, arc like sparrows across the net. Sharing a court with Leo and Forrest are Sadio and Loïc. Sadio has a beautiful one-hander, and his forehand is perfect, flowing lash up to the ball. There is substance to back up his flash. Loïc is physically very gifted: he is tall and immensely muscular. The force of his ball pushes like an oncoming wave. During his first season on the team, Forrest was in charge of warming Loïc up for his matches, and he always came with his hands numb from the vibration. Forrest watches Sadio and Loïc from the corner of his eye, all that terrifying pace and weight of shot, and still so much spin. They seem to jerk the ball up and yet it dives down like an angry swallow on the other side of the court. They banter back and forth in French, their voices loud and echoing. Forrest cannot understand a word they say, but Sadio’s smile and green eyes gleam in the artificial light.
They move on to doubles. Forrest wishes he had a different partner, because he does not want Sadio and Loïc to look down on him when Leo cannot keep the ball in the court. They are certainly going to lose, but he would like to make a good impression at least. Sadio lines up to serve, and Forrest elects to receive it. He dips into his low return position, a position that he has inherited from his father, his first coach, back when he was too small and needed the ground to help him absorb pace. Sadio’s serve comes fast, sharp, and straight. Forrest sticks out his racquet and manages somehow to direct the ball back cross court, but his shot doesn’t have enough on it, and Loïc is there to knock off an easy volley. Sadio’s next serve is a short kicker that gets by Leo completely and Forrest wonders how he was even able to get the ball to that position of the service box. It’s his turn again, and there’s a serve hurtling into his body. He gets out of the way, but his return is weak, another easy volley. The match goes very much in that way, with Loïc and Sadio’s superior serves carving their weak defense into pieces. On their own service games, Leo’s weak second serves are causing them to hemorrhage points. Forrest does what he can at the net, but Loïc and Sadio have a keen eye for weak points. His own service games are a bit more solid. He’s able to jam Sadio’s backhand, and he draws some easy errors from Loïc’s aggressive returns. But he hates playing this way, surviving solely on the mistakes of others. It’s a terrible way to subsist in tennis, and it reminds him of those hateful early years when he was forced to watch the bigger boys whip shots by him.
Following afternoon practice, their coach gives them the rest of the day off. Some of the boys go immediately to fling themselves into the lake and to wash away their sweat. The air is thick and heavy. The sweat on their skin cannot evaporate because there is so much moisture in the air. Swimming feels unbearable to Forrest, all that water stuck to his skin with no way off. He opts to take a walk along the lakeshore instead, among the cedar and oak trees, wandering in the shade and trying to ignore the scent of dead and dying fish in the water. The calls of the boys in the lake drift to him occasionally, washing through the trees. He is not alone. Sadio has also begged off from swimming and tanning. He says that he feels sunsick and tired. The shade will do him good.
“Such strange weather,” Sadio says after several minutes of walking in silence. Sadio has a meandering walk. He is swinging his water bottle by his side, a cold towel draped over his neck.
“It always feels like it’s going to rain,” Forrest says. His insides are flipping around and his hands are slick. They both glance up—there’s some flicker of motion above them through the tops of the trees.
“But it never does,” Sadio says. “It never rains.” There is laughter in his voice, which is deep and soft.
“I would like it to rain,” Sadio says then, and begins to hum, his eyes wandering amongst the hundreds of branches above their head. There is a soft rustling, which must be from the squirrels or the birds, because there is no wind. What they need is a hard, soaking rain, a saturating rain, a rain that will take away the dust and pollen and awful stillness in the air. What they need is a rain that will surge through and stir everything up into a churning, brown foam. They need a rain to make the lake move again. But they also need the wind and the cold that a rain will bring, something to clear away the haze and heat and sweat.
“A cleansing rain,” Forrest says, and Sadio smiles at him.
They come to a place near the lake where there is a patch of grass and shade. They get down flat on their bare backs, and close their eyes. The air is so close, so tight on their skin. He can barely feel Sadio next to him, but he knows he is there. His scent is unmistakable. Forrest is sore from hitting so many balls today. Without the expectation of more pain, his body is betraying him.
Sadio’s breathing is perfectly rhythmic. His skin is honey-color, and his hair is very black. His eyelashes are thick and dark, and there are beads of sweat clinging to them. Forrest wants to blow on these lashes and make the drops dance on their shifting stalks.
In the evening, Forrest returns to Glenn’s apartment and lets himself in with key that they have made illegally. Glenn is already in the shower and Forrest wonders if he has the strength for an argument. But the nap near the lake with Sadio was refreshing and his nerves feel cool and ready. The door slides open and Glenn is startled to see him, but soon his shock fades into a mask of impassive irritation. He is in a mood tonight.
“Hello,” Forrest says without intention.
“Hi,” Glenn responds. There is coldness in his voice. Forrest takes a seat on the small coffee table in the center of the room. Glenn frowns. “You stink.”
“Well, I had practice.”
“You didn’t shower?”
“Did you bring spare clothes?”
“No, I didn’t, should I have?”
“Well, how are you going to shower?”
“I can leave, Glenn—doesn’t matter.”
“God, you’re so defensive,” Glenn says. Forrest’s heartbeat is even and steady. He is unmoved by Glenn’s act.
“Should I go?” Forrest asks this dispassionately and he can see Glenn’s indecisiveness, the tension between the part of him that wants to win the argument and the part of him that wants Forrest to stay. Glenn does not want to get caught needing, does not want to give up his power. Forrest rises from the table, and Glenn steps back, in front of the door. He’s still damp from the shower. Water is clinging to his shoulders and to his chest, and Forrest can see the wild pulse in his neck. “Should I?” Forrest repeats cruelly, his finger dipping into Glenn’s navel. Glenn writhes and pulls his towel open.
“You can shower here,” he says. Forrest grips the back of Glenn’s neck; the wet hair is slick in his hand.
“Oh, can I?” Forrest asks, digging his fingers in the pale, smooth skin. “Kind of you.”
“Don’t be a baby,” Glenn says through gritted teeth. He’s reaching for Forrest’s shorts, to push them down his hips, but Forrest snatches up Glenn’s wrists and pins them above his head.
“No. I stink, remember?”
“Whatever,” Forrest says, and though their mouths are close enough to touching that it would take nothing at all to kiss Glenn, he releases him. “I’m going to shower.”
“Sure, okay,” Glenn says as the door shuts quietly in his face.
Forrest emerges ten minutes later with one of Glenn’s towels wrapped around his waist. He glances down at his body and is mildly startled to see how the summer has changed it. He is six-feet and some change, but until now, he has always been skinny and wiry. The summer has left him stronger and fitter. He is fuller through the haunches. The shower, which feels like his first in days, though he knows that this isn’t the case, has rejuvenated him. A fog has been lifted from his vision. His hair is wooly and dark, soaking up the moisture.
Glenn is at the tiny stove, stirring a pot. He’s making some sort of soup from beef stock, vegetables, and small pieces of meat. There are two bowls on the counter. He comes up behind Glenn and wraps his damp around his waist. He rests his chin on Glenn’s shoulder.
“You’re wet,” Glenn says.
“And hard,” Forrest says, pumping his hips against Glenn, who shivers against his touch.
“I’m making soup.”
“I can see that,” Forrest says.
“And grilled cheese.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Soup takes a long time.”
After the quiet, muffled sex in the kitchen and the soup and the grilled cheese, they are leaning out of the window, shoulder to shoulder. The sky is the same bruised purple. The scent of rain is carrying in from somewhere far away. The pointed tips of the trees flutter back and forth, their formation bright and keen.
Glenn’s hair is sweaty and matted. Forrest runs a hand through it, feeling its threads separate. He kisses Glenn’s shoulder and shuts his eyes.
“The air is so still,” Glenn says.
“Yes,” Forrest says, his eyes sliding open again. He can feel himself going cold and distant again, getting further and further from the surface of his own skin. He puts his arm across Glenn’s back.
“It will rain soon, I think,” Glenn says.
“Maybe so,” Forrest says, drifting off again. “Maybe not.”
“It will rain,” Glenn says with a smile in his voice, “I can smell it.”
Forrest’s cell phone rings brightly, and it startles both of them. For a moment, Forrest thinks that it must be Glenn’s phone, but then he realizes that it’s his, too late to answer. When the noise stops, the silence swells and swells until it is torn open by a bolt of lightning and thunder in the sky.
The rain, when it comes, is sudden and hard.
“Your phone,” Glenn says, splashing some of the rain up Forrest’s bare back, which makes him shiver and step away from the window.
“My phone,” Forrest repeats, though he knows what is awaiting him in his voicemail. He knows that when he enters his security code and lifts the phone to his ear, something awful will arc down from the sky on a wave of electricity. A stinging wetness clusters at the corners of his eyes. He manages to work up a smile and snatches up his phone from the table. Forrest watches Glenn lean backward out of the window. The water presses against his face and shoulders, turning to a white foam on impact. Glenn lets out a satisfied moan. Forrest lifts the phone to his ear and waits. The dial tone fades, and the words begin—his father’s voice stretches across hundreds of miles, passing over mountains and forests and rivers to reach him there in Glenn’s room. It’s dizzying to consider, and Forrest can feel the floor shift beneath his feet as the words take hold: hospice, terminal, days to weeks, come now.
Forrest wets his lips, which have gone dry. Glenn is rubbing the rain into his chest, wiping away the sweat and the spit and the semen from earlier. He’s washing away the traces of Forrest on him, making his skin into something clean and new, a baptism at the end of summer. Forrest thinks of the lake house, the clean, simmering water, the clear air, the windows so full of light and trees. He thinks of the smell of that house, the books, his mother’s books—she had read to him as a boy from those books, his face pressed against her soft belly. The summer of the growing pains, when he ached and cried and she draped cold cloths over his legs and read to him from her newest collection of poetry. The summer she stood up to his father and argued with heat in her bright brown eyes that he would go to public school, that he wouldn’t grow up with nothing in his head. He hears his father’s voice again: come now.
A terrible heat swells up inside of Forrest and he swallows. His hands are shaking. Glenn comes closer to him, a pale, cold ghost. He presses up close, wrapping his wet arms around Forrest’s neck. He softly kisses the corner of Forrest’s mouth.
“You’re wet,” Forrest says.
“And hard,” Glenn hums.
Forrest glances down and notices that this is certainly true. Forrest wraps his hand around Glenn, and Glenn sighs, arching up for more contact. They are both naked in a rapidly cooling dark room. Glenn’s skin is so white that it glows. Forrest bites his shoulder and can taste the rain, but beneath it, there is also the taste of sweat—the baptism is incomplete.
Brandon Taylor is the associate editor of Electric Literature's Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Literary Hub. His writing has received fellowships from Lambda Literary, Kimbilio Fiction, and the Tin House Summer Writer's workshop. He currently lives in Iowa City, where he is a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in fiction. His debut novel is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.