“So,” you said, past a split lip and blood-soaked teeth, “Same time next week?”. At that point, it could have gone one of three ways. First, an agreement, wait a week and see what happened next time. Second, one more blow to the face, shattering the back of your skull against the wall, knowing in that moment you would have let me. And then there was the third way, the way I chose.
“Same time tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” You spat blood onto the pavement, cracked your jaw, wiped your mouth on your sleeve and looked at me like you were wishing I’d said “Now”.
“Tomorrow. Same time, same place, no-one tries to kill anyone. We get a beer and we talk. Alright?”
“Sure. But I don’t drink beer”.
“OK then, drink whatever you drink. And leave that knife behind.”
“How did you..?”
“Look, I don’t know how often you do whatever this is, but you picked the wrong person this time.”
“Oh, no, I really didn’t.” A pause. “See you tomorrow then. And you can frisk me for weapons if you want.”
And with that you were on your way, limping slightly. Once you’d put a few feet of distance between us, you pulled the knife from your waistband and tossed it in the air with a flick of your wrist that made it spin. Catching it expertly by the blade, you looked over your shoulder, flashed me one last red smile that made my breath catch in my throat, and turned the corner out of view.
I lay awake for most of the night, wondering how the hell this had happened. Sure, people tended to recognise me for at least part of what I was, but it mostly made them keep their distance, cross the road, walk a wide arc around me. Occasionally a random drunk would try to pick a fight, but one solid punch would put an end to it before it even started. But you, I couldn’t figure you out at all. I got the feeling you weren’t drunk and you were anything but random. I’d never met anyone who could take an impact like that and stay standing. For a brief moment I wondered if I’d finally met my match, then I shook the feeling away. I’d never been that lucky before, but I was curious. I didn’t understand any of this, but I wanted to.
The following night, I got there early, by accident but also not. With no idea whether or not you were going to show, I craved a cigarette. The last time I had a smoke was the night I quit my job and I swore off both tobacco and my previous profession for life. I quit cold turkey, smoking and killing, and it was all fine for over a year until I felt a vicious desire for both in the space of twenty-four hours. Because of you. And you looked...well, you looked good. I’d kind of sworn off that as well but maybe the general feeling of want was just finding its way around everything I told myself I wasn’t going to do.
My contemplation of self-imposed restrictions was interrupted by your arrival.
“You want to check me for knives?”
“I want to trust you. Let’s play that game and see how it goes.”
“OK. You going to tell me your name?”
“I said I want to trust you, not that I already do. Let’s go and get whatever you drink”
It was a double vodka, straight, no ice. You didn’t even knock it back in one go. You sipped it slowly, actually enjoying the taste of the cheap spirit. I knew it was cheap because this particular bar didn’t have anything else, which was fair enough since its unique selling point was that it was open all night, even though it probably shouldn’t have been. Plus, the staff were well versed in the art of turning a blind eye. We watched each other in silence across a table that had been decorated over the years by stabs and scores from countless pocket knives and screwdrivers that spent more time being slid between ribs than driving screws. I took a drink of my beer, slowly, amused that you seemed to think you could unnerve me by looking at me like that. Like that. I was not so easy to unnerve.
“So,” I said, “Tell me about that death wish of yours.”
“It’s not a death wish. It’s a near-death wish.” You smirked.
“And you saw me and thought I looked like the type to stop at near?”
You shrugged. “I saw you and didn’t know. I still don’t. That’s why I’m here.”
“Because you want to find out?”
“Because I like not knowing.”
And so the conversation continued. I had another beer. You had three more double vodkas and became sharper with each one. You told me you did things with computers. I told you I worked in security. Neither of us entirely believed the other, although no doubt there was a little bit of truth in each of our words. 5am arrived and I said it was time I got going.
“Why?” you asked. “Don’t want to be late for church?”
“Something like that.”
“So, same time tomorrow?”
God, you looked so...the way you looked. Throwing caution to the wind and every other element, I suggested, “Or now. Now would work.”
You grinned—a dangerous, enticing thing—as I stood up and walked towards the door. You followed, barely a pace behind. When we got outside, I stopped and turned to face you.
“I still don’t trust you but what the hell. I’m Noah.”
And as the world shifted from deep black to a rain-drenched silvery suggestion of a dawn yet to arrive, we walked away from the bar, together, and I wondered, not for the first time, what I was getting myself into.
We met at 3am, under a starless sky and a flicking streetlight. I was out for the kind of walk someone might go on in the middle of the night because whether they want to admit it to themselves or not, they’re seeking an ordeal. Through boredom, frustration and a rarely satisfied desire for a particular kind of release, I chose my route carefully, hoping to run into exactly the sort of person no-one else hoped to run into. I had a knife concealed in my waistband and although I was ready to use it, I was hoping for an opportunity to use my fists instead. I had developed a skill for recognising the right targets, for feeling the potential of a vicious temper from a distance. Never the overt perpetrator, all I needed was an excuse and when I saw you heading towards me, I knew I had found it.
You were tall and broad, a stature that made self-defense a feasible justification should it come to that. I was hoping it wouldn’t. I didn’t want this to be over too quickly, but I wanted it to be over tonight. I felt a familiar twitch in my fingers that came from too much time clicking keys to access information I had no right to see and not enough time being used as weapons. You were looking at the ground as you walked, so the eye contact I craved to get things started wouldn’t come easily. Blatant provocation always felt dull to me but needs must, so as we were about to pass each other I took half a step towards you and crashed my shoulder into your chest. I allowed myself a fraction of a second to glance up at your face, past the square jaw waiting to be broken, to eyes as dark as an angry ocean. You looked down and there it was. Eye contact. Perfection.
Your hands were huge and with the force of your weight behind the punch, I felt the inside of my cheek split open against my teeth as your fist connected with the side of my face. It was exquisite. It had always felt good before, but never this good. I looked up at you again, taking my time now, and smiled, feeling the delicious iron warmth of my own blood coating my teeth and pooling around my gums. The knife could stay where it was for the time being. You were too good to waste on a blade. You deserved my hands.
You hit me again and I stood still, licking the blood from my lips. Stronger than I looked, with a surprising ability to absorb impact and a distorted perception of pain, I savoured the moment when you realised I wasn’t going to go down as easily you had first assumed. At your size, you must have been used to taking people out with one punch, two at a push, but I was still standing, still smiling. You were stunned into inaction as I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and launched myself at you, equal parts unstoppable force and immovable object.
I usually lose myself in the fight, running on autopilot until I end it, but this time I was deliciously present for the entirety. The most pronounced difference from my previous encounters was that I was holding back, not enough for you to knock me out, but enough to let you do more damage than I normally allow. I couldn’t help myself. It didn’t usually feel this good. By the time you slammed my back against the wall, I was almost ready to let you finish me if you wanted to. You grabbed my wrists, lifted my hands above my head and held me in a grip like steel chains. I made no effort to move. If it had been anyone else, I would’ve been kicking like a mule, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t stop looking at you. Your face was a mess and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
“What the fuck is wrong with you, man? Are you fucking enjoying this?”. Blood trickled from the corner of your mouth as you spoke. I wanted nothing more than to taste it.
“Why? Are you?”. I tilted my head, raised an eyebrow, flexed my hands in your grip, then relaxed, my whole body loosening and resting against the wall, the knife in my waistband completely forgotten.
“I...I don’t...what the fuck is this? What do you want?”. You let go of my wrists but didn’t move back.
Slowly, I reached up and lightly trailed a finger through the blood on your cheek, at the corner of your mouth, on your chin. You didn’t look away, even when I held my finger to my lips to feel your blood mix with mine on my tongue.
It was one of those rare experiences when time stands still. I stepped outside of myself to watch from something like a not-quite-physical plane, overlaid on top of the reality I’d spent my whole life in up until that moment. It’s such a cliché, but a few seconds stretched out to feel like an eternity of high-definition slow motion, with a sudden understanding that there was truly something of myself outside of my body and my senses. It made me think in first-person and second-person and third-person, in cause and consequence. Confusing my perception of past and present, it felt like an ending and a beginning and an entire turn of the wheel all at once. And the most wonderful and terrible thing about it was, I got to share it with another person knowing that neither of us should have ended up there in the first place, but through a collision of accident and decision, we did. And there we both were, watching ourselves and each other from outside and inside and before and after, waiting for whatever came next.
“So,” I said, breaking the silence, “Same time next week?”
3.05am and seven hours since you calmly picked up your keys, told me not to wait up and walked out. Anyone else would have shouted. Anyone else would have angrily ripped their coat from the hook on their way down the hall and slammed the door as they left. Anyone else would have floored the accelerator as they drove away to add volume and drama to their exit. But not you. Never you. You, the master of the stone-cold promise and the heavy silence and the ominous unspoken threat. You, the elegant conductor of the hammering in my head. Everything I do is wrapped in you and soaked in you. My lips worn pale from drinking your poison, a taste of us both on a sliver of ice. The moon hangs in a misty sky and all I can think is I am so out of focus. I am so out of focus.
5.23am and I sleep with one eye open still, just as I should. Forgiveness rarely finds its way to souls like ours. In my half-awake world of in-between dreams, I shoot myself. In the head, in the heart, in the mirror. A slow motion bullet ricochets from bone to muscle to glass until it is swallowed up by the emptiness that hangs in the air. My silence, flash-frozen, left behind by your measured steps that punctured my lung as you turned your back and walked away. I still breathe, but only for you and I no longer choke on the blood from the loss you slid between my ribs. Your absence holds me with prison guard keys and spits its demands in my face. Stop. Fall. Kneel. Lie still. Lies, still. The reality of you is dead calm. The lack of you is a tornado.
7.43am and I imagine a place where I can walk down the street wearing no shoes. Where I can stare directly into the sun with eyes wide open. Where I can fall asleep in someone’s arms and be carried to bed. I imagine the sound of your car pulling up outside, the crunch of your footsteps on the path, the turn of your key in the door. I imagine the gentle tread of your shoes on the stairs, the soft drift of fabric against skin as you get undressed and lay your clothes neatly across the back of the chair. I imagine the brief chill as you lift the covers, replaced by the welcome warmth of your body as you climb into bed next to me. I imagine your breath on my neck, your fingers sliding around my wrist and gripping just a little too tightly, the way I like it. I think, “I’m sorry” and wonder for a moment if I said it out loud.
9.14am and I awaken to the aroma of freshly brewed coffee filling the house. I am still wearing the clothes you last saw me in and even though I couldn’t care less, I know you’ll notice. I would like to believe that you’ll assume I was angry, that I lay alone dreaming of how to destroy you, but for everything I’ve ever been wrong about, we know the truth of each other too well. Before I go downstairs, before I say a word, I know you’ll be aware of how much a night without you hurt me. I know the corner of your mouth will lift in quiet satisfaction as you pour coffee for both of us without asking if I want any, because I always do and you never ask. I know you’ll count this as a victory because we are nothing if not a war. We are each other’s strategic targets and collateral damage. Neither of us really wants to win. Neither of us ever will.
9.32am and I walk into the kitchen, pausing to savour the sight of your shirt stretched tight across the muscles of your back. You turn, with precisely the half-smile I predicted, and pour two cups of coffee. Then you push your hair back from your face and my heart swells like the bruise around your eye. My hand throbs, remembering the impact. As I tilt my head to crack the bones in my neck, your pupils dilate when you see the marks from your fingers that have darkened on my skin. The thing is, we both knew exactly what we were getting into and this has never been anything other than what we wanted.
11.51am and the fire crackles in the hearth as I lean back against your chest and your arms find their way around me, exactly where they belong. You are solid and honest and real, the rock I break myself against, the cliff I leap from, the earth that catches me. I am the explosion, the unpredictable flame, the molten core that melts the frost in your blood. We are tangled, tied, entwined, not a disaster waiting to happen, but a disaster that happens a thousand times a day.
We are the hours between the seconds, the gulp of water disguised as a gasp of air. And for all the times we have pretended to reach for the surface, the truth is we walked into this drowning with no intention of ever trying to hold our breath.