For me? Oh, yeah. Paul said he was gonna call about the fractions assignment. Shoot. It's too early to think about homework. But I promised. "Okay. Thanks, Mom." I leave the Ricardos and Mertzes to work it out by themselves, cross the room. "Hello?"
Hum of noise, over eight hundred miles of copper wire. Then: "Danny?"
Four months of wandering in the cold dark dry desert, nothing but dead sagebrush. And suddenly, now, a great yellow flower springs from the middle of my stomach, spreads upward through my chest. Warm. No, hot.
He called. He called, after all, he called.
Gripping the phone so tight, like anything less will allow him to slip away through my fingers. "Alex?!?"
He giggles. It's liquid light, running through me. Somewhere, the Ricardos go on arguing.
"How's it goin'?" Quicksilver through my veins.
"Uh... okay. What's up?" Oh God. Four months in the desert darkness. He called. Four months. I'm so full, now. Sunflower, sunflower, turning its face to the sun.
"Aw, nothing..." The ritual opening lines, never more meaningless to me. Nothing, hell. It's everything. My world is full, so full of light, awesome gigantic sunflower, face finally fixed on the sun, the dark is lifted, the desert's gone, it's a cool deep green river.
Somehow, we talk. It's full of odd pauses and little awkward coughs, at first. But the flow goes on, and we settle with it, and we talk and we listen, and as we go, the conversation levels, begins to flow, we quit scraping rocks, and the deep green water carries us. I tell him about my new school: "It's a military school. We have to wear uniforms and stuff. It sucks. But I made the swim team." "Awesome! Hey, know what? At our school, there's this teacher who..."
School, sports, friends, parents, all the familiar contours and slopes of boy- life. All the while, some part of me is praying: Let this last forever, and ever, and ever. Don't let the river stop, don't let the desert come back. I was so lonely, and cold. I was waiting for the river, to sprout the seed and spring the sunflower. Don't let it die. Please.
After a while, a longer pause. We've covered the surface stuff. The silence spins out a few moments. The Ricardos go on squabbling, back there somewhere.
Then: "Hey, Danny?" Giggling.
"Yeah?" I'm giggling, too. Don't know what it is, but it's gonna be good. It's always good, with him.
"R-Remem-m-ber?" His giggles turn it into a five- or six-syllable word. Liquid sound, like river water over rocks.
"Re-remember wh-what?" I'm struggling, too, my huge grin making it hard to shape the syllables.
"Co... Coc... Co..." Giggling, machine-gun speed, whitewater over the rapids. He's near hysteria, now.
"Co-what?" I don't have a clue. It doesn't matter.
Stifled sounds. He's getting a grip. It's just long enough. A long intake of breath. Then, all in a blurt:
Oh, man. It's over. I'm gone. I'm curled up in a ball, out of the chair, on the floor, my belly hurts already and I just got down here. I can't breathe. Hysterics. Over across the room, the Ricardos go on arguing.
Nights camping out in his backyard, or in the treehouse, and David and Paul and Ricky and Alex and me... or sometimes, just Alex and me... and S'mores, and cocktail weenies. Grabbing a weenie, still cool from the fridge, unzipping your shorts, and using both hands to pantomime.
I'm trying like mad to get the phone up to my face. The tears are flowing, it's a river, I'm helpless. Faintly, I hear him howling with laughter, eight hundred miles away.
It's good. It is so damn good. Sunflower, sunflower. On TV, the Ricardos are still at it.
Gradually, we both recover, winding down in snorts. Cocktail weenies. Oh, my God. Don't think about it for a few seconds, or you'll never recover. My stomach hurts. His, too. I know that. I know him.
The laughter slides away into small outcrops, giggles here and there, but we're still too wiped to speak. And in the wind-down, my mind slides along, downstream, around the bend in the river... and I'm thinking about those cocktail weenies, and I'm remembering the pantomime... and now I'm remembering those nights in Alex's back yard, just the two of us, and the tent, and unzipping our shorts, and the cocktail weenies, but this time they weren't from the package...
Don't go there, Danny. Your mom is in the next room, and... don't even go there. Not now. You're gonna hit a rock in this river.
He's thinking it too, remembering. It's quiet. We're connected. We laughed so hard, so hard. We always connected so easily, effortlessly. We still can, over eight hundred miles.
But this is a different part of the river. We can't connect, over eight hundred miles, I mean connect, not over the phone. Not the way I want to, now. Not the way he wants.
Silent pause. But heat lightning is always silent, isn't it? You're standing there, in the back yard, looking up, and you see the heat lightning flash silently across the sky, and he's there next to you, and you watch the heat lightning, and it's dark, and nobody else is there, and you're alone with him in the back yard, and there's the heat lightning, closer, and your hand reaches out and touches his, it's okay, nobody can see you, and the heat lightning flashes up clear and strong, and now it's inside you, and it feels so good...
Deep breath. "I... umm... I wish you were here." His voice quavers, so tiny it's almost undetectable.
My turn to breathe. Then: "I... I do, too. I... ummm... I mean... I... ummm..."
Then, in a rush: "You're really cool."
The closest I've ever come to acknowledging.
It's silent for a second, eight hundred miles away. Then, quietly: "Yeah... you, too."
Don't go there, Danny. It's a rock, and we can't move it, and we know it. But it's there, and we're gonna swirl on past it as we go, and how can you not reach out and touch it, slide your hand across the ancient smooth surface as you slide along?
"Oh, man..." But I can't go on, not that way. Hit that rock, and you're gonna hurt. Swirl on past. But how? "Uh... well..." Deep breath. Pause.
And in the pause, from out of nowhere, it came to me. Clear mental image, last summer, so vivid: Alex on his skateboard. The first time he'd ever successfully done a handstand. His legs thrashing in the air, his sandals kicking for balance, his T-shirt falling down past his chest, his nipples, his boxers showing (oh, no, don't go there...), his arms straining with the effort, his huge grin of triumph as he came back to ground and jumped up, holding the skateboard over his head in triumph...
Swirl on past. "Hey, ya know what was so cool? Remember when you did that handstand last summer, the first time?"
"Oh, yeah!! That was so cool! Know what I can do now? I've been practicing..." Swirl on past, don't look back, keep that face turned toward the sun.
Memories flowed - the time Paul slammed into a tree, pretending he was racing BMX; the time I sprained my ankle jumping out my bedroom window at 1 o'clock in the morning... And in the middle of that, my mom came in the room, held up her arm, tapped her wristwatch, and raised her eyebrows. Uh-oh.
"Hey, Alex? My mom needs the phone." There was no time. My mom meant business when she did that. "Aww, man..." But he knew, too.
Closing comments. I don't remember, now. They run together like layers of chalk scribbles. Finally: "Uh... well, gotta go... see ya." "Yeah, so long." My mom's still standing there. "Okay... bye." "Bye."
I hang up first.
I get up from the floor where I'd been sitting. It's over. My mom sits in the chair, picks up, begins dialing. Just like that.
Sunflower, fading, growing sepia-toned, like an old photograph, curling up at the edges. The river flows on past. The heat lightning recedes in the eastern distance.
I didn't even ask him for his phone number.
I sleepwalk back to my chair. The Ricardos have wound down their disagreement. Lucy is crying. It's over.
Late that evening. The Ricardos have long since gone off to wherever they go. I've finished dinner, washed the dishes, done my homework, taken a shower, put on my boxers, brushed my teeth, crawled into bed, under the covers. It's quiet. I'm alone.
My mind drifts through the conversation. Cocktail weenies. I giggle to myself, remembering the hysteria. Cocktail weenies.
And I drift along, and now I come again to the bend in the river where the laughter stops. Cocktail weenies. My body responds. Sunflower sprouting up straight and tall again.
Cocktail weenies. I relive those nights in the tent, and so many other nights and afternoons with him, for maybe ten minutes or so, a successive kaleidoscope of imagery and memory and longing and lust... and that heat lightning flashes, inside me now, the bolts coming more and more quickly, closer and closer... and I explode: "Alex..." Twist and writhe, remembering, feeling, soundless explosion, but it rocks me, oh yes. Sunflower, sunflower...
...bitter, bitter seed... falling on cold dark desert ground, for no one...
And slowly, the sunflower wilts, its face droops toward earth. The river flows on past. The heat lightning recedes in the eastern distance.
The tears flow. It's over.
And now I bury my face in my wet pillow, so no one can hear, not even me, and say it:
I love you.
It's a whisper, and it is low, and it is so fierce.
Then I clutch my pillow between my legs, and wrap my arms around it, curl up in a ball, and let the oblivion of sleep take me, the river closes over my head, and I drown.