Issue > Fiction
Mel King

Mel King

Mel King is a trans and queer writer from Albany, New York. He has an MFA in Fiction from Rutgers-Newark, where he was a 2014-2016 Truman Capote Fellow. He was a 2015 Lambda Literary Fellow in nonfiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in North American Review and Gravel, among others. He is currently working on a novel and a memoir. He lives in Brooklyn.

A Moment, Not an Earthquake


Rachel dragged me out of our studio apartment on this rainy Saturday to hang out at a Manhattan bar with her grad school friends I don't know. It is rare, if ever, that she invites me to spend time with these friends. Now that she's in grad school, though, she can't stand the idea of me "invading" her new friend group. Her words.

I think, sometimes, that she's cheating on me with someone in her program and doesn't want me to know about it. We met in college, at a meeting of the Queer Union. Ours was not a love at first sight. It was not a spark after a moment's meeting. It was not the immediate burning of desire or the first blush of young love, a naïve and stolen kiss in someone's parents' house, or a torrid affair. It wasn't even panged or unrequited. We were just two friends who slowly slid into something more. But she was still the Rachel I knew: flirty, reserved, logical. My opposite in most ways. I'd watched her fall in and out of lust with half a dozen people and she'd watched my serial monogamy fail again and again. I knew that a girl like her could never want a too-earnest-for-his-own-good boy like me. Or, if she did, she'd shortly thereafter experience what she had so aptly termed "the repulsion" and I'd wind up heartbroken. And yet here we still are, hanging on five years later.

Either way, she invited me this time. The bar is a nondescript dive in the middle of midtown, totally empty save for Rachel's friends. It looks like every other not trendy bar in the city: a long wood bar counter filling up most of the narrow room, barely an arm's length of walking space from the front door to the bathroom, and a newly retrofitted jukebox that you can pay for with a credit card.

Everyone is already there—Ileana, Max, Abby, Tony, Mark, and Kris—because Rachel insists on arriving everywhere at least a half hour late. I wish I knew her friends better because this half dozen have been charming and jovial when we've met in passing, but they barely know my name. Most of them are queer, which she never bothered to mention in long discussions of their interpersonal relationships in class and on projects. Chalk another one up to the "maybe cheating" column. When Rachel and I first started dating, I read as visibly queer and trans, but these days, with my beard and nonprofit job wardrobe, most people see us as a straight, cisgender couple. Rachel drunkenly divulged my trans identity at a previous bar gathering, but I didn't mind. I don't care if people know; it just doesn't come up the way it did when we were in college.

We sit down toward the middle of the bar and I order for both of us. An IPA for me, a raspberry Stoli and soda for her. The dissonance of the drinks registers with me as all too apropos. I pay, too, because Rachel has been unsuccessfully trying to find work since January. Her parents have paid for this policy degree, but she wants to be able to take care of herself financially when she graduates. Never mind that I'm making 36K, paying over half our rent, and for everything else these days.

By the time I finally get the drinks, Rachel is already engrossed in conversation with Illeana and her girlfriend, a woman with big, frizzy hair. I slide the pink tinged drink in front of Rachel and look around for someone to talk to. It's clear to me that I'm on my own tonight. I settle into a bar stool, pull out my phone, and start scrolling.

"Hey! Long time no see!" Max slides up next to me and puts his beer on the bar beside mine. Max has tight, curly blond hair and thick tortoiseshell glasses. He's the life of every party we've been to and I'm grateful that he's turned his light toward me.

"Where've you been, man?" he asks, clapping my shoulder with his meaty hand.

"Oh, around," I demur. I wonder if Rachel has passed my continued absence off as my choice and not hers. "What's new with you?"

"Trying to graduate and find a job like everyone else," Max says, rolling his eyes.

"Yeah," I say. "I'm glad to not be in that position." Watching Rachel job hunt has been brutal enough.

"It sucks." He swigs from his glass. "But my brother is getting married next weekend and I'm the best man."

"That's exciting," I say. I've never met Max's brother, but I imagine Max as an excellent best man.

"Not really." Max shrugs. "It's not a great match."

"Really? Uh oh."

"It's a marriage that makes sense. They're not super in love, but that's okay. Not everyone has that."

"I guess not," I shrug.

Max drifts off on the crest of a rolling laugh from a nearby conversation and leaves me to stew in the aftermath of our conversation.

A cold fear runs through me and I'm suddenly terrified that some day Rachel and I are going to be that couple. She is my best friend, I think, but we're falling apart. I wonder what will happen if I try to start writing in a bigger way and apply to school across the country. Would she come with me? Would she want to?

Looking around for Rachel, I see that she's moved on to a conversation with some guy I don't recognize, some broad shouldered stranger twice my size. Watching her flirt shamelessly with this other boy, I feel a familiar sting. It was not uncommon for people of all genders to make passes at Rachel, to slip her their phone numbers, and even lean over my shoulder to flirt with her as if I were her kid brother or worse, uninterested. Everyone on earth, it seemed, viewed themself my better and envisioned scoring with Rachel without contest.

On the flip side of the jealous sting, watching her gesticulate wildly and talk loudly, I remember why I fell for her in the first place. She could be so charming, ready to debate anything at a moment's notice. Worse, I wonder if that boy would make her happier. If not this boy then, some former IDF soldier, some boy who could match her Jewish summer camp experience. Not me, half Jewish with no Bar Mitzvah. It is a small moment; it's not an earthquake. It's in that moment that I realize that Rachel is not going to be my wife and no amount of pretending will make me her husband.

Suddenly, the woman with big, frizzy hair that had been talking Rachel's ear off for too long earlier turns to me with a big smile.

"Did your family have a summer home that you called a camp?"

This stranger's words buzz in my ear, drowning out all extraneous bar noise around me, and the whole world shrinks to this woman looking at me. I can hear my heartbeat in my ears and feel the blood rushing to my already pink cheeks. Realizing that I must be looking at her like she's crazy, I try to rearrange my facial features into a less incredulous look.

"I'm sorry, what did you say?"

"It's Graham, right?" she asks.

I nod.

"There's this whole funny culture of people upstate who have these rustic little summer homes and they all call them "camps." Did your family have one? Your girlfriend said you did."

A culture of camps? How did she know about Camp? How had Rachel been so fucking careless to mention Camp in public conversation?

"Um, uh, yeah." I say, dumbstruck. "I guess we did." Sober Rachel knew that Camp was off limits, but Party Rachel was on her third raspberry Stoli and soda and limits were sliding under the table.

I don't talk about Camp. That's the rule. Now, I can feel my heart racing in every part of my body, the chill of the adrenaline down my spine because this woman is asking me about the last place in the world I want to think about.

"So funny! I dated this girl who grew up outside of Albany and her parents had a "camp" on Lake George." When she says "camp," she makes stupid air quotes with her fingers and I can see that she is "femme flagging" with one nail painted a different color than the rest. "Where was your family's camp?"

"Sacandaga Lake," I deadpan. I search around this woman's big hair to try to catch Rachel's eye. She's nowhere to be seen. She's stranded me here in this conversation that I cannot leave.

"Where is that exactly?" The full, red lips smile quizzically.

I barely register the question, can barely hear it. I stare at her lips and the whole room pinholes, falling away.

"Excuse me. I need to use the restroom."

If she's said something else, I don't hear it. My fight-or-flight response is fully engaged, my body moving on autopilot. I fumble clumsily off the barstool toward the back of the dark bar.

This has happened before, this thing that I call a "trigger" that sends me reeling backwards in time. Sometimes, the impact is so immediate that I feel it like a shot, like I've literally been struck.

In the men's room, I lock the door to the accessible stall and sink against the far wall, grateful that this is one of the cleaner bar bathrooms I've been in. I run my hands through my short, dark hair and press the heels of my palms against my temples.

I can feel the muscles spasm around my eyes, blinking them harder than I want to. My heartbeat is in my ears and the multicolor swirls begin behind my closed eyes.

It was warm in the sun this afternoon, but I can feel the cool summer evening breeze like a whisper through the trees, pulling me closer.

I'm drowning. My breath is all water and no oxygen.

I am with my Camp friends and Courtney Miller is looking at me like we have a secret. I'm glad it's dark back here in the woods and no one can see that I'm looking at Courtney the way she's looking at Josh.

I clasp my hands tightly together to stop them from shaking, but they shake harder.

We are playing Truth or Dare, but no one wants to push it as far as Josh does. He wants everyone to pick Dare.

I hug my knees, rocking slightly. It's been months since my last episode, but there is nothing I can do to stem the flow of this one about to rage over me. My brain is a scratched and warped vinyl 78 that pops and skips and loops back again and again. This woman I do not know has lifted the player arm and I don't know when I'll be back this time.

I try to remember what my therapist taught me. Humming something? Tapping somewhere?

Everyone has gone back to their camps and I'm alone with Josh.

He moves his hands from my arms to my hips.

I try to move away from him, but he's taller and stronger than I am. "I just like you so much. I want to see you closer..."

***

Rachel's voice on the other side of the stall door brings me back into the moment.

"Graham?"

I blink hard and push my sleeve up to see my watch and realize I've lost twenty minutes. I'm soaked in cold sweat and have no idea how long she's been calling my name. Fuck.

She pounds lightly on the door.

"Are you in there?" Even as her words slur, she sounds annoyed.

"Yeah, I'm in here." My voice is low, just above a whisper. I raise myself up enough to unlock the door and crouch back down. The door opens a crack and she peers around the edge of the stall door.

"I've been calling your name," she says. "Everyone is getting ready to go."

Then she sees me, curled up in the corner on the bathroom tile.

"Oh fuck," she exhales, kneeling down in front of me. "Did you get sick?" She reaches out and holds my head in her thin hands. The smell of vodka on her warm breath makes my stomach flip.

I shake my head. I wonder when she stopped drinking.

"Th-that girl," I stammer, "that girl you were t-talking to earlier."

Rachel's cerulean blue eyes search mine. She has no idea what I'm talking about; she has no idea what she's done.

"She asked m-me about Camp."

There's a beat where my statement doesn't register at all. Then, like a summer storm down pouring without warning, a look somewhere between horror and shame crosses over her face.

"Oh, fuck," she says. There are tears pooling in the corners of her eyes and we're both caught off guard.

"Do you just not get it?" I whisper. "When I go back there, I'm just that stupid little kid again. It's like I get stuck there and don't know how to get back." My voice cracks.

"I'm sorry, Graham," she says. "I'm so, so sorry. You're not that little kid. That's not who you are anymore."

She pulls me in and hugs me tightly, both of us on our knees in the bathroom of this bar. As she wraps me in her arms, I know that I won't bring this up tomorrow. I don't know when we'll break up, but I know we will eventually. For now, though, I feel exhaustion hit me like a wave.

"Can we go home?" I sigh, looking up at her.

"Let's take a cab," Rachel says. "I'll pay."

I know this is her way of trying to apologize, by throwing money at the situation, but I still raise my eyebrows at the offer. I know a cab back to our Crown Heights apartment will be over twenty bucks and I don't want to shell out if she changes her mind.

In the cab, making our way over the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn, I close my eyes, lean my head against the window, and let the wind sweep my hair back from my face. I'm an adult, I think. I'm not there anymore.

Sometimes, I think of my brain like a video cassette player and that makes more sense than anything. I have re-watched the videotape of that night so many times that the tape is cracked; it stutters and skips. I have watched it so many times on the black and white projector of the back of my mind that I am not even sure if any of it is real anymore. I cannot remember the point when reality became videotape because it has been stuck on a loop for so long. Back home in my bed — Rachel passed out beside me — I lie awake, exhausted and terrified that none of it ever even happened, even more scared that it did.

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