Storm

 by Andrew Baranek

Patrick leaned over his checkout counter and stared out into the rows of liquor bottles. An older man, smiling under his hat and thick glasses, was making his way through the aisle. He’d be at the front in a minute.

Patrick looked up at a television near the ceiling. It had been tuned to the Weather Channel for hours. Onscreen, a hurricane kept on swirling against the green coast of the US.

It was expected to hit New Jersey by Friday afternoon. Patrick lived in a small town fifty miles inland, where most people hoped that the distance between them and the sea would choke the breath from the storm. But then again, some of his customers’ reactions were funny: buying all this liquor like there was a giant party whirling its way up the shore.

Patrick rang up the man’s bottle of whiskey and shoved it into a paper bag. “Have a good one,” Patrick said.

The man took the bottle and chuckled. “Yeah… looks like I’m gonna be trapped in the house all weekend… with the wife…” And then he shook it meaningfully.

“Tell me about it,” Patrick said, forcing himself to chuckle. “Well, I hope it doesn’t hit us too hard.”

“Are ya sure about that?” More of the wry grin.

“Haha.” Patrick looked up at the television, trying to indicate that the transaction was over.

“Well, you have a good one,” the man said. “Gonna spend the weekend with your girlfriend?”

“Ha, maybe.”

The man shuffled away from the register. Outside, over the parking lot, the cloud blanket still looked like a pit of ashes, and in the past hour it had almost veined itself with silver. Charging for the storm, Patrick thought.

The man passed through the electronic door; it hummed shut behind him. The store was finally empty.

Automatically, Patrick slid his cell phone out. Of course. His boyfriend, Brendan, had indeed texted him: “i bought some candles in case the power goes out

Patrick replied: “ok sounds great baby

Then he put his phone away, and once again the television pulled up his gaze. The hurricane was still rubbing against Florida. Patrick imagined it was a girl in a white dress, spinning gaily around the legs of her father, who still would not pay attention.

 

————

When Patrick’s shift was over, the parking lot was empty and dark, and he stood outside trying to listen to the breeze. He thought he heard a strange energy hidden inside the whispering, the echo of a storm that was battering the South, all those screams, and wood frames ripping apart.
But there are so many hills between us and the coast, he thought. There’s no way a storm can make it this far inland. It’s just the news channels loving to scare us. So then we all go out on mad shopping sprees and spend a ton of money. And then the grocery stores pay some kind of kickback to the studios.

And Brendan laps it up more than anyone. He’s happy for any excuse to go shopping.

Headlights flashed into view, swinging into the parking lot. Immediately, Patrick’s bitter thoughts were erased. He felt a sense of relief and warmth as Brendan’s station wagon rumbled toward him.

The car eased to a stop in front of him; he pulled open the door.

“Hey, babe.” Brendan smiled as Patrick slipped inside. “How was work?”

“It was OK, you?”

“Fine. I’m tired, though. Haha.”

The car groaned to speed, passing dark storefronts.

Brendan said, “You should see the candles I got. They had some really nice scents. But we probably shouldn’t mix the wrong ones together in the same room.”

“Yeah, probably not,” Patrick said, secretly warmed by Brendan’s innocence. It melted away the tense clot in his skull. He thought, Here I am, twenty-seven, only six years older than Brendan, and I can’t believe in a single thing. What a dent the twenties make in your psyche.

“Mm-hm,” Brendan went on, “I got all these spicy ones, like cinnamon, clove, you know?”

“That sounds nice.”

“I’ll show you when we get home!”

Patrick smiled, looking out the window.

Brendan went on, “And my mom dropped off some soup. So you can have that for dinner.” He reached over the center console and squeezed Patrick’s hand. The warmth was still so strange and assuring, even after a year. It made Patrick’s shoulders feel weak.

All he could say was, “Oh, nice. I love her soup.”

“It’s a good batch!” Brendan said. “Did you talk to your parents yet? Are they gonna be OK for the hurricane?”

“I… don’t know.”

“Aw, maybe you should call them. It’s supposed to get bad on Friday…”

“Yeah. Maybe I will,” Patrick said. But he knew he wouldn’t. As they drove out into the street of moving lights, Patrick thought, Thank God I don’t have to sit out this storm in their basement.

 

————

They drove out of the stretch of orange-lit highway sprawl and into the quiet shadows of their town. They passed through a street lined with row homes, at the end of which there sat their gray-brick apartment building.

They carried Brendan’s shopping bags up the cement stairwell, and then they flipped on all the lights inside the apartment and microwaved the soup. They ate together on the couch, leaning forward over a coffee table. Afterwards, Patrick took the cold bowls out to the sink, and Brendan dashed giddily into the bedroom. He reemerged with an armful of glass jar candles clutched behind his fingers.

“Here,” he said. “Smell them!”

Patrick smiled obligingly, and then he proceeded to sniff every red, teal, and beige scent that Brendan passed before his face.

When it was over, Brendan said, “OK… So which one should go in the bedroom?”

Spring Mist, definitely,” Patrick grinned, “to cover up after we have sex… haha.”

“Ohh, you’re ridiculous,” Brendan laughed, and he went off into the bedroom to situate the candle.

Brendan decorated the entire apartment like this, all four rooms. About halfway through the task, Patrick got up from the couch and followed Brendan around, holding his sides from behind, as he made sure each candle was sitting just right, on windowsill, shelf, or table.

“What do you think?” Brendan said after all the jars were deposited. “Will they get us through the hurricane?”

“As long as a tree doesn’t fall on us.”

“Baby, don’t say that! We’ll be fine.”

“Sorry, I was being dramatic.” Patrick smiled sheepishly at him.

Before long they took their clothes off and went to bed, while two glass candles flickered at the window. A new scent was floating through the room, dissolving away their body smells, which used to own the air. They fell asleep with their bare sides resting together.

 

————

Early the next morning, Brendan sat up and walked naked across the room. The window shade was framed with a silver glow. Brendan peeled it back an inch, his other hand covering his crotch.

Patrick said, “How does it look out there?”

“No storm yet!”

“Is it dark?”

“Just a little dim. In fact, it doesn’t look that bad!”

Patrick chuckled. “OK, baby, someone’s gonna see you!”

Brendan released the shade, pulled away from the window, and then buried both hands in his crotch with a shy smile.

“Come back to bed!” Patrick said. “I miss you.”

“Ohh God,” Brendan said. He crossed the room as Patrick lifted the sheets for him.

Their naked bodies quickly enclosed each other. In their growing heat, Brendan said, “Let’s go out to eat, then, one last meal before the end of the world.”

“Sure,” Patrick said into his cheek.

“Can we walk? I don’t feel like driving.”

“Yeah, let’s save our gas. We might need it to escape the flood.”

“Shhh,” Brendan said.

They held each other, warm skin within the sheets.

 

————

After a half hour of cuddling, they dressed and went out into the kitchen. “OK,” Brendan said, looking at his phone. “According to the radar, we have four hours before the storm’s supposed to hit.”

“We can make it,” Patrick said. “Let’s just go to the diner; it’s close.”

They tramped down the stairs and stepped outside into an air that felt invisibly tingly. There was a new dampness, almost shocking to the nostrils.

Brendan and Patrick crossed the yellowing grass. As they walked down the sidewalk and all the house fronts loomed in the sky, Patrick felt the gaze of every window bearing down on them. He led Brendan past the parked cars, one after the next. Stupidly, he still felt the need to be tough when they were out together in public, even though the street was empty. He tried to regulate his voice, his walk.

Just ahead of them sat a pickup truck, its tailgate spattered with stickers. Patrick tried not to read them, but he couldn’t turn away. A blue and red patch said, over an American flag, “I’ll keep my guns and my money / you can keep the change.” Suddenly Patrick was needed to shepherd Brendan away from this truck, as well as the houses around it.

But Brendan went on playing with his phone, his thumb sliding over the screen. Patrick realized he shouldn’t even call Brendan’s attention to the stickers.

A few cars later, there sat a little black Prius with a bumper sticker that said “Art is freedom.” Patrick felt a little more at ease. This was a tricky town; you couldn’t quite be sure who lived around you and how they might take to you and your boyfriend in public.

“Hey, look at this,” Brendan said, lifting his phone. “This was in Florida.”

Patrick walked closer to him, their shoulders brushing together. He squinted at the dim little screen. There was a series of images: first a small house was burst open, boards and vinyl swinging in the wind; then there was brown water surging around cars; then trees were flailing in sprays of mist.

“It won’t be that bad up here,” Patrick said. Suddenly all he wanted to do was touch Brendan’s hand. But they kept on walking.

“I don’t think so either,” Brendan said. “These videos were shot near the ocean… well, they don’t say where. But it had to be.”

“Probably.”

“Are you worried?” Brendan asked.

“Maybe a little. But our building’s made of brick.”

Together they turned and looked back at their apartment complex. It rose above the row homes.

Patrick said, “We’re kind of lucky, if you think about it. We’re in the perfect place, the third floor – we won’t get flooded or hit by trees.”

“I hope you’re right.”

They turned around again and continued their walk. Just ahead, the houses ended at a broad expanse of grass, a park that lay around a basketball court and jungle gym. Beyond this, another road led toward the diner, whose silver-gleaming roof was just visible through the trees.

Brendan said, “So… did you call your parents yet?”

“I… yeah.”

Brendan looked up; darkness flickered on his eyes. “You know… I can tell when you’re lying.”

Patrick surrendered. “Fine, I’m sorry… I just can’t stand to hear their voices right now. I need to be in a peaceful state of mind because we’re gonna be stuck in the apartment, and I don’t want to be all stressed and then take it out on you by accident.”

“Mm-hm…” Brendan eyed him, studying his face. This made Patrick feel both love and fear. Like the sunlight on your scalp but a chill wind up your back.

“I’m sorry,” Patrick said. “You know I don’t lie to you.”

“Right…”

“Let’s just go eat.”

Brendan said nothing.

By the time they got to the diner, their conversation was stripped down to bare, casual lines. They talked about the food as if nothing had happened, but Patrick knew full well that it would come out again in a few hours, once they were back in the apartment. It cast a dampness over his thoughts. Briefly, he wondered if he should sleep out the storm at a friend’s house or hint that Brendan do so. That way they wouldn’t be stuck in a gridlock, in that cramped apartment, with nowhere to go for who knows how long.

But then an image flashed into his mind: Brendan’s station wagon toppled sideways in a ditch, rinsed in the falling rain, crushed metal flashing with light, and it made Patrick want to die in a car crash, too.

He slipped a french fry into his mouth, trying to come up with a strategy to make Brendan feel better without hinting at the subject of trust. After all, you couldn’t blame Brendan. His father had fled when he was five, and then his mom moved them into a big suburban house with a “real man” of a stepfather who treated the young effeminate boy like something that it was better not to see.

All of this made Patrick want to take Brendan home right now, to their apartment, and then in their darkened bedroom they could scurry under the covers, spend the night listening to the pattering as it grew louder, louder… Maybe it could rain forever.

But instead, Patrick smiled and said, “Hey… So did you download any movies for tonight?”

Brendan chewed softly, his gaze on their plates. Then suddenly the tension vanished from his face. He looked up at Patrick, and his eyes were clear and bright, like a baby’s.

“Yeah.” He smiled sweetly. “I got a bunch last night. I didn’t know what you’d be in the mood for… Wanna see when we get home?”

“Sure. What are you in the mood for?”

“Oh, I don’t care as long as we get to cuddle. Also, I got popcorn. Haha.”

“Aw, that’s a good idea.”

“Mm-hm.”

 

————

They left the diner and crossed the street. Patrick couldn’t help but feel a peculiar energy in the breeze as he stared at the glow in the clouds. Like God or an alien ship was up there, hovering close, peering in through a choked sky.

Behind the jungle gyms a creek ran through a hairy green divot. The gravel path wandered over this expanse, then crossed a wooden bridge. Just beyond it was the basketball court where gangly boys were bouncing and dashing.

“Ugh,” Brendan said, “shouldn’t they be inside by now?”

“They’re not afraid of the storm,” Patrick said. “They don’t buy into scaremongering.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew he shouldn’t have said them. Brendan would interpret it to mean that Patrick had called him weak and gullible.

Well, that’s how your mind works, Patrick thought silently. Your childhood got hijacked by a control freak. Your stepdad spends his life stalking around the house, turning off unused lights, clicking deadbolts, reading crime reports, chaining down lawn ornaments. Not to mention obsessing over his gun cabinet. And so you spent your childhood in your bedroom. I can’t undo that.

A moment later, in a tone that was supposed to be light and teasing, Brendan said, “Hey… You’re not checking them out, are you?”

But Patrick knew it wasn’t really a joke. He cast a glance at the boys, twirling and running on the basketball court. Then he said, “They sure love to touch each other.”

“Babe… you always say that, haha.”

“It’s true. That’s why sports were invented… so that straight boys can touch each other.”

“You’re bitter today,” Brendan said.

“I know.”

They walked on the wooden planks of the bridge. Over a rickety rail, Patrick looked down, at the brown water surging over cement. A green bottle, half buried in a thatch of mud, bore a faded label up to the air.

As they left the bridge, Patrick said, “I wish I had a job like yours, at the mall. Everyone there is either gay or female. Me, I have to deal with frat boys and husbands all day long.”

“Babe, I’m sorry about your job.”

“I just wish I could relax like you,” Patrick said. “Whenever I pick you up at work, I hear you guys laughing through the whole store.”

“Yeah, we have fun. Well, you and I can have fun tonight. How’s that? We’ll close all the shades and be naked the whole time…” He flashed a twinkling glance at Patrick. “OK?”

“That would be really nice,” Patrick said. His chest softened for a second.

But then he looked up nervously at the boys on the basketball court. Their game went on, sneakers thudding, bodies writhing around each other.

Can they tell we’re a couple? Patrick wondered. He could never gauge how obvious it was. In this town, if you saw three or more guys out together, gayness never crossed your mind (unless they were loud and flaming). But in the past few years, if you saw two guys together in a restaurant, they were almost certainly a quiet couple.

And supposedly it shouldn’t matter, Patrick thought. That’s what they tell us on the Internet, on Upworthy, Huffpost, all that stuff: that gay is so brave, and homophobia’s evil.

But I still feel nervous whenever Brendan and I go out around here. We’ve never been threatened, and yet no amount of Internet cheers can ease my feelings.

Those boys on the basketball court, they’re lucky; they’re coming of age at a time when kids all have their own computers. Back in the nineties, my family owned one, and we kept it in the living room. No way in hell could I look at the image of a man with the same screen and keyboard that my parents used for their jobs. But now, these kids here can just disappear into their bedroom with a laptop, and actually research their lust as it grows inside them.

On the court, the thin arms went on grabbing, trying to prevent each other from throwing the ball. Patrick thought, I bet at least one of them has acted on a gay impulse, looked at porn in absolute privacy, with zero repercussions.

A finger brushed against Patrick’s arm. He looked up and pretended to smile as Brendan said, “Hey, you… Penny for your thoughts?”

“It’s nothing,” Patrick said. “Let’s just go home.”

“Aww. You know that I love you… right?”

“I do,” he said. “I promise.”

 

————

As soon as they entered the apartment, Patrick shut and locked the door, while Brendan went to the window and pulled down the shades. Then they embraced, holding each other for a long silence. The only sound was their shallow breaths on each others’ shoulders.

Patrick said, “I’m sorry for being grumpy.”

“Oh, it doesn’t bother me. I’ll make popcorn. Let’s put on a movie. You think the rain’ll start soon?”

“Soon,” Patrick said.

They separated. Patrick went into the living room, opened Brendan’s laptop, and scanned through the movie folder. After a moment he heard the microwave humming, and then the sputters and crackles of popcorn.

He looked at the window above him. There was grayness in the sky, same as before, but now it was shadowed with ribs of black.

 

————

Halfway through the movie, the pattering began outside. Brendan picked up the remote and muted the television. “It’s starting!”

Patrick’s hands found Brendan’s shoulders, squeezed him so hard he dropped the remote. “Baby, ow!” Brendan squealed. “Wait a minute…”

Then they rearranged their bodies so they could lie together on the couch. Their chests and crotches pressed further into each other. Their faces rested skin on skin.

Patrick whispered, “We should check out the storm soon.”

“Soon…”

“OK, not yet. This is nice.”

“Mm-hm…”

They lay like that through minutes of warm, heavy stillness. Only the rain muttered against the window.

Then suddenly the room went black.

Patrick looked up. It was just the movie; it had been paused so long that Brendan’s laptop had gone to sleep. He lay back down within Brendan’s curved form. In the new darkness, their fingers slipped into each others’ pants, exploring damp shadows.

“Did the power go out?” Brendan said into Patrick’s hair.

“Nope, kitchen light’s still on.”

“Good. I’m glad you’re here with me.”

“Mmm…”

They went on nuzzling, their voices like drips and rivulets.

Eventually they squirmed out of their clothes, pulled down a blanket from above the cushions, and sank into sleep together. Brendan’s back was jammed into the couch cushions, Patrick’s arm hung off the other side, and their legs were intertwined. Their breathing was slow and calm. With every inhale, their chests, now bare, pressed warmly together.

Thunder cracked like a rifle shot, somewhere outside. As it zigzagged and vanished, their arms continued to squirm around each other. Then a rumble swept over the roof like an ocean wave. Patrick felt it reverberate in the dark walls. He tried to determine if it had passed through Brendan’s body, too, but the entity caressing him was only smooth and soft.

 

————

Hurricane sandy inland“Oh my God,” Brendan said in the morning, as he propped himself up in the dimness. The couch, the blanket, and their bodies had formed a hot cocoon. “I can’t believe we slept like that. It’s like our first night together, remember?”

Patrick chuckled softly, massaging the back of his neck. “I think I’m more sore this time, haha.”

“What do you think happened outside?”

“Let’s go see,” Patrick said.

They untangled their arms and legs, stood up naked, and then dug through the blanket for their clothing.

But from the kitchen window, the street was only stained with puddles. All the trees stood upright, and the powerlines hung intact, as if it were still yesterday.

Brendan said, “Did anything even happen?”

“Maybe at the park… that’s the lowest ground.”

“Let’s go see!”

They rushed down the stairs and out into the street. All the houses were silent; the doors were shut, the windows white and covered.

Then Brendan said, “Oh my God! Look down there.”

Down the street, beyond the row homes, there lay a giant brown sea. It looked like it had swallowed the entire park.

Patrick felt a twinge of excitement. “Holy shit! See, I told you our building was lucky.”

They jogged down the sidewalk together, toward the new blot on the landscape. As they neared it, the extent of the flood became thrillingly visible: it stretched almost to the opposite road and lay somberly reflecting the sky. They stood at the edge of the park, which was now a shoreline with little weeds poking out. Out by the basketball hoops it was a drifting thick soup, and on the other side of the park it had engulfed the base of the jungle gym. The wooden platforms now looked like boats.

“Oh, wow!” Brendan said. He pulled his phone out and held it up in the air, filming the sea.

Patrick was breathless with exhilaration; he reached down to untie his shoes.

“Hey, what are you doing?” Brendan said.

“This is so awesome, I have to go in.”

“Don’t get hurt! You don’t know what’s in there.”

“It’s just grass.”

“OK, well, go in and I’ll film you.”

“Yes! I’m your intrepid explorer.”

Brendan laughed. “Silly man.”

Patrick rolled his pant legs up his calves and then stepped into the slop. Clouds of mud rolled around his toes.

“Oh my God, it’s freezing!” Patrick said.

“Don’t go in too far,” Brendan said behind his phone. “There could be a dead tree in there.”

“Or a car! Maybe I’ll find us a new car!”

Brendan laughed. “You’re ridiculous.”

Patrick waded out farther, until the coldness engulfed his calves. The deeper water was gritty with dirt. He wondered where it had all come from. It had snuck down through the woods behind their building, invading their town through the night.

Patrick turned around, faced Brendan on the shore. For the first time in months, he realized how sexy his boyfriend looked, how charming his crooked stance, how slim and pretty his figure.

All the while Brendan held the phone before his eye. “I’m still filming!” he called. “Do something funny.”

Patrick’s hands went to his belt, pretending to undo it.

Brendan screamed with laughter. “Baby, not here! You’re crazy.”

Brimming with warm feelings, Patrick turned and walked out toward the drowned basketball hoops. Cold gravy had cloaked around his pant legs, but now he didn’t even notice it; he was too fascinated with the public damage surrounding him.

Brendan shouted, “I’m gonna put this on YouTube!”

“Maybe we’ll get a million hits,” Patrick replied into the sky, “and then we’ll be a celebrity couple.”

“Don’t laugh, we just might!”

“Can we quit our jobs then?”

“Let’s not talk about jobs! This is our vacation! We have off on the same day.”

“I know! Let’s make it perfect.”

“Want to go somewhere?” Brendan asked sweetly. “It’ll be like our first date again.”

“It’ll be better,” Patrick said. And with that, he turned and sloshed back through the water. All the while he was looking into his boyfriend’s face. Brendan had lowered the phone to his hips, and stood watching him with attentive eyes and a wry grin. It reminded Patrick how delicate Brendan’s body was, but at the same time how solid. This body was going to be sleeping against his forever.

Just, maybe not in this shitty town, Patrick thought as his knees churned through the coldness. We can always move to Philly or New York, someplace with a little more freedom. That might ease our tension.

Meanwhile Brendan was smiling from the shore. “Come on!” he called. “It’s still early. We have to have the best day ever.

“We will,” Patrick said as he stepped up out of the water.

© Andrew Baranek.  All rights reserved.

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