Many years later, long after Joe had gone, Isaiah would often think back to that sultry summer morning in Astoria, where at the bustling intersection of 30th Ave and 36th Street, Joe told Isaiah that he loved him for the first time.
They were seated on plastic lawn chairs outside of a local coffeeshop, sun beaming down so as to beckon beading sweat above the brow, the both of them just beginning to indulge in their favorite neighborhood rations: homemade strawberry muffins and black iced coffee. In fact, Isaiah had just stuffed a particularly large piece of muffin into his mouth, which required him to take a long sip of his iced coffee to wash it down, when Joe, who was staring with that familiar pensivity at Isaiah as he struggled to gulp down the hefty mix of muffin and coffee, said aloud with calm assertion: “I think I’m in love with you.” After a quiet pause between them, Isaiah told Joe, “I think I love you too.” From this moment onward, whenever Isaiah said, “I love you,” he would taste the bittersweet afternotes of strawberries and coffee.
Joe and Isaiah decided shortly thereafter to uproot from their respective homes in Brooklyn and move to Astoria, signing a lease to a rickety old studio atop a 4-story walk-up. Despite the suffocating limited space in the apartment, both Isaiah and Joe were determined for their home to breathe life: they threw parties, hosted game nights, and cooked meals for their closest friends. Joe was a self-proclaimed movie buff with a predilection for horror films, and he managed to coax Isaiah into hosting screenings of the classics on a monthly basis for their friends and neighbors. While Isaiah was initially averse to the jump-scares and gore, he grew more fond of the genre over time, and ultimately learned to share the similar sense of joy that viewing these films brought Joe.
Isaiah’s proudest contribution to the apartment was a sprawling collection of vinyl albums and his father’s old record player. On the quieter weekends spent at home, Isaiah would play a new record for Joe, and talk Joe through the historical significance and legacy of the album. While Joe never developed an ear for the classics, he did develop a fondness for more contemporary music. Joe’s favorite record was Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut album. The first time Isaiah played the vinyl in their apartment, Joe pulled Isaiah up off of the ground and began to dance with him to the perky keyboard on Mansard Roof. By the time Oxford Comma started to play, they had already begun to make love. From this moment onward, whenever Joe said, “I love you,” he would hear the whirling, summery tempo of keyboard and guitar.
Things carried on like this for a few years, both Joe and Isaiah sharing all of their favorite parts of life with each other, expanding one another’s understanding of film, music, art, and literature in order to build an even deeper understanding of one another, and in turn, preserving the unceasing momentum of their love. With time, neither Isaiah nor Joe could imagine their life without the other in it, and so they decided to get married in a quiet ceremony attended by their immediate family and friends.
Shortly after the wedding, Isaiah suffered a gradual series of misfortunes: his only brother passed away abruptly after a short battle with cancer. He was laid off from his work as an art director at the advertising agency he worked at after nearly a decade. Following these two brute force major life changes, Isaiah slipped on black ice and suffered a broken arm and concussion. Through all of these difficulties, Joe worked hard to be a constant source of support for Isaiah - he would make Isaiah dinner most nights of the week, take Isaiah on dates on the weekend, and invite over Isaiah’s close friends and old colleagues for lively evenings together to lift his spirits.
But a spell of helplessness seemed to take a stronghold over Isaiah: these compounded tragedies left him feeling sad and dejected. He soon began to feel terrible abdominal pain anytime he left the apartment. Finally, one morning the abdominal pain became so debilitating that Isaiah couldn’t get out of bed. Joe sensed a crisis unfolding. He carried Isaiah on his back all 4-stories down their apartment complex and hailed a cab to Isaiah’s general physician. After some bloodwork and medical tests, the doctor diagnosed Isaiah with an anxiety disorder, and referred Joe to a psychiatrist who could help Isaiah navigate this tumultuous mental health episode.
A psychiatrist experimented with a multitude of medications on Isaiah, but some of the medicine caused Isaiah’s symptoms to worsen. The abdominal pain became so severe one week that Isaiah began refusing meals. He was also losing sleep, and becoming easily irritable, occasionally taking the brunt of his anger and disillusionment out on Joe. But Joe continued to stand by Isaiah - he worked with his law firm to switch to part-time so he could be more present to support Isaiah. He picked up Isaiah’s prescriptions, and found palatable recipes and natural remedies to help soothe Isaiah’s anxiety. In the evenings, Joe would play one of Isaiah’s favorite old vinyls on the record player, curl up into bed with Isaiah, and hold him tight.
On these nights, Isaiah would ask through stifled tears, “Do you still love me, Joe? After all of this?”
“Of course I still love you, silly,” Joe would reply. “And I’ll still love you after all of this is over. You are strong and you will make it through whatever this is,” he assured Isaiah.
“I love you so much,” Isaiah would whisper with what little energy he had left, the words tasting faintly sweet on his lips.
After three months, Isaiah finally started responding positively to a new batch of medications, and the abdominal pain began to gradually subside. The psychiatrist encouraged Isaiah to challenge his anxiety, and to push himself to try one new activity with each passing day. At first, Isaiah was only able to walk around the apartment in short spurts. Soon, he was able to walk with Joe down all 4-stories of their apartment complex and up and down their block. When they would make it back to the top of the walk-up, Joe would grab Isaiah’s hand and raise it high above his head to signify the big win. With Joe’s encouragement, Isaiah was even finally able to go out to meals with his close friends again.
Through patience, love, and persistence, Isaiah continued to heal, and eventually worked up the tolerance to trek to Manhattan to take interviews for new job opportunities. On a balmy autumn afternoon, Isaiah received a call from a previous colleague at his old agency who had spun-up a new venture. She offered Isaiah the role of creative director at her new company. He accepted the position, and excitedly shared the news with Joe, who abruptly assembled a celebratory dinner party with their closest friends. During the dinner, Joe raised a toast, and could barely suppress the lump in his throat as he turned to Isaiah and said, “you’re the strongest person I’ve ever known. Cheers to your continued good health, happiness, and success.” He kissed Isaiah hard on the mouth. “I’m so proud of you,” he told him. The rest of the party clinked glasses around the table, and Isaiah couldn’t help but let out a bashful grin, smiling ear to ear.
In the years to come, Isaiah and Joe would travel the world, eager to explore its every crack and crevice with the remaining energy of their youth. On one particular afternoon late in their travels, Isaiah and Joe were walking along the coast of Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, when Isaiah suggested to Joe that they start a family when they return home to New York. Joe gleefully agreed, and told Isaiah they would begin working with adoption agencies upon their arrival home to Astoria.
After nearly 20 years, Isaiah and Joe forfeited their tiny studio in exchange for a three-bedroom townhome in Astoria. They adopted twins, a son and daughter, and embarked on the next chapter of their lives, charting new territory into parenthood. While parenting certainly tested the elasticity of Isaiah and Joe’s love, through time, they both found an even greater sense of strength and compassion in their partnership. Isaiah and Joe’s children grew-up as a byproduct of their healthy love - their children matured into benevolent, thoughtful, and tenderhearted beings.
Shortly after the twins graduated from college and returned to Manhattan to begin their careers, Joe and Isaiah retired. They enjoyed a number of years of peace - still hosting their old friends and children for dinner, venturing to Manhattan to see celebrated Broadway shows, and taking weekend trips to visit national parks to soak-in the quiet outside of the city. As time pressed forward, Isaiah began to notice that Joe seemed to be becoming increasingly forgetful, and would often wake up in the middle of the night confused and disoriented. On one occasion while Joe, Isaiah, and their children were out to dinner, Joe forgot the names of his children as he was telling them goodbye. In the coming days, the family would learn of Joe’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
As Joe’s memory receded in the approaching months, his fondest memories shared with Isaiah and their children seemed to converge. Isaiah remained by Joe’s side, and attempted to ground Joe in the present as Joe’s mind sailed wildly upon sacred memories. Joe’s motor skills soon degenerated as well, limiting his mobility to a wheelchair. Isaiah took care of Joe as best as he could - he picked up Joe’s prescriptions, took him for long walks around local public parks, and prepared meals for Joe that adhered to a healthy regimen as prescribed by his doctor.
In the evenings, Isaiah would comb through their now colossal library of vinyl albums, and try to pinpoint some of Joe’s old favorites to play for him. One evening, Isaiah managed to find Vampire Weekend’s self-titled album sandwiched out-of-place between two albums in their library. He pulled the record from its sleeve and placed it on the player, then gently positioned the needle on the outer rim of the record. The room filled with three summery notes from a keyboard, and Joe’s eyes lit up as he experienced a divine moment of clarity. “Dance with me,” he said to Isaiah. Isaiah took Joe’s hands in his, and gently danced with him, back and forth, two old lovers reliving the origin of their love.
The following morning was hot and humid, and filled Isaiah with buoyant nostalgia. Isaiah dressed Joe, fed him a light breakfast, and wheeled him all the way from their home over a mile to the intersection of 30th Ave and 36th Street. After all of those years, the plastic lawn chairs had been substituted for metal chairs and tables outside of a new bakery teeming with patrons. Isaiah wheeled Joe inside and asked the pastry chef on staff if they possessed the necessary supplies to bake a specialty order for the both of them. The pastry chef agreed to bake the custom order, and Isaiah expressed his tremendous gratitude to the kitchen staff before leaving a generous tip.
Isaiah wheeled Joe outside to a metal table, and sat next to him as they began to soak in the familiar summer heat. After a lengthy wait, a server came out with a plate for their table containing two large strawberry muffins and two glass cups filled with black iced coffee. Isaiah broke off a small piece of the muffin and slowly fed it to Joe. Once Joe had finished chewing, Isaiah placed a straw in the black iced coffee, and positioned the straw in Joe’s mouth before encouraging Joe to take a long, gentle sip of the beverage. As Joe swallowed the coffee, his eyes filled with tears, as he turned to Isaiah and said aloud with calm assertion: “I think I’m in love with you.” Isaiah allowed for a quiet pause to sit between them, before reciprocating with a smile, “I think I love you too.”
Wilt // Bloom
Even geraniums wilt in hard rain,
their salmon pedals prune and break
like molted plumage, pirouetting downward
to make the descent of their last end.
Even geranium stems buckle under heavy wet,
crook toward the Earth in prayer
that the clouds should part
so that light may offer a new beginning.
Even geraniums can weather a storm,
keep tenaciously rooted in a bed of soil
made sodden by the vigor of a squall.
Even geraniums soak in the vitality of their affliction
to straighten, rise, and bloom once again.
Trial of Wellness
Sleep, a memory far gone.
Days crawl the length of my Instagram
a Netflix queue to swallow voluminous minutes
with a metronomic flick of
I stare and want until
my envy of rest
blurs my days into
I sink under sequin sheets,
made sweet and putrid by
five seasons of Schitt’s Creek and
an endless Facebook timeline.
If I could climb my way down to the
bottom of the
maybe I could begin
make my life as joyous
as the filtered pictures.
Here comes the abdomen’s metamorphosis
the butterflies become
capricious stingers at the ready.
To leave this bed could be a
barbed free fall.
Best to stay
A paradox of want so deep,
the eyes redden even further.
Finally, the panic chases me
all the way to the purchase
of a plane ticket
I hastily pack my suitcases,
I wait for a Lyft to LAX,
teeter over the edge
of a cliff,
ravine as wide as the coasts,
and the potential
I call my dad to give
me one last
you told me you wanted to write a home around me
write me an old colonial, a home in Georgia
like the one we always talked about.
write me bay windows, wide as the miles between us,
and a metal window box ripe with geraniums (your favorite).
write me a warm bath with a skylight above - I want to wash
in the sunbeams while I wait for you to come home.
The Elasticity of Love
Before you, I imagined love to be a feeling that transpired after meeting a threshold. That through nurturing the different elements of a relationship - all of the dates, texts, and sex - I was steadily building toward this threshold, and only once the threshold had been met or exceeded would I feel love, could tell someone, “I love you,” and truly mean it. I imagined love as a moment or epiphany, something solid and tangible. In fact, before you, I thought I had experienced such moments, brief snippets of time with ex-boyfriends where I thought that I felt love lucidly, and then the feeling would fade away just as quickly as it had arrived, always fleeting, just out of reach.
What my friends told me about love was, “you’ll know it when you feel it.” What I didn’t expect was for the feeling of love to flip my threshold framework on its axis - that love wasn’t something you worked your way up to saying or feeling, but rather, an emotion that came pouring forth uncontrollably, a broken dam run rampant.
Nobody told me that love fills in vacant places in the heart and mind, mends old bruises, can make you feel whole even when you didn’t realize a piece of yourself was missing. That love can energize you and make you want to better yourself and give yourself, all of yourself, to someone else. When we talk about love, no one tells you the extremes to which you will go to nourish it, grow it, and grow from it. We seldom talk about the elasticity of love, the game of tolerance which tests how far love can expand and contract before resuming its normal shape or breaking altogether.
I didn’t anticipate how the miles between us would bring us closer together. That love extends past oceans and mountains, through blue screens and airwaves.
Sojourn in Seattle
Seattle came as a reprieve for the both of us: you had just been re-diagnosed after spending a full year in remission, and wanted to do something radical to take your mind off of things before your next round of treatment. I had just moved to Seattle only a month prior and was feeling rattled by the adjustment period, having forfeited Atlanta’s familiar warmth and Southern amiability in exchange for a new career in the pacific northwest, which was accompanied by gray skies and a perpetual drizzle. I didn’t know a soul in Washington, and my newfound solitude felt painfully disarming. I suppose we both needed a fresh start and good company. Your trip came at a crucial time for the both of us - we were able to give each other the same camaraderie and support that lifted our spirits when we were young.
I picked you up from the light rail and navigated us two blocks in the wrong direction before course-correcting our route back to my apartment. It was 1am by the time we got back to the apartment, and yet we still managed to chat for over an hour, falling back into a rhythm of conversation in that colloquial fashion that old friends do, as if the months apart were just a minor ellipsis. You told me that you’d met a girl and were falling in love all over again. I told you about the boy I had been smitten for who had ghosted me recently. You told me you had started a new job. I told you how surreal it felt to be living out west. Round and round our stories went until we could hardly hold our eyes open. This was how most of our evenings transpired, getting lost in each other’s stories until they lulled us to sleep.
Over the course of the week, we hit as much of the city’s delights as we could. I showed you my favorite coffeshop that whipped up a mean mocha (your favorite). We wound through steep streets and narrow alleyways, and I pointed out boutique art studios, record stores, and bookshops. You made us stop and visit each establishment, making each shop feel as essential as the previous one, and I stood there smirking in disbelief as you managed to make a purchase from each venue: a graphic print (which you never intended to hang), a classic record (despite you not owning a record player), a book from an author you’d never heard of (which you ended up forgetting on my nightstand). “We gotta keep the little guys afloat,” you’d tell me. “Small businesses get swallowed up without our support.”
Whatever leads you to joy, I thought to myself. To more joy, and less worry.
We tasted the town, visiting cafes, candy dispensaries, ice cream shops, making a pitstop in a coffeeshop to recharge ever so often. You filled your tiny backpack with sour gummies, gummy bears, and jelly beans. By the end of each day, we were crashing from the hyper-caffeination and sugar rush, with our feet blistering from the marathon of walking we did to cover each neighborhood, and our bellies bursting from whatever eclectic spread of food we’d scavenged for the day: ramen shops, hawaiin barbecue, fusion seafood, and sandwiches filled with fresh fair. The steady ebb and flow of joy left us feeling tired and full.
I remember the ferry ride over to Bainbridge Island, where you made an innocent bystander take a picture of us doing the iconic Titanic “I’m flying” scene, where Jack hugs Rose from behind as she extends her arms out, spread-eagle (I got to be Rose).
I remember when we climbed to the top of Gasworks Park and you started to cry. The sun shone so brightly over the harbor, the boats sailing smoothly along the bay and kites soaring high in a cloudless sky, the city skyline perfectly reflected off of the still surface of Lake Union. We held each other for a while on the top of that hill, overlooking the water. You cried and I just held onto you and we didn’t say anything and that’s all there really was to say.
When we let go of each other, we sat down and you took pictures of the bay with a smile glued ear-to-ear. That’s how I remember you - flat-bill hat turned backwards, looking through the lens of your Nikon, the small spaces between your square teeth curving up to form a happy dimple on your right cheek. We sat there just watching the world unfold on a Seattle hillside, no one and nothing at all mattering, finally feeling grateful to just be a part of the world.
You passed away quietly the following autumn, and now I’m finding that Seattle is a memory I go to in my mind from time to time to be with you. When the weight of the world feels like too much for me to bear, I go to the top of that hill in Gasworks Park and you’re still there with me. The other day, I even found that picture of us on the front of the ferry, the one where you’re hugging me from behind, my arms extended in a spread eagle. You’re Jack, I’m Rose, and we couldn’t be happier. I smiled for the first time in a while since you’ve been gone, and it made me think of you.
It was an accident
“It was an accident.”
These were the feeble words that Arthur could muster for the police officers, who were trying to deduce how one goes about crashing a Subaru WRX into a tree at 40 mph on a residential road. I’m sitting pretzel-style on the side of the gravel road, blood dripping down my face as an EMT combs through my hair, picking out shards of glass from my scalp like a mother chimpanzee. Max stands to my side looking on the scene with palpable remorse. I listen on with wary apprehension as Arthur delivers his statement to the officers, wondering to myself how he will maneuver around their questions, given the crash is so blatantly our own fault.
“I took the turn a little too fast, and I slammed on the accelerator instead of the brakes,” Arthur sheepishly explains to the policemen. The Subaru lies cartoonishly flattened against the tree - it’s as if the whole front of the vehicle has been hit with a giant ACME sledgehammer, the roof caved in the front forming a somber brow, with a cavernous socket where there used to be a front windshield.
“You do realize this was a blind turn?” One of the officers chastises. “Had there been another vehicle approaching, you could have seriously injured another party.”
“I grossly underestimated my vehicle’s traction on the gravel,” Arthur laments. “I see the consequences of my error and can assure you it will never happen again.”
The police seem dubious to accept Arthur’s statement, but I can tell their patience has waivered too much for them to further challenge any of the grossly absent details from his claim. The police don’t even go so far as to deliver a warning - they simply retreat to their vehicles and withdraw from the scene without further questioning.
Meanwhile, the EMT has loaded me onto a stretcher in a neck brace with my head fastened into place in a Frankenstein-esque attempt to prevent further injury. The EMT suspects that I may have slammed my head against the rear windshield upon collision, and so she begins to ask me questions to jog my memory.
“Who is the president?” She asks me, shining a bright light into my right eye.
“A bombastic imbecile.” I quip.
“What day of the week is it?” She shines the bright light into my left eye.
“I want to say Tuesday? But I’m on vacation time, so forgive me if that date is incorrect, I don’t think it relates to a head injury.”
“Tuesday is correct.” She pauses to take my vitals. “Your friends will need to ride separately, but they can meet you at the hospital,” she assures me.
As the ambulance doors close and we take off toward the hospital, I hear the muffled sounds of the siren from inside of the van, and am finally able to let out a stiff chuckle on account of the comically careless decision-making that led to this crash.
Not even an hour earlier, Arthur is guilt-tripping me to join him on a quick drive into town to pick-up a last-minute prescription before heading on the road back to Philadelphia. “If you won’t go with me, at least admit that you hate me,” he lambastes, “just tell me that you can’t stand me, that you wish I’d hurl myself onto some train tracks and wait until my own oblivion.”
I shrug off the absurdity of his remarks and agree to accompany him on one last trip into town. Besides, at this point I’ve already got a good buzz from the Irish coffees I’ve been throwing back all morning, and could use a change of scenery to abstain from falling back asleep. I hop into the backseat of the Subaru, Arthur at the wheel, Max in the passenger seat.
“Hey Max,” Arthur asks, “how does one go about drifting along these gravel roads?”
“Oh, easy,” Max confidently replies, “as you round the turn, just gas it.”
Arthur throws the car into gear, and we approach the first turn, which winds around a set of trees obstructing the view around the bend. Arthur slams on the accelerator and the car drifts along the turn, gravel popping and crunching underneath the bed of the car.
“Nailed it,” Arthur proudly exclaims.
“That’s good,” Max tells him, “but this time just give it a bit more gas before the next turn.”
As we’re nearing the second turn, I snap out of the Irish Coffee-endured buzz just long enough to caution, “This is a dangerous blind turn!” But by the time I get the words out in the open, it’s too late - Arthur has slammed on the accelerator, and turned the wheel, and we’re winding around the gravel road. The car begins to fishtail, bringing my passenger seat into direct line of fire with an encroaching tree. Arthur slams the wheel to the right to correct the turn, bringing the hood of the car directly into the base of an unflinching oak tree.
All of the windows in the car explode upon collision. Airbags fully inflate. Smoke billows out of the engine, and the scene reeks of burnt rubber and gas. I climb out the backseat across a sea of shattered glass, Arthur and Max having already escaped through the front driver-side door. The Subaru sits in shambles against the unmoved oak tree.
“I think you gave it too much gas,” Max tells Arthur. I collapse into a pretzel seat on the side of the road, as I feel blood start to pool and drip near my temple. Max begins to walk away from the scene of the crash.
“Where are you going,” says Arthur?
“Gonna go back and chill out at the house,” Max calmly replies.
“Dude, you can’t just walk away from the scene of an accident. We’ve got to call for help.”
“Oh.” Max replies. “Then I guess I’ll wait here.”
Arthur pulls out his cell phone and dials 911, informing the dispatcher of our location and circumstance. I’m looking at the tip of my nose as blood continuously pools and drips onto the gravel in between my legs. Arthur hangs up the phone and turns to me.
“Casey, how are you doing over there, bud?”
I survey the wreckage. I look up at Arthur, and then over to Max. While I’m completely mortified of the events that have just transpired, I’m relieved that we’re all out of the vehicle, virtually unscathed. I think about how, in later years, we’ll casually joke about this near-death experience, both in good-humor and as a stark reminder to refrain from Evel Kneivel-caliber idiocy in future outings. I raise my right hand, throw-up some devil horns, and let out a bashful smile.
“My dude,” Arthur chuckles. “I’m so sorry about all of this. It was an accident.”