Michael Todd Cohen
I remember a loose bowl cut of silky brown hair, freckles in a constellation across the bridge of a nose, the scent of fresh laundry on his shirt as I pressed my not-toddler-not-yet-pre-teen face into it and breathed deep; waiting for another round of tickles to come. I attached myself like a barnacle to his leg, hitched a ride off his heel, my face red from the squeeze to stay on. I laughed when he laughed, perfect white teeth flashing, freckles disappearing into chuckle-creases by his full lips; pink. My stomach hurt, no, burned — not a soured-from-sugar sensation, something else that didn’t crest like a wave and crash, but smoldered. I think his name was J, a friend of my brothers, but that hardly matters. What matters is that delicious burn I chased, pleading with him to tickle me again, presenting my small body, shaped into a stone beside his, doubled over from the last round and awaiting another, when the coal in my gut will burst into full-body flame.
Punching parking meters after midnight on Old Brompton Road; my fist a flint, hurtling through thin winter air, skin-crack-cold and I don’t care. Leave a little blood, painted on the plastic, like a rage-Pollock. Seconds later, minutes later, hours later, I don’t know, barfing up bile and beer into the toilet of the tiny bathroom in our basement flat, bellowing between heaves, I don’t want to be gay. My college roommate’s tree-height figure hunched on the floor beside me; he rubs my back, runs a bath to soak away my sorrow and sober up. I don’t want to be gay, which means, here, I want to be straight. Which means here I want to be straight, like you. Breeze into rooms blond and blue-eyed, made to fit the frame of the world, made to touch sky like grazing a popcorn ceiling with pink fingertips; easy. But I do not fit this frame, the sky is miles above me, out of reach of my fingers, so I ball them into a fist and punch parking meters to do something with the want. It’s a cruel trick of God, I think, to kindle wood that will never light.
No one expects to be a widower at thirty-two. Grief-soaked, pickled with vodka to drown the low-hum of terror —What now? What now? —the ceiling reels, a fast-moving sky, above my fetal curl. Behind me, a friend curled too, makes a quote of us, his long dark finger twisted into the band of my jock. Behind him, his husband, completing an unknown punctuation on a sentence we haven’t finished. What now? What now? I have, for months, traced the edges of madness and now I am touched, here, where fabric meets the freckle on my hip, just outside the wire hair that reaches for it. Here, I am touched, where never I thought I would be again. Hot at contact, this ash-size speck, something like a cigarette mark, waking once-dead flesh. What now? What now? Burn me into something new.
Michael Todd Cohen’s work appears in Barren Magazine, Columbia Journal, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, The Maine Review, JMWW Journal and HAD, among others. His writing has been nominated for Best Micro Fiction and a Pushcart Prize. He lives with his husband and two dogs, by a rusty lighthouse, in Connecticut. You can find him on twitter @mtoddcohen or michaeltoddcohen.com.