CARTER stood on his stoop as the movers drove away. Maybe he looked like an idiot waving at a truck with “Hanson’s Flat Rate Moving” emblazoned on the side, but he didn’t care. Santa Josephina was the type of town where Carter had dreamed of living since his first year in Los Angeles drove the romantic idea of big city life out of him. LA was the wrong place for someone like Carter. He needed quiet; he needed to not be bombarded twenty-four hours a day with noise and visual distraction. Turning back to his house, he looked up at the address plate over his new door.
Number Seventeen Fort Washington Terrace.
Now that was a good address. Easy to say. Fun to say. His old address on Yucca Street was also fun to say, but here he had a yard in front and back. He had a two-story house to himself, instead of a dinky apartment on a fourth-floor walk-up with walls that shook every night with the neighbors’ music. Inside, Alice tore open boxes. Carter faced the street again, stepped off his stoop onto his sidewalk—he had his own sidewalk—and perused the quiet street. It was midday, so there weren’t many cars parked in front of the trimmed lawns. A few homes had children’s bicycles abandoned on their sidewalks, which signaled either foolishness or that bicycle theft wasn’t a problem here.
“Are you sure you’ll be all right?” Alice yelled. Carter turned around to squint into the darker interior of the living room, seeking her out. She paused in lifting a stack of books to give him her concerned face—squeezed lips and scrunched eyes. He’d seen enough of it since he’d told her his plan to move. Despite her disbelief that anyone would want to leave LA (he chose to believe this was the problem and not that she didn’t think he could cope on his own), she’d helped him every step of the way, so he was grateful for that.
With a last look at the afternoon sun, Carter went back inside. He left the door open, relishing the freedom to do so without worrying about someone with a weapon coming in. “It’s not the moon, Alice, I’ll be fine.”
“Santa Josephina,” she muttered. “Might as well be.”
“Stop being elitist.” Carter weaved through the towering stacks of cardboard boxes to reach her.
“You could have had calm and quiet in LA. There are peaceful streets and houses there!”
“It’s not only about the house. I needed a big change. Santa Josephina is perfect. It’s got small-town appeal with big-city features. Zoos, museums, beach…. Plus you get more bang for your buck here.” He paused to give his most important reason more impact. “And there’s fewer people.”
Her expression softened. “I know it was rough for you.”
Giving her shoulders an affectionate squeeze, he said, “I’d have gone crazy if not for you.”
“What are friends for?” Alice elbowed him in the stomach. “Promise me one thing.”
“Don’t become a hermit. I want you to actually go out and enjoy all those perks you just rattled off.”
He laid his right hand over his heart in a solemn vow. “I promise.”
“Carter. I mean it. Sometimes I think the only reason you went out in LA is because John and I made you.”
Rather than admit she was right, he tried to sound sincere as he parroted her words back to her. “I won’t become a hermit.” He never intended to shut himself in as long as he did. Sometimes he just needed to get away from everything.
“Good. You should enjoy yourself this week, because next weekend I’ll be here with work.”
In addition to being Carter’s first friend in LA, Alice had given him a job transposing music for her theater company, which kept Carter paid well enough to afford this move, so if she was upset about his leaving, she only had herself to blame. When Carter had told her that, she’d flipped him off. He snapped out his smartest two-fingered Boy Scout salute. “Thank you for letting me get settled first.”
“I’m a benevolent boss, darling.” Putting her hand on his shoulder, she tugged him down to kiss his cheek.
His hand hit a box and his head jerked sideways. Series of three. Hit, jerk; hit, jerk; hit, jerk. A kick for good measure and he was done. Alice turned her attention back to her chore as if nothing had happened. Carter opened a box and got down to the business of unpacking.
HOURS later, the house was almost livable. He’d found his clothes, the pots and pans, and the bed linens. Alice had departed in the early evening, complaining about traffic before she stepped out the door. The movers had set up the bed before they left, and Carter debated collapsing into it without bothering with the sheets. He dragged himself into the shower instead. The house had two showers, a nicer one upstairs and a utilitarian one off the laundry room on the first floor. Carter used the one in the laundry room so he could drop his sweaty clothes directly into the wash.
As he stood in the shower watching soap bubbles slide down his chest, he listened to the noises of the house. His own house and he was only twenty-four years old. That was an accomplishment he could be proud of. Tomorrow he’d go out and see what Santa Josephina had to offer.
Maybe. He could go online and find out too. With effort, he dismissed the idea. He’d promised Alice he wouldn’t avoid people. He could go out for his morning coffee. They’d passed a place on the drive into town that looked quiet. Pepper’s or something like that. That would be a nice, easy start. Decaf, though. Caffeine made his efforts at restraining his tics go to shit. If he kept his head down and his sunglasses on, he had an easier chance of hiding the flurry of squinting and blinking that he couldn’t control no matter what he did.
Carter emerged from the shower exhausted. Wrapping a towel around his waist, he walked through the house and stumbled upstairs. Pop pop. His arm lashed out, bashed against the railing. It didn’t hurt, but this was the dangerous time, when he was too tired to tame the misfiring synapses in his brain and his body did what it wanted. He hauled himself upward before it did something that would send him tumbling down. His other arm lashed out a few times and struck the wall, but he made it to the landing. He examined his hand under the light at the top. A little red. Probably nothing, but best not to take chances. He descended, this time to go to the kitchen and hope the freezer had ice in it.
It did. He wrapped a few pieces in a towel and went back upstairs without incident.
The bedroom window looked out onto the neighbor’s property. It was a two-story house similar to Carter’s. Their backyard had a tire swing hanging off a sturdy oak tree that stood in the middle. Carter had an equivalently sized tree in his yard. While Carter’s yard was otherwise empty except for a toolshed, a swing set and jungle gym stood near the neighbor’s tree. Carter had noticed them earlier in the day. Now, he looked out the window trying to make out their shapes in the moonlight. The motion sensor lights in the yard went off, causing his left hand to fly to his face. A man stood in an empty space a few feet from the tree. He turned when the light went on. Carter clutched the towel tighter around his waist.
He was beautiful. That was obvious even in the dim light. Pale, dark-haired. Carter couldn’t tell from this angle, but he bet the guy was tall. Another man approached. The new arrival put his arm around the first man’s shoulders, who pointed at the sky. They looked up together. Carter tried to follow the swirling patterns the first man made in the sky. He was still looking when he noticed the two men returning to the house. The second man kept his arm around the other one as his hands flew in animated gestures.
Carter stayed beside the window until the light went out in the yard. He waited a minute longer to see if they would come back. Maybe they were a gay couple. If they were, it would make Carter’s settling in easier. His one worry about moving was that he’d be the only gay person in his new neighborhood. When a light went on upstairs in the neighboring house, he pulled the blinds down, set the now-soaking towel with half-melted ice into a bucket left behind from cleaning earlier, and crawled into bed. He felt the urge to twitch building up. He channeled it into his foot to save his hand from hitting the headboard. It exhausted his control and he fell asleep hoping he wouldn’t wake up having hurt himself any worse.
THE stars arranged themselves into symphonies for him. Ethan told his dad how they burst and shone, how he could hear them in his head, sometimes so loud he needed to cover his ears, but that was wrong because the music was in him and if he covered his ears, he trapped it. Dad tried to understand and Mom did too, but they didn’t hear the music, didn’t see it no matter how often Ethan traced it in the sky. Elliot used to see it when he was little, but now Elliot only saw girls, and Ethan had never given much thought to girls—not in the same way as Elliot—even Before.
He didn’t think much about Before. Nobody close to him liked to. He’d learned that when he saw the hurt on Mom’s face and how Dad looked angry sometimes. Dad was more careful about that since he’d made Ethan upset with his angry face. Ethan had cried even though Dad had kissed and hugged him and told him it wasn’t his fault—that he was a good boy.
Twenty-seven was too old to be called a boy. Elliot was fifteen and he didn’t even like being called a boy. When Ethan told Dad not to call him that, Dad said he’d try. He’d been pretty good about it so far.
There was a new neighbor next door. Ethan had watched movers carrying boxes into the house all day. Eventually they left and a man and woman stayed. They were both short like Elliot, but Elliot wasn’t done growing yet and Ethan thought these people were. The woman left and didn’t come back, so Ethan figured out it was only the man living there. The man went into his backyard to pick up some tools the last owners had left out. He took his shirt off when it got hot. It made Ethan’s private place warm, so he pushed on it to make it feel good. He was in his bedroom, so it was all right. He was allowed to touch his penis in his bedroom and in the bathroom, but anywhere else was off limits. That was what Mom said. He made the white stuff come out. Semen. He remembered that from Before. He’d lost some words, but not that one.
Tomorrow maybe he would meet the new neighbor after work, but he’d have to be careful not to tell him that he’d made semen though. People didn’t like to be told that.
Ethan had learned that the hard way. Elliot was still angry with him for blurting it out to Elliot’s girlfriend’s brother while they were at her house. Elliot had called Ethan a retard. Ethan had tried not to cry, but he couldn’t ever control his feelings, and Elliot’s girlfriend took him into the bathroom to wash his face. Ethan wanted it to be her brother to help him, because maybe they could have sex, but her brother sat like a lump.
After Eve washed his face, she told Ethan to sit down on the edge of the tub and wait for her to come back. He heard shouting between her and Elliot, and then Elliot came to get him. He still looked angry and he didn’t apologize. He didn’t hold Ethan’s hand when they walked home either, but Ethan didn’t care. He didn’t need to hold Elliot’s stupid hand to get home anyway. He could get home without letting the music distract him. It beckoned him with the whir-thump of tires on asphalt, the wind over the grass, a dog pawing the ground. That was outside music though, different than the music that came from the sky, the music that lived in his head. He could put his hands over his ears and shut that out. He followed Elliot home, one step behind. When Mom asked what happened, Elliot said that he and Eve broke up. He didn’t say it was Ethan’s fault, so Ethan didn’t tell what Elliot had called him. He went to his room and lay on his bed. Dad came in and rubbed Ethan’s back the way Ethan liked and asked if he wanted to talk. Ethan hid his face in the pillow. Elliot didn’t talk to him until he met another girl. It was only one day, but it felt like forever.
That was why he shouldn’t tell people they made him make semen, and why he wasn’t going to tell his new neighbor about it.