First of all, Nathan King ruined my life. Let's start with that.
I was in business school, like the good little WASP that I was. I was going to be...I don't even know. I was going to wear the good suits, though, send my interns out for my coffee and send them scattering with a look if they got my order wrong (venti non-fat iced chai tea latte, they'd murmur to themselves in fear). I was going to move out of the craptastic apartment I shared with Rachel, the interminable grad student (who was actually pretty nice for, you know, someone trying to get a Ph.D. in—no joke—astrophysics).
Then I met Nathan—well, Nate. Nate was kind of, just a little bit, the best-looking guy I have ever seen in my entire life. I swear my attraction to him is only like 10% jealousy. Then maybe like 10% his smirk, 10% that he's the best I've ever had, maybe a little bit anger, but mostly an indescribable, mathematically invalid need to jump his bones whenever he's around.
Nate was a writer—one that wasn't getting paid, at the time. But he left journalism school because that wasn't the type of writing he wanted, at least that's what I think he was trying to do. I can't be sure because Nate lied a lot, or maybe he joked a lot and some of his jokes were pretty shitty. One of the two. He told me he dropped out because it was too hard (bullshit, the man's a genius, I'm sure) and then he laughed and took another swig of his beer. He told me he left to care for his dying father, but he later told me that his dad had run out when he was just four and a half years old. He seemed genuinely sad both times, like he could mourn his deadbeat dad and his separate, cancer-riddled one at the same time and not even worry about it. And I was sad for him both times, too, kissed his forehead until the wrinkles smoothed out, kissed his almost girlishly long eyelashes so he wouldn't cry, kissed the corners of his mouth until he smiled. Then he laughed at me and called me a sucker, and I called him a pussy, and he made some crude joke about me being the girl in the relationship, and I shouted and he was still calling me weak and I couldn't handle that. I never could take anyone calling me weak (side effects of growing up a bit flamboyant in the Midwest), and Nate knew it. He was just pushing my buttons so that I'd try to tackle him and he'd turn it into great sex—the kind of sex that would leave me with just as many bruises as if we had fought, because deep down I am weak. Deep down I want to get used and nobody ever used me better than Nate.
So I dropped out of business school to pursue painting, because Nathan King thought it was a good idea. And, shock of all shocks, it didn't work out. My gamble left me in the same apartment, with the same grad student (now a post-doc, still paid basically nothing but still looking at the stars every night) and a full-time gig at a local art shop called Callahan's.
The gamble paid off for Nate, because Nate is Nate and he turns odds upside their heads and he wins against the house in Vegas and the waiter gives him his number too because Nate smirked at him and you know how that works. He has a series of these really funny crime-action-parody novels, like fucking hilarious, and he's not filthy rich and famous but he's got a cult following and crazy fans called Kingfishers. The name's a clever joke with his name and this one character from one of his novels that's kind of based on Arthurian legend and it's disgustingly adorable and I know this because sometimes I look at their fan websites because I'm pathetic. I'm pathetic, and I'm twenty-six, just a skinny guy whose metabolism is about to crash, working at an art supply store even though I don't even paint anymore.
Nate and I dated for two years. He moved in with me briefly, but it was only because he needed a place to crash; we were never living together. I wanted to, but I never brought it up. Of the two of us, I was more the clingy type. Nate went out to clubs, and I pounced on him to dance. Nate went out to dinner, and I tagged along to get a taste. Nate did, I followed; Nate stood, I leaned. To be honest I'm surprised he let it go on as long as it did, what with all I wasn't offering.
I try (and mostly fail) to avoid thinking about Nate these days. It's only back because of the shit that went down at work.
There are three kinds of customers I get at work. Number one: aunts. Obscure relatives (almost always aunts, though I've seen my fair share of grandparents and second cousins too) don't know what to get for a little kid's birthday, but they heard that he or she's artistic and they're running with it. They want to spend twenty-five dollars and I know just the sketchbooks to run that balance up. Number two, lonely old people. I try to lead them to the best deals because they smell like death and they're living on a fixed income. After fighting through hordes of aunts and the lonely, I am also so fucking relieved to see type three: an actual artist. Rare like an honest politician, like a yellow diamond, like a motherfucking unicorn.
Yesterday I found one named Kyle, and he was a painter, like I used to be. He was skinny like in the olden days, when they hadn't figured out that lead-based colors were dangerous. We were debating paints based on linseed oil versus walnut oil when he cut me off in the middle of my rant about spreadability.
He said, "You know, you sound just like Elias would."
"A character," Kyle said. "From Nathan King, you know? Maybe you've read Gimmlitz? Or The Headboard Phenomena?"
"I know the books," I said. I was trying to be careful here. One didn't just say to a kingfisher that one had casually fucked (really, been fucked by) the king for two years running.
"And the new one? Ask Me No Questions?"
"I haven't really had a chance to...who the fuck is Elias?"
"Elias Corrin," Kyle said, and I wanted to slap him. I wanted to slap him, and through that, slap Nate.
For context, I should probably point out that my name is Corey Ellis. That's not a motherfucking coincidence; it fucking can't be. What the fucking hell had that bastard done with my name?
I asked Kyle, probably way too loud, "Is that a compliment? Being like Elias?"
Kyle shrugged and smiled up at me through his lashes. He was pretty, I realized. Pretty and probably pretty gay. Pretty and pretty gay and pretty used to getting his way because of it.
Nate had always gotten special treatment when we went out, from waiters and waitresses. Usually he called me his friend to get there, and then I'd pout, and he'd say, "What? Don't you want the tickets at half-price?" and I'd say, "That's not the problem; the problem is that you made that guy think—"
"What does it matter what that guy thinks?"
"It just fucking matters!"
"You know what your problem is, Corey? You care too much about the little things."
I always wanted to say to Nate, you don't care enough. But I never said a word.
After work I bought Nate's new book. The cashier at the bookstore, a pretty little girl with too-red hair and bounce in her step, wanted to talk to him about Nate's other books. She wanted to geek out over how great Nate was, and I wanted to tell her that he fucks like a god and then he fucks you over but that would lead to too many questions. I didn't like to tell people about my affair with the late (to me) great (to everyone and maybe me too) Nathan King.
I snatched my change back from the casher and took the book home. Rachel, the astrophysicist, was just on her way out, her giant backpack jutting out behind her.
"Gonna figure out the mysteries of the motherfucking cosmos?" I asked her. It was our standard greeting.
"Yep," Rachel said. "Gonna go to sleep?"
"No," I said. "First I'm gonna read. Then I'm going to cook, maybe wash some dishes. Then sleep."
"Fuck off," I smiled, and Rachel gave me a cheeky little grin and locked the door behind her.
Even before Nate came along, I knew how to appreciate a good book. I knew how to make a picture of someone who loves books. I liked the picture, and I committed to it, like a good model would. One of these days I was going to paint the way that I read—one of these days when I went back to painting.
I started with the cushions, near the window, piled up to my waist. I poured myself some cheap red wine into a coffee mug. I plucked my reading glasses from my bedside table and perched them on the corner of my nose so that I looked like a proper bookworm, and so that I could actually see the words. I stripped off my button-down work shirt, sunk into the cushions, and tucked my knees up close to my chest. I unfolded my book and began at the first page.
It began, Elias Corrin thought that the gunshot was a light bulb popping. He searched the ceilings of his house so thoroughly that he almost forgot to notice the body.
OK, so it was a pretty good book, maybe even Nate's best. Elias, the reluctant amateur detective-type, gets dragged along on this crazy-ass mystery with gangs and granny bikers and severe German prostitutes and the Florida Keys and dissolved gold and an enterprising IRS agent. It was clever and funny and suspenseful and engaging all at once. And then there's Elias.
I kept a tally, as I read, of the things about Elias Corrin that were really just things about me. For one, the name was pretty fucking bad. And Elias was an aspiring musician who worked in a piano shop. He had some of my habits and quirks: he owned a teddy bear he had made himself, he had eaten the same thing for breakfast for four years, he couldn't trust other people to be nice to him, he had an addictive personality whose management he preferred to outsource. It's the little things, you know?
There were passages between Elias and this girl, Irena, who was kind of a total dominatrix. Irena was kind of like a lady version of Nate. I mean, so much of Nate is just so fucking male, but Irena was hard-edged and no-nonsense and moved quickly and thought quicker, and Elias was always kind of trailing behind her. I could see from the way Nate wrote that that was how Elias wanted it. Elias didn't want to be in charge; he couldn't handle it. He needed orders, he needed pain, he needed to be tied down because if he was in charge of himself he'd only bring himself misery.
I found myself sitting with the book resting on my knees staring out the window, thinking about Elias and me and Nate and Irena and pain and sex and loneliness and responsibility and—
Deep breath, babe, I could almost hear Nate whispering in my ear and I shivered at the thought of it, of him again, his arms holding me down when I was panicking and trying to rip my paycheck apart and my paintings down from the walls and the stars down from the sky.
But it didn't work, because Nate wasn't here, and I couldn't be calm when he wasn't around, even if he always put me on edge. I don't think I'm destined to be a calm sort of person.
I sprung out of my little reading cocoon and scrambled around to the corner of my room I called my studio. The paints on my last project had long since dried; I haven't painted half as much since Nate and I split. I tossed it aside and went rummaging through for a new canvas (my employee discount is good for something, I guess). I didn't really plan much, which basically meant that this piece was going to be utter shit, but I started to paint the outline, the vague block shapes of Nate's face, looking at me like he owned me.
Which was probably a massive fucking leap backwards in the doomed-to-fail plan known as "getting over Nathan King."
I had never painted Nate when we were together; that would have just been weird, and it's not like the man knew how to sit fucking still, he's like a three-year-old that way. But it's fucking fair, isn't it? If he can write me, then I can paint him. But not right now, and I don't paint from photos, and I'm not Sherlock fucking Holmes enough to paint from memory.
I fell into bed that night at around 3 a.m., with the thought of the paint haunting my dreams and the smell of it seeping in through my open mouth.
The next morning I called Nathan King, because I'm a fucking idiot. Also for the painting, but mostly because of the idiot thing.
I called him before I made it into work, because I knew he wouldn't be awake yet, and I couldn't exactly plan for every contingency that would come from talking to Nate. I know if I haven't prepared Nate'd just railroad me over with that low voice like he's whispering in my ear and I'd beg to be his again. Or I'd throw a punch. It's a fine line between the two, with us.
I call him, and I leave this message: "Nate, it's Corey. I've read your new book, and I'm pretty sure you owe me—you owe me a conversation at least, you selfish fuck, a conversation we could've had in the years it takes between when you design a character and when he pops up in your most recent book looking just like your ex-boyfriend. Meet me for coffee at The Aldova tonight. I get off work at seven. You're paying, and I'm getting something fucking expensive. Aldova. Seven fifteen. Don't be late, asshole."
After I hung up I stared at my phone and took several deep breaths, several that gradually grew shallower until I realized that I was nearly hyperventilating just from the work of focusing in on my breathing.
I have no fucking idea how I lasted through that Thursday at work without getting fired. I forgot to reorganize the easels because I was sitting in front of the calligraphic inks thinking about the time I met Nate. The occasion might have been Kenneth's birthday party, but Nate was pretty much the center of attention. Everyone wanted him, and I could see that he'd probably fucked half of them already, and I was so damn jealous and wanted him so damn much that I couldn't even be in the same room as him. He finally cornered me to talk and he was so fucking arrogant that I threw wine on him—red wine—and he took off his shirt to mop the mess off his face and in the ensuing brain deficiency I somehow ended up agreeing to meet him the next day for coffee at The Aldova. I skipped out, of course, but he tracked me down (because Kenneth's an insufferable gossip) and took me on our date on the back of his motorcycle. I tried to crash the bike. He kissed me within an inch of my life on the side of the road. Somehow we were dating.
That Thursday there was a customer that wanted to talk about setting up his studio, but he had to ask me three times because I was thinking about when Nate was living with me. He called it "crashing," as in on my couch, but he never got there because I wanted him in my bed every minute of every day. Waking up next to him was a wet dream, coming home to him was goddamn bliss.
I couldn't work the cash register for the memory of the day I came home to Nate, grin a mile wide, with my return-of-deposit check from UWhatever in hand. I couldn't talk to customers over the sound of me shouting at him that I never wanted to fucking see him again, which I said maybe half a dozen times but never really meant. And Nate always seemed to get it, that I really wanted him to stay forever and that's why I cursed him like my ancestors were witches not Puritans, and he never took me seriously until that last time. Until after he tortured another fucking exquisite orgasm out of me and I rubbed my wrists raw getting loose of the bonds and he was still looking down at me and I was messy and flushed and totally exposed and I loved him so fucking much but I couldn't believe that he'd love me back.
So I didn't tell him that I loved him. I told him, wrenching my hands free of his, that I hated who I was around him. And I don't know if that's true, but I hate even more who I am without him. Without him now and without him before I met—neither of those versions of me were worth anything.
I got to The Aldova at seven-oh-nine, and of course Nate wasn't there yet. I ordered hot tea, because the burning bitterness in my mouth would keep me from talking myself into a corner. I paid the man and sat in the corner to watch people pass. Nate and I used to people-watch together, for hours sometimes. He would try to transcribe their conversations, and I'd try to sketch them.
Now Nate's a published author and I'm just a clerk at Callahan's Art Supply Store trying to make a bargain for my own life story. It's pretty obvious here who won the breakup.
I watched Nate enter the store out of the corner of my eye, and immediately tried to look as though I weren't looking. Nate was six-two, perfectly sculpted, scruffy like an off-set movie star, and he fucking knew it. He looked over the people in the shop like he knew he was better than this, or like he was going to fuck them into some kind of coma later tonight. He found me and he didn't smile. I told myself that was good, because I'd sell my own kidney for that goddamn smile and I wasn't selling tonight, I was buying. Nate immediately made his way over to me, winding between tables. Eyes followed him, either because he was handsome, or because he was semi-famous, or probably because he was both at the same time. He sat down in front of me, placing his ubiquitous notebook and pencil to the side. I hated that goddamn thing. Fuck, I didn't hate it, I was fucking jealous. I was jealous of a goddamn notebook because Nate paid attention to it.
I scowled at the notebook and then transferred the scowl to Nate.
"You forgot to get coffee," I said. As an afterthought, I added, "Asshole."
"Nice to see you too, Core," said Nate. I tried to kick him under the table, but he dodged and laughed and went to the counter. I didn't hate pet names. I just hated the way he said them. OK, I hated the way that I melted when he said them. Fuck. This wasn't going how I'd planned at all—what do they say about the best-laid plans of mice and ex-boyfriends?
Nate had bought his coffee—black, it always was—and a pastry on a tiny pink plate that he put in front of me. I stared at it.
"It's not poison, Corey," he said. His voice made me want to shiver. "It's a chocolate croissant."
Fuck, he'd remembered. I blushed, goddamn it, and promised myself not to touch the croissant.
It was gone in three bites.
"Thank you," I said. "Now let's move on to the fact that you stole my fucking life."
"It was only a book, babe," said Nate.
"Yeah, it was only a book about a guy named—" even though I knew the name, I pulled out my copy of the book and made a show of checking. "A man named Elias Corrin who looks, and I quote—"
"I know my own book, Corey."
"Elias Corrin," I read anyways, "was painfully thin, middle-ages-alchemist-dying-of-lead-poisoning thin, and since he lacked the courage to go to the gym he learned to take pride in his slenderness. He insulted it constantly so that others would have to compliment it. Which isn't true, you fucker. Low self-esteem isn't always a ploy."
"I know, Core," said Nate. "Why don't you tell me why you're really here?"
I thought I could hear the disdain in his voice, the way I could almost see the sneer creeping in from the corner of his mouth. He wanted me to beg him to come back. I wanted to beg him to come back.
"Like I said, you owe me," I said, leaning back in my chair. I was going to pretend to be in control right now, but that never worked with Nate. Nate was insufferable, like my four-year-old cousin. And he was always in control, totally not like my four-year-old cousin.
But Nate didn't take the bait. He just leaned forward, clasping both his hands together on the table. He wasn't even twirling his pencil between his fingers. His coffee was getting cold, and he didn't seem to care. That's the beauty of Nate. Well, that's one facet of the splendid shape that is Nate: when he's paying attention to you, you feel like the most beautiful, most adored person in the room. Then when he looks away from me it's like I'm a sunflower and he's the sun and I'm wilting too fast but he's ancient and time doesn't move for him the way it does for me.