A gay man protects himself from the emotional tribulations of dating using a special microchip in his head, until the chip breaks; by O'Brian Gunn.
You would think that with as much progress as we’ve experienced the human race as a whole would become more evolved, but the only thing that’s evolved is our technology, our health, and our capacity for nostalgia.
I was missing the days when being gay meant you weren’t expected to get married or have kids.
“You’re twenty-nine years young, Davis, and you haven’t even been in a short-term relationship let alone a long one. Surely all of the guys out there don’t leave that bad of a taste in your mouth,” my mom said to me as she took the cigarette from her lips and blew light blue smoke, flicking ivory ash from the end of the blue cylinder.
We were sitting out on the patio of my parents’ house watching airships pull into the newly remodeled Grahame-Smith Skyport.
“And I’ll be in a relationship when I -”
“- Find the right guy,” she finished for me. “I know, I know. Have you even been looking? I mean, honestly?”
I gave her the look I’d been giving her since I was sixteen and she first suggested I start dating. I’d been dating since I was fifteen, but... I guess I’m just hard to please. I ask as much out of the guy I’m dating as I do myself, which is a hell of a lot. And there was also the fact that at the decreasingly tender age of twenty-nine I’d come to the point where I’d convinced myself I was fine with being single for the rest of my life. Which I couldn’t tell my mom.
I scratched at the back of my head and looked out at the skycutters streaking from New Manhattan to Old York before answering. “Yes, honestly. It’s not easy, especially for me.”
The one-word question made me squirm. “I just like being by myself, I’m a loner.”
She reached over and took me by the hand, squeezing my fingers. “Baby, just because you like being alone doesn’t mean you can’t be in a relationship. It just means you’ll be in a different kind of relationship.” She snatched a quick drag before continuing. “You just need to find someone who understands you don’t need constant attention and is willing to be there emotionally more than they are physically.”
I shook my head and allowed a smile to creep across my face. “Since when did you become so damn wise?”
“Well, I had to wise up when you started sneaking out of the house to meet boys you met over the Menta-net.” Her brow furrowed. “Your dad and I never did figure out how you got past that bio-barrier we put over your door and window to keep you from slipping out when you were seventeen.”
“I used a tachyon field rod to disrupt it,” I said to her.
Her lips parted and the wrinkles in her forehead deepened. “Where in the world did you get a tachyon field rod?”
“I was always a step ahead of you and pop.”
She let go of my hand and playfully swatted me on the arm. “You better be glad I don’t burn you with this cigarette.” She stood, stretching out her thin frame, and walked into the house as the patio doors automatically slid open. “Get your rebellious little butt in here and help me make dinner.”
What I didn’t tell my mom was that I don’t put my emotions into dating, and I mean that literally.
Everyone, or mostly everyone, has a small chip in their head that allows them to connect to the Menta-net where they can instantly access vast amount of information, maps, images, and audio while connecting to other people. The chip can also be used to either suppress or switch off a person’s emotions. I’ve done some research and asked around and it seems as though not many people are capable of using their chip this way. I don’t know if it’s because the Menta-chip is implanted differently in my head or if it’s like a special ability that only certain individuals have.
I first discovered I could do it when I was getting ready for a date with a guy I felt I really connected with. It was rare for me to get that intense sense of connection, and I didn’t want to ruin it with the emotional hang-ups I’d been nursing for the past several years about being in a serious long-term relationship and investing too much time and energy in a guy too soon. I just wanted to block all of that out. Shut it out.
And somehow I did.
It felt odd, at first, like I had seared all of my emotions out and was left with a feeling of... not quite emptiness, but... intense objectivity. It was like I was directly hooked up to someone’s eyes and was watching the date unfold, hearing the other guy tell me about his day at class and taking his great-grandfather to the museum and how he liked taking pictures with an old smartphone camera.
I didn’t allow myself to feel the initial build-up, that flurry of excitement and wonder I usually got that soon turned to disappointment and hollowness when the guy told me he’d reevaluated his life and decided he wasn’t in a place where he could be in a relationship, or that he saw me more as a friend, or that he’d had a change of heart or libido about how he felt about me.
I hated allowing someone else to make me feel like there was something wrong with me, like I was damaged, like I wasn’t good enough. So I shut myself down to shut those feelings out.
The only emotion I wanted to feel was happiness. You’d think that if we could come close to terraforming Mars and the moons of Jupiter we could easily find a way to make people feel genuine, unadulterated bliss without becoming addicted or mentally unstable.
Yeah, you’d think.
I was on a date with a guy I’d met on-mind. I know, I know, it was dumb, but on his profile he’d listed film neo as his favorite movie genre, which was also my favorite movie genre. I don’t know why I keep using the Menta-net to find guys. I should’ve just downloaded my consciousness into an Avatar and sparked myself into a digi-vironment like everyone else. It was realistic, faster, and I could upload myself back into my body if things started to take a turn for the worst.
I guess I was just old-fashioned.
We’d decided to keep it simple and meet at a coffee shop in Gillog. I scanned the shop when I arrived, seeing mostly college kids tapping away on the wafer-thin touch sensitive keyboards of their tablet computers and a cluster of people with their chairs arranged in a circle and e-scrolls in their laps. No sign of Neil, a 5’11 22-year-old with a froth of black hair and “eyes like the first ray of the morning sun.” Hopefully his eye re-pigmentation hadn’t ruptured. I’d been hearing about that a lot on the newsfeed. I admit I could see the allure in having deep gold eyes, but not at the cost of that deep gold bleeding its way over the rest of your eyes in a runny blob.
I took a seat in the corner where I could see the door and started shutting off my emotions while I waited. At first, it took me ten minutes to go into emotional shut down, but now I could do it in about thirty seconds. I focused on connecting to the Menta-net, but my focus was lazy, like a smudged thought. Instead of the usual transparent neon blue heads-up display of the Menta-net homescreen eclipsing my vision, my perception of the world shimmered at the edges a bit. I stayed in that mental limbo and emptied myself while sinking lower into the sensation of being unhinged from my mind and body. I drifted.
I noticed Neil as he walked into the coffee shop and took a look around. His eyes were indeed the warm golden hue of sunrise, and thankfully wholly intact. He grinned when he spotted me, waved, and headed over. I smiled in return, but I didn’t feel it, didn’t feel the usual flutter of nervousness in my gut that I got when I meet people for the first time.
I stood when he reached the table and injected warmth into my eyes. He was more attractive in person and thankfully my hormones were on hiatus, so I didn’t start getting flashes of what it would be like to kiss him and drag my thumb across his sharp jaw line.
He extended a hand, eyes capturing mine in a death grip. Steady eye contact can be more intimate than any type of physical touch. What did he see when he looked in my eyes? Could he tell I’d suppressed my emotions, or was my manufactured sincerity enough to fool him?
“Hi,” Neil said. “Nice to finally meet you.” He flicked his golden eyes up and down my body. “And even nicer to see your images are recent and real.”
I grinned wider. “Likewise.” We sat. “So how’s your day been?”
He placed his long-fingered hands on the table, curling his fingers in towards his palms as he glanced at the menu scrolling across the surface. “It’s been good. I spent most of the morning talking with my advisor about grad school, so I didn’t get to spend too much time on my final essay, but it still turned out okay.” He braced his forearms on the table and leaned forward. “What about you?”
“Just had to take my skycutter to the mechanic. They think I might have a loose gimbal or something.”
Neil’s face pinched. “Damn, those are expensive.”
“I know. Thankfully I’ve got enough in my savings account.” He hadn’t looked away from me since he’d sat down. This would normally be the part where I started to feel like we were just beginning to form a bond, where I started to feel like I really was emotionally capable of having affection for another man. But this time I didn’t feel any of that.
“Are you okay, Davis?”
Neil’s image rubbed back into focus. I’d allowed myself to sink too deep, drift too far. I twitched a shy smile on my face and scratched at the back of my head. “Yeah, I’m fine. Sorry. Guess I just need some caffeine.”
Neil slid his hand towards mine, fingers slightly curled. He gently grazed his fingertips over the back of my hand and rested the weight of his eyes on mine. I didn’t feel the projection of intimacy those deep golden orbs conveyed, nor did I feel anything when he rested his fingers on mine for a few seconds.
Over the next two weeks Neil and I went out on five more dates. After each date I slowly allowed myself to come out of my insensate state to examine the slivers of emotion I felt when I thought about how Neil always held the door open for me, how his face brightened when he saw me, and how he stood close to me but didn’t quite touch me. I had to be careful not to come out of my insensate state too quickly, so that my emotions didn’t infect and poison me like they’d done before. I’d learned that developing feelings for someone can start out with euphoria and end with near delirium where your brain rewires itself to make sense of a breakup or a breakdown in communication.
I’d just stepped inside my apartment building when Neil called me. I tapped the phone icon on my watch and flicked my fingers in front of my face, repositioning the flat hovering viewscreen that tracked my eye movements to constantly stay in my field of vision. Neil’s floating image followed me down the hall. “I just got home, Neil. Give me like half an hour and I’ll meet you at the river. You still up for...” I stopped talking when I noticed the expression on his face. The familiar expression on his face. Here we go again.
I hurtled myself down into the void so fast it felt like I was being shoved backwards, stumbling back out of my body and mind to become an impartial bystander. I turned the corner and let myself into my studio apartment at the end of the hall before repositioning the viewscreen on the wall.
Neil ran his fingers through the mop of black hair he’d once told me he would try to get cut more often than four months at a time. “Davis, I...” It was his turn to stop talking. “I hate to do this to you like this.”
I blinked. “Go on,” I told him.
He dropped his hand and looked at me with those golden eyes. “I really like being around you, I honestly do, but... I just don’t think I have the time necessary to truly invest in this... in this relationship.”
“I’m really sorry, Davis. It’s just that I’m up for a promotion at work and I’m thinking about grad school and I’m – I’m really not even taking out any time for myself to just be in my own space.”
There was a flutter in my chest. “I under...” The flutter flashed warm across my skin and I felt - I felt something I hadn’t felt in the seven months since I’d learned how to shut my emotions off.
I felt worthless and angry and -
I plunged deeper into the void, deeper into the black hole where no emotion can escape.
“I understand, Neil.” My face relaxed by itself and my fingers uncoiled from fists. “You’re a busy guy.” I fixed my lips into a smile.
Neil looked relieved. “You’re too sweet. I’d still like to be friends, though.”
I bobbed my head. “You got it.”
He paused, locked onto me with those warm golden eyes. Again, my barrier fractured and sensation trickled in. Longing. Affection. Safety.
When Neil finally spoke, he said, “I’m sorry I made you feel this way.”
I disconnected the call.
And then I crumbled down in the middle of my living room. I couldn’t stop the emotions from filling me, no matter how much I tried to empty myself of the past and present: physical and emotional sensations of rejection, awkward sex, Neil, disillusionment, kisses, disappointment, staring at the phone icon on my wrist and willing it to ring, childlike glee, Joen.
My Menta-chip wasn’t the only thing that seemed to be broken.
The cyber-technician at CT&T told me that the integrated neuro-circuit in my Menta-chip had malfunctioned but could be salvaged.
They also told me I wouldn’t be able to connect to the Menta-net for three weeks while they repaired my chip, which meant I wouldn’t be unable to shut down my emotions for three weeks.
True to his word, Neil kept in touch with me and really seemed to want to at least be friends. Good friends. I wished he’d been more of an asshole when he “broke up” with me, one who never contacted me, one who made it easy to hate him, one who let me know just how little I meant to him. Instead, Neil was nice about the... break up. He continued to share his life with me, continued to share his smile with me, continued to share the warmth of his eyes with me.
I wished he would’ve given me one good reason to hate him instead of leaving me to find one on my own.
All of it made me feel like Neil was holding my head under a pool of heavy emotions and forcing me to drown in each and every one of them. He was forcing me to look at myself, forcing me to deal with why I’d never been in a long-term relationship, why I’d rather hook up with my right hand than a guy, why I’d convinced myself I was okay with being a lifelong bachelor who led a full and successful life in the company of close friends.
Every time he asked if I wanted to go to the coffee shop where we first met it made me grit my teeth. Every time he shared a picture of graffiti art he’d found in New Manhattan I felt like I’d been shocked in the gut. Every time I read one of his status updates on Facecircuit I wondered if he was dating someone new, someone who didn’t mind that he was busy all of the time and wasn’t afraid of being a complete human being instead of an android without the capacity to feel.
These newly unleashed thoughts and emotions boiled over while I was in the shower and suddenly my fist was pistoning into the wall. The tile shattered around my hand and blinding, staggering agony flared through my body. I looked at the blood blotting the fragments of tile and dribbling over the ripped skin of my knuckles. I slammed my other fist into the wall, harder. The pain made me whimper and bite my lip as my arm went numb for a handful of seconds.
Maybe I’ll be able to survive without my Menta-chip after all.
Kennedy’s Gym had a special on mixed boxing lessons, two months for the price of one. It was close to my apartment building, and the special was also good for free use of their 24-hour gym.
Kennedy’s had the boxing ring and a series of punching bags in the middle of a half-circle running track. The worn black punching bags were suspended from hooks and chains instead of anti-gravity discs, the boxing ring used actual ropes instead of holo-bands, and the free weights looked like something from the early 2000s. Some old school technology is simply better than the new, so-called sophisticated cutting-edge junk they were cranking out now.
My trainer was a woman named Chinatown. She looked to be in her late 40s, early 50s and had the sculpted body of a fresh-faced twenty-year old. She wore her jet-black hair in tight cornrows, didn’t bother with makeup or trying to look young, and had a face as expressionless as mine used to me.
“Get those arms up and those skinny little legs out,” she told me on our third day together.
I got those arms up and those skinny little legs out, blinking the rivulets of sweat out of my eyes.
She turned her back to me. “Left jab, right hook.”
My left arm sliced out at the punching bag, setting it to swaying before I extended my right arm, giving it a bit of a curve. The blows drove divots into the punching bag and sent it spinning.
Chinatown still had her back to me. “Give your hook a little bit more power. Again.”
Left arm slice, right arm curve.
She spun on her heel. “Remember the beat of the blow I told you about last time. Listen for that cadence when you hit the bag and keep going until you hear it.”
Even though I didn’t have a Menta-chip, I dove deep. I gathered myself together instead of allowing myself to drift apart.
There. The beat of the blow. I felt it vibrate in my fist and throb through the aching muscles of my arms. There was only me and the bag, me and the beat of the blow. Everything else was outside of this moment of time.
The gyrating bag was suddenly snatched to a halt, shattering me out of my trance. The edges of my vision snapped into focus and I felt as if I’d regained consciousness.
Chinatown stood on the other side of the bag with her hands on either side. She looked like she’d been calling my name for a while. Even though her face didn’t tick an inch, I could see a smile shining in her eyes. “You went into the fighter’s zone.” She patted the side of the bag. “Takes some guys months to find that space.” She stared at me a moment longer. “Good job today. Make sure you download the third supplemental training video on your tablet before you head out. Next time we start on uppercuts and chaining blows together.”
Two weeks passed and Neil and I were still on speaking terms. I thought about him, but not like I used to with other guys. Instead of detaching from the emotions associated with Neil and the way I wished he didn’t make me feel, I instead mentally detached myself from Neil. I didn’t give him any more thought or time than absolutely necessary. I knew I was treating him like someone who’d hurt me, but that way was working a hell of a lot better than any of my other coping mechanisms where I turned things over and over in my head wondering what I’d done wrong and what my future would have been like with the guy in question.
Chinatown had me running three miles around the ring, stopping at every lap for a set of punches, push-ups, and rapid grapevines. It was hard, grueling work and felt like I was melting into the floor when I collapsed at the end of every session, but I loved it. My mind and body took me to a state I’d thought was only achievable through technology. Never had I felt so free and grounded at the same time.
And then I met him.
I was sitting with my back to the mirrored wall guzzling water when Chinatown walked up with a guy with a shaved head, thin mustache, and a landing strip of hair beneath his bottom lip. The body beneath the tight tank top was thick and well-toned. Somehow he moved with the grace of... the grace of... I remembered to swallow the water in my mouth and inhale through my nose.
“Davis, this is Marco.”
Marco lifted his pink lips in a smile and jerked his chin up.
“He’s been mixed boxing for three years,” Chinatown continued.
“Four,” Marco corrected her.
Wrinkles spread across her forehead and the corners of her lips tugged down. “Really?”
He nodded once.
She relaxed her face back to its usual blank roughness and put her hands on her hips. “Anyway, I want the two of you to train together for a little while. Give you a chance to spar with someone a bit closer to your level.”
Marco lifted an eyebrow. “Thought I was closer to your level.”
Chinatown shook her head as she turned. “I’m older and better than I look, pretty boy. You two have fun.” She retreated back into the office.
Marco extended a hand. He had nice - No. “Nice to meet you.”
We shook. “Likewise.” I stood and noticed he was a few inches shorter than me.
“So you’ve been at this for two weeks?”
“Nice. I was a bodybuilder before I got into mixed boxing. Didn’t want to get too bulky, you know?” He smiled at me. “Wanted to keep that toned, panther look. Figured mixed boxing was a good way to do that. What about you? Why’d you take up mixed boxing?”
I took another sip of water to buy myself time. “Just wanted to sort things out in my head. Put things back in their place.” Something in his eyes compelled me to tell the truth. His eye contact was as steady and constant as mine. “And it doesn’t hurt that I’m getting in shape.” Humor, my refuge.
Marco seemed to think so too as he laughed. He clapped me on the shoulder. “Let’s see whatchu got then, eh?”
I did my best to ignore the way the brush of his hand seemed to connect to my heart and make me feel the next beat in my head, neck, and the soles of my feet.
I then realized I hadn’t made any progress at all over the past two weeks. I was still a lovesick fool in need of a vaccine.
In the ring Marco stretched a bit, his tank top tugging up over his flat, hairy stomach and his shorts slipping higher to expose the corded muscles bunched tight in his thighs. I would not do this again. I could not do this again. I focused on my breathing and the way it felt when I stretched, anything to distract myself from slipping.
I wrapped my knuckles, the backs of my hands, and my wrists in hand wraps, tapping the lightly pulsing dot at the end of the wrap that made the fabric over my knuckles and the backs of my hands and wrists inflate into boxing gloves.
Marco hopped around a bit, loosening himself up. He settled down into his stance and lifted his hands to guard his face. “Ready?”
Then I juked back when his left fist blurred out and retracted before it connected as he pivoted his hips and legs and cranked out a quick right uppercut toward my stomach. The blow connected this time. I grunted and gritted my teeth as air pumped out of my nostrils.
Like Chinatown, his face was empty, but his eyes were vibrant and wild, shining and scorching hot. That heat caught hold of something in me and ignited it.
I pistoned my arm out in a jab, felt it connect with his jaw and snap his head around. He responded with a vicious backhand that I blocked with my wrist before pumping a body shot out at his ribs. He corkscrewed his torso around and the blow glanced off of him. Even through the gloves I could feel how hard his body was.
Marco hit me with a left-right-left hook combo, stepping forward with each blow. I kept my arms up and felt hammers masquerading as flesh slam into my forearms. I shuffled to my left towards his dead side where he couldn’t hit me as well. Marco suddenly stepped out to his right, shifting his weight onto his large thighs, and shot an elbow at my gut.
My diaphragm folded inward around the quick blow and oxygen was forced out of my lungs as I crumpled to my knees. Marco took a few steps back. I cleared the gray blots from my vision, shaking my head, and pushed myself upward while taking a few quick breaths.
We circled each other for a few seconds and got a feel for the way the other moved, where the weight settled, how the feet shuffled, and how the arms wavered in anticipation. I snapped my arm out. Marco popped a fist down, forcing my arm to drop before he extended that fist and hit me just under the eye. There was a sudden supernova in the side of my skull.
There was a question in his eyes. I gave a slight nod and let him know I was fine, that we could keep going. And he did.
Marco and I were in our second bout of sparring when I realized we weren’t fighting so much as we were... balancing each other. He moved forward and I bent back in response. His body shifted one way and I immediately flowed in the opposite direction. The motions were instinctive and the emotions were primal, nothing at all what it felt like when I first meet a guy.
I’d never fallen like this for someone... but I liked it.
After the match Marco walked over to me as I was crouched down and stuffing my deflated hand wraps in my bag with one hand and checking the messages on my tablet with the other.
“That the new Stratus 10?”
I looked up at him. The fire in his eyes wasn’t burning as hot, but it was still smoldering. Still giving off heat. My fingers clenched around my wraps and my fingertips hovered over the three-dimensional screen. I dropped my head and my movements sluggishly resumed. “Yeah. Just got it.”
“Nice.” He nodded, sniffed, and pinched his nose. “Listen, uh...” He scratched at the back of his head and found something interesting on the floor. It was like watching an overgrown, well-built child trying to get out of an awkward situation. “I’m not sure if you’re, uh...” He tugged his lips to the side, ruining the perfect line of his mustache. “You’re a good fighter.”
I zipped up my gym bag and stood. “Thank you. You’re not bad for someone who’s been doing it for three years.” I didn’t laugh at my joke. Blame it on my dry sense of humor.
“You wanna get together again on Friday night, go for a few more rounds? Maybe I can teach you a few things.”
My body temperature spiked and my knuckles itched with the memory of pummeling into his face, torso, and mouth. Normally I’d kiss those places with my lips instead of my fists.
I nodded. “Yeah, we could do that.”
“Alright then.” He paused and held eye contact with me for two heartbeats. “It’s a date.”
I lifted a bruised shoulder and bobbed my still ringing head. “Most definitely.”
Marco grinned at me. I imagined ramming a right hook into that grin rather than focus on the other familiar sensation I felt. “I’ll see you later, Davis. Take care of yourself.”
“You, too, Marco.” I lifted my hand in a wave.
It was a date.
Two days later I had my repaired Menta-chip re-installed at the base of my brain. Instead of diving and going catatonic robotic when I thought about Marco, I did some shadow boxing. Some vigorous shadow boxing. I elbowed, punched, jabbed, hooked, ducked, sidestepped, and sweated my emotions out, exorcising them from my head. I no longer blocked them, I embraced them. And pounded the hell out of them on the punching bag.
My friendship with Neil became a genuine friendship. I no longer thought about what kind of life or what kind of relationship I could’ve had with him. The only relationship that mattered anymore was the one I had with mixed boxing. I wasn’t learning it as much as it was learning me, teaching me about myself.
Marco and I were... dating. We talked about it one night in the ring. How we both have different ideas of what a relationship really is. How we’d rather get to know a person without all of the tense nerves, forced conversations, post-date reviews, and pressures that come with the more prevalent ideas of dating and relationships. We wanted to see the other person completely stripped, naked, vulnerable, and raw while they were still wearing their clothes. And there was no better way to do that than by watching a person give everything they had and a bit of what they didn’t know they had while against the ropes.
We got to know each other in the ring while we were beating the hell out of each other. We didn’t say a word. Our fists and bodies did the talking for us. The closest I’d come to kissing him was when I split his lip. But I did clean it up and put medi-gel on it for him. He bought me some new hand wraps since my old ones were starting to fall apart and didn’t inflate as well. We walked each other home sometimes, but we never went into the other’s place. And we never asked. It wasn’t a normal relationship, but I guess we weren’t normal gay guys.
At first, I thought I was a masochist or a sadist, but it wasn’t about hurting Marco or him hurting me. I honestly didn’t know what it was, but I did know it made me feel closer to him than I’d ever felt with a guy before. I didn’t know his favorite color, but I knew he twisted his head just a bit to the left before he delivered a left hook. I knew he had that little landing strip of facial hair down his chin to hide the scar he got from an uppercut. And I knew his jaw never quite healed right from a vicious haymaker he took last year.
The ring was our dinner table, movie theatre, parked skycutter overlooking the Old York skyline, bed, and our couch. We clenched instead of cuddled, wrapped hands instead of held hands, and bandaged each other up instead of sexed each other up.
Felt like true love to me.
My mom and I were on the patio having drinks the next night.
“What’s his name?” she asked as she sipped at her mojito and looked out at the edges of the sun as it eased down the horizon behind the newly renovated Statues of Liberty and Justice.
The ice in my glass clinked when I stopped my hand an inch from my lips. “What? Whose name?”
She smiled and turned to me. “The boy you’re dating.” She let loose a little laugh. “Com’on, tell me.”
I took a drink of bourbon. “I’m twenty-nine, mom. I don’t date boys, I date men. Grown-ass men.”
“At twenty-nine you should be living with a grown-ass man.” She set her drink down and lit up a cigarette. “So what’s the man’s name?”
I crunched down on ice. “Marco.”
She lifted her eyebrows. “Marco.” Baby blue smoke trickled past her lips. “I like that.”
“I met him at the gym.”
“Hmm. A tough, buff guy, eh?” She stuck her cigarette in the corner of her mouth and flexed her freckled arms, shoulders bunching up around her ears and brow furrowed with exaggeration. “He better protect my baby.”
“Maaaa.” I smiled and drew my eyebrows together at the same time.
She reached over and rubbed my arm. “Yes, my twenty-nine-year-old baby. So what’s this Marco like?”
I took another sip of my drink, slower this time. “He’s into mixed boxing. He’s been teaching me some moves. He’s a really good fighter, passionate.”
She nodded and watched an airship head out of the skyport. “Sounds like a good guy.”
“He is.” I rubbed at my lip. “He really is. It’s nice to finally meet someone who really gets me.”
“Feels like coming home, doesn’t it?”
The words hit me like a punch to the gut. I let them dig in. “It really does.”
She nodded. “That’s how it was with your father.” A sigh eased past her lips along with a curl of smoke. “I still talk to him like he’s still alive.”
“I do, too, ma.” I reached over and gripped her hand. “I do, too.”
She lifted the hand holding her drink and wiped under her eye with the knuckle of her thumb. “So Marco treats you good?”
Images of Marco driving check hooks, jabs, knees, and gazelle punches into my body and face flicked through my mind in a series of jump cuts. “Like no guy ever has.”
I was holding back. It was easy telling someone you’d found the one person you’d been looking for for what felt like an eternity, but how did you explain that your relationship with that person was built on what some might misconstrue as violence? How did you make them understand you weren’t in an abusive relationship, but an honest and emotionally freeing relationship?
It was like coming out all over again.
“So can I watch the two of you go at it?” my mom asked. “In the ring, I mean,” she quickly added, grinning broadly.
“You’re gonna make me sneak out of the house again if you keep that up.” I polished off my drink. I pointed at her nearly empty glass. “Another?”
“Please.” She handed me her glass. “And hurry back. I wanna hear more about Mister Marco.”
I got up and headed back into the house. My phone chimed. I looked down at my wrist and saw that it was Marco. I stopped in the kitchen and accepted the call, tilting the viewscreen in front of my face. It reminded me of the time Neil called to say he just wanted to be friends.
Marco greeted me with his signature grin. “Hey, Quick Draw.” His nickname for me because my punches are so fast. “How you doin’?”
“Can’t complain. Over my mom’s having a few drinks.” I eyed the bruise just underneath his left temple. I pointed at my face just under my temple. “That healing ok?”
“What, your little love peck?” He laughed. “Healin’ just fine. You up for a workout later tonight?”
I looked out at the patio and saw my mom standing and looking up at the emerging stars. I turned back at Marco. “If it’s okay, I think I’m going to spend a couple more hours here.”
He nodded. “Not a problem. Ah...” He paused. “Tell your mom I said hi. She seems like a helluva woman.”
I felt my lips spread. “She is.” It was my turn to pause. “Did you... did you want to come over? Have a few drinks with us? She makes a great mojito. I don’t know if you like old-fashioned drinks, though.” I was changing up my stance, throwing a few new moves into the mix.
Marco sized me up for a moment, getting a feel for the sudden key change in our pugilist psalm. He blinked at me.
My heartbeat sped up. “Never mind. I don’t want to ruin anything between us. I’ll call you tomorrow... That is if you still want me to.”
“No, I don’t think I do.”
Blood pounded in my ears, the sound almost deafening.
“Not when I’m gonna see you in a few minutes. What’s the address?”