His ulcer is acting up again. Every few months, like clockwork, things get to be a little too much and his stomach flares with pain, effectively incapacitating him for half a week until he gets it under control again. The worst part of it all is how Felix reacts to it. He can stomach through the pain and the boredom, but what he can’t deal with is Felix’s constant doting and nagging and obsessively controlling tendencies.
“You’ve cooked rice every meal for the past three days,” Oscar bemoans when Felix enters his room with a tray.
“Rice is good,” Felix assures him, setting the tray on Oscar’s lap. “Rice is exciting.”
“Rice is not exciting. Especially not how you make it. Stir fry it with some eggs, that might count as exciting. Pour a can of chili beans on it and that might also do the trick. But this:” he gestures haphazardly at the circular white mound on the gaudy green plate. “This is just rice.”
“This is good for you, Osc. And the important thing is that it won’t irritate your ulcer.”
“Felix, you irritate my ulcer by barging into my room with your little plates of rice and your aprons and your nagging.” Oscar finds he is beginning to get genuinely frustrated. The quietness of his room had been a nice reprieve and Felix’s interruptions are not helping. He takes a forkful of rice and sticks it in his mouth. Chews, swallows. “See? I’m eating the rice. Will you leave now?”
Felix claps his hands together. “Excellent. Thank you.”
There is a short pause while Felix watches Oscar eat another bite of rice.
“Didn’t you hear what I said?” Oscar says grimly. “Get out, Felix.”
The corner of Felix’s lips turn up into something of a smile. A grin, like he knows something Oscar doesn’t. “Okay, sure. Sure,” he steps halfway into the hallway, one foot still in the threshold of Oscar’s room. And then, with a tender, faint sort of inflection to his voice: “Feel better soon.”
Once Felix has gone, Oscar tosses the plate and its remaining rice onto the bedroom floor. He’s not hungry anymore because he realizes sort of suddenly that Felix’s particularities and incessant bothering isn’t out of self-righteousness, but perhaps instead an indicator that he—
that he cares about Oscar.
Don’t be stupid, he chastises himself. Of course Felix cares about you. Don’t make more of it than it is.
But there’s something awfully wonderful about the thought. He cares. He cares. He cares. About me. The things he does, he does for Oscar in a type of unending, annoying selflessness. The profundity of his affection makes Oscar feel a little guilty. And guilt—
as Felix reminded him once—
Oscar puts his fist to his stomach and winces through the pain. Face in the pillow, teeth bared, heart hammering in his chest. Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck. The anxiety blooms like a cactus flower in his guts; hot, sharp, floral. The intensity of a wind sandblasting his skin. Chills. He lets the pain run its course, hitting him in predictable waves with unpredictable intensity. Only when it’s died down does Oscar realize he’s panting and heaving like he’s run a mile. And worse, his pillow is wet with tears.
Part of him wants to call out for Felix, who will no doubt care for him and soothe him through the pain and make everything better (and worse) through his presence; but he doesn’t know if he can handle the shame.
When it’s over, he swears to do better by himself.
(But knows it’s not going to be that easy.)
He’s no insomniac, but there are days—like with anyone else—that Oscar can’t sleep. They are the sorts of nights where he tosses and turns and imagines things only the darkness of his bedroom can offer. Like, for example:
does Felix have soft lips?
(of course they are soft; the man’s skin care routine puts divas to shame.)
He thinks about Felix’s lips, neck, chest (his earlobes for god’s sake) until he’s struggling to not— to not— to not—
Well. Why shouldn’t he? After all, it’s only between him and God, and Oscar doesn’t believe in God.
So he closes his eyes. And thinks of Felix’s lips.
Felix gets a call. His ninety-three year old aunt has passed away. The phone rings, he picks it up, sort of grimly, as if he knows what news will come from the other line; and he nods once, twice: “I see. Thank you. I’ll be there.”
And before Oscar can ask what the matter is, Felix goes to his room, shuts the door. The sound of muffled crying travels through the walls and to Oscar, who pretends not to hear. He never knows how to comfort Felix, and especially not now. Felix experiences emotions explosively; his grief and his love are experienced with a sort of depth Oscar knows he can neither replicate nor himself understand. But it’s not as if Oscar hasn’t experienced grief before—
and when he does, he finds a corner of himself that can hold all that he feels, a few square inches of his organs in which he can store everything painful and dreadful so that it doesn’t hurt as bad.
When Felix comes out of his room, he goes straight to the kitchen and whips up some of the most exquisite comfort food he’s ever made. It’s a mac and cheese casserole to absolutely die for, with rosemary green beans on the side. It’s so rich it’s almost as if it were seasoned with grief; and Oscar feels really rotten that he can’t do this for Felix, that the guy has to both grieve and comfort himself at the same time. It makes him feel dangerously inadequate.
“I’ll be out of town on Thursday,” Felix says after dinner. In a moment of rare disregard, his feet are propped up on the coffee table. “The funeral.”
“Sure,” he says. “Sure. You, uh. You need anything?”
“Oh, I dunno,” Oscar says ambiguously. “Anything. Anything at all.”
Felix is silent for a while, probably considering his offer. Finally, he says: “Can I have a drink?”
“A drink?” Repeats Oscar, a little disbelieving. “Like of water? Or a drink drink?”
“A drink drink.”
“You know that won’t make you feel better.”
Felix turns his head sadly. “Never stopped you.”
“Touché.” Oscar crosses to the kitchen and pulls out a menagerie of glass bottles. “What’re you craving, Feel? I got everything. There’s this amaretto stuff from last Christmas if you want something sweet.”
“I don’t really care as long as it’s strong.”
This isn’t a good sign. But Felix’s request is one Oscar knows he can do, and it leaves him with a mixed sense of simultaneous guilt and fulfillment. In a tall glass he mixes pretty much everything he has (vodka, rum, triple sec, gin, and tequila) and adds a splash of cola. And because he knows Felix will like it, he sticks a lemon wedge on the rim.
“Here you go.” Oscar lowers the glass onto the coffee table—but not before Felix slides a coaster underneath it. He rolls his eyes. “Drink up.”
“Aren’t you going to have any?” Felix takes a sip and, just as quickly, furrows his brow and winces.
Oscar considers this. He wants to. The little itch at the back of his skull wants him to.
It takes him the force of moving a mountain to say: “Not tonight.” The little itch says why not why not why not Felix is doing it so should you. “Maybe some other time,” he says to quell its desires.
Felix is a quarter of the way into his drink. “It’s strong alright,” he comments. “What is it?”
“Long Island Iced Tea.” He watches while Felix takes another long drink. “Hey, drink it slowly, okay? I don’t want to have to hail a cab to the hospital.”
“I’m in bad shape, Oscar.” His voice warbles, like he might cry.
“Listen, I know you’re upset about your aunt, but—”
“It’s not really just about her, you know? We were close when I was growing up, but that’s not the point. I worry.” He takes another drink, wincing as it goes down. “My aunt, she was alone. Not just when she passed, but the whole last ten years of her life. And I didn’t visit her, my brother didn’t either.”
“Don’t blame yourself.”
“I’m not, I’m not. Well,” he takes another drink. Leans his head back. “I feel a little guilty, but the thing is: I’m worried the same thing will happen to me.”
Oscar feels a certain pang in his chest. He puts his hand on Felix’s knee. “You’re not going to die, Felix. Not for a long time.”
“Oscar, I’m not scared of dying. I’m scared of being alone when it happens.” In one bitter swig, Felix finishes the drink and presses his hands into his face. “Oh, fuck,” he swears. (Felix never swears.) “I feel sick.”
“Felix…” He says as sympathetically as he can. Oscar never thinks about death. It seems so far off, so inevitable, so universal that there isn’t any sense in wasting his breath or his brain on it. It will happen. Someday. Somehow. Why bother worrying about the details?
“I don’t want to die alone,” weeps Felix, his voice hitched with tears. “If Gloria doesn’t take me back, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll die alone.”
There’s a few moments of quiet while he puts his hand on the nape of Felix’s neck. “I won’t let that happen, Feel.”
I won’t let that happen.
“Gloria will take you back. I know she will.”
I hope she doesn’t, he thinks, and he is overcome by a foul sense of guilt and selfishness.
I won’t let you die alone.
As soon as he gets home from work, Oscar has every intention of making a beeline for the kitchen to snag a beer from the fridge before slinking off to his bedroom. He would have done it, too, but when he pushes the key into the lock and opens the apartment door, he stops in his tracks.
Something isn’t right.
That is, he distinctly remembers having left the living room trashed this morning, and it is now, in every way, immaculate. The dining room table is lain with the white tablecloth, a piece of decor usually reserved only for special occasions; atop it, a single stem of holly in an elegant glass vase. The table is set for two, but Oscar doesn’t recall Felix mentioning that Miriam would be over for dinner. Speaking of dinner, a marvelous smell sashays in from the kitchen, something sweet and heavenly.
Suddenly, Felix enters from the hallway, an apron tied snuggly around his waist. “Oscar,” he says, the corner of his lips upturning in a smile. “I’m glad you’re home.”
“You didn’t tell me you were having company,” Oscar says offhandedly. He’s still thinking about the beer in the fridge.
“Company?” Felix balks. Oscar watches while his eyes dart interrogatively between him and the immaculately set dining room table. “No, Oscar, I’m not having any company,” he continues slowly. “This is for us.”
“Oh,” Oscar responds softly. “Felix, that’s really nice of you. Really, it is, but I’ve had a pretty rough day and—”
“Too rough to have dinner?” Felix says, obviously disappointed. He turns his head in that sardonic sort of way that always makes Oscar feel enormously guilty. “Come on. Eat with me. Please?”
And Oscar knows he can’t say no to him. He watches the pretty turn of Felix’s jaw while he begs with his eyes. “Okay. Sure,” he says, all the while melting. “But why the big set up? You didn’t get me sent to the IRS again, did you?”
Felix shakes his head. “No, no.” He laughs and makes for the kitchen, where he carefully pulls a roast from the oven. “I wanted to do something nice, that’s all.”
“You’re always doing nice things.”
“Should I stop?”
“Good,” Felix responds, cutting a piece of the roast and distributing it on to his and Oscar’s plates. “Now. If you’re done feeling guilty, let’s eat.”
There’s a rare warm day that November. It’s upwards of fifty degrees and, though Felix has Edna for the weekend, the girl spends all of breakfast if she can go play softball in the park with her “Uncle Oscar.”
Oscar, who’s already dressed in his sweats and has the bat and glove ready to go, doesn’t say anything—he hates to see Felix upset or jealous at loss of precious time with his children, but in truth he really does enjoy spending time with Edna, who plays a rather mean game of softball.
“Please, Dad?” Edna begs. “I won’t be able to play again till the Spring. This is my last chance and I promise not to let my clothes get dirty.”
Felix looks at Oscar. Oscar looks away.
“Oh, alright,” he concedes. “You two can go to the park for a couple of hours. Don’t be too long, though, okay?”
“Yes! Thank you!” Edna exclaims, then flies down the hallway to retrieve her athletic attire.
“I’m sorry, Felix,” Oscar apologizes when he notices the dour look on his face. “She’s a pretty spectacular first baseman if it makes you feel any better.”
“It doesn’t,” says Felix indignantly, removing the cloth napkin from his lap and folding it. “But I trust you. I’m just not thrilled to see my little girl becoming a tomboy.”
“Let her do what she wants,” Oscar implores. “She’s a good kid, you know?”
Felix sighs. “I know.”
A half an hour later, Oscar and Edna are warming up at Central Park. It’s still fairly early, so anyone else that might be interested in a game of softball has yet to arrive; Oscar and Edna pass the time by playing catch. For an eleven year old girl, she’s got a fairly powerful arm attached to her. She certainly didn’t get it from Felix.
“Do you think my mom and dad will get back together?”
Oscar’s mouth twists. “Your dad would like that, I think.”
“I know,” she says, waiting a beat before throwing the ball back to him. “I know that’s what he wants. Because he loves us. But the truth is—say, Uncle Oscar, can you keep a secret?”
“Good. The truth is, I think my mom is a lot happier now that it’s just us. I like seeing my mom happy. So part of me thinks: would it be alright if they never got back together?”
They toss the ball in silence for a few moments. Oscar doesn’t know quite what he should say without betraying Felix or explaining to Edna things she’s too young to understand.
“Does that make me a bad person? For wanting that?”
“No, sweetie,” Oscar shakes his head. “You just want to see your parents happy.”
A few more moments of silence. Edna drops the ball and picks it up. “Do you think you’ll get remarried, Uncle Oscar?”
Oscar shrugs. “Probably not.”
“If Dad never remarries Mom, and you never get married, does that mean Dad will live with you? Maybe forever?”
This is too much. “Probably not,” Oscar answers. “Your dad might meet someone else.”
“Oh,” she says softly. “I don’t think I’d like that, though. I’d prefer if he stayed with you so we can play softball.”
“Me, too, Kid.” The image of Felix, sixty, seventy, eighty years old flashes in his mind. Living and dying with Felix. Where he might otherwise feel frightened he feels a sort of sublime peace. “Me, too.”
Sometimes he hears explosions
and feels phantom pains. It’s why he
drinks so much. Drunk sleep is
There are things you can’t unsee
and things you can’t remember,
but if you lie in bed and memorize the paint strokes on the ceiling,
maybe you’ll be alright.
On Christmas Day Oscar and Felix get shit-faced on mimosas before noon.
And when Felix is drunk, he gets sort of grabby. Real touchy. More so than he already is. His arm is basically glued to Oscar’s waist all morning; so the hollandaise sauce he whips up one-handed. Oscar is ultimately too giggly to put up the pretense that this is something he doesn’t want, because he does want it, loves the privacy of the apartment and the way Felix laughs at nearly everything he says. He loves the affection most of all.
“Here,” Felix says playfully, holding in his hands an immaculately wrapped gift. The paper is an exuberant, glittery gold. The ribbon is silver. “I got you something.”
“You shouldn’t have,” Oscar drunkenly gushes, taking the package out of Felix’s hands in spite of himself.
Oscar unwraps the package, revealing a small box—within which there are two elegant, silver cufflinks. They aren’t monogrammed (Felix would never be so tacky), but instead are simple, delicate triangles. Under most circumstances, Oscar has no occasion to wear cufflinks, but he likes the gift enormously. He likes that they are from Felix, the kind of man who would notice details like the cufflinks on his wrist, the particularities of his appearance (his body).
“Do you like them?”
“I love them,” Oscar says honestly. “I love them, Felix.”
“I know you don’t use cufflinks often but I saw them and I thought they’d look nice on you, dignified, you know, and—”
“I love them. Felix.”
“Hold that thought,” he says, after he’s admired the gift for a few moments. “I have something for you.” And Oscar half-walks-half-staggers to his bedroom where, from the jungle that is his closet, he procures a gift, though its wrapping is a tad unruly.
“For you,” he says when he’s returned to the living room. Felix looks suspicious. “I put it in a clean spot in my room. Don’t give me that look.”
“Alright,” he complies, unwrapping the gift. And when it’s opened, he looks at it for a long while before saying anything.
“Well?” prompts Oscar.
“Oscar.” And the way he says his name is divine. He turns the gift over in his hands; it’s a framed photograph of Leonard and Edna. A candid shot Oscar had taken and had developed (independently of Felix, of course) one day at the park last summer. Edna has her younger brother in a fierce hug, Leonard laughing in spite of his attempts to break free. For a moment, he wonders if it’s ridiculous to get a professional photographer a photograph for Christmas, but when Felix looks up and there are tears in his eyes, Oscar knows he has done well.
Felix wipes his eyes. “Um,” he sniffles. “I love my children.”
“I love them too.”
There is a beat of silence while Felix admires the photograph. And then he sets it down on the table and pulls Oscar into a hug, his arms fixed fast to his back and his face in his shoulder. For a while, Oscar isn’t really sure what to do. It’s as if he is paralyzed, like he has been hit by a car, shocked by a live wire. Felix’s body is warm against his; and he continues to shake because he is crying into Oscar’s shoulder.
Do something, he implores himself. And so—very slowly—Oscar returns the hug, putting a hand to the nape of Felix’s neck and the other arm around his back. They stay like that for a long while, intertwined, inebriated. The incredible thing, though, is that he feels safe in Felix’s arms, stable in ways he hasn’t for years. He hadn’t known how off-balance he’d been until now, until Felix brought him that balance.
He locks his fingers in Felix’s hair and thinks to himself:
Felix is just lonely.
Felix is just lonely.