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A Non-Conformist Pas de Deux

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Secretly, Oscar likes going to the ballet with Felix.

It’s kind of voyeuristic, and more than a shade embarrassing, the way he likes watching Felix sit on the edge of his seat, his eyes actively fixed on the dancers, inhaling information somehow delivered in fourth position, a grand pleat, a language only he can understand. Oscar can count on one hand the number of times Felix has blinked in the last fifteen minutes. It must be amazing inside of Felix’s head—each compartment of his usually delineated brain collapsing and bursting forth in color and sound, a liminal space between semantics and rhetoric, something intangible and ineffable. It makes Oscar

very jealous. Upset by the sort of

things Felix can hear and feel and think that Oscar cannot;

Felix is a very special person, Oscar realizes and it is as if

as if his

heart

his heart—

Oh, God, Oscar thinks in a moment of biblical clarity while Act I of Swan Lake sweeps to a heavenly close. Heavenly is wrong. It’s something else, something electrifying, magnetic—no, bigger—it’s louder, the trumpets heaving in minor key, the dancers

Spinning and

spinning

and spinning

Oh my God. No, it’s Earth-shattering, it’s explosive, the orchestra is—must be—trying to tell him something. Oscar can’t look at Felix anymore, it’s too much, so much. The music pushes harder, and just when he finds he cannot take anymore, the theme repeats, louder and higher, bolder, in a sharper more poignant key, all the instruments screaming perfect noise that cannot be translated.

Swan Lake reaches its peak in a way Oscar can only describe as orgasmic. It is so intense he finds himself exhausted as the curtains close and the lights go up for intermission. He’s sweating and his heart is hammering like he just ran a mile.

He looks at Felix.

Felix looks at him

and then looks away

Just as quickly.

Oscar turns his head, like the architecture has suddenly caught his interest. He presses the belly of his wrist to the crest of his cheekbone and it comes back wet. Neither of them say anything through intermission.


Felix sings while he cooks. He has a lovely, rich tenor voice.

A leg of lamb roasts in its own juices in the oven, joined by a bed of carrots whose caramel sweetness wafts through the apartment like a nostalgic ghost. And while he slices thick cuts of warm bread awaiting butter, Felix sings:

Stars fading but I linger on, dear

Still craving your kiss

I’m longing to linger till dawn, dear

Just saying this

No one has ever called Oscar “dear” before, not his mother, not Blanche. And Felix hasn’t, either.

Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you

Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you

But in your dreams whatever they be

Dream a little dream of me

There is no reason why the words might be intended for him. They are just lyrics, after all. They were sung first by Doris Day, by thousands of others whenever the radio plays, and now by Felix, who smiles when he sings, who made the bread himself with a starter he’s been using ever since he moved in.

Dream a little dream of me

Felix sings again, repeating the line on his own whim.

Oscar doesn’t need to be told twice. He dreams about Felix even when he’d like not to.

 


“I am so sick of you.”

What a lie. Oscar wishes he was sick of Felix. Instead, he needs him like he needs air, counts down the minutes until he and Felix are each done at work and can see each other again. Codependency is an addiction. A little more won’t hurt anybody; I’ll come clean tomorrow. But Oscar can never be clean of Felix. Through manic bouts of a vague intensity he wishes he could become one with Felix, never risk being too far apart.

“I am so sick of you, Felix.” But when he says it, he’s drunk and grinning and he doesn’t mean it. Because he’s flirting. He hopes Felix is intuitive enough to take the exact opposite as truth.

“You’re not sick of me,” Felix says, like a fortune teller, his voice clear as crystal bells. “You couldn’t live without me.”

 


There is no sense of personal space between the two of them, and it sort of drives Oscar up a wall. Movements and touches of familiarity, an arm across the shoulder, a playful shove, a hand through the otherwise well-groomed hair on Felix’s head, are commonplace. They keep their hands to themselves in public out of respect for the unwritten rules that circle above them like vultures of decorum, waiting for a slip up to give them feast.

But in the privacy of the apartment, Felix and Oscar engage in a litany of unbearably platonic behaviors that circumnavigate language and meaning and definition. For Oscar, who is starving for touch and famished for love, everything Felix gives is almost enough.

Felix is the sort of person who gives

and gives

and gives. And doesn’t expect anything in return. He feels like a creep—or maybe just desperate—hoping that Felix’s hand on his shoulder might stay there a minute longer. To have these secret urges and desires is wrong because Felix is oblivious and it all feels like one big lie, a con, an I’m going to think about your hands on my hips all night long because it gets me off it gets me off.

At night he lies in bed and forces the image of a woman in Felix’s place but it never works. It doesn’t mean Oscar doesn’t like women—because he does—it just means that it’s impossible to think about anyone else because he sees Felix more than anyone else on this planet, drinks coffee and watches the seven o’clock news with him, is (he realizes, one day when he’s drunk off his ass in the living room long after Felix has gone to bed) in every way and every form except legally and physically married to him.

But Oscar has never been a domestic type. It is why things didn’t work out with Blanche. If he hasn’t settled down by the age of 44, he probably never will. Not with Blanche, and certainly not with Felix.

Felix is annoying, Oscar reminds himself. His cheek rests on the cool lid of the toilet seat in between vomiting sessions. I’ll never drink again, he lies to himself, then

I’m going to kick him out I want him out I hate his guts I hate the way he cleans I hate the way he nags I hate the way he makes me feel and the things he makes me do and the things he makes me want to do,

he lies again.


It’s been six years since Oscar has had sex with another man. Things were already on the rocks with Blanche by then, so all the guilt and regret he felt was not for want of monogamy. In retrospect, it was also incredibly risky. After all, what if he was mistaken, or if it had been a set up? What would have happened? Oscar doesn’t like to think about it.

It’s difficult for him to find anyone with whom he can have the luxury of anonymous sex. After all, lots of people—maybe thousands of people in the city alone—read his sports column, and the chances of someone recognizing him aren’t exactly slim. Even when he hooks up with a woman he errs on the side of caution and offers a fake name and unassuming profession.

It’s Saturday afternoon and Felix is in the living room dusting the curtain rods. Even with the added height of the stool, Felix has to stand on the tips of his toes to reach it, his outstretched arms (with the (oh god) sleeves rolled up to his elbows) untucking the hem of his shirt from the 28-inch-waisted pants and revealing a tiny triangle of skin on the small of his back.

Felix notices him. “Good morning, Osc,” he says, turning around slightly and offering a genuine smile. “Sleep well?”

Oscar knows right then and there he has to leave.

He sticks around for breakfast but afterwards makes his excuses and hauls ass two-and-a-half hours north to Schenectady where he knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a bunch of guys who all love to hang out in this one particular club for—usually—one particular reason.

 


Felix has a girlfriend.

Oscar is jealous in ways he hasn’t been since high school.

But instead of fixating on his jealousy, he thinks of reasons why Felix having a girlfriend doesn’t make sense, as if he can transform love into logic and end their relationship by matter of sheer definition.

“But you’re trying to get back with Gloria,” Oscar presses, following Felix around the kitchen like a lost poodle. “Why do you even want a girlfriend?”

“Miriam’s very nice.”

“Course she’s nice,” Oscar says. He means it. “But my point is that you are actually less likely to get back with Gloria when you’re with Miriam.”

“True,” he says. He doesn’t sound like he cares all too much.

“See? You agree with me. If you want my advice, tell Miriam you just want to be friends, and put all your energy into getting back with Gloria, okay?”

“There’s just one problem.” Felix pours a few dollops of soap into a greasy pan in the sink and begins to scrub furiously.

“What’s that?”

“I want to be with Miriam.”

“You do?”

“I’m lonely, Osc.”

“Aren’t I enough?” He says before he can stop himself. There is a beat of silence and he fills it by leaning against the edge of the stove.

Felix makes a face and stops scrubbing.  “Maybe I won’t go back to Gloria. I don’t think it’ll ever work out between us. It might just be me and Miriam from here on out.”

The fact that Felix doesn’t answer Oscar’s question tells him the implication wasn’t lost on him. He’s embarrassed, though he has no right to be. The conversation ends without any resolution and Oscar—hardly bothering to disguise his anger—storms out of the kitchen and  leaves Felix with the pots and pans.


It isn’t often that Felix accompanies Oscar to a bar, but when he does, Oscar is both grateful and titillated. Even before he’s had a drunk, Oscar is intoxicated by the thrill of breaking rules that only he knows he’s breaking. Thou shalt not go drinking with your best friend for whom you feel an uncontrollable lust.

Oscar isn’t, however, under any impression that anything will happen tonight, or any other night in the near nor far future. He’s glad that Felix is drinking with him for really just one reason: he likes Felix. And it’s funny to watch him drunk. He smiles a lot more; which makes Oscar smile a lot more.

They are out for a few hours, hobbling home around midnight and some change. Oscar has had six drinks; Felix, two and a half. Oscar feels like shit, so does Felix, but Oscar probably feels worse. (Felix’s liver is unaccustomed to drink, and at a lithe five-foot-eight and 155 pounds, he is hardly built to handle anything stronger than a Shirley Temple.)

When they are about a half a block away from the apartment, Oscar keels over a city trashcan and lets out whatever was left in his stomach. He feels Felix’s hand on the back of his neck and then his shoulder blades, caressing him through the thick fabric of his jacket.

“You shouldn’t drink so much, Oscar.” The way he says it is so soft, and Oscar is sure—even as drunk as he is—that there is love in each word.

“I know,” he responds, then pukes once more.

“I worry about you.”

“I’ll be better in the morning.”

“Okay. Just let me know when you’re ready to start walking again.”

Which takes a long time. Oscar stands over the trashcan, fighting off waves of nausea. It’s disgusting and frankly pathetic, but if Felix feels contemptuous towards him, he doesn’t show it. He keeps his hand on Oscar’s back to let him know he’s still there. And though Oscar hardly remembers the walk home, he surmises it must have happened because he wakes up at eleven o’clock the next morning under the covers of his bed with a glass of ice water and Pepto-Bismol on his nightstand.

Felix deserves so much better, Oscar decides, chugging half the glass of water in a flash. He deserves so much fucking better.


When Felix books them a cabin upstate for the weekend, Oscar feels extremely conflicted.

Firstly, Felix drives him crazy.

Secondly, Felix drives him crazy.

But Oscar agrees anyway, and when they arrive at the lake via bus and heave their luggage into the cabin (Felix insisted on bringing his camera with him), Oscar instantly feels like he’s the butt of a higher power’s cruel joke.

“That’s funny,” Felix says, carefully examining the cabin like a cat in unfamiliar surroundings. “I swore I booked a two bedroom cabin.”

Oscar feels like he could fly into the sun. Or maybe jump in the lake, since it’s a little closer.

“Well, that’s not really a problem,” Felix continues (Oscar stays silent for fear of what he might say), “I can sleep on the couch.”

“The couch,” Oscar repeats dumbly. He glances to the other side of the room and notices the couch. It doesn’t look particularly comfortable, but he thanks God anyway. “No, Felix,” he says quickly. “I’ll sleep on the couch. You booked the place, after all. It’s the least I can do.”

“Ah, nice try, Oscar, but I’ll be sleeping on the couch. I may have booked this trip, but I did it for you. I’ll be sleeping on the sofa, you can have the bed.”

Or maybe we can both sleep in the bed, fuck each other’s brains out, and then I can stop feeling so psychotic all the time.

Oscar pauses, just to make sure he hadn’t said that aloud. Felix’s blank expression says he didn’t.

“Okay, fine,” Oscar agrees. “I’ll take the bed. But only if we alternate every night we’re here.”

“Works for me. Now,” Felix continues, delicately opening up the photography equipment. “Would you help me set up? I’d like to get some photographs of the sunset over the water while the sky is still clear.”

Oscar and Felix spend the next several hours setting up Felix’s camera and, of course, Felix is extremely particular and is loath to accept any of Oscar’s artistic suggestions (even when he is asked to supply them!) and the fiasco is finished just as the sun is two-thirds above the water. It is orange and blown wide by the curve of the Earth, turning the water below it into the color of wine, and the sky above into a blue and pink oil painting. There isn’t a cloud in the sky.

Oscar holds his breath while Felix snaps the photos. There is no doubt of his skill, even if he often pokes fun at the painstaking specificity he puts into setting up his shot. When the images are developed, Oscar is sure they will be spectacular.

Felix clears through full roll of film before he steps back. Only a sliver of sun remains and, behind them, faint stars are beginning to wade slowly into the night sky.

“Thank you for agreeing to this,” Felix says suddenly. It occurs to Oscar neither of them had said a word in the last half hour. “I know I can be unpleasant to travel with, but I wanted to do something nice for you.”

“You always do nice things for me,” Oscar replies, not looking away from the lake. “I should be thanking you more often. I’m sorry I don’t.”

“That’s alright. It’s not in your nature.”

But Oscar knows that’s no excuse, it’s only Felix excusing him for things he can’t give because he’s too scared to, not because he’s incapable. It’s embarrassing.

Felix claps his hands together. “Well! I got the shots I wanted. What do you say we bring everything inside?”

And a scant twenty minutes later the equipment is inside, just as the last of the twilight is fading into darkness.

While Felix is folding up the tripod, he opens up a bag and pulls out a small cylinder. “Would you look at that! I have an extra roll of film!” He turns the piece over in his hand. “It seems a waste to have brought it all this way to not use it.”

“Use it tomorrow,” Oscar offers offhandedly while he switches into his night shirt. “Take pictures of the sunrise over the lake.”

“You can’t take pictures of the sunrise over the lake, only the sunset. The sunrise would be in the other direction. I’d only get pictures of the campground. And besides,” he pulls out and begins unfolding the tripod again.  “I don’t want to get this all out again while we’re here. The rest of the time should be spent fishing, and hiking, and birdwatching— don’t put the camera away, okay?”

“You’re going to take more photos?” Oscar asks. He’s already pulled off his jeans and is tightening the drawstring on his sweats. “It’s way too dark out now and I don’t want to lug everything outside again. Wait till tomorrow, will you, Felix?”

“You know what’s funny?” Felix says in a way so coy that Oscar knows instantly he’s in one of his mischievous moods. He spreads the legs of the tripod and hoists the camera on top of it where he screws it tight. “All these years I’ve had you help out here and there in my studio, but not once—”

“Oh Christ, Felix.”

“—not once have I had you model for me.”

“I’m not a model,” Oscar says instantly, raising his arms in surrender. “I will not be your model.”

“Come on! It’ll be fun!”

Though hardly shy, Oscar considers himself a private sort of person. He writes his columns in the New York Post with his face (a photo taken over ten years ago) printed above his name. Other than that, someone would be hard pressed to find a moment when Oscar Madison would be willing to have himself photographed even casually, much less photographed by a professional.

“What would you even have me do? Lay on the bed with a rose between my teeth?”

“Is that what you’d like to do?”

So that’s where this is going. Felix is rarely anything but dead serious and told jokes with as much humor as a broken traffic light, but when he is in the mood to tease Oscar, he knows exactly which buttons to push.

Luckily, Oscar is just as talented.

“And I’m sure you’d like to see that, right?”

He expects Felix to crack a laugh, or at least a smile, but on his face remains an indecipherable etching: his eyebrows slightly raised, his eyes focused but not narrow, his weight shifted onto one foot as he watches Oscar with an artist’s eye. “Go ahead. I’m a professional.”

Oscar feels his face get hot in real time. And there’s no way Felix hasn’t noticed. “I don’t have any roses,” he says, as coolly as possible.

Felix glances around the cabin. He strides over to the fireplace where, from the mantel, he pulls off a huge set of decorative elk antlers.

An involuntary laugh escapes Oscar. “That’s great, Feel. I can’t put that between my teeth, though.”

“No,” he explains, setting the antlers on the bed and returning to his camera to set up the flash. “You can pose with it, though. Lumberjack chic.”

“You’re crazy.”

“You suggested it,” Felix retorts without missing a beat. “But I can go outside and find some flowers for your teeth if that would make you more comfortable.”

“No, no,” Oscar says defiantly, determined to not let Felix keep the upper hand. “I am also a professional—”

Felix snorts.

“—I’ll do whatever you think best, Mr. Unger.”

Something changes in Felix. He fiddles with something on the camera. “Okay, Mr. Madison. Whenever you’re ready.”

After a beat of hesitation, Oscar climbs onto the bed and sits somewhat primly next to the antlers. Felix gives him a look.

“What?”

“I know you can do better than that!”

“You’re the photographer,” Oscar points out. “If I’m not good enough, direct me!”

With a huff, Felix abandons the camera and stands in front of Oscar. “The point of a photographer is to communicate something without using words. We might even communicate something for which there aren’t any words. A feeling, a concept. I don’t want an image that says ‘this is Oscar and a set of antlers.’ I want an image that says…” he pauses. “That says… Here.”

Felix puts his hands on Oscar’s shoulders and turns him so that he is perpendicular to the edge of the bed. One leg is dangling slightly off the bed, the other flexed at a thirty degree angle so that Oscar’s elbow can rest on it. Felix manipulates him like he’s clay, shaping his body into a story he himself does not know the end to. The last thing Felix does is delicately place the set of antlers on Oscar’s lap.

“There,” Felix says triumphantly.

“What do I look like?”

“Like… I don’t know where Oscar begins and the antlers end.”

Oscar cracks a smile. He’s not entirely sure what to make of the comment.

“Hold still. This will take a few minutes since I don’t have the right lighting equipment with me.”

And after a few minutes, Felix begins photographing Oscar, each snap punctuated by a moment of apertural readjustment and the painful spark of the flash. It isn’t awful, and Oscar doesn’t feel as insecure as he thought he would.

“There,” says Felix, once he has an adequate number of photographs. “These are going to turn out wonderfully.”

The words hit Oscar like a wet fish. “Wait, Felix—”

“Hmm?”

“Don’t… don’t develop those…okay?”

Felix cocks his head. “Why wouldn’t I? It would be a perfectly good waste of film.”

Oscar fixates on his hands. “I’m not… I’m not comfortable with it.”

“I wouldn’t let anyone see them. I’d be the only other one.”

Oscar can’t think of anything to say.

“Okay,” says Felix carefully. “I won’t develop them. I’ll… throw them away when we get back to New York.”

“Thanks, Feel.”

“Don’t mention it.”

There is another uncomfortable silence as Felix picks up the antlers and returns them to the mantle. “I’ll set up on the couch,” Felix says from across the room, unfolding a blanket and stuffing it tautly into the crevasses of the couch. Oscar watches Felix’s nighttime routine silently.

When he’s absolutely sure Felix is asleep (Felix snores, but would rather die than admit it), Oscar slips quietly out of bed and reaches into the Felix’s camera bag. It’s difficult to see in the dark, but a shaft of moonlight from the window provides him with enough light to differentiate between the roll of film that reads, written in marker: Otisco Lake, 8/14/72 and Oscar, 8/14/72. He takes the latter and, careful not to wake Felix, leaves the cabin and makes the short walk down to the shore of the lake.

Oscar palms the roll of film and throws it as hard as he can into the lake where it hits the water with a distant sploosh. A weight lifts off Oscar’s shoulders as he returns to the cabin and sleeps like a log through the night.

If Felix notices in the morning that his camera bag is unzipped, he doesn’t mention it.   

Chapter Text

It thunderstorms every day afterwards.

The weather patterns are erratic at best, each day promising a storm but never revealing when or how long. Upstate summer storms are unpredictable, influenced more by the waters of the Great Lakes than the Atlantic Ocean.

In spite of this, Oscar and Felix make a few attempts to enjoy nature while they can in between bursts of rain showers. It is a hot, soggy rain that cooks down the foliage and lends the lake and nearby forest a faintly fishy smell. Felix, in spite of his fussiness, is surprisingly unperturbed by the natural elements, something Oscar is fain to observe. He is, of course, ever careful to keep his shoes as unmuddied as possible, but doesn’t complain when Oscar leads him across a small tributary via route of a row of fallen trees.

Oscar likes nature. But with his work, though he travels frequently and sees dozens of new skylines each year, it is nonetheless rare he is afforded anything beyond the city.

They pause at a clearing overlooking the lake. In its placid reflection is the turbulent skyscape: the sun shines an unbearable warmth west of center, and to the south, purple-gray cumulonimbus clouds slide quietly and ominously along the horizon. It will no doubt rain again soon.

“Look,” says Oscar. He points down at the water where three pike swim together in tandem. “I wish I had my fishing rod.”

Felix doesn’t reply. His attention is fixed on the leaves of a plant that he rubs between his fingers.

“I could probably catch us some dinner,” Oscar continues. “It’s been a few years since I cleaned a fish, but I’m sure I still—”

“Oscar,” says Felix softly. “I asked Miriam to marry me.”

This takes him aback. Actually, worse: it pushes him aback. Carries him aback. Drags him all the way to the edge of the water and pushes his face down into the wet dirt.

Oscar considers jumping into the lake.

Decides against it.

“You did?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because I wanted to marry her,” Felix says. He sounds a little irritated. “Isn’t that what most people do?”

Oscar huffs, hardly bothering to disguise his disdain and disappointment. “Well,” he says curtly, letting his arms go lax at his side. “Congratulations.”

Felix furrows his brow. “I didn’t say she said yes.”

“She said no?”

“Correct.” Felix takes a few steps forward and leans against a tree. He looks so small beside the giant oak, its wet bark no doubt leaving small, dark stains like ink prints on his clothing. Oscar is struck with a very intense image of kissing Felix beneath the tree and for a brief moment—really, less than half a second—he is inclined to act on it, but his common sense gets the better of him.

“So that’s why we came out here, isn’t it?” Oscar conjectures, following Felix to the tree. “You’re upset. Come on, Felix. You could have just told me.”

“Are you upset? After all, I framed it as a gift for you. That’s not very honest of me.”

In truth, Oscar is the total opposite of upset. Waves of excitement that border dangerously on anxiety pump through his veins and all his organs seem to be shaking vigorously inside his body. The high is so intense it is painful.

“No,” Oscar answers honestly. “I’m not upset.”

“Good.” Felix manages a tight-lipped smile. Then he puts a hand on Oscar’s shoulder and it just about kills him. “Let’s get out of here before it rains.”


The fifth night is the last. Their bags are packed; in the morning they will depart for New York City. And it is an unseasonably cold night for the middle of July, so much so that Oscar spends a half hour the evening prior collecting wood to set ablaze in the fireplace. It couldn’t be more than fifty degree out, and the cabin is not insulated exceptionally well. It must have been the rain, he thinks while he shivers under the thin blanket provided by the campground. Just my luck. A five day vacation and all it does is rain and freeze.

Oscar closes his eyes and focuses on sleeping, but his mind drifts…

Felix under the oak tree his

slim arms like

 branches they

touch his shoulders.

There are things he would like

very much

to do under

that tree. What if? that hand left his shoulder and went

travelling like a raindrop or a tear or

sweat, down his

body and Felix touched the

line where his hip meets his thigh?

Nothing more, just that crevasse of flesh.

Fingers.

Palms.

Lips.

Oh God, Oscar tells himself, his body heating up like a wood-burning stove.

That’s one way to get warm.

The mattress shifts beside him and Oscar is ripped out of his fantasy. He sits up and squints: beside him, under the blanket, is Felix. The bed is a full size, not a queen, meaning Oscar is within so few inches of Felix that he can see the outline of even his collarbone in unbuttoned neckline of his pajama shirt.

“What the hell are you doing?” Oscar hisses, willing his pounding heart to return to a normal pace.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Felix elaborates. His voice seems louder than it is in the quiet. “It’s too cold.”

Oscar starts to get up. “You can sleep in the bed, then. I’ll take the couch.”

“Oscar.” Felix says his name in such a way that Oscar feels his throat go pinhole tight. “The best way to retain heat is by sharing a bed. If you slept on the couch we’d both be just as cold.”

This has to be a joke. Oscar is neither religious nor spiritual—but someone, someone has to have it out for him. Oscar looks at Felix and the sleepy soft features of his face and he is undone. The reason Oscar gambles and drinks and sleeps around is because, he realizes, any energy he might have reserved for self-control is spent on wrangling in some of his most intense feelings.

And besides.

He respects Felix too much.

“You get the bed or the sofa,” Oscar snaps. “Pick one.”

Felix pauses for a moment, maybe to see if Oscar is only bluffing. Oscar secretly hopes Felix will insist, but a half a moment passes and Felix gets up and silently returns to the couch. When Oscar climbs back into bed, it is warm where Felix had just moments before lain.

And,

when he does eventually fall asleep,

he dreams of the oak tree.


Months crawl by like molasses in traffic. Pretty soon it is October and Oscar spends half of his day off walking up and down Broadway looking for a birthday gift for Felix. He is in an unfortunately horrible sort of predicament:

What gift is personal enough for a friend of ten years but isn’t misleadingly intimate? What says I know who you are but you don’t know who I am?

Another issue is that Felix is—for anyone who knows him, not just Oscar—almost impossible to shop for. His tastes in clothing are extremely particular, never mind silverware or fine china. He walks laps around the men’s department in Macy’s for two hours until he settles on a demure navy blue scarf and a bottle of cologne he’d worn in the past. Oscar is a little disappointed in his own selection. The only thing indicative of a personal taste or touch is perhaps the price, which is not by any means cheap. The scarf will look very nice on Felix and the cologne is a safe choice, but for a man with whom he’s lived with for almost two years and known for ten, it seems incredibly impersonal.

He purchases a pretty gold foiled box in which he can store the gifts, and leaves twenty minutes before the store closes. On the taxi ride home he wonders if taking Felix out to dinner might be a nice additional gift, but he realizes apathetically that Felix will probably be having dinner with Miriam tomorrow.

(Despite his failed proposal, Felix and Miriam nonetheless have continued their relationship (much to Oscar’s disdain).)

He runs the scarf and cologne past Murray when he stops by for a beer that evening. Felix is at a meeting with his opera club.

“They’re nice gifts,” Murray says politely, looking the scarf over. Oscar has to stop him when he tries to open the bottle of cologne. “But anyone could get him this.”

“Those were my thoughts,” Oscar confirms.

“I mean he’ll like them. You did a good job, Pal. But there’s something missing.” Murray sits and thinks for a moment. “They’re not very ‘Oscar,’ are they?”

“Well, I’m not going to buy him a pastrami sandwich, if that’s what you mean.”

Murray shrugs. “You could always write him a card. You do write for a living, after all.”

“What am I, twelve? I’m not gonna write him a card,” Oscar says contemptuously.

But as soon as Murray finishes his beer, bids goodbye, and leaves, Oscar throws himself into his typewriter fingers first. “Murray, you genius,” he says to the empty apartment.

Dear Felix,

Oscar stops.

Dear Felix

Hi Felix,

Okay, not that either.

Hi Felix,

Felix.

Happy Birthday. You’ve been a really great friend.

Happy Birthday. You’re one in a million.

This is harder than he had anticipated. It costs him nothing to write a beautiful sports column, transforming statistics and averages and analysis into a sweeping American narrative. But now he must do the opposite: transform all that he feels for Felix into comprehendible words, into a language they both share, and do it in a way that all the while intentionally fails to divulge the feelings that lie behind the words like invisible ink.

Happy Birthday. I want you.

He rips up the paper into many thin strips, then tears them halfway again and throws them in the trashcan so that they might play scrabble with other discarded drafts. Maybe this is a rotten idea. It errs on the side of risky and even gratuitous. Doesn’t Felix already know what their friendship means to him? Why should he have to write it down? He looks at the cologne bottle and the scarf, which are both extremely nice; and Oscar loses himself for a moment, daydreaming about Felix dabbing the cologne behind his ears after a shower, where it might seep into his skin

and the warm cinnamon scent drives Oscar crazy,

how much he wants to taste it, leave a purple bruise in wake of his tongue.

Oscar feels crazy. Like every single day he lives with Felix he loses another fragment of his mind, like insanity is knocking on his skull.

Look, he tells himself five minutes later in the shower, cranking the water nozzle all the way to the right so that cold water beats down on his head. Look, Oscar Madison. You’ve been able to keep these—I don’t know, feelings?—under wraps your entire life. You are a champ at getting rid of them. Now is not the time to louse it up. Find whatever is making you all hot and bothered and turn it into something more manageable.

Like hate.

Do you think you can do that?

Do you think you can hate Felix?

For your own good?

And Oscar tries, he tries. Shivering under the showerhead, he searches his mind for reasons to hate Felix but they all come back as love. He won’t ever leave me alone, for example. And I,

I am so lonely.

He nags me about what I eat, but it is the first time in decades that anyone has cared about my health.

I hate how he makes me feel.

But he doesn’t, he doesn’t. Felix makes him feel complete, fills the painful ache in his heart and his lungs. Everything Felix says and does makes Oscar feel like he’s on fire.

So he cranks up the water temperature and burns.


The good thing is, Felix likes his gifts. He wears the scarf everywhere. He takes to the cologne immediately.

The bad thing is, Oscar smells the cologne on Miriam a few days later.


 

If there’s anything about personal hygiene that Oscar actually loathes, it’s getting a haircut. When he otherwise fails to wash his laundry or clean his room, it usually isn’t out of a dislike for it, rather, an indifference. Getting a haircut, however: that, he despises.

Maybe it’s the idle small talk with the barber, or having other people’s hands around his face, but that which many people tend to find relaxing or soothing, Oscar finds irritating and soulless.

“You need a haircut,” Felix insists one day over breakfast. “You look like a hippie.”

“I do not,” Oscar says reflexively. Felix is certainly exaggerating: his hair is at most two inches longer than he’d normally prefer it. But Oscar has never been shy about his relationship with Lady Procrastination, and will wait for some important banquet or ceremony to finally get it cut.

“Maybe a younger man could pull it off…” Felix says introspectively.

“Watch it, Felix—”

“You know, if you’d like to save some money, I could always do it.”

“Do what?”

“Cut your hair.”

This makes Oscar smile, though he isn’t entirely sure why. “What, and get a goofy haircut like yours?”

“My hair is not goofy!”

“Okay,” Oscar concedes. “But it’s not my style. And besides,” he literalizes the comma in his sentence with a sip of his coffee. “Do you even know how to cut hair?”

Felix scoffs, slaps a hand over his heart, evidently affronted. “Do I know how to cut hair? Do I? Oscar Madison, I am the stingiest, best groomed man in the Upper East Side. I know how to cut hair.”

“Fine,” he grins, leaning back in his chair. He intentionally does not imagine what it will be like to have Felix’s hands that close to his. “You can cut my hair, Felix. Nothing fancy, though. You promise?”

“I promise.”

A half an hour later they’ve finished and cleared away breakfast, and Felix has Oscar trapped in a chair in his bathroom, a spray bottle of water in one hand and a pair of scissors in another. When Felix wets his hair and combs through it, Oscar notices in the mirror how long it has actually become. His hair tapers to a point a little south of the nape of his neck, and his usually right-parted bangs, when combed down, land at his eyebrows. This is an exercise in trust.

Felix narrows his eyes while he concentrates. He has one hand on the back of Oscar’s skull to steady him while he sections the hair. It’s only a trim, after all, but he treats Oscar’s head with as much care as he does anything else. The actually cutting happens quickly, and in about ten minutes Oscar’s hair is back to his (and Felix’s) preferred length (if not, perhaps, a quarter inch too short, but it would grow out in no time at all).

“How’s that?” Felix asks, speaking to Oscar through the mirror. He runs his fingers through the damp hair to probably expedite the drying process, but it seems far more intimate than utilitarian.

“It’s nice, Felix,” Oscar answers honestly. He isn’t talking about the haircut. And for a brief moment, Oscar feels safe, closes his eyes, lets Felix’s hands rest on his head, fingers laced into the fibers of his hair. And for a moment of maybe stupid bravery or stupid love, he tilts his head so that his cheek is in Felix’s palm. And the amazing thing is that, without missing a beat or losing a breath, Felix runs his fingers along the angle of Oscar’s jawline.

“Would you…” The words come out strained and soft. Felix clears his throat, then continues: “Would you like a shave?”

“Yes,” Oscar says, faster than he means to.

Silently, Felix reaches for the shaving cream and sprays it into his palm, thereafter lathering it gently onto Oscar’s cheeks, chin, and upper lip. It is obvious he is taking his time, careful like a painter, painstaking like a surgeon. When the blade of the razor touches his skin, it is with a delicate precision that feels unreal. At this, he realizes it’s not his own dull razor on his cheek, but it’s Felix’s razor; shiny, well-maintained, sharp. It runs smoothly along the curve of his cheeks, the hard angle of his jaw. When the razor passes over his upper lip and Felix’s fingertips touch his mouth, it’s almost too much. With a sense upheaval, Oscar realizes he has never been touched like this, not in his entire life.

When his face is clean-shaven, Felix wipes away the excess shaving cream with a damp cloth. Oscar puts a hand to his face and is surprised by the smoothness, the softness, the youthfulness of his skin. His own shaving jobs are usually hasty and practical, aesthetic only in Oscar’s dislike for facial hair. (That’s something nice, too, about Felix: he is always bare-faced and smooth, even up close.)

Felix rinses out the damp cloth in the sink quietly. Oscar watches him.

He is in love.

Oscar realizes that he is in love with Felix with such immense clarity that he feels sick and—even worse—he actually believes himself. And the feeling repeats, hitting him again and again and again like the waves of electricity, like ripples of nausea. He might compare it even to a sort of emotional orgasm, but the feeling is almost non-sexual, encasing the whole of his mind and heart and guts and—

“Are you alright?”

He is not alright. Oscar stands up, only to find himself nose-to-nose with Felix. They are, as it is, within kissing distance of each other.

The feelings of love are replaced slowly and steadily by a weight of shame and disgust that finds a neat square in the corner of his mind to occupy and spread its toxins. He is revolted by the way Felix has touched him; revolted by the thoughts and feelings he has and has had. It is so intense he cannot look in the bathroom mirror.

“I…” he stutters. Realistically, he could kiss Felix right now. He could. He could. Clean shaven and in the bathroom.

But he no longer wants to. It is like a switch has flipped in his mind. The feelings spreads like a virus throughout his body, a potent repugnance for himself, for Felix.

“Thanks for the shave, Feel,” he says as casually as possible, but the words leave his mouth like a rehearsal.

There you go, Oscar Madison. Life can go back to normal. You have what you want.

But somehow. Somehow. Somehow. Disgust is more painful than love.


And one day, over dinner:

Oscar watches his reflection in his glass of red wine. He prefers beer, but it always makes Felix happy when he asks to try the wine. To his own chagrin, Oscar is already quite drunk, having mixed himself a few drinks in the hour before dinner. They are halfway through dinner when he finally speaks.

“I threw away the film at the lake,” Oscar confesses suddenly, watching the way his lips move in tandem with sound in his red wine reflection.

Felix furrows his brow. “The lake?”

“Otisco Lake. Last Summer—”

“Oh,” Felix says after a sip of wine. “Yes. I knew that.”

“Okay.” Oscar isn’t sure what to say because he is not entirely sure why he brought it up to begin with.

“It’s not really a problem,” Felix continues without waiting for an apology. “I said I would throw them out, anyway.”

Oscar throws back the rest of his wine in one go. Felix rolls his eyes.

“Do you ever…” he begins. “Do you ever take photographs of Miriam?”

Felix seems taken off guard. “No.”

“Of Gloria? When you were married?”

“No, of course not.”

“Okay…” Oscar leans back in his chair. He feels horribly contemptuous towards Felix, but even more than that, angry at himself. “Why not?”

“What are you trying to say?” Felix asks. Either he is feigning ignorance or he genuinely is missing the connection.

“Nothing, I just—” Oscar’s head is spinning, so he elects to back off.

“What I’ve done,” says Felix darkly, “is none of your business.”

“Maybe it should be.”

“But it’s not,” says Felix, who begins to clear away the dishes. He can probably smell the alcohol on Oscar’s breath, but is far too polite to dare mention it.

Felix takes his dishes to the kitchen and Oscar tags listlessly along, leaning into the doorframe of the kitchen to maintain his balance. He hopes he’s more drunk than he’s letting on.

“Do you have a problem with Miriam?” Felix asks suddenly. There is no bite to his words.

Oscar answers reflexively: “No.”

“You sure do act like it.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You don’t control me,” Felix says to Oscar via route of staring at the kitchen sink. “Just because you have personal issues doesn’t mean I have to have them, too.”

Oscar lets out a scoff. “Personal issues,” he parrots. “You have personal issues, Felix.”

“Even if I did,” he sneers, “I am under no obligation to drink my way through them.”

The faucet turns on in the sink, effectively terminating their conversation. Oscar doesn’t bother getting drunker and throws himself instead into the shower, water on high heat.


So their relationship has deteriorated significantly in the past months.

Not a big deal. Felix still pays half the rent, he still cooks and cleans and works and nags, and most importantly he stays out of Oscar’s way. Oscar, who hasn’t had a sober forty-eight hours in a month, stays out of Felix’s way. His face is scratchy. Poorly shaven, nicks and cuts all around.

Oscar sits in a shady billiards room, smoking a cigar, thinking about codependency. That’s what it is, after all. For as much as he wants to be apart from Felix, he feels a rush of anxiety whenever he leaves for work.

Across the room, a lithe young man, maybe thirty, leans effetely over the billiards table and knocks the four and six balls into a socket. His high-waisted pants rest loosely at his waist, his shirt, a tight-fitting dark green polo tucked tautly into his pants. The hair on his head is a little unruly. And he is—well

---extremely attractive. Muscular. Broad shoulders that seem to want to rip right out of the fabric of his shirt. A round, tight ass.

He can’t be sure, after all. There is no real way of knowing and asking is half a death sentence itself. So he waits and watches, working through his cigar puff by puff.

watch,

puff,

wait,

puff.

Oscar is good at this kind of waiting. He perfected the skill in the army (but that is a story for another day). He waits long enough, a half an hour, before he and the man make eye contact;

and then Oscar is sure. They look at each other with that sort of certainty only reserved for men who seek out other men, and, for effect, Oscar takes a long drag from his cigar. Seeing this, the man gestures his head in the direction of the bathroom. The establishment is dark enough, busy enough, and loud enough that no one notices when they make for the bathroom together and lock the door behind them.

He thinks about Felix the entire time, which makes it kind of hard to get off.

That is, Felix would be loath to fellate a complete and total stranger in a sleazy public bathroom. And even Oscar knows the circumstances aren’t ideal, aren’t pretty, but he’s desperate and his partner is quiet and doesn’t expect anything else but the same act in return. He doesn’t talk about his feelings or worry about the future. It’s too dark in the bathroom stall to know if the man has a pretty smile or not, doesn’t know if he has an ex-wife or if he has a favorite television program or how he likes his coffee. That’s what makes this so easy.

When they’re both finished, Oscar wipes his mouth and leaves the bathroom before the guy can get a better look at his face. He’s also careful to remain completely inconspicuous on his way out of the bar and likewise home. The paranoia that settles in is unbearable. It is as if his thoughts and memories are playing out on his face like a mural. He was careful not to give away anything (not hardly the sound of his own voice) by which the man might identify him.

He arrives home and Felix is fast asleep in the armchair. The sound of the door closing wakes him up.

“Oh. You’re home.”

“Yeah,” says Oscar indifferently, tossing his jacket on the couch.

“I was worried. You’ve come home after two a.m. every day this week.”

“I’m forty six years old. I think I have a right to get home whenever I choose.”

Felix abandons his arm chair and crosses to Oscar. “I’m worried about you.”

“Don’t be.”

“But I am.” If he had it his way, Oscar would already be in bed. Instead he stands a half a foot from Felix, whose brown eyes look sullen and sad. “Oscar, for months—it’s like I don’t even know you anymore. Please.”

(When Felix says please it’s like the room is on fire.)

“Please,” Felix continues. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

There is a long pause in the dimly lit living room. It is the kind of New York City quiet that can only be found at two thirty in the morning.

“I can’t,” he starts, barely sharper than a whisper, “I can’t stand myself.”

Something softens in Felix’s face. He extends a hand and grips Oscar’s left bicep. “You know,” he says wetly. “I’m so lonely.”

There is an easy solution to this.

There is.

“Go to bed, Felix.”

Which isn’t a solution. So many times he’s imagined this, this confrontation, this touch, and wondered where it might lead. It’s so much easier, though, to delay. And Oscar feels like he is just putting off an inevitable ending, some sort of impending doom, a crisis, a collision rising to its peak.

Unless he’s missed something.

And he hasn’t.

Chapter Text

Oscar Madison likes to call himself a simple man. It makes things less complicated. It makes him more agreeable. But no one is really ever simple, not even Oscar; he is made of pretext and subtext, and most importantly, context. Everyone is just a muddle of context, of cultural moments, a mutt of understandings and misdirection. To understand him is to look back into time. We look back

and back

and back.


May, 1942. U.S. Army Training Camp, Albany

Oscar is a few months shy of twenty years old and his body belongs to the American military (but he is glad for it). If his signature means anything, he figures it will mean something now. Three hundred miles away and two years his senior, Felix Unger has made the same decision, signing away his name and body before the draft can get ahold of him.

“Fuck this place. I want out.”

“My cousin got out last week. You know how, Reynolds?”

“How’s that?”

“Shot his own foot off with his service rifle.” Suthers pauses for effect. “Toes everywhere.”

“Shit, I ain’t doing that.”

“Then quit your complaining.”

Oscar eats his dinner quickly and silently. His friends, Reynolds and Suthers, do most of the talking during meals, eating more words than actual food. They are still in training, the three of them, but won’t be for much longer: in less than a week they will ship out to the European theatre.

“Hey,” says Suthers, his mouth full of creamed corn. “Watch this.” He swallows, then procures from his pocket a rubber bouncy ball. It’s pink, the kind one might find for sale in the check out at a gas station. 

Oscar watches Suthers toss the rubber ball in his right hand, his narrow eyes scanning the mess hall like a rifle scope. They land on a man (kind of mousy) seated at another mess table, the back of his ashy blonde head facing Oscar and co. Suthers bends his arm at the elbow, gives a few practice movements, and then, with the full force of his arm, releases the ball where it nails the mousy guy in the back of the head. 

There’s a faint “ouch,” and the kid’s hand goes to his skull while he turns around and, with the most befuddled look on his face, looks around for the perpetrator. He doesn’t figure out who it is because Suthers has already engrossed himself in a faux conversation with Reynolds, and Oscar is suddenly more interested in his corn. Unable to find those responsible, he returns to his own meal. 

“I hate that brat,” Suthers says finally.

Reynolds has evidently already forgotten. “Who?”

“McIntyre, you idiot. The fuckin’ kid,” he tosses his hands up in exasperation. “I can’t stand him.”

Oscar, whose youth was spent in a sort of miraculous quietness (that would die in a few short years with the end of the war), speaks up. “What’d he ever do to you?” 

“Are you blind, Madison? Look at the kid.” He gestures across the mess hall. “He’s got this smarmy look on his face. Like he knows something. I hate the way he looks. I hate the way he walks. He needs to be taken down a peg.”

“Get over it,” says Oscar apathetically. 

Oscar has said that to himself many times in his life. Get over it. Get over it. He takes it to heart: the things he feels and thinks he must learn to get over. Does Suthers take it to heart? Does Suthers listen? Did he listen?

Because after dinner Reynolds pulls Oscar aside and says: “Watch out for Suthers; don’t believe anything he says.”

“What?”

“Listen to me, Madison. You trust me?”

“Sure.”

“Believe me when I say you don’t want to get tied up in Suthers, okay?”

Oscar hates cryptic people, he still does. But there are circumstances in which cryptography is necessary, crucial, (a way of life.) And he knows it (he knows it) and so he listens with the whole of his mind at night in the barracks. He hears words. Whispers. He hears the barracks door opening and closing twice, two people leaving. 

When he hears this, he sits up. No one is supposed to be out of bed.

And though Oscar is no snitch, he is furiously nosey and when he sees Suthers’ empty bunk, Reynolds words ring in his head (watch out for Suthers, watch out for Suthers). Quietly, in the stillness of night, he slips out of his bunk and shakes Reynolds awake. 

“...Madison?” He whispers. “What the Hell? I was sleeping.”

“It’s Suthers. I think he’s gone.”

He stuffs his face in his pillow. “...Probably taking a piss.”

“I don’t think he’s alone.”

This must mean something to Reynolds. He slides out of bed. “Follow me,” he whispers to Oscar. “Don’t make a sound.”

Together, they sneak out of the barracks silently. The iron door creaks but if it stirs anyone, they do not care. Oscar follows Reynolds along the outside wall of the building where they stop to wait and listen. 

There is a noise. It sounds like breath. Like thoughts that are not quite words. 

They turn the corner and find a small alcove of trees where—

what he sees is

what he sees is is is

nothing like anything he’s ever seen it doesn’t make sense.

Oscar knows things, of course, he’s twenty and he’s been around but

what he sees is actually

who he sees is

Suthers and McIntyre the mousy guy.

Suthers is on his knees

McIntyre, back flush against the oak tree

Reynolds storms forward, lip curled in anger. Suthers and McIntyre separate and don’t have enough time to make an excuse

(what excuse could they possibly give?)

and Reynolds grabs Suthers by the curly hair on his head and bashes him into the oak tree until there is purple jelly matting his hair down.

“Kill him! Kill him!” Screams McIntyre, in retrospect the only thing he can do to save his own skin.

Everything moves in slow motion while Oscar watches Suthers turn into pulp. It is traumatizing, but most importantly, extremely formative. He wants to run but can’t, like iron rods are bolting his legs to the earth. He stares and stares and stares until the racket and the screaming brings over a score of soldiers and a half a dozen commanding officers and the camp erupts into a thinly-veiled chaos.

Suthers doesn’t die that day, but he is shipped away, discharged, and McIntyre, too, and Reynolds is punished but allowed to stay. And Oscar sticks to Reynolds like glue out of sheer terror for the full two years he is in Europe.


I am who I say I am. I am who I say I am. I am who I say I am.

Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?


Oscar always knew he would never have children. He knew, just as he knows now, that he isn’t cut out for fatherhood. Blanche agreed, citing a vested interest in being the first woman in her family with a fulltime career. So that’s how it worked out: Oscar, Blanche, no children. They would never have even bothered with a wedding if it hadn’t been for the tax breaks and insurance.

But Felix has Edna and Leonard on the weekends and Oscar is really starting to like the two kids; and they seem to like him, too. Maybe it’s just because that while Felix is an excellent father, he’s not exactly Mr. Excitement, and Oscar just so happens to fill that exact role. He knows Felix hates seeing his own flesh and blood learning baseball instead of ballet, listening to the horse races instead of Italian Arias, but he also knows Felix would do anything to see them happy.

So on weekends, he and Felix toe the line of co-parenting. It makes him nostalgic for something he’s never had, makes him regret this distinct lack in ways he never thought he would.

“They’re good kids, Feel,” he tells him one dreary afternoon after Gloria picks them up and takes them home. “If I had kids…”

He fiddles with a piece of paper on the desk. “If I had kids, I’d want them to be like yours.”


Dream a little dream of me, sings Felix, sings Doris Day, sings Felix.

Can you hear me?

(me)

(me)

(

me

)

Dream a little dream of me.

Okay, concedes Oscar. I will.


His dreams are unfair. A sleazy sex dream and a morning of unshakable shame would be nice, but Oscar is unfortunately wracked with nightmares.

He dreams:

Sirens wail. They are British air raid sirens. He is in a base and he is alone. The ground shakes outside.

“Where’s Felix,” he asks, and no one answers. “Where’s Felix?”

An explosion tears down one of the shoddy walls and it collapses into a pile of bones; so much death, so much death where is Felix where is Felix. The opening in the wall leads him to the apartment. It is overrun by police. It is a disaster. It is destroyed.

Murray is there. “Hi, Oscar,” he says. “I hate to tell you this but we really don’t know who did it. Forensics thinks they can pick up fingerprints, but it will take a while.” He lets out a low whistle. “A really gruesome scene. I’m not normally supposed to do this, but do you want to see the body?”

“Whose body?” Oscar asks, and no one answers. “Whose body?”


Oscar wakes with a start. He’s on the couch and the television is flickering some viscous crime drama. That explains a lot.

Ugh.

To his discomfort, he fell asleep in his suit, which is now nicely creased at his waist. He sits up, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes; but when he closes them, he is hit by the images of his dreams over and over again.

From behind him, he hears the sound of the kitchen faucet turning on. He is quiet enough that he sees Felix filling a glass in the sink, but Felix does not see him.

 “Hey, Feel.”

“Oscar,” exclaims Felix softly. He turns around, a full glass in his hands. “You said you had an unpleasant day so when you fell asleep I didn’t want to wake you.”

“How long was I out?”

“About six hours. It’s eleven o’clock in the evening.”

“Christ…” Oscar puts his fingers to his temples. “I guess I needed it.”

Felix tightens his lips. “I think you did.” He’s still for a moment, taking a drink from his glass. “What’s on the television?”

Oscar shrugs. “Not sure. A crime show I think.”

“Mind if I join you?”

“Well, I wasn’t really watching it, but—” Felix hates crime shows, Oscar remembers very suddenly. He wouldn’t ask unless he couldn’t sleep. “Sure,” he says matter-of-factly.

Wrapped in his hideous orange robe, Felix meets Oscar at the couch and sits down beside him. Oscar’s brain is still buzzing and so he isn’t really watching the show, which is just corny enough for eleven o’clock at night and just bad enough to be entertaining. But the show isn’t what’s interesting.

Felix is sitting very close to Oscar. The outer sides of their thighs are pressed together; and it’s not like this has never happened, because it has, (in the long two years they have been inseparable), it’s just that it’s never happened like this in the dark, with the flickering television mumbling something vague (the trumpets of noir, the old transatlantic accent), and Oscar thinks he knows what it might mean.

The cushion shifts under Felix as he readjusts himself, and when he goes still, not only are their thighs still pressed firmly together, but so too each of their one hips, their arms, their shoulders. They are like a hinge, fused together at a new meridian. (And how Oscar would love to test the hinge’s breadth.) Oscar freezes in place out of reflex, but Felix is decidedly relaxed against him.

“I’m guessing it’s the victim’s sister,” Felix says suddenly.

“What? Oh,” Oscar realizes he’d been staring at Felix for quite some time. Felix, who, unlike Oscar, had actually been paying attention to the program.

“You see, she’s got the perfect motive,” he continues quietly. “She spends gratuitously and travels often. She needs more money to support her lifestyle. And she knew his children would be too young to inherit quite yet and would need a beneficiary.”

“It’s a crime drama, Felix. It’s not going to be anyone you suspect.”

“Yes, but I’ve thought an awful lot about it.”

Oscar cracks a smile. Five more minutes of the show pass. By circumstantial evidence, the sister is absolved of guilt.

“See?” gloats Oscar. “It wasn’t the sister.”

“It still could be! Sometimes they hit you with a plot twist.”

The impassioned look on Felix’s face makes something crack in Oscar’s heart. “Yeah? We’ll see about that.”

Felix pushes Oscar playfully. “You like to gamble. Who’s your bet on?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“That’s right,” he replies immediately, almost snidely. “You’re not watching.”

“I am,” Oscar insists.

Felix’s expression doesn’t betray a thing. “That’s funny. It looked like you were watching me.”

Oscar’s mouth goes dry. His heart leaps into his throat. This might be it, whatever it is, and Oscar is terrified because although he and Felix are so close that any further movement and they’d be sitting on each other’s laps, Felix’s face is stone cold and is unreadable.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” is all he can manage.

He looks away. “Why can’t you ever say what you mean?”

“What would I mean?”

“You know: it’s okay to care about things. And people. You can care,” says Felix, taking a deep breath, “about me.”

This doesn’t feel right. He struggles to predict where this conversation might go. “I do.”

“I know you do.”

“Then what am I doing wrong?”

Felix looks at Oscar. He looks so sad.

He leans his head into Oscar’s shoulder, who fights off every urge to run. Felix must be lonely, desperate, he convinces himself. He’ll work through it all by morning. But since Oscar is an indulgent man, he leans his head against Felix’s and that is how they watch the rest of the movie, vulgarly intertwined at the temple.

“Nothing,” Felix says finally. “You’re not doing anything wrong.”

Chapter Text

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

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—

creates acid.

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?”

“Like what?”

“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.

That’s better.


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?”

“No.”

“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.

“Uncle Oscar?”

“Yeah?”

“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?”

“Sure.”

“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

dreamless sleep.

There are things you can’t unsee

see

see

see

see

see

see,

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.”

“Good.”

“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.