Midnight Breakfast

Issue 18


Operator, Say the Number’s No Good

by Ross Showalter

Sam gets home from another late shift at the hospital, rubbing his eyes, and he sees Ethan at the kitchen counter. The kitchen lights are on, but shadows gather beyond the beams’ reach. The living room couch is a low-bellied creature. Ethan is framed by shadow, and he doesn’t acknowledge Sam; his back is rigid with tension. Sam hurries to Ethan. What is it? he asks.

Ethan starts. He smiles at Sam, a tense grin, barely visible under his beard. He looks down and Sam follows his gaze. On the counter is a package, opened. The worry in Sam dims down to uncertainty. The package is a book, its cover bright yellow. The title is in black stencil: Beginners’ ASL. Below the title are pale hands, fingers stretching and curling into shapes.

What’s going on? Sam’s voice wavers. He feels unsteady in this moment, in this house that he and Ethan rent together, take up space in together. They bought the couch together, from a furniture store twenty minutes away. Kitchen appliances, like the coffeepot and toaster, were remnants of their past, separate lives. They were brought into this house, they fit this house and this shared life together. Every gap was filled with the other. But Sam feels the air pulse with tension, like the foundation is about to give way.

I was supposed to take a sign language class, Ethan says. This is the book for it.

Right, Sam says. He starts to relax, his shoulders lowering, but a clench of worry remains tight in him. Is there a problem with the class?

It was for Todd.

Sam frowns. Who’s Todd? We don’t know a Todd.

I told you about him. He and I were talking for a while. Ethan stares at Sam, his voice sharp and annoyed.

Does he live in White River?

No. No, he lives across the country, in Portland.

Oregon? The confusion is building in Sam now, another shadow, another moonless yawn. I don’t get it. Why would you talk to someone across the country?

I liked him. Ethan’s voice is thin, his words reluctant. But these words are enough for Sam. The confusion retreats to a faraway corner inside him. The clench of worry makes an unsteady sort of sense now. Sam crosses his arms; Ethan’s words have brought a whirl of ghosts.

That Todd. The deaf person. Dread, a hard and heavy stone, hangs in Sam’s belly.

Ethan nods. We stopped talking months ago. You know.

But you signed up for a sign language class just before he left?

I left, technically, Ethan says. But, yes. You and I got together, and he didn’t need to be around anymore.

Sam expects a flicker of gratitude at Ethan’s words, some other emotion to guide this conversation forward. Nothing comes. He still feels cold weight inside. Moonlight casts silver squares upon the living room floor, the night a lull in the press of time. Sam’s shift, his work as a nurse, is a faded filmstrip, like he walked out of the hospital days ago. There is this development, something materializing from the past. He doesn’t know what to say, if he wants to say anything. This is Ethan’s package, he thinks. This is Ethan’s responsibility.

Sam sidesteps away from Ethan, fidgeting. I should go to sleep, he says.

You’ve had a long day, Ethan says brightly. His smile is tight. I’ll see if I can get a refund in the morning.

Sam feels warmth inside of him, then. Ethan has a plan. There is a way past this strangeness. Todd is an unwelcome visitor, already on his way out. Sam squeezes Ethan’s shoulder and kisses him. Ethan’s mouth is as soft and inviting and familiar as ever. But Sam pauses at the foot of the stairs.

What will you do if you can’t get a refund?

Ethan lifts his hands: I don’t know. Take the class? Take the loss of money? What can I do?

In the morning, Sam lies in bed, alone in his bedroom. He wonders, not for the first time, how he would feel in a bedroom he and Ethan shared. They moved into this house as friends. The tension had built until Ethan pinned Sam under his gaze, after two weeks of living together, and kissed him. Their relationship had started that day. It is three months after that kiss now, and still the relationship inches forward cautiously.

They have their own bedrooms because they are their own beings. They remain roommates first and foremost in this new relationship, together but separate. They live as two people—their relationship doesn’t define them. They don’t want the other to define them.

Sam listens for Ethan’s footsteps down the hallway. Sam listens for a sign of Ethan’s presence. But Ethan is still around him, even with space between them. Sam’s bedroom holds gifts Ethan has given him over the years: a model of the Enterprise, a signed portrait of one of Hanover’s more famous drag queens, half the books on his bookshelf. Last year at Christmas, Ethan gave him a framed cartoon portrait of them, drawn by a local artist. Sam in cartoon form is broad and cheery, his dark hair pointing in every direction and his smile taking up half his face. Ethan is smaller, waifish, his beard a bushy thing under giant, mournful eyes.

Sam strains to hear the rush of shower water, a clang from the kitchen, Ethan’s voice humming off-key. There’s only silence.

Last night, Sam had felt something pull him back, an anchor in his gut. He had sunk into something that wasn’t the present, wasn’t quite the past. It was a kind of past, a speculation, like tea leaves at the bottom of a mug. Sam had to squint at what was possible or wash it out.

Ethan’s face, bright with happiness, materializes before his mind’s eye. Sam needs to snap out of it. Last night, its dark ending, is only memory now. Sunlight floods Sam’s bedroom now. Both floors of their house will be bathed in light.

Downstairs, Ethan sits on the couch.

There’s coffee, he says. His voice is scratchy with sleep.

The coffeepot is full, hot to the touch. Sam is careful not to pour too much too fast, but black liquid still splashes on the counter. The book is nowhere to be seen. This Saturday morning is lovely, sunlight dappling over kitchen tile. Ethan murmurs low behind him. Sam wants to ask about last night, but he also wants to forget.

Ethan stares down at something. Sam sees pages of a book, a book is open on the couch—that same clench of worry resurfaces. Ethan is gesturing, signing. His throat and mouth work, but only breath comes out as his hands move, as he signs.

Sam has to ask, Did you get a refund?

Ethan looks up. I couldn’t.

Did you say you didn’t want to take the class anymore?

Ethan frowns. What could I say? There would be more questions and I don’t want to talk about Todd.

So you’ll be taking the class.

Ethan nods, already back to the sign language book. They both can’t take their eyes off the book. Signs, presented by drawn figures and drawn hands, are lined up neatly on every page. It looks like a dance. It looks like nonsense, all of it looks like nonsense to Sam.

Sam’s curiosity persists, urgency cold in his chest. How much is the class?

It’s about ten weeks. It was two hundred and fifty dollars.

Shock burns in Sam’s throat, a lightning flash of heat. He knows Ethan can afford it, but he doesn’t know how Ethan justified paying for it. A sign language class feels like an outlandish purchase, something unnecessary and strange, unnecessary for them. Sam stands and watches Ethan and his hands. He drinks coffee and swallows, and questions pile up inside him. He doesn’t know which ones to ask. He doesn’t know where to begin.

They have been dating for three months. They have been living together for three months. They have been friends for eight years. The two of them met in a gay bar, when they were both twenty and young and wild.

They had flirted that night. They’d done more than flirt: they’d danced and laughed and drank and kissed open-mouthed, pressed up against brick wall, ravenous with want. Sam wanted to be flirted with then, to be touched and kissed. Ethan had given that to him. But Sam wanted all of Ethan. The feeling was immediate when Sam saw him that night, a sharp hunger tunneling deep in his sternum. He wanted Ethan’s hands to dig into him, possess him; he wanted Ethan’s body underneath him.

Sam hadn’t talked about those feelings for years. After the bar, Ethan had suggested they be friends. The connection they had was special, he said. He didn’t want to ruin it. Sam had agreed. He didn’t want Ethan to disappear. Friendship was better than nothing.

Now, Ethan studies the book. Sam walks back to the kitchen and refills his mug.

He wants to ask about the class. He wants to ask why Ethan signs now, with no one to sign to. He drinks coffee. He wants to ask why Ethan did this for Todd, a boy across the country. He drinks coffee. He thought Todd was someone in the past. But Todd is a presence in this house, between them. Todd is a barrier. Moving into a relationship is not as easy as Sam thought it would be. He drinks more coffee.

There is no time to ask questions. The beginning of the workweek rushes at them. At the hospital, Sam sees patients and family moving their hands—resentment burns sour on his tongue. Sam comes home at night and Ethan is asleep in his own bedroom, his own bed. Nothing has changed in Ethan’s bedroom; there are the posters of John Hughes films, the bookshelves crammed with DVDs and film theory. Nothing has changed, but Sam wants to slide into Ethan’s bed and press himself against Ethan. He wants Ethan’s warmth, his body heat, the comfort that will bring. He is afraid of waking Ethan. He is more afraid of Ethan rejecting him.

A few nights later, Sam comes home from work and Ethan stands at the kitchen counter. The lights are off. Silvery night crowds into the house. Sam is dazed by the memory of Ethan’s tense back, the opened package. Then he sees Ethan smiling at him.

Did you have a good shift? Ethan asks, his voice soft and tender. Warmth blooms at Sam’s nape, courses down his spine. Ethan sounds happy, and Sam wants to keep that going.

Sam entwines his fingers with Ethan’s. I did, he says. Standard stuff, standard procedures, typical patients. How are you?

Ethan nods, careful and tentative now. The sign language class starts next week, he says. We’ll see how it goes.

Is there a reason you’re still in the class? Sam draws his bottom lip under his front teeth after the question tumbles out of him. The hope for intimacy has shrunk. The class is another ghost: the class was meant for Todd, it was always just for Todd. There’s no reason for Ethan to stay in the class. Sam could make Ethan see sense, if the reasons were laid out and Ethan saw his own motivations, his own backward logic.

Ethan stares at Sam, half his face lit up with moonbeams. Sam can’t see the other half. Their hands have come apart.

You know why. I spent money on it, and I couldn’t get it back. They wouldn’t give me back a refund because they didn’t understand, and it would have been a waste if I had left. What can I say that would make it clear?

Ethan’s voice isn’t its inviting purr anymore; it is a sharp defense instead, sharp with frustration. Sam knows, even with Ethan half in shadow, that he’s gone too far. Ethan can’t go to where Sam is, and Sam wants to push him. He doesn’t. He retreats.

Ethan had shown Sam a picture of Todd once, on his phone. Todd was unlike any boy Sam had seen in Vermont or New Hampshire. He was otherworldly, with his translucent skin and curly red hair. His mouth was a swell of pink. He wore a cochlear implant; Sam had felt proud when he’d identified the device without questions. Now Todd’s face, with its careful flash of white teeth, materializes before him, floating in the dark.

Sam feels the house contract and draw close. The surrounding houses look like castles, residents caught perfect and unbothered in window frames. The air around Sam thickens with uncertainty. The idea of Todd never leaves.

He hears the noises of Ethan’s nightly routine: Ethan brushes his teeth, Ethan washes his face; Ethan trims his beard, the clippers buzzing their thin mechanical whir. Sam is grateful for distance—distance between the two of them, between their bedrooms—but still he wants to retreat further. He waits for the exhale and click of Ethan’s bedroom door opening and closing. It never comes.

Sam’s bedroom door opens. Ethan and his pajamas are barely visible in the dark. Sam doesn’t shut his eyes and mimic sleep, though he wants to. Ethan is incorporeal, his skin a pale shine, his body a skinny thing that could fade to nothing. Sam doesn’t move as Ethan slides into bed with him and puts his head on Sam’s chest. The house is tight and tense with explosive promise, a closed fist surrounding them instead of bedroom walls.

I left him, Ethan murmurs. His breath tickles Sam’s chest. I left him when I’d given him promise after promise to not leave, to be better, to be a presence in his life. I left him and it wasn’t the first time.

Sam’s mouth feels dry. You’d left him before?

I ghosted him. I told him I was going to learn sign and I didn’t do it, and he asked me about it, and I kept saying I would.

But you never did.

He was so patient and understanding, and I couldn’t offer a reason why I didn’t want to do it. Maybe it was because he was across the country. Maybe it was because we only met online. I never did it. And I stopped responding to his texts because I was…

Ethan sighs wordlessly, moves closer to Sam. Sam knows Ethan’s shame, even unsaid; it enters the room and materializes as a weight, settling upon them both, the roommates in the bed. Sam’s fingers find purchase and curl around Ethan’s shoulder. A train, with its chugging, disrupts the night silence.

Did he reach out again?

Ethan nods. He wished me happy birthday. We’re compatible, astrologically. He’s a Scorpio and I’m a Virgo. It was easy for him to remember my birthday, and I could remember his.

A thump of shock in Sam’s chest. I’m a Scorpio, he says to the ceiling. Emotion stays heavy upon him. He can’t find the words to shake it off.

Yes, you’re a week before him, Ethan says. I wished him happy birthday and we started talking again. But I was moving in with you. He and I couldn’t get very far. We didn’t get very far.

Did he know about us?

He knew I liked you. He encouraged me to kiss you. He wanted me to be happy.

Sam laughs. He doesn’t understand Todd. Todd keeps coming back when Ethan doesn’t want him. Todd insists Ethan be happy. Todd is either weak or a fool. The weight is gone; derision sits in him now, pulsing the same way heat does in a new wound. He says, I’m happy you’re not talking to him anymore.

Ethan is quiet, he doesn’t move. The train is long gone, pressing forward to interrupt other towns, other conversations with its chugging. Sam doesn’t say any more. The house is roomier now. The fist of tension around them has loosened and there is space to breathe.

The next morning, Sam wakes to Ethan beside him, sleeping on his stomach, face pressed against his pillow. He pads downstairs and makes coffee. As the coffeemaker squeals and sputters, Sam climbs back up to Ethan.

The last time they’d shared a bed together was in December, when Ethan had kissed Sam for the first time. Sam had felt a wild charge of disbelief, and he had opened his mouth to Ethan’s tongue. Opened to anything Ethan wanted.

They’d explored each other that night, awake until early morning hours. Sam moved in and out of Ethan and drank in the way he responded, the way his back arched and his head fell back. Sam filled Ethan more than once and kept going, sliding in and out of Ethan until it was tiredness that made his limbs shake. These hours together had carried the intoxicating sweetness of a dream. Sam had felt dizzy with bliss.

Now Sam looks upon Ethan. The memory of them in bed feels like an illusion. He wonders how much of their happiness bloomed after Todd encouraged it, after he encouraged Ethan to say something. He imagines Todd sending a text, urging Ethan on. Ethan could have kissed Sam, after Todd’s text. Their hours together could be because of a stranger.

Sam wakes Ethan, rubbing his thumb along a length of shoulder, of collarbone. He tells Ethan there is coffee and Ethan nods, eyes still shut.

The sign language book sits on the kitchen counter. Sam can’t take his eyes off it. He drinks his coffee and wonders what the hands on the cover mean. He wonders when the book will leave this kitchen, this house.

Ethan descends the stairs and pours himself coffee. After Ethan takes his third sip, Sam asks: When will the sign language be done?

Ethan swallows. The class ends in ten weeks, he replies.

You’ll be done in June, then. Sam smiles as Ethan nods. There is an ending to this nonsense between them.

But then Ethan looks down at his mug. I should have told you, he says. He was supposed to come here, in June.

Sam feels something in his sternum contract. What?

We wanted to meet up. He was going to fly to New York and then to Lebanon, and I was going to pick him up and bring him here. It was going to be a summer visit.

He was going to stay here? Sam winces at the words as they come out his mouth, how incredulous and heavy they sound. This discussion is about the past, and the past shouldn’t affect him. The past shouldn’t affect them, but Ethan keeps bringing it up.

I didn’t know how to tell you when we were moving in. Ethan’s eyes are still on his coffee. I think I brought it up before, maybe as a joke. Nothing serious. But Todd was serious before things ended.

Sam puts his coffee cup down on the counter—too hard, and the spoon in the cup clatters against porcelain. Ethan’s lips press together. His coffee cup stays steady in his hand.

We shouldn’t discuss Todd anymore, Sam says. There’s no use in discussing him. We’ll be done with him soon, won’t we?

Ethan doesn’t respond.

I think we will, Sam’s words echo in the space Ethan won’t fill. Ethan won’t meet Sam’s gaze. Sam climbs back upstairs to his own bedroom. His bedsheets are rumpled. The pillow on the left bears a dent from Ethan’s head. It’s another sunny day, rays coming through the window. On the edge of Sam’s hearing, Ethan moves around downstairs. Sam wonders if he’s opened the book again. Ethan has probably opened the book again, letting Todd come in when there’s no reason. But Sam understands: Ethan wants to make it right, but he can’t make it right for someone not here. All that remains of Todd are the actions Ethan takes for him, the class Ethan keeps preparing for.

Heat stings Sam’s eyes. He moves to the doorway and thinks he can hear the shush of a page being turned. He feels the corners of his mouth tremble, and his mouth becomes a distortion of confusion, of grief. He presses his knuckles to his teeth as he cries. He hadn’t imagined this when he moved in with Ethan. He hadn’t imagined visitors, new love, new relationships. The house was a beginning, a way forward for the two of them. He had wanted Ethan to kiss him for the longest time, wanted Ethan’s hands cradling his face, Ethan’s mouth against his.

It isn’t too much to ask Ethan to let go of every regret and every ounce of shame. The house had been a sanctuary, and all Sam wants right now, sagging against the doorframe, is to return to that sanctuary. He wants to return to excitement, the boundless sense of possibility; he wants them to focus only on each other, making a life together.

Instead, Ethan is ignoring Sam and inviting regret into the house. Regret wedges between them. There is nothing for them to build. They can’t move forward when Ethan stares back into his past, haunted by his shame. The regret and shame will stay, become a fixture of the house. It will get to the point where nothing more can be said, words unable to impact.

Sam and Ethan, lovers and roommates, will become strangers, passing each other and unable to break through to the other. Sam and Ethan’s relationship will fall apart. They will live together and share space together, but they won’t see each other past their own failed illusions.

Sam comes home from the hospital and the book isn’t on the counter. Two weeks have passed since the book materialized and it is no longer there. Satisfaction hums low in Sam’s belly. Ethan has come to his senses.

But then he sees that Ethan is not in bed. Ethan is not in their house. He doesn’t appear after Sam calls his name over and over. Right after Sam texts Ethan, Where are you, headlights sail across the living room wall—a car has turned into their driveway.

Ethan opens and closes the door behind him. The book is in his hands. He turns on the kitchen lights and Sam can see Ethan’s face. His face seems to be newly in focus: pores visible, smile shrinking, the lines between his eyebrows growing deeper.

How was it? Sam asks. He doesn’t want to know, but he feels he should ask. It is his duty to ask. The corners of Ethan’s mouth kick up, then the smile vanishes.

It’s the first class, so a lot of talking about what we’re gonna do. He places the book on the counter. I’m going to bed.

Sam feels the dry brush of Ethan’s mouth against his, then Ethan climbs the stairs. His bedroom door closes.

Sam is alone with the book. Above Sam, Ethan’s footfalls fade to nothing. There is the squeak of bedsprings. Sam tugs the book to him. He opens it. Rows and rows of signs and handshapes and arm movements parade before him. He imagines Ethan and Todd in the kitchen, copying those handshapes, those arm movements, those gestures. They would be talking with each other. They would be talking with each other, in a way Sam couldn’t. It’s easy to imagine them talking in other rooms, in bedrooms, in Ethan’s bedroom together. There would be other things they could do, with their hands and mouths, in Ethan’s bedroom, his bed.

Sam shoves the book away. It slides across the counter. It falls off and lands on the floor with a sound that cuts like a laugh. He wonders how Todd laughs, with his careful smile and cochlear implant. He can imagine the sound, a hot exhale of breath, already in this house. The book is important to Ethan. But Sam hates it, hates how it has become part of the house. He wants it gone.

Sam throws the book in the trash can. The pages leer up at him before the lid comes down. Sam fidgets. Before him, the living room seems to both expand and contract. The easy chair seems to retreat. The fireplace yawns its charcoal mouth at him.

He opens the trash and pulls out the book. It’s not enough to just hide it away, to dispense of it. He wants Todd to not exist in this house. Ethan needs to forget Todd. He throws the book in the fireplace. A box of matches is atop the mantle, each match pale and firm with promise.

He strikes one and throws it on the book. The pages immediately burst with flame. The smoke comes fast and thick. Soon, there is a cloud of grey and his eyes start to sting. Panic skewers him—a desperate, distinct heat.

He didn’t open the chimney. They closed it in February, once the sun rose with them. There are no reasons for fireplaces to be lit in late March. Now smoke is pouring into the living room and there’s nothing he can do. The wood below the book starts to blacken and catch flame. He can’t stop what’s already begun. He can’t reach into an open fire to fix things.

Sam runs around, opening windows and letting the night in. Sam runs around, coughing, trying to blink past the smoke, trying to fan it out of the house. He collapses, wheezing, on the couch once the windows and front door are open. The smoke will leave the house eventually. The smoke has to leave the house eventually.

The book is gone, but the acrid stench remains heavy around him. Ethan will wake up to smoke in his bedroom and hurry down to Sam. They will run away together from the mistakes made. It will only be after they are outside looking on that Ethan will ask what happened. Sam will have to tell him, as they wait in the night for the smoke to thin out.

The fire is a blaze, it climbs and climbs. The smoke pours out the windows. Sam gazes into it all. The neighbors will call 911; the neighbors will have questions for them, and Sam will have to explain to them, too.

When the firefighters come, at first, they are confused. As they enter the house, they place hands on Sam’s shoulders, Sam defeated on the couch. They try to stare into the smoke, see what Sam sees. They can’t. They can’t understand his mumblings about a boy across the country, the boy Ethan loved. They can’t understand how unfair it is that love happens like this, how unfair it is that love happens when the other person looks in the other direction.

The firefighters still Sam’s twitching hands. They say there is no third person. They tell him everything’s all right, it is the two of them, Sam and Ethan, in this house. It is the two of them in their house, together.

The fire is over, the smoke is leaving, you two are all right, they say. Stop mumbling about things that are past. Stop bringing up the past.

Still, Sam sees Todd and Ethan making love in Ethan’s bed, both of them pale and gleaming in the moonlight, hands finding purchase on each other. Todd is moving in and out of Ethan now and Ethan throws back his head, his face full of abandon, full of joy. Sam sees the two of them, laughing and smiling with each other, another fire that can’t be extinguished. Sam can’t get rid of it. He can’t reach past it. The firefighters struggle to get to him, and he can’t grasp beyond that taunt of happiness and the dark curtain of smoke.

Ross Showalter’s stories, essays, and criticism have appeared in Electric Literature, Strange Horizons, Catapult, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. He resides in the Pacific Northwest.

Illustration by Kelsey Short

Issue 18