See him as xe first sees him that summer: skin faultless and slick and pulsing in the hot lights underground. His curls big and weightless. He smiles down at xer and his hips swerve to xer side; he says he’s heard a local band is playing a bar up the street. Xer eyes touch base with xer friends and they ragtag all of them up into the humid night. Cobblestones and consignment shop window mannequins waxy and startled in their poses beneath the yellow streetlight cones. By morning xe is at the bus stop in front of his place. He has given xer flipflops to replace the heeled boots that hobbled xer and a sweatshirt to see xer warmly home. Xe thanks him and before the bus comes they share stories and tongues. He tastes of old cigarettes and the cinnamon gum xe gave him. He tells xer about summers at an uncle’s farm down south, cicadas louder than any voice in your head could be, broad red clay and tufted grass and barefoot runs with only a kite to anchor him to the sky. Xe notices the first tattoo then, a kite boyish and shy on the inside of his wrist.
See him next a month after: his teeth hard and lovely when he laughs in the smoke behind the bakery. He is a ghost of flour and soda, his arms tangible things only below the elbows where gloves had shielded him. His hair swells beneath the edges of a cap. He laughs again and drags his cigarette. Xer eyes follow his fingers like a cat trailing string — dexterous and sinister, knuckle thin and nail chewed close. More tattoos there, anchors and roses and thorns. Xe takes his hand and bites his thumb, eyes sly and promising him things. It is an hour yet before the end of his shift.
Xe does not see him for two nights after a particular fight. It doesn’t matter what it was or which side xe took; it is only an outward ritual of their inward negotiation. He has been working hard hours and even though their clothes and records mingle now their paths seldom cross, even less so when he schedules to avoid xer. When he returns xe is on their bed; xe doesn’t wear his shirts to bed anymore. Xe sits with laptop and the aloof formality of a fresh new shirt and says you could have called. He smiles less often now, only looks at their pictures pinned curling like specimens to the wall as he says his apology. They split the bed between them but the night knits them closer. In the morning he sleeps while xe looks at him, his ink limning billows and mermaids and seadragons the color of drowning men turning snakewise around bicep and shoulder. Xer nails scrape but only leave white marks that fade. His ink is indelible.
In the shower xe finds traces of him bruisecolored creeping up xer wrists. Xe rubs and scrapes and they do not come off.
Xer eyes refuse to see him for some time, xer clarinet and xer Alma Thomas prints propped against xer friend’s couch while the ink spills within xer, avoiding the shadow of him in the corner of xer eye whenever their steps take them past the same shops. Texts querulous and apologetic and resigned alike go unanswered. Ferns and flowers in fevered bursts of color entwine with stormclouds and lightning radiating up xer arms, a careful riot of growth and fury xe keeps hidden under sleeves. Xe isn’t ready. The world isn’t ready for xer.
Summer comes again, and xe hesitates. Arms hidden still, demure exterior, a cocoon of professional demeanor suitable for late conferences and meetings with museum donors, the old uninterrupted routine. A storm puffs its chest above the city, sending food wrappers and newspapers scuttling for cover into stairwells and subway tunnels. Xe misses a bus and finds xerself stalking xer way against the wind, xer skin aglow, infected with electrons underneath xer suit. At first xe doesn’t see where xe is going. A bakery, a record shop, a bar, xe walks past them all, xer steps resounding with the tidal tremors of the ground beneath xer. A rhythm pulling xer downward into a den of sweat and noise and pulsing lights beneath the city.
See him, then, the way xe last sees him: wearing faultless skin as a disguise, the remembered curve and swell of him lost in the music and the shy secrets of another. Xe knows his true form, though, the indelible marks of his ink. The story of him, the marks of him left upon the story of xer.
Their eyes meet.
Rick Hollon (they/fey) is a nonbinary author, editor, and parent from the American Midwest. Feir work has appeared in Prismatica, perhappened, Pareidolia Literary, and other small-press publications. Find them on Twitter @SailorTheia.