A surprising connection between two polar opposities.
When it came to social landscapes, Rowan Whitiker was a terraformer. A nomadic biome whose charismatic environment could transform every room and person absorbed by its path into something magical. He was a wrangler of people and places. A cowboy corralling his sheep on the barstool and vodka lined shelves of his prairie. That flashy smile of perfectly aligned shield-shaped ivory and a square jaw with crosshatched stubble ripped out of a comic book was an instant monument that all arrivals couldn’t help but stare at in awe. He had blue eyes with black dagger lashes. He was tall and approachable in a way that only gravity could compete with. He was fashionable, the kind of trend setter that made one wonder if he was looking into the future to see what to wear. He was the most famous non-celebrity one could say they knew.
And Kurt loathed him.
Kurt was not a lighthouse beam of charm like Rowan. No. Kurt was the dead pixel off to one side of a display screen. Kurt was the feeling of failure at the end of an immense effort put into the wrong endeavour. Kurt was a crooked nose and an underdeveloped canine hiding behind a wayward incisor. He was the four hours of sleep to get through the busiest day of the week. He was the same unwashed shirt three days in a row because he works all day and fuck laundry because that’s more work to look forward to.
Now here he was with his three day old shirt, rebellious teeth and crooked nose trying to have a drink and relax after a rough day and, of course, who should walk in but Rowan fucking Whitiker. It was odd to him that almost every time he seemed to actually try to enjoy himself (or at least not hate himself more than he already did), there was Rowan. Always Rowan. Intertwined opposites that somehow pulled each other to the same places. Fraternal strangers.
What baffled Kurt the most was how Rowan’s atomic level personality seemed to affect absolutely everyone but himself. Somehow he was immune to, or perhaps worse yet, banned from Rowan’s magical social super powers. Even people rougher around the edges than himself seemed inexplicably reconfigured into their happiest form when that man entered a room. But not Kurt. No, Kurt had to try even harder not to lose his face to frowning when Rowan was around. Sometimes he thought there was something seriously wrong with himself. Or even worse, that maybe he was just too stupid to understand what everyone else seemed to be getting about him. Mostly, however, he liked to think that maybe it was because he was smarter than most people. That maybe somehow he had retained some special ability to recognize bullshit when he smelled it and everyone else lost their sense of smell in the presence of the great Rowan Whitiker. He liked that idea because it made him feel that he, like Rowan, had his own super power that made him unique from everyone else. Even if it meant he would be by himself and not surrounded by people like Rowan. Even if it meant no one else even noticed or cared that he might be special, he still had a bit of greatness and that gave him comfort. Kind of. Maybe it was a small and shitty comfort that smelled of unfounded arrogance, but at least it was something. And he needed a little bit of comfort to get through nights like this, because his stale shirt wasn’t providing any.
Rowan shined his beacon charm around the bar. The people flocked.
“Oh my god! Rowan!” a girl squealed like a teapot and ran to hug him. A group of three guys sitting at a nearby table immediately stood up with their drinks and herded themselves towards him. The bartenders greeted him like they were long lost brothers. The entire bar was aware that Rowan Whitiker was in the house. Kurt frowned and took a drink of his beer. A bit of froth clung to his nose and he wiped it away with his sleeve.
What really got to Kurt was that in moments like this, where Rowan fundamentally changed the very reality of the room, where all the inhabitants suddenly became not only aware of Rowan’s presence but possibly their very purpose of being became dependent upon him, when all of these people fell into his orbit in whatever part of the room he was in… Rowan always noticed him. Rowan always found his way over to Kurt and immediately acknowledged his presence. Wasn’t it punishment enough that he was the beating heart of the party? Wasn’t it enough that every person with eyes was looking at him and floating in the clouds that were his charisma? Did he have to come over and rub it in Kurt’s face? Did he have to focus all that power and funnel it in his direction and shine a light on his uncomfortable existence?
“Hey! Kurt! Glad you’re here buddy! Can I get you a beer?” The perfect man asked.
Kurt rolled his eyes, picked up his beer and chugged it back. It was warm and fuzzy and went down like piss flushed down a toilet. He slammed the bottle down and swallowed hard and kicked the unpleasant skunk around in his mouth with an unhappy tongue.
“I think I’m done for the evening. This place suddenly got a bit too crowded for my tastes.” Kurt grabbed his faux leather jacket from the back of his chair and jammed his arms into it. A quarter fell out of a pocket. A few flakes of vinyl drifted off of his lapel. He didn’t look anyone in the face, but he could feel the disapproving stares he was getting from Rowan’s satellites.
“How ‘bout I buy you a beer, Rowan?” the teapot girl said with stars in her eyes and too much gloss on her lips.
“I gotchya too, bro!” one of the three not-so-wise men chimed in.
Kurt suddenly found himself corralled by the growing crowd and tried to push his way through. His shoulder caught on someone’s back who was too close, his ankle was slightly wrapped around the chair’s leg. He tripped a little, hopping into the open space beyond the gaggle on one foot. He stopped to look at his shoe. A lace had unravelled itself wildly. He frowned at it and looked up at Rowan and his following. The gaggle’s eyes ignored him. Rowan was smiling, bemused by the chatter, but was glancing at Kurt. Kurt whirled about on his heels, the laces lashing out like conjoined whips and whisked his way out of the bar.
He walked for a while towards home. He ignored the lashing and slapping of his laces against the cool concrete, his hands deep in his pocket. He could feel the hole in it and he could feel all the change that escaped through it rattling about in the lining of his false jacket. For long minutes he stewed.
I fucking hate that guy.
Thinks he’s perfect. Thinks everyone loves him.
But he started to think about those glances Rowan had given him as he was leaving. The smile seemed forced. His eyes seemed….sad? Almost begging him to stay? He didn’t get it. All these people that adored Rowan. So many people willing to do anything for him just to be in his presence. And yet Rowan only ever sought him out. Rowan only ever went out of his way to get Kurt’s attention.
It was Kurt’s immunity. That must be it. He can’t stand the fact that Kurt won’t give him his undivided attention. That Kurt doesn’t drop his own identity just to bask in Rowan’s existence. Kurt nodded his head in agreement with himself. Of course that was it. The one weak link in his armor. The missing scale in the dragon’s underbelly. If Rowan had Kurt’s adoration then he would be complete and perfect. Then he could say with utmost confidence that everyone loved him. Kurt was a key that locked up everything nice and tidy for him and he was never going to let him have it. Muscles unaccustomed to fighting gravity twitched in the patchy sea of stubble that was his face. For two blocks he let this simmer and smolder and smoke on his brainpan.
The twin snakes of his shoes lept and nipped at the cuff of his pants. They slithered and flopped under the other shoe threatening to release their imprisoned set of twin brothers. The heel of his foot began to pop in and out of the shoe’s throat. He slowed himself and kicked his foot up onto a cement half wall that was cracked and painted with uninspired phrases and tags. As he bound the snakes back together, he noticed the wear of his shoe: white scuffs and scrapes frayed and bursting out from lackadaisical gradients of old brown. It was like bread tops bursting and cracking as they rose up out of their pan. He hadn’t realized how worn they were. He hadn’t ever stopped long enough to look and give a shit. He thought about the shoes that Rowan wore. Pristine italian, polished but not shiny, the perfect satin finish. Not a scuff. The shoes of a man who people would believe could walk on water if they were told it. He wondered what it must be like to wear those shoes. More precisely, what it was like to be the person who was wearing those shoes.
Kurt knew he was a tough person to love. He was hard and cynical, overly critical for a man with change in the liner of his fake coat and loaves of bread for feet. He wasn’t close to anyone. He didn’t care for his parents and hadn’t spoken to them in years. He had one sister that would send him the obligatory birthday text on the day after his actual birthday. He couldn’t make friends and his love life was a smattering of first dates cast along his road of life like garbage tossed out the window of some old oil bleeding farm truck. He never liked to get dressed up for dates. He had it in his head that if it ever worked they would eventually see him as he really was so why even bother with the pretense? If there was any one positive virtue he had, he had always at least tried to be honest and stay true to himself. And that’s why it was only ever first dates. That didn’t mean he wasn’t a stranger to a sexual relationship though. He did go to college after all. It was never a date and there wasn’t more than one. Just one person that he could fulfill those urges with. He didn’t even like them. They certainly didn’t like him. Just two creatures following their biology, intertwined without intimacy or even remorse. He hated them as much as they must have hated themselves. And yet it went on for most of his junior year until it ended because he thought it was the best he could do. He was willing to settle for it to be something more. Something involved. Something possibly with expectations and agreements. But not them. They still wanted the hate. They wanted the emotionless physical connection with whomever they wanted. And it was done. And that was all he knew of being intimate and feeling in love.
Kurt imagined that Rowan must have been with someone new almost every night if he wanted it. And each person that came into his bed probably professed loved within minutes of being close enough to touch him. He felt a little jealous. What must that be like? To be wanted? To be loved? To have choices? To not ever hear the word “no”?
He shook his head. He finished wrapping the rebellious snakes together, choking them into submission. His foot slid from the concrete and clapped to the ground. He continued walking. There was only a block left until he was home and he didn’t want to carry these kinds of thoughts in with him.
Door open. Door shut. Keys fanning out, spinning as they hit the glass bowl and twirled. Fake jacket on the back of the brown and tan granny couch (it had been found for free on a nearby sidewalk). Shoes pried and kicked off the feet (why did he bother to tie them again?). Drop unto couch. Grab a cigarette from an open pack on top of an unopened one. Turn on the TV. Tap the cigarette against the streaky crumb infested glass table. Pop it into his mouth. Light up. Become nothing.
Yes he was a smoker. But only when he was at home. It wasn’t that he was ashamed of it or anything, it was just that this was something that was his and his alone to enjoy. It was his hobby. His security. It was the thing that welcomed him and eagerly awaited him to come home every day. It was his marriage. A marital vow to smoke and carcinogens and the smell of old ash and carpet burns. It didn’t judge him. It didn’t nag him. It needed him as much as he needed it. It was the perfect partner.
He had tried vaping, but that moment was brief. He couldn’t stand the pretentious pomp and pageantry of it all. It was engineering for the hapless. An artform for the mediocre. A competition for wannabe athletes who stood in circles billowing smoke at each other like they were the next dragon to set the world on fire. No sir. He was into the classics. He prefered his bridge to cancer to be short and built with sturdier nails. Like him, cigarettes were straight to the point. No extra bullshit pretending to purify the experience and the user. Just straight good old fashion coupling of man and nicotine.
He would sit for hours into the wee morning on friday nights just smoking and watching but not watching TV. And it was Friday night to him. Even at three a.m. when the turning of the planet argued otherwise. He was determined to drag Friday nights out, hang on to its coattails and pull and yank until he was too tired to go on and blurry eyes had to fold in on themselves and send him to bed. Weekends were short. Every second had to be squeezed out of its limited lifespan until he was forced to go out those doors and go to that job and talk to those people and do all the things he hated to do just so he could get two fucking days to himself and pretend like those other things didn’t even exist.
The ashtray was already overflowing. The second pack had been opened several episodes of whatever back. The end of the cigarette glowed red, a tiny brake light barely illuminating his nose and eyes, as he took deep drags. There was a buzzing sound and a rattling on his glass table. Kurt looked down. His phone was alive and tap dancing with the empty pack next to it.
Who could be calling him?
No one ever called him. Not ever. Especially not at three o’clock in the morning. He picked up the phone and looked at the screen.
Rowan was calling him. Him. He didn’t even remember having his number, much less ever giving Rowan his. What could the perfect man possibly want with him at this hour?
He stared at the name, bold and white staring up at him. The animated symbol of a phone under his name jiggling back and forth. It seemed so stupid. He was probably too drunk and just dialed the wrong number. He probably was making out with someone and threw it on his bed and sat on it and accidentally dialed him. It was one of any number of flukes that could have possibly caused Rowan to call him.
So why was he answering it?
Kurt hit the green button and brought it to his ear. All he heard was the ambient sound of wind and maybe the sound of slow footsteps. Kurt stayed silent listening. Seconds unspooled and became a minute. Finally Kurt spoke.
“Kurt. I need you to come over.”
Kurt paused again. Stunned like an alley cat frozen by the sound of dogs barking in the distance.
“What…It’s three in the morning, man! Why are you calling me?”
“I need you to come over. Now. It’s important. Please.”
Again Kurt lingered in silence, but then gave in.
“I’ll text you the address. I’m not far from you. I just need you to get here quickly,” he said and then hung up.
There was another buzzing from the phone and a text from Rowan appeared with the address and a code to let himself into the building. He sat there for a moment, his cigarette a crooked column of powder barely hanging on to a dying ember on the tip of his lip.
“Why am I doing this?” he asked no one and crammed the cigarette into the crowded ashtray.
Shoes on. Arms shoved into sleeves. Keys in hand. Cigarettes and lighter shoved into a pocket with a hole in it.
Strange. He thought as he took a moment. He had never had the compulsion to take cigarettes with him. Not ever. The only time he carried them was in a carton on the way home from a convenience store. But now here they were. Nice and cozy cuddled up to a bunch of loose quarters and pennies and maybe a couple of nickels with only a shitty thin membrane of cotton and nylon between them.
Out the door. Walking the street.
He set a quick pace for himself. This wasn’t the long brooding walk from bar to apartment. But he didn’t know why he was walking quickly. This was Rowan afterall. Why did he care?
It was something in his voice, he thought. It sounded calm. Matter of fact. And yet there was a strange urgency to it. Was this what normal people called a cry for help? And this compulsion to respond quickly to it, was that him caring? He didn’t know. He couldn’t think of a single time in his life where anyone had ever called on him for anything that sounded like this. He had never been called by a boss asking why he was late for work because he never was. He had never been called by his parents or sister looking for help or in need of anything. Again, he never had any real friends as long as he could remember. Hell, he never even owned a pet that required his care and attention. So this must be what it was like to really care.
It didn’t take him long to make his way to Rowan’s neighborhood. He was surprised at how close they had lived all this time. It was a pristine neck of the woods. Upscale and hip. It almost seemed like there was some kind of invisible wall where his rundown neighborhood suddenly morphed into this upper middle class utopia. This was the beautiful well cared for incisors that everyone saw in a smile while he lived in the broken grey molar shamefully hidden in the back.
Rowan’s building was a tall luxurious condominium with belts of long balconies sporting plants and exercise machines and hammocks on wire frames. His phone buzzed again. Another text.
Take the elevator to the top floor and then use the stairs to get to the roof access.
Kurt shoved the phone back into his pocket and went inside.
What am I doing? Why am I doing this? I hate Rowan! I hate him! He kept repeating to himself as the elevator made its gentle ascent to the top floor. He got off at the top floor. He found the stairwell and climbed. When he got to the top, the roof access door had been propped open by a potted plant blooming pretty purple flowers. Kurt glanced up at the white glowing sign above the door frame with the words NO EXIT in bright red and then pushed his way back out into the night.
Rowan, with his six foot two frame, stood not far away, solidly, unswaying on the thin ledge of the roof’s edge. His back was turned towards Kurt. Kurt could only just stare. This was not what he was expecting to find up here. Of course, he was not expecting to find himself here at all. He reached into his pocket and felt the glossy square of the cigarette pack and wrapped his hand around it.
This, he thought, This is why I brought you.
He pulled it out, popped a stick into his mouth and clicked his lighter. It was this that made Rowan finally turn his head. The tall perfect man offered a small but sincere smile.
“I didn’t know you smoked.”
Kurt took a long drag, winked as the smoke curled into and stung his eye. He blinked it away and blew out a long slow stream of smoke.
“Yeah, well… apparently we all have our secrets.”
Rowan offered a tiny laugh, an acknowledging snort and turned his head back to face out into the high space before him.
Kurt took another long drag, blew half of it out and the rest wormed its way out of his nose while he spoke again.
“What is this Rowan? Why am I here? Why are you...there?” he jabbed the lit cigarette in the direction Rowan’s precarious ledge.
“I think you know.” That matter of fact but slight sadness tone hung in his voice.
“I know what it looks like. And I know it makes no sense. What the fuck do you have to be sad about, Rowan? And why call me? You’ve got like a thousand people who give a shit about you!”
Rowan snorted again and turned his head back towards Kurt, his smile slightly bigger but still sad.
“It’s because you’re the only friend I have, Kurt. In fact, you’re my best friend.”
“Bullshit. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard and I think everyone is fucking dumb.”
“No. Seriously. You’re the only one, Kurt. You’re the only one who is real. You don’t bullshit me. You don’t pretend. You’re you all the time no matter who is around. There’s no one I respect more. No one that feels as real as you do.”
“Rowan… I hate you. That’s the opposite of friendship.”
“I know. But do you know why you hate me?”
“Because you think you’re perfect?”
“No, because you know we’re the same.”
“You’ve really lost your mind, haven’t you?”’
“We’re different sides of the same coin. We seek the same thing but we have different ways of looking for it and different places we look in. But we’re still the same. Connected.”
Kurt took another long drag.
“That makes no sense.”
Rowan sighed and put his hands on his hips. He stared down hard into the grassy courtyard below.
“I’ve spent my entire life seeking validation from others. For some reason people have always been...attracted to me. They’ve needed me to fulfill them. Some wanted to be like me, some wanted to be with me, but it has just been this unending parade of...need. It’s never felt real. It’s never felt like anyone was there because they knew me or wanted to know me. They were just there to… take a piece. To complete themselves. It's been so empty. And yet… I needed it. I needed the attention. I needed the worship and accolades. It was the only thing that ever really kept me going. I had hoped one day… one day someone real would come along and I could just stop. Stop being this stupid magnet for fake people. Stop being needed as the thing that completes other people. Maybe if I could stop it, it would let these people, these...parasites… start finding themselves instead of finding me.”
Kurt said nothing and lit another cigarette from his old one.
“And then I met you. You weren’t like anyone else. For the first time someone saw through all the bullshit piled up around me and actually...hated me. It was the most real thing I ever felt. I wanted to be your friend so bad. I needed it so bad just so I could finally put a muzzle on the cacophony.”
“But…?” Kurt said through a drag.
“But you’re also broken.”
Kurt inhaled sharply. Smoke too rich and too coarse scraped his throat as it burned its way down. He exploded into a fit of harsh coughs.
“Excuse me?” he said with a diminished voice and squinted eyes and large hacking balls of razor blades coming back up his tubes.
“We’re both broken, Kurt. We are both the same broken thing just experiencing the world two different ways at the same time. It's why life feels so uncomfortable and misshapen to us… We came into the world wrong. Two halves of the same coin that doesn’t even like itself. A worthless penny that can’t buy what it wants.”
“Jesus, Rowan. You already know I hate you, I’m definitely not into you in… you know...in that kinda way.”
“Don’t be so somatic, Kurt. That’s not what I’m talking about. I know you know. I know you feel it every day.”
“Ok. So what if i’m a little...broken? What has that got to do with you standing on a ledge at three thirty in the goddamn morning.”
“Because Kurt, we’ll never work here. We’re only going to ever be a disruptive force in this life. One of us gathering blind sheep, the other trying to cut them down. And in the midst of it, we’re repelling each other. Keeping each other from really being alive.”
“So,” long drag, “We’re the same person. Neither of us worth a damn. What are we going to do about it? How do we unbreak ourselves, Rowan?”
“We don’t. We start over.”
“Reinvent ourselves? Become best friends? Get matching onesies? How does this work exactly?” Kurt shrugged his hands into the air. He continued to suck down ash into a scratchy mouth.
“We go back to the beginning. But we have to go…” Rowan stuck out a hand towards Kurt. A waft of magazine model cologne blasted through Kurt’s curling vapor of nicotine.
Kurt’s eyes were wide, the next drag of cigarette stopped an inch from his open bewildered mouth. He stared at the perfect manicured hand before him.
“You want...both of us... to…”
“We’re like two fish caught in a net. One of us is suffocating from the pressure of those surrounding him, the other dying alone. Both of them desperately seeking to get back into the water. But we’ll never get back into the water, Kurt. We’re in the net. It’s never going to get better. We’re both already dying. So… why not start over? Right now. Right here. We can just start again and do things right this time.”
Kurt continued to stare at the perfect hand. A knot in his stomach had been tightening ever since he came up here. He thought about his life. He thought about the void that it was, bereft of anything that gave him joy. Nothing but parents he didn’t talk to, a sister who forgot when his birthday was, a job he hated, no friends and a littered highway of hopeless attempts at stymieing his loneliness. His whole life had been on the path to this, hadn’t it? He was a train barrelling down a track that he himself was actively sabotaging. He didn’t know if any of it had even been by choice. It was like he had been following a script in his head being read out by some aloof chain smoking narrator he could never identify. Nor had he even ever tried to. He was broken and he had only done things that seemed to sustain that brokenness. He fed it piss warm beer and ashtrays of cigarettes. He stuffed it into knock-off leather jackets and shoes so scuffed and damaged that they were too comfortable to ever change. His whole life there had never been anything to really hold on to save for a fresh pack of cigarettes waiting at home and long hours stewing over a man that he hated.
Fuck. It was true. Rowan was his only constant. He had been the only purpose in his life that didn’t feel quite so automatic. He had put care into hating this man. All the wasted hours of decaying away in front of a television, watching shows he couldn’t remember. All the countless stacks of ash crumbling from the edge of his knuckles into the abyss atop his coffee table. All the stale terrible beers washing down whatever was passing as a meal for the day. All of it blended into nothingness. But he could remember every moment of the loathing he had felt towards Rowan. Every annoying radiant beam of sunshine that he had cast into Kurt’s darkness. It was all accounted for. And it felt miserable. It was a miserable purpose. And now here on a rooftop in a too nice of a neighborhood, he was confronted with the reality that the man he had hated for so long, hated himself just as much. He was a broken man with a broken anchor, tethered to a life he neither cherished nor tried to enrich and both of them were sinking.
The cigarette, which was not quite all gone, was tossed to the pebbled mat of the roof. He reached into his pocket. A half pack of cigarettes hits the ground. A lighter follows. Keys fan out as they are tossed and land in scattering stones. He reaches out, putting his yellowed fingers into Rowan’s steady perfect hand. He put a foot up on the ledge and stepped up.
Rowan’s hand felt warm. Kurt’s felt cold, clammy and sweaty. A slight breeze bristles the too thick mouse brown hair on the dorsal side of his hand. It was a strange and uncomfortable feeling holding this man’s hand and standing high above a well manicured lawn. His knees were shaking. Rowan stood unwavered. They turned their heads towards each other.
“It’s okay.” Said Rowan, “I’ll see you in the next one. It’ll be better this time.”
Kurt opened his mouth to say something, but there was nothing left to be said. He gave a faint nervous smile and nodded. Together, still hand in hand, they leapt out into the void.
Coins, finding their way loose from a hole in a pocket in a fake jacket rained down into the courtyard below.
A brown shoe tumbled. It’s twin laces holding strong as they fell entangled to the end.