There were a great many things that triggered Tamal throughout the apartment that had once been theirs and was now just his. The dishes in the sink, unfinished bars of soap, the blender that had been left behind in the cupboard where small appliances were sent to die, the collection of condoms that had fallen between the bedpost and the wall. The list went on and on in his head, ad nauseam.
Tamal was a prisoner bound by the belongings his ex had left behind, and instead of clearing them out, throwing open the windows, trying a new scent of candle, disinfecting everything with a bleach bath to remove the residual stains of memory, he let the dishes collect, the soap harden, the blender dust over. There were so many triggers that he could no longer discern the world of triggers from the world of normal. It all spun around and around in his mind, covering everything in blight.
Each day, he allowed himself only one chance to escape the apartment for a few hours. Even prisoners were allowed their daily walks in the yard. He would leave the apartment behind and walk a few blocks to the park, sit at one the benches, and watch people pass by, the air buzzing with the sound of children playing at the equipment in desperate need of replacement.
Sometimes Tamal would read the newspaper at his bench, or eat a packed lunch, or smoke a cigarette. He loved eavesdropping on conversations between passersby, or the drivel gushed between bored mothers as they sat at a nearby picnic table, ignoring their children as they traded neighborhood gossip. He found himself surprised at how frequently the world would reach out to interact with him—a mother might ask if she could bum a cigarette, or a homeless man. One day, a middle-aged man whose gaze, with eyes of piercing blue that nearly punctured Tamal’s impregnable heart, asked to borrow the paper.
“Good luck trying to keep a good mood after reading this garbage,” Tamal said with an attempt at levity and a smile, reaching out to give Blue Eyes the paper, hoping, as pathetic as it sounded, for the opportunity to brush hands with the stranger. The man said nothing to this, instead shooting a look at him that one might give a caged animal in a zoo, and took the supplementary magazine resting on the bench, the one Tamal had been planning to read next, without asking. So much for that Tamal thought as he watched the man leave, paying particular attention to the way his ass clung to his fitted pants.
Life continued in this way until Wednesday, when a woman approached the bench where Tamal sat doing nothing at all, just watching the world continue on without him. “Oh, there you are! You must be Josef! Sorry, nobody ever looks exactly like their profile pictures, do they?” she said, wearing a look that one made upon meeting someone for the first time. She made a gesture that she’d like to sit down, and Tamal, without being entirely sure what he was doing, nodded, forcing a smile that matched hers, reaching out to shake her hand as she sat.
“I never know where to start with these things. I can think of about a million questions, each more cliché than the last. Do you have any ideas?” she said. The puzzle pieces were connecting for Tamal, who had not been on a date with a woman in many years; he wasn’t entirely sure he still knew how it was done, but he had to try now, didn’t he?
“If you could pick your own nickname, what would it be?” Tamal asked, thinking of the first thing that appeared in his mind so as to seem quick on his feet.
She smiled at the question, pausing to think. She wasn’t too bad to look at, Tamal thought. Her features looked bright and radiating, her smile genuine and warm. Had he been straight he might consider this a lucky break. He thought back to the man who had stolen his paper—why hadn’t he chosen to sit?
She picked the nickname Butterfly, her favorite animal. She showed him the tattoo she had gotten behind her left earlobe of a small monarch. Tamal replied he would choose Gus, after his favorite food: asparagus. This made her laugh. He suggested that they walk somewhere, in case the real Josef came to the park and Tamal had to explain to his doppelganger, the real Josef, why he had stolen his date. This was how it started.
By and large, Tamal’s routine seemed the same after that day, but something had shifted within him. He would still leave his apartment once per day, earlier now than he had done before, preparing a lunch in case things went late, still went to the park. Now Tamal’s heart would race each time someone came into sight with an expectant look on their face. You would be surprised how frequently these looks appeared in Tamal’s life, and how quickly he acknowledged the looks, ready to accept anyone into his life.
“I don’t do public, BSDM, or any weird shit like that,” a prostitute with purple lipstick told him while sharing some of his bagel with schmear. He watched the purple flood the white of the cream cheese as she took a bite.
“I wouldn’t expect anything other than you’d feel comfortable with,” Tamal replied with a grave look and a small nod.
“Can you have the reports to me first thing on Monday morning? I was expecting them from your office mid-week last, and here I am—still without an answer. You’d think I wasn’t paying an arm-and-a-leg for your services,” a man dressed in a suit on a Saturday had said to a shrunken Tamal; he was getting quite good at just picking up the tone of the conversation from the first few seconds.
“If you could give us a bit more to work with we might be able to help you better, sooner.”
“Fuck you, man. I’ve given it all. Don’t expect a full report when you’re dealing with a client as big as ours,” the suited man said as he rubbed his dry scalp in exasperation.
“Where’s yours?” a mother breastfeeding a newborn asked him as she sat down at the bench beside him.
“See him over there, on the swings?” Tamal said, pointing with a smile, while his insides plummeted at the answer he wanted to give: he is long gone, though his belongings remain in my apartment like a sad and twisted menagerie.
Somehow every interaction had worked itself out in the end. Purple Lips finished the bagel wedge and wrote an address on his forearm in black pen. Suit and Tie had left with a warning and a reassured promise of Monday morning. Breastfeeding went on to share photos of her family, with Tamal apologizing that all the photos were on his husband’s phone, since his was nicer quality.
This went on for months and months; fall colors had come to the leaves almost overnight. Tamal arrived at his usual bench with a book but had taken instead to just soaking in the amazing reds, oranges, and yellows overhead. In the time of dying that preceded winter, he realized he had not felt more alive in months. It was as if, by pretending to be the other half of the assortment of people he encountered, he had become whole once more.
“Don’t say that, grandpa. You’ve got time.”
“The hell I do. Every time I wake up in the morning I’m surprised. Sometimes it makes me laugh, still being alive,” he said.
Tamal was having a successful day, becoming the grandson to an amnesic, hairy-eared gentleman who, upon hearing that his little Henry had made dean’s list a fourth time, promised him a hefty place in his will, when the time came.
It was all happening at once. Grandpa was hugging him goodbye. Tamal was promising to call soon, but did not have his number, even know his name. It would be this way forever, Tamal thought as he watched the old man shuffle off down the misty stretch of sidewalk that led back into the city.
Even after he was long gone. It was foolish the hang onto the past.
Tamal came home to an apartment that looked much the same as it had after his ex had left, all those months ago. Tamal thought of his make-believe grandfather, likely sitting in a stuffed armchair inside a home somewhere. Or tucking into his evening dinner. Would he remember this afternoon, or had that, too, already ebbed away to a distant dream? Was he even a make-believe grandfather to Tamal, or had he become a real one after their time in the park? Who determined the measurements of human interaction?
To the big questions there were no answers. The solution, Tamal’s to define, was that he would now accept everything at face value. In their apartment he pulled a fresh garbage bag from the roll and let the artificial scent of spring rain fill his nostrils. He began collecting those things which he no longer desired to be around, those painful reminders of him and their life together. It was like severing different parts of a physical body; it was corporeal pain.
He ripped down the photographs they had taken together at the carnival and threw them into the bag. The dusty blender, the bars of soap, the condoms, all in as well. He even threw away perfectly usable dishes crusted over with remaining food into the second bag. He rifled through shared file folders, shredded any that had his name, and added them like snowfall on top of everything, hiding the unmatched socks from the utility room, burying his forgotten DVDs, inundating everything. Tamal tied the strings shut and left the bags near the door. He went to their bedroom, sat on their bed, and fell into a dreamless sleep that lasted the rest of the evening and night, and while he was asleep the apartment changed. “Theirs” became “his.” The bed he woke up in felt like his own again, same as the day he had bought it. In the pale-yellow light of dawn, the apartment was his once more—from the battle he had won the war. On his way to the park he threw the remains into the dumpster; he was a free man in newborn skin.
Another month of the routine, a month spent living in a space that felt completely his. Tamal sat smoking a cigarette on a crisp, November morning when his ex came to the park. He was wearing a beige car coat over the clothes, a sweater pulled over a floral button-up that Tamal had bought him a few months before the end. It complemented his shape now, as much as ever, provided a small amount of bulk that offset his natural slenderness well.
It felt a bit like dying, Tamal’s watching him approach. His breath had become lodged somewhere deep inside him; he had to remind himself to keep breathing or it would be all over. “Before we’re born we’re dead and when we die we’re dead, and nothing else will feel the same,” Tamal thought as, to his horror or intense satisfaction, it was unclear which part of the amygdala was being stimulated, his ex was scanning the park in much the same way the others did. “Except this moment, right now,” Tamal concluded.
There were two distinct expressions on his ex’s face: apprehension, plain as day, but within the gaze some secret ingredient lingered, perhaps the answer was the reason he came to the park in the first place. The face, now lightly-spun with black stubble; before, he had always shaved, almost meticulously, a torn page Tamal knew all too well how to read.
Tamal wasn’t aware his hand was waving before it was too late. Like an instinct it had lifted, and he called him over in a voice that sounded so unlike his own he had to move his eyes slightly to the left to make sure he wasn’t being controlled by a ventriloquist. But it was only ever Tamal. These were the movements of a man who knew what he was doing, even if he didn’t want to know.
Mark? What brings you to this neck of the woods?
To see you, silly.
And here you are, even better in person. Do you want to grab coffee?
In the pause, the last leaf fell from the oak tree overhead.
Sure. Any suggestions?
Isn’t there a Quotidien just outside the park?
I think you’re right.
So let’s go!
To Tamal, there was something surreal about the whole thing. It was like returning to your hometown after being away for many years. So many things were the same as you remembered them, the landscape familiar, but the number of differences and deviations from your recollection of the place makes you question if you had ever really lived there at all. It was alarming to him that Mark had kept evolving without Tamal. To walk beside him, with his arrow-straight posture and tendency to rush. To hold the door to the café open, as he always had. To hear Mark’s order in his head before he spoke it aloud. A wave of numbness covered Tamal in a frosted glaze, so that he seemed very far away from himself as he spoke with Mark at their little table wedged near the back of the café.
You must have been cold, waiting out there for me. Were you there long?
You might say that, yeah.
I’m so sorry! The first thing you’ll learn about me is that I’m rarely on time. Hope that’s not a problem.
I knew that already.
Well give me a second chance before you jump to conclusions!
A cup rattled against a saucer, a warbling, ceramic song. What did he mean?
Have you been well, Mark?
More than well! New job, as you know…
I didn’t know that.
Really? I thought I told you — my bad.
No problem. It’d been awhile.
It has? What do you mean…gah! I’m more than a little nervous. This is definitely new territory for me.
Me too. I never expected…
At least we’re both equally nervous?
But don’t you think we should talk? Elephant very visible in the room.
Aren’t we talking now?
But I mean talk talk. It’s like we’re pretending it never happened.
What do you mean? What never happened?
You should know what I mean.
But…I don’t? Is something wrong?
Tamal was fidgeting with his mug, wondering if this might possibly be the stupidest decision of his life. Mark was sitting there, across from him, with a look of utter confusion splashed on his face. Could he really not understand how strange this all seemed? Tamal wanted closure, wanted to let Mark know that he no longer felt burdened by his departure and that things were beginning to seem all right. That he had shed his skin away, the scurf of the past. This wasn’t the time to rehash old arguments, follow old patterns. He ought to set things right.
No, no. Nothing’s wrong. It’s just—
Oh god. This is off to a bad start. Let’s start over?
Okay then. Hi, you’re Ben, right? It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Mark. You look a little cold on that park bench. Would you like to get a coffee?
Right. Ben…Benjamin? Which do you prefer? Your profile said Ben, so I thought I’d go with that.
On the app. Sorry if it’s embarrassing to mention we met on a dating app.
Sorry, but can you excuse me a sec? Bathroom. Sorry.
Terror plagued his insides as he looked into the mirror above the sink and saw a different person entirely staring back at him. It was as if the standard model Tamal had been tweaked and refined here and there—the chin was shaped a bit more solidly, there were sideburns, hair in stylized peaks on top of his head. He stared back at the new version of himself through eyes that had slightly better focus than the old Tamal had had, with more eyelashes and thicker eyebrows.
Could it be? Tamal was having trouble believing his own eyes, but then again, were they even his anymore? He slapped his face, felt the sting send a shockwave through his body, this new vessel he seemed to be occupying. He thought of the amnesic grandpa, the woman who mistook him, the prostitute, the businessman, the mother. What had they seen when they looked at him on the bench? What had he become to them.
A manic smile threw this new person’s face into derangement; the imperfections of the mirror disrupted what was natural and true. It became quite clear what had happened to him now, what was happening. He was becoming them. Whoever they wanted him to be.
When he returned to the table he found Mark still sitting there, spinning a stirring stick around in his coffee, an attempt to busy his mind while he waited. Upon his approach, Mark looked up and heaved a sigh of relief, as if he was certain his first date would not be returning from the bathroom and had snuck out the back door instead.
Well, this has gone to shit, hasn’t it?
No, please. It’s all my fault, really. Let’s try this again. Mark? My name is Ben. It’s nice to finally meet the real you, after all this time. Do you mind if I have a seat? I have a lot I want to learn about you.