Fiction

NSFW: Compartments

In the sealed section of our February 2017 issue, an excerpt from Ian Rosales Casocot's upcoming anthology Don’t Tell Anyone.
IMAGE Edric Chen
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FOR L.

Something people will never understand, if ever I begin to tell the story of how we met, but more so how we made love for the last time, if making love were the right words for it: You had a small knife hidden in your pocket, and you were ready to kill me.

But I must tell you I’ve always understood perfectly why that was.

Years later, in unguarded moments when I find myself still thinking of you, I try to imagine what it would have been like if things turned out differently that night. What words I would have said, what frantic gestures I would have made, what degree deeper into the heat of anger we would have plunged to, to trigger a bloody end, and my death. Your knife upon my back, or protruding from a deep trembling wound on my side. My blood thick on your hands.

I would have said, “Dev, what have you done?”

And you would have said, “I don’t know’’—and you would probably be crying by then—“I’m sorry,” you would have said in a beat, nervous, unbelieving—and you would probably stagger down with me as my body keeled forward, my gravity upon your own, the weight of both of us an ungraceful thump on the tiled floor of my apartment.

Above us, the small dark room would be spinning. This room, I would have thought in the haze of sudden recollection of many things, the way a dying man would have both shock and poetry to understand the inevitability of the unseen. This room—where we first met, where we first kissed, where we shared so many nights—this prison that sealed your secret, which I was not supposed to tell the world.

It wouldn’t be a strange thought for me as I’d lie dying in your arms.

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I remember telling you once, when we were happier, about Giovanni’s Room—that slim novel by James Baldwin I cried to when I read it as a younger man: how his tale of a doomed lover being pined for by the man who broke his heart, had always spoken to me, how I felt it prepared me for the tragedies most love affairs wrought—and how you laughed when I said this room, my small apartment, was like our own version of Giovanni’s room, a compartment containing our secret.

“Life is all about compartments,” you said then—the first of many times you’ll say this word to me.

That last night, it was blackmail that brought you to me. I had not seen you in months, and I was angry. You were dismissive. I felt I must not be dismissed. Who were you to dismiss me like that? Your weapon was knowing I loved you without logic or surrender—and in ignoring me, constantly, you won battle upon battle. I felt diminished.

But I, too, had my arsenal. My weapon was your secret. And so I sent them to you—samples of those missives, those pictures, those incriminations.

And that was when you finally came to me.

This was what happened.

“Why are you doing this?” you said, your voice angry and demanding. You closed the apartment’s door behind you.

But I was ready. I stood by the bookshelves that framed the entrance to my bedroom door. And then I played the part of jilted lover to the hilt—the sneering heartbroken man with the upper-hand.

“Stop crying,” I told you when you begged for answers.

But it was not difficult to be moved by your tears. You were a beautiful boy. Still twenty, tall, lean. You had the most beautiful eyes. And when you cried, I quivered. “Stop crying,” I said, less sure now of my intentions and my resolve. And so I gave you my monologue—the speech I’ve prepared about how ungrateful you were, how heartless, how dismissive. But look now, who’s crying? I said.

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“But why are you doing this?” you whimpered.

“Because you cut me off from your life so completely—and I did not deserve that,” I said.

“So why this?”

“I did not know what else to do…”

“So what do you want?” you said, your voice soft in surrender.

I paused.

What do I want?

I had no answer to that. What did I want? What was I doing these all for? To wrest some kind of balm for the pain I’ve felt since you left me? To see you hurt the way you hurt me?

“I—I,” I said, staggering finally in uncertainty, “… I don’t know.”

But you must have known.

Because you had stopped crying.

And you rose, like a dark phoenix, from the huddle of tears from one corner of our bed. And then you came to me.

“Is this what you want?”

And that was when I saw you take your shirt off. The light from the incandescent lamps bounced off your body, the shadows in nubile contours with you. It was a body I had known so much like an acrid intimacy. It was a body I missed, that I hungered for.

You began to kiss me, tentatively at first, then ravenously. The way an act like this can only be fueled by memory. All bodies have memories of each other—anticipation for the specific tilts in the head and the push of tongue and lips, the dance of gestures and groping, the cycles of breathing, the knowledge of the next position. We were ravenous. It had been such a long time. There, too, had been so much anger—that was enough kerosene to light the intimate brutality with which we took each other.

We began to undress. You fumbled with my belt as I ripped the shirt that clung obstinately to my skin. I wanted to be naked with you, as soon as I could, and when I felt my body press against yours, your throbbing stiffness was enough confirmation that you wanted this, too, as much I wanted it.

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And so you chose not to kill me.

Later you showed me the knife you’d brought, and you said, “I have this with me. I didn’t know what was going to happen, I didn’t know what to do…”

It was a small knife, a Swiss blade. I took it from you, and gently laid it on the table beside the bed, under the light of the vigilant lamp.

We kissed once more.

We slowed down only to breathe in, you and me, our musks mingling. Do you remember how that could be, the movement of your head against mine, our noses touching, our lips feasting—how you would concentrate on my lower lip, possess it, and extend it with the gentle biting pressure with both your own?

And then you pushed me down on the bed, my back supine. When I felt my head touching the pillow, I felt you going down on me. You took my penis in your mouth, and I reeled in from the unexpected ravenousness of it all. The vortex of a rolling wetness. The subtle flicking pressure and the building up of pleasure. It was too much. And I wanted more.

We were greedy for each other.

And then we were through.

I knew, somehow, that this would be the last time we would be doing this. This was a farewell. And, without instigation, we both began crying. You, for the loss of the last vestige of innocence. And I, for knowing my heart could never be whole again.

There are things I have lost in this life, which I will never tire of missing. Quite a few. But the one loss that haunts me the most is the sight of your face upon my pillow, when we were happier, and you were smiling at me, and all I could think of was how everything seemed good in the world, how tender all things seemed—and for that one moment, basking in your smile, I felt like one with the lost stars.

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* * *

It might have started when I was at a party in Laurie’s little house somewhere in Carson Village, and she was beginning to regale us with her latest trip to Tubbataha, where she claimed she had met the face of God in a gigantic school of fish that surrounded her upon her fifth dive down below, among the coral and craggy submarine rocks that heralded a different world. It was a party she threw often, once every three weeks or so—for a select few, mostly friends who were also teachers in Psychology, English, History, and Marine Biology—and really just weekend respites for all of us where we could brandish a glass of red wine, go over the assorted potluck surprises, and clear out our heads in the rants we made during the litany of our displeasures over our respective departments at university.

Laurie Raymundo, her red frizzy hair burnished in intensity by sun and sand, took out a bunch of photos from the Tubbataha trip—and there were snapshots of green sea, blue skies, rigged boats, and browned marine biologists in wet suits mugging for the camera. And there you were in a lineup, although I didn’t know your name then.

You stood tall and straight in the splendor of sun kissing your bare skin, the tallness of you belying the fact that you were only nineteen then, you and your crooked smile, your piercing eyes, your cocky air. I thought to myself, while I drank my red wine, that yours was a face not easy to forget, even as a complete stranger in a picture being passed around in a party by people in a mix of amused disinterest and feigned wonderment. “How wonderful, Laurie,” we said.

I saw a picture of Laurie diving deep in the blue, the only hint of sky in that wall of water, the shimmer of light coming from above her—and I wondered aloud how it must be like to be in those depths of the sea, your eyes tricking you into perceiving nothing of direction—what was up, what was down—but just being folded into the immensity of it all, yourself becoming a fragile inconsequential thing in breathing tubes surrounded by a watery expanse. How do you not get the feeling of being lost?

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“You just kinda know,” Laurie said. “It’s just like love.”

And then she laughed. “I’m just kidding,” she said. “But yeah, you just kinda know.”

I supposed, nonetheless, that she was being truthful about that, too. Love is sometimes like being lost in the heart of the deep, without direction—but in itself, ironically, also its own strange compass. Love is immense. Love is borderless. Love is not a thing to be confined in a little room: it needs the expansiveness of oceans.

It might have also been this: that you were going to summer school to finish a three-unit requirement for Chemistry (the last before you went for the big leagues in Marine Biology), and I was teaching Literature for college kids distracted by humidity and heat, the nearby beaches and the endless summer sun.

I had one class ending around noontime, and when the bell rang on the last day of that first week of summer school, I was walking down the staircase in the four-storey building that housed all the classes in the Arts—and you were there at the final landing that led to the exit. I saw you in spirited discussion with friends, and the first thing that came to mind was that of a pleasant jolt, that I was destined somewhat to finally see you. There you are, I thought. You looked up, caught my eyes—and then you looked away. But then you looked up once more, gave me a brief piercing glance that made me catch my breath.

I thought then how strange that was, that quick exchange of looks. I divined there were meanings to these things I was only beginning to fathom.Somebody said your name was Dev.

“Dev,” I said. “Like the devil.”

Dev, I thought, like devious temptation.

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* * *

It was finally this: you had yourself invited to my apartment for what you said was the possibility of good conversation—as long as I had, and you made me promise this, a round of Red Horse beer handy.

I bought twelve bottles, chilled to perfection in my little refrigerator, waiting for you.

It had quickly escalated to that—something from a brief hello from a semi-stranger dashed off through social media email, and then to a brief chat online meant to gradually and casually intimidate the both of us in showing the other how we were capable, each of us, of becoming portals to worlds the other did not know. Is it always like that? The preening, the peacocking? In Niger, a country in Northern Africa, a tribe called the Wodaabe held an annual pageant where the men, and not the women, took part of—accentuating their natural angular male beauty with red, white, and yellow clay painted on their faces, and parading in ostrich plumes and pompoms and long braids and cowrie shells in a wild celebration called the Gerewol, dancing for hours at the edge of the Sahara for the women—who then decide whether to take any of them for lovers.

I said as much to you, hoping that knowledge of African anthropology fascinated you enough to like me, and you countered that with a biological story of underwater hermaphroditic flatworms, for whom love, you said, was a battlefield. You gleefully wrote me that they engaged in what you lovingly referred to as “penis fencing”—a fight of a mating ritual where one of the flatworms finally ended up managing to pierce the other’s skin and then to inseminate it. This simple act of penetrating determines who played the part of the female, you said.

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“What are you trying to tell me?” I wrote back in a tease.

“That Red Horse brings out the storyteller in me,” you replied.

And so we finally met. I made you dinner—really just a dish I ordered in a nearby restaurant on the way home from work. We talked over many bottles of beer; we did not run out of things to talk about; the beer loosened our tongue, and loosened our clothing. An hour had passed since we started talking, and in my impatience, I finally leaned over to where you were in the comforts of my sofa, and kissed you.

“What are you doing?” you said, feigning surprise. How you played the game, Dev.

“I’m trying to be the flatworm who got lucky,” I said.

When you were finally naked under me, I thought how wonderful it was to finally breathe in your sea-scented skin. You were reddish from the constant sun, a beachcomber’s skin—just the right kind of tan that invited my tongue to licking, and my teeth to taking in carefully administered nips and bites, and my lips from sucking all that you were, from your nape to your armpit and down to your belly to your groin to the back of your knees. I rolled you over, your back towards me, and I allowed my hands to simulate the shapes of your buttocks with their careful caressing. Your skin rolled smoothly in my palms. And then I leaned down, mouth to your puckering hole, and with my flicking tongue I massaged the nerve endings there you never even knew existed. You tasted sweet, and I licked some more until you arched your back in shock and pleasure, and after a while you finally gave yourself to me.

“Nobody must know about this,” you told me afterwards, while I spooned you for one more hour before you said you had to go.

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“Of course,” I said.

The beginning of love is deaf, and agrees to everything.

“I must tell you, I never see anybody more than twice,” you said.

“That’s fine, I guess.”

“And don’t you ever fall in love with me.”

I was lost in delirium, and so I didn’t say anything in reply.

* * *

The fourth night we met, I prepared dinner that you said was like glimpsing childhood glee—roasted chicken and mashed potatoes, your old favorites. You were naked and quiet while you consumed your meal with gusto on our little dining table in my little apartment, the lamp above us rendered your features in beautiful shadows, the glint in your eyes from the light more than enough to make me tremble at the knowledge that this was not some casual affair, not for me. You caught me staring and then you smiled at me—and I knew there could only be one ending, and it was doom.

“Don’t fall in love with me,” you told me one more time, looking straight at me in the eyes. “I will only break your heart.”

“You’re being silly,” I said, laughing at him. “But fine, I’ll try.”

I got up and went to where you were, and sat on your naked lap—and then I kissed you hard I could taste the chicken in my mouth.

* * *

The twelfth night we met, I made sure the liempo was tender, and crunchy where it needed to be. You ate your fill, your ravenous appetite becoming such a queer delight—and then you asked about my books, the way my apartment was crammed with so many shelves, the books almost spilling from them.

“I’m an English teacher,” I reasoned. “I need these books.”

“Have you read all of them?”

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“Most of them.”

“Hmmmm,” you said. “But if I were to ask you if there was one book in the hundreds you have in here that mattered to you the most, what would it be?”

It took me a while to consider an answer. Because one never asked a book lover what his favorite book was—any answer was tenuous at best, rising to the top only from several other unconsidered choices. The mind is porous in its contemplation of what it loved.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History? Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name? David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of Cranes? Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse? Dean Francis Alfar’s Salamanca?

I told you finally that it had to be James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and proceeded to tell you its story. “It was the first book,” I said, “that first made me understand who I was.”

“I know only this about me—I love the ocean, I love the animals I see in the ocean. All my life,” you said, “I’ve always dreamed of becoming a biologist.”

You looked around and took in what was now the familiar smallness of the place I lived in. We had made a routine of our Tuesday and Thursday nights, and this place was our playground. You must have been considering everything beyond the books and all that shadow, all that mess, all that secret lovemaking the walls were witnessing. “Your apartment is Giovanni’s room,” you finally said, laughing.

“You could say that.”

“You’re Giovanni,” you said. “And I’m David.”

“David betrays Giovanni, you know. And Giovanni dies in the end.”

You took me into your embrace, your hug tight and needy.

“Don’t fall in love with me, please,” you said, and then you kissed me.

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* * *

The twenty-fifth night we met, I was wondering how it was that we were lasting this long. This was no longer madness from some midsummer night. We didn’t make love that night, but we were tipsy from the shots of Tanduay we were drinking all night. We turned the volume of the CD player to its maximum, and we danced to each soulful electronic wave of “Late Night Alumni.”

You kept me close to your body as we danced to the music.

“I dance to this when I want to feel free,” you said.

I hugged you tight, afraid you were going to be dervish and dance
away from me.

“Compartmentalize, Ian,” you whispered, calling me by my name.

“What do you want mean by that?”

“Don’t try to define this, what we have.”

I didn’t say anything, and then he continued: “I know you’ve been wanting to. But I can’t give you what you want.”

“And compartmentalize all of this?”

“Yes.”

How do you learn to put the aspects of your life in separate boxes, and not mix them in? You said it was the only sure way you knew how not to get hurt. This was not love, you said. This was just us, dancing to music, enjoying the nights we had in my little, dark apartment, secret from everyone else.

You told me all there was for us was in this room and in the moment—and that there was nothing more. “In a room like this, you can keep all secrets locked away,” you said. I told you I couldn’t promise anything, because there was no dictating what one felt, what one desired. One couldn’t just touch someone’s soul, and expect that the heart could not learn to beat for him.

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I told you I was not sure I was built that way. I was not sure I was somebody who could compartmentalize. But I told you nonetheless I’d try.

* * *

I took to books to learn what made you tick. Psychology gave me some answers. Compartmentalization, the books said, was a defense mechanism, a coping strategy: it described how our minds could deal with internal conflicts that were happening at the same time. It was about the man who left his office at 6 p.m., and refused to think about work for the rest of the evening, so that he could enjoy his time with family. It was about the soldier who needed to remove himself from the trauma of the horror he had seen so that he could continue to operate well in battle. It was the boy with the persistent goal, that love could become a distraction.

On the thirty-ninth night we met, I gave myself to you, and while you were inside me, I looked up to your face which was bearing down on mine with so much sweat and exertion, and in my panic that you would leave me, I said, “I love you, Dev.”

We both came.

And there were no more nights like that. You knew best how to ignore me. You weren’t answering my calls, my text messages, my e-mailed pleas. I told myself love did not exist, and Paz Marquez Benitez was right—it was a mere fabrication of fervid imagination, it was an exaggeration of the commonplace, it was a glorification of insipid monotonies. Love was not real.

The only real thing was pushing my cards; there was a way to make you see me again.

“If you don’t see me tonight, I am going to tell everyone you know,” I texted him.

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On the fortieth night we met, you brought your knife and your anger, and I met these with my taunting and a play at a cold heart. But then you kissed me, and then I kissed you back, and in the lovemaking that followed, we knew it was going to be our last. And we cried on each other’s shoulders, terrified of everything in the world, that the truth was this: nothing lasted forever.

* * *

Some day, when we are both older—I more so than you will be—we will perhaps understand, in the kind of clarity brought on by hindsight and forgiveness, those wrenching hours when we said goodbye, and how at the close of our story, you had walked away in exhausted anger and I was left with a subterfuge of longing I soon buried deep in denial.

“I’m ready to go,” you finally said.

It was all I could take to know that you never loved me, not the way I wanted you to. But you were beautiful, and in the strange illogic of things that happen, that was more or less enough.

“Say something before you go,” I said.

“No.”

“You’ve given me that word one too many times this past year. Say something else. I think I deserve at least that.”

You were silent.

“Please,” I said, my voice soft, on the verge of pleading.

And without even turning to look at me, your eyes focused on what was outside the already opened door of my apartment. And then you said, “Thanks. Thanks for everything.”

Your voice registered no real gratefulness, nor life. Thanks. Just a dead word, it might as well have been a synonym for a dreadful goodbye.

Then you took the steps that would lead you on to the hungry street outside my apartment, negotiating the bend around the concrete wall that separated my house—my Giovanni’s room—and the suddenly gaping world. In the best of my memories, I am not sure if you had walked away fast, but it seemed—on those last moments—that you took all your time in the world to walk away from me.

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You opened the gate, and when you shut it behind you, you stepped onto the pavement, paused for what seemed like forever, and walked straight on.

This article originally appeared in our February 2017 issue.

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