As soon as I arrive at Harrisburg Station, I am untethered from the present and tunneled into some distant past. The high ceilings, the columns, the wooden benches and door frames—all of it harks back to a decade I’m not familiar with.
Vintage, I whisper as I push the entrance door open.
I’m running late, but I choose the person in the booth over the machine that prints tickets automatically. Machines give me anxiety, and I’m already all wound up. My best friend M. says I just like doing things the hard way. To which I respond that I just like to do things right the first time. According to M., I take too many philosophy classes and spend too much time thinking about things that will not make me money. It’s senior year and I’m feeling burdened by the sparse job prospects for philosophy majors. In hindsight, I wish I had picked something more lucrative, like econ, or even a field more relevant, like American studies. M. is right, and I resent her for it.
The woman in the booth is dark-skinned, chubby, serious. I tell her where I’m going and I’m short with her, but she goes on about how much she loves New York, only been there once in her whole life but what a time that was, the eighties and The City. I look through the glass at the ticket in her hand, how she holds me hostage. Behind me, there’s a line. After the printer spits out a receipt, she slides the ticket my way, tells me I better hurry if I want to catch my train.
At my gate, a friendly station staffer chats up the line and gets us in order. He’s Black, mustached, not very tall. I wonder how long he’s been working here, if he’s from Harrisburg or if he drives in from out of town. Everyone on campus speaks badly of this city. They say how lucky we are to be a forty-minute drive out, in a smaller town where Harrisburg is just a train stop to somewhere else. But I know what is said about poor cities and the people who populate them. Harrisburg is different from my block in The Bronx, but I feel instinctively that I must protect it.
Downstairs on the tracks, the train’s engine roars to life. Travelers clutch their bags, ready their step. Everyone’s anxious to find a seat. Some are visiting the small towns dotting the map between Harrisburg and New York, but most people will stay on to the last stop.
The station worker blows his whistle. I follow the crowd.
* * *
I find a seat with the window to my left. I pull out a book as soon as I sit, because I’ve promised myself I’ll get reading done on the ride. I’ve fallen behind on my moral problems philosophy class—the dilemmas of good and evil are not as interesting as I thought they would be, and that’s the kind of student I’ve become. I only do well in classes I’m interested in.
I try to look unfriendly as people pass down the aisle and scout for seats. I hear a rumbling above me but I don’t lift my head until the woman starts to grunt. She’s trying to fit her suitcase in the small overhead box. The man in front of me looks her way, adjusts his headphones, turns toward the window again. I wonder if this is a categorical imperative, if helping this old woman counts as a universal duty. Then I remember Kant was racist. And this white woman is probably racist. I groan, slide out of my seat, grab the woman’s suitcase and set it in place. She thanks me profusely, the way white people thank Black people to prove they’re not racist. She wants me to know she wasn’t alarmed when she looked up and saw me touching her bag uninvited. I’m six-feet tall, with a caesar cut, racially ambiguous in New York but definitely Black in the middle of Pennsylvania. I nod and smile and tell her it’s alright.
I put my backpack on the seat next to me. Whoever wants to sit will have to overcome the shame of asking for something that they have a right to by way of paying for their ticket. I pretend to fiddle with my phone, though I have no social media and no games to anchor my attention.
I’m relieved when the train shakes to a start. But then a young man comes tumbling into our car, quickly and with intent. He has a duffle bag around his shoulders, a cream-colored hat just over his eyes so that I don’t recognize him fast enough, though his mouth is enough to recognize him by, and I should, given how many hours I have meditated on these particular lips.
“Hey, is this seat taken?”
“Oh, Jairo, is that you? What’s up, man? I’m gonna pop my bag up here.” He speaks as if we’re old friends, as if this happenstance meeting on the train has closed some strenuous distance between us. He positions his bag overhead, takes off his hat, adjusts his shirt to sit next to me. I move my bag and make space for him.
“We’re almost done, aren’t we? It’s crazy,” Chris says when we arrive at Elizabethtown. It’s only the second stop, but the man in front of us rolls from his seat and out of the car. I watch him from the window. He zips his jacket all the way up to his beard to protect himself from the harsh November wind.
“Yeah, semester is almost over.”
“It’s kind of scary, thinking we’ll have to fend for ourselves in a few months.”
“Tell me about it. I’m a philosophy major. Not much of a career there.”
“I’m sure you’ll find something. You’re one of the smartest people I know.”
To be included in what he knows. To be known, or thought of at all. Dread quickens my heart in my chest, stretches down my stomach, starts to burn between my legs.
* * *
First time I see Chris we’re in the cafeteria. It’s my first semester, I am infatuated by the soft serve machine and the myriad of dessert options at my school. I have nothing like that back home. Here, I can give in to my tenacious sweet tooth and not go broke buying pints of ice cream for $6. It’s my first semester, I don’t know anyone here, but I’m glad to be away from home. I plop my brittle cone under the mouth of the machine, press the lever down with care, and watch it release a swirl of vanilla. My mouth waters. I’ve been anticipating this moment since I woke up for my three-hour seminar.
“I love soft serve too.” He appears behind me. I can tell he’s mocking me. I nod and slide out of the way to add cookie crumbs on my cone.
“You’re M.’s friend, right? I’m Chris. She and I have first-year seminar together.”
“Yeah, M. is cool,” I say, and look at him for the first time. He wears a blue T-shirt, cream-colored shorts, sandals like it’s not October. Completely unremarkable, especially here, in this campus full of white boys just like him. Except his lips are full for a white boy. He licks at the sheen of vanilla on his top lip. I look away, but my mind lingers there.
“I’ll see you around,” Chris says with certainty, as if us meeting again is inevitable.
That night I dream about his lips. I wake up annoyed at the whole thing. I’m reading about the subconscious for seminar, and it’s bad news, a dream like that. I’m 18, I’ve never kissed a boy but I know I like them, I know I want them the way I crave ice cream and glossy doughnuts and apple pie. The next time, I wake up hard. The time after that, I surrender to the dream—I masturbate while my roommate’s out, and when I moan I surprise myself, shocked at the cavity this longing forms inside of me.
* * *
By sophomore year, I’ve had enough of looking at him from a distance. At the library, on the campus lawn, at the occasional party M. drags me to. I am perfectly rational as far as the study of knowledge is concerned. Increasingly so with every philosophy class. My language becomes incisive, my sentences become clearer. I get so good, I get bored by the traditional lanes of thinking. Kant and Locke don’t do it for me. And anyway, none of the old philosophers address my particular 21st-century dilemma.
I start doing heavy reading outside my classes and my grades slip. Not badly enough that my scholarship counselor notices. Just from the grace of As to the perfectly average B. I find counsel in Baldwin, Sontag, Carson—thinkers my professors would classify as “literature people” because they focus too much on the poetry of meaning. But that’s the circumstance I’m in. The way emotions strain inside of me every time I see Chris on campus, how blue and suffering and trite I become. Poetry is the only way to explain it.
“Hey, we should grab lunch sometime,” I tell him the next time we run into each other on the way to class.
He gives me his number, a time and place to meet. For the rest of the week I’m elated. M. looks through Chris’s social media because this is what she’s good at: analyzing intimacy through contemporary mediums.
“Putting my American studies minor to good use,” she says, and scrolls through photos of Chris in a lab wearing protective goggles and an ill-fitting white coat, playing volleyball on the campus field, eating a giant waffle in the cafeteria. There is a shot of him by a lake that I linger on. From 2008 till now, there are a few girls he’s been captured with, but no obvious signs of a girlfriend. We can’t tell if he’s straight, and this uncertainty feels promising.
As I wait for Chris outside the cafeteria, all my excitement evaporates into a mist of doubt. There is no myth in which a Dominican boy falls in love with a white boy at a liberal arts school. Nothing about my studies has trained me for this.
He hugs me when he arrives. My mind starts reeling. I wonder if he likes me the way I like him, if this is his way of suggesting so quietly, the way gay men are taught to communicate through invisible gestures.
The cafeteria is packed. I think it might be nice to find a table away from the noise where I might ask him about his major, his childhood, everything I’m curious about. I point out a quiet table in the back, but he points in the opposite direction to a table full of people I don’t know. I follow behind him. He introduces me to some white girl whose name leaves me as soon as she says it. He tries to include me in conversation where it makes sense.
“Jairo’s kicking ass in logic class though. Tell ’em Jairo,” he says to his friends.
I smile, I nod, I watch Chris talk with his friends and do my best to be a part of his world, small as it makes me.
* * *
“So, you going to grad school after?” I ask.
“Not right away, no. Got a fellowship to research marine life on the West Coast. I want to work for a bit, see what life is like outside of school.”
This feels like a tired conversation we’ve had many times with other people who know us better than we know each other. I hate small talk, but Chris does it like he cares, and it’s hard not to return his earnestness.
“You excited for Thanksgiving?” He asks, and wipes at the corner of his mouth with his finger. Something about the gesture feels ornamental, graceful. It all adds to my confusion.
I want to tell him how anxious home makes me, how I hate going back. How when people ask me where I’m from I say New York, never The Bronx. How I never speak Spanish in school. But then I remember I don’t know him. I stick to food because it’s easiest.
“My mom is making pernil. Have you had that?”
“I don’t even know how to say that.”
I laugh and explain—the day’s worth of labor, the scent of herbs, the sizzling pork-fat smoke that fills the house. Talking about it reminds me there’s a world after this train ride.
As long as we’re talking about food, school, or horror movies, our conversation is steady. It stagnates when he brings up his rocky relationship with his father. I don’t know what to say. So I offer a semblance of intimacy in return—I tell him about my mother’s small apartment in the projects.
“Wait, I don’t get it. Why don’t you just get on the elevator with the groceries?”
“Elevators in the projects smell horrible,” I say. “Piss, vomit, smoke. Nope. I’d rather carry a whole pig up three flights.”
He is careful not to sound too liberal-arts-white-boy, I am careful not to sound too much like a Caliban stereotype.
When he falls asleep, I try to read, but my first boycrush is sleeping next to me, so I opt for looking out the window. There’s not much to see in the backwoods of Pennsylvania. Just yellow and red trees blurring into smudges as we speed by.
In Philadelphia, the train stops for twenty minutes. Half the people in the car leave the train for good. The other half go out to stretch their legs.
“Gonna go for a walk,” Chris says.
He stretches to grab his wallet from his bag in the compartment above us. His sweatshirt lifts and reveals a trail of hair. Full and dark against the sculpture of his stomach, cascading down under his belt. I am there timeless in the field of this sudden intimacy between us. Though he must not feel it, the gravity of his effect.
When he’s gone, I don’t wait long to jump out of my seat. The train car is mostly empty, so I don’t worry much about covering up my boner. In the bathroom, I unbuckle my belt with urgency. My elbow bumps against the wall—I move so that I can stroke my dick with the necessary veracity without making a fuss. This isn’t about the journey. I move fast because I want to arrive, to dive into that moment of release, warm and shocking as it is. I grab my sweatshirt with one hand, stroke myself with the other.
My knees buckle when I cum. I release all of it into my palm.
It’s immediate, my regret.
Outside, a member of the train crew makes an announcement. I lather my hands in soap three times over and still I do not feel clean. I avert my eyes from the reflection in front of me, focus my gaze on a speck of cum clinging to the sink before it whirlpools down the drain.
I dry my hands on a crisp paper towel, keep my eyes low as I walk back to my seat.
* * *
Junior year, Chris studies abroad and I move on to boys who will fuck me in the real world, not just in my mind. They are fleeting, loveless nights that start on dating apps and end in dingy rooms with flimsy mattresses. The men are unemployed or in between jobs or make minimum wage and I like that about them, how far away they are from my ivory tower. They remind me of home. They smell of nicotine and squashed potential. They are always white.
The only one that comes close to anything like a love affair is my four-month fling with Jazz. He works at a gas station and DJs on Saturday nights at a local bar. M. and I go to see him on one of the coldest nights of February. The bar is mostly empty, so Jazz steps away from the booth, buys us drinks, introduces us to some of the regulars. One of his friends is sober, ten years, he tells us. He’s short and energetic and barely lets anyone else get a word in. The other one is tall and white-haired and contemplative. He follows me outside when I go out for a smoke to talk to me about absurdism, which is what he thinks I do as a philosophy major, talk to people about philosophy. When I come back M. is on the dancefloor chatting with Jazz, and I can’t help it, I beam at the sight. I want them to be friends, for M. to approve.
As we’re walking home, M. admits she hates Jazz, the way he talks about me when I’m not in the room. Like I’m a thing he owns. I’ve always loved how M. gets right to the thing she means to say. But I had a good night and want to protect it, protect him. I tell M. I’m no fan of her white boyfriend, but I suck it up and deal when he’s around. She says it doesn’t count because he’s Polish, and what do I know about relationships given how much time I’ve spent lusting after a white boy who doesn’t see me.
“You don’t have to do that. You don’t have to go blind to Jazz’s shit just cause, I don’t know, cause he fills some hole inside you,” she says between her teeth in her lingering Trini accent. Even this drunk, with her straightened hair wild around her, her plum lips shriveled in the cold, M. is beautiful.
“He fills every hole, metaphorical and physical,” I slur in response. “Better than the limp pink dick you keep around.”
We don’t talk the next day, or the next, until the grave between us stretches into weeks.
Jazz eventually puts his hands on me. It’s April and we’re at the park and he’s leafing through one of my books. We arrive at an aimless argument about why I couldn’t hang out with him the night before.
“I have finals. I don’t love school but I have to graduate,” I tell him.
“Well, can we be present now? No books, just us, kicking it on this beautiful day,” he says, and stretches his arm out to touch the grass.
“Kicking it all day is how you ended up at a gas station. I want better for myself,” I say. I know it’s cruel but a part of me revels in the brief hurt in his eyes. I crush a grape between my teeth. His palm comes flying at my cheek so fast I do not see it. Of course I do not see it.
Then the mist clears and whatever we are becomes another thought exercise. I imagine each possible outcome in the fine point of a second. I could blame myself for being cruel, for making him angry. And anyway, Jazz is my first boyfriend. I’m learning, he’s learning. It gets messy. But no argument I might come up with justifies the blood on my lip. I decide I ought to love myself a little bit, that he’s not for me, not like this.
“Good luck with the music career,” I say in the parking lot before I drive off for good.
Back on campus, I knock on M.’s door. The Polish boyfriend is there but whatever I’m wearing on my face scares him, and he sneaks out. I cry on her lap until I feel cold and stupid for crying for a man the way I do. I tell M. I think Baldwin is obsessed with prophecy, that he might have read too much Christian scripture and I too much Greek myth and now I can’t stop seeing it either, this glimmer of a future I’m sure is certain.
“I’m gonna end up alone. I know it,” I say. This is my apology to M.
“Shut up, Jairo,” she says. This is M. forgiving me.
* * *
The sun is above the train now. In Trenton, a Black family hops on, a mother and father and their two daughters. The girls run ahead and snag seats next to each other, but their parents sit them in separate rows. The younger one, who must be eight or nine, throws kernel after kernel of cheddar popcorn at her older sister. The older sister returns every kernel with double the strength. Their mother looks up from whatever she’s reading.
“You better not be acting up like this at Aunt Lucia’s house.”
“They better not if they want some of Aunt Lucia’s flan,” the father says.
“That’s how me and my sister were as kids,” Chris says next to me. I look up from the book I’m half-reading.
“She’s a year older and hated when I got more attention.”
“Siblings always think that, don’t they,” I say, as if I have them.
“Nah, I think it’s true. My parents liked me more than they liked her. I think we both felt it.” He keeps his gaze in the direction of the family. The girls are back at it. Their mother warns them to behave, but some interaction between them causes her to break into laughter.
“Now Emilia, c’mon,” the father says to his wife, and I can hear it, the smile on his face as the mother laughs and laughs.
“My sister is an addict. She’s on a good track for now, but it never lasts too long,” Chris says. His jaw clenches. I notice that he is not as beautiful as I imagined him to be. He has a few pimples scattered on his forehead. His lashes not as long, his cheekbones not as round. Why did I think his life was perfect, or at least different from the shit I’m used to hearing back home? Here next to me he is less attractive. Maybe I’ve made him small with all my fantasizing.
“I’m sorry, Chris.”
We linger in his melancholy, which I take to mean he trusts me with it.
“Hey, when’s your return train?” He asks eventually.
“Sunday, 9 a.m. I like to get back early,” I tell him.
Sure enough, we’re on the same train back. We make plans to meet up in Penn Station. He puts my number into his old flip phone. We talk about the pitfalls of social media. I try not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, like I’ve developed a sophisticated philosophy around the whole thing instead.
“I was addicted to that shit in high school. How good the attention felt.”
“Don’t tell me it was all selfies,” I say, and we laugh.
We plan to meet on Sunday in front of a doughnut shop a few feet from the waiting area.
At Newark Station, urgency swells inside of me. I look out the window as if the blur of the Jersey landscape will offer me relief. Less than half an hour till we’re rushing out the train, meeting the New York craze. Folks around us slip into their coats and wrap their scarves around their necks. The conductor thanks us for joining him on his last shift before he rushes home to his family for Thanksgiving weekend. His message electrifies the car. Suddenly everyone’s chatting about the holidays.
We’re a few minutes away. My breath becomes short. My head goes numb. I am probably a coward for speaking up in the dark, but I seize the few minutes the train is underground between Jersey and New York.
“I used to have the biggest crush on you,” I say, because the past is easier to confess, because selfishly I don’t want to hold this on my own anymore. I want him to hold it, too, uncomfortable as it might make him.
The train rumbles and echoes in the dark and it’s all we share between us.
“Okay,” Chris says.
I think the moment will extend forever, this silence, but it doesn’t. We erupt into the station, get swept up by the crowd rushing out of the train, and for once, I am grateful for a crowd, how anonymous it makes me.
The whole walk through the station, he avoids my eyes. Resentment grows inside me, and I can’t tell if it’s directed at him or at myself. I think of making a joke about the whole thing, tell him I was fucking around, or that I was young and stupid, anything that will make him speak to me again.
“Have a good holiday, man,” he says when we part. How small that word, man, yet how it reduces the three hours we just spent together, like we’re just two classmates who met by chance on a train.
* * *
I try not to think about the train ride during the holiday weekend, but mami catches on that something’s wrong, and when she can’t get it out of me, she keeps me busy helping her cook, tending to my younger cousins, redecorating the apartment as she’s wont to do every holiday season. I am annoyed with her at first. I hate being home. The dirty building. The loud music. The people I grew up around whom I’ve grown to be ashamed of. But slowly, I surrender to the bachata blaring from our living room, the tender smell of moro and pernil filling the kitchen. Before we sit for Thanksgiving dinner, I sneak out of the apartment, brave the elevator and the puddle of piss which so repulses me, to call M. outside.
“Am I racist?”
“Cause I’ve only dated white boys,” I mumble into my headphones. I’m standing in front of my building, hands in pocket, avoiding the eyes of other tenants as they come in and out. Nobody knows I’m gay around here. My skin crawls at the thought of one of the dudes on the block hearing me. At worst it’d mean getting harassed every time I walk into the building. At best it’d mean awkward glances and buzzing gossip.
“Well, if I put on the American studies hat,” M. taunts.
“No, not the academic. I’m asking you, my best friend.”
“Right,” M. says. She takes a long pause. “Look, I don’t know that we can always control who we like. But I do know that these white spaces, with their fancy food and fancy ideas, it fucks with your head, conditions you to want to be like them.”
“And I’ve been conditioned to love white dick?” I say, a little too loudly.
“Probably, yeah” she says. “But I hate to make it about them. We’re always centering how we feel or don’t feel around white people. I think the question is, why aren’t you attracted to somebody that looks like you?”
Just then an old woman wrapped in a festive red scarf walks up to the building. She’s carrying two trays of food so hot I can smell the sizzling cheese and freshly cooked tomato sauce. Lasagna, I think, and my appetite returns to me for the first time this weekend. I don’t wait for her to ask, I pop open the door for her.
“God bless you, baby. It’s a good holiday season, it’s a good one,” the woman sings as she walks into the lobby.
I used to be excited about the holidays on the block. My cousins bringing over their video games. Mami and my tias cooking. Merengue and jazz playing from cars and every apartment filled with hungry and excited mouths. It’s tough. But I used to like it here. A long time ago, before I started having dreams of leaving.
“I gotta put you on to what happened on my train ride. Next time,” I say to M. on the phone.
“Next time,” she repeats.
* * *
On Sunday I arrive at Penn Station early. At the spot where Chris and I agreed to meet, there are two men in expensive suits buried in their phones. I could stand off to the side to wait for him, but I know when I’m lingering on some senseless hope. Still, I grow heavy and morose with each memory that clarifies like film. The trail of hair on his stomach, the chocolate on his lips, the luster of his brown eyes.
It’s your own imagination fucking you up, I tell myself.
I brave the long line to the doughnut shop. When the cashier hands me my warm chocolate croissant, I ignore her smile. I bite into the croissant as I walk out, searching in its doughy flesh a balm to assuage my melodrama.
The waiting area is packed with anxious travelers lugging suitcases and duffel bags. I sit next to a woman traveling alone. Her face is deep in a book, and by the glimpse I catch of black and white lines on the cover, I swear it’s Camus. I get the urge to talk to her. But she flips the book over to look at her phone, and I’m disappointed by what’s revealed. Some salacious title about a love affair, symbolized by a wilting rose. I understand the draw of a good romance. But look at where that’s gotten me.
I glance over at the doughnut shop, and there Chris stands, at the time and place we agreed to meet. I want to run out after him and ask him how he feels. If he’s upset with me. If he wants to be friends, after all.
“Why would we be friends?” I whisper to myself, and chuckle. Everything that happens in my head is lush. More extravagant. But out here, in the world. What have I been doing? Waiting for a white boy to notice I exist—for what? To fulfill some distorted fantasy of success? So that I could feel better than the Bronx projects I grew up in? M.’s question lingers in my mind.
Then the announcer calls. Dozens of people crowd around the gate, funneling into a messy line. Before I go down to the platform, I look over at the doughnut shop, but Chris is gone. He’s somewhere in this crowd with the rest of us on the way to Harrisburg. But I don’t wait for him. I rush downstairs alone to fight for a good seat on the train.