I still remember the feeling of cold metal against my skin, alone in the
gym with Brian, who was taunting me for not being able to play
basketball. He had overheard me, with a friend, saying how I couldn’t
shoot hoops to save my life, and wanted to see if it was true. I was
supposed to know how, just like I was supposed to be more masculine.
This was after hours, autumn, my first year of high school. The waxed
floors glistened in the sun.
I’m not sure where he got the gun—I’m never sure where people get
these things—but it was silver and old, like in the movies, its barrel
encircling a few unlucky goosebumps that were about to turn red. He had
pressed it into my arm, knowing what I learned in an instant: a gun was
worse against bare skin. I closed my eyes, trying to feel the way my
shirt wrapped around me, and asked where he wanted me to stand.
He said that he was feeling kind that day and sent me to the free throw
line, which—after asking as politely as I could—he had to point out
“You shouldn’t have stayed late,” he said.
I swallowed an uncomfortable amount of spit. “I don’t like changing in
front of people,” I said. “I guess nobody does. That must be something
we have in common, right?”
He loaded the gun. “I guess it is.”
Before he threatened to kill me, I knew only one thing about Brian
Tillman: he had broken up with his girlfriend recently, publicly, in the
courtyard after lunch. His beard was scraggly and his eyes grey. I hoped
he didn’t hate me. I hoped I could make it home on time to microwave my
brother some dinner, because both my parents had meetings.
He bounced me the basketball, which slipped from my rotting hands. “Can
I practice?” I asked, and he shook his head. “Can I think for a minute,
“Sure,” he said. “One minute.”
I tried to remember what we had learned in math class, about arcs and
angles, but I had been too busy staring at a girl who hadn’t even said a
word to me. It seemed silly, now. Everything did. My shirt, my brother,
my daydreams, even the sun pouring in through the windows, the way it
turned my hand gold and warmed my body in grids. None of it mattered if
I was going out like this. A cringy obituary.
“Thirty seconds,” he said.
That was when my heart really started racing, my head planning. If I
screamed, he would shoot me. If I ran, he would shoot me. If I threw the
basketball at his face, then screamed, then ran, he would take a second
to recover, and then he would shoot me. I wondered if I should even
trust him. My life depended on a ball going through a hoop—although I
realized with a pang that this was a silent pact between us. If I
missed, which seemed more likely, then all my plans could come into
effect: the screaming, the running, the praying to a god I never knew.
All I had to do was shoot.
“Ten seconds,” he said.
I spread my feet and crouched, throwing the ball like my life depended
on it, which I guess it did. There was never a longer second in my life.
My blood, my bones, my sinew—all of it was ice. I thought the line of
the ball looked pretty good, if that’s what it was even called, and if
that made any difference now that it was out of my hands. There was
nothing more I could do. It was freeing as long as I didn’t think about
anything else. But of course I did. I thought about death.
We all die, is what I thought. At least I look kinda nice.
But it wouldn’t be nice after my white shirt stained red, some form of
laughter haunting my very last second on earth. I breathed the air in.
It was stale, sweaty, sweet. I was prepared for it to be my last breath.
When the ball went in, I gasped, and he turned the gun on himself. It
all happened so fast, I could barely process that I was alive, and that
he was about to not be.
“You don’t have to do that,” I said. “I would have missed.”
It felt true, even though it wasn’t. Adrenaline, my therapist has said,
can do strange things. I hated Brian, but I wanted to help him—or,
more, he needed help. I didn’t want to be the one to do it. In that
moment, though, I was all he had. I was all I had. I was one.
We stood in complete silence. It started dawning on me that he was
unstable, that he could still shoot me, as sweat dripped down his face
and onto the barrel of his gun. I knew the feeling, now. I still do.
Metal against skin. Desperation. Like everything you’ve done hasn’t been
enough, like you’re an ant on pavement, waiting to get crunched. Like
you don’t know how to explain your feelings, if they are feelings at
all, or if they are strings to a puppet on your head, causing you to wax
poetic when really you hadn’t kissed a girl, back then, and your brother
sat starving at the kitchen table as you cried to yourself in the empty
locker room and yelled at the paramedics.
I don’t know where they took him—somewhere far away—but I haven’t
played basketball since.
We filled our home with reproductions because that is what we thought of
each other: reproducers. We fell for the Impressionists because that is
what we did: impressions. Of happy people, whole people, us. A Monet
over empty stares, a Manet over blank attempts. A Cassatt over crumpled
sheets, a Degas over dying plants. We surrounded ourselves in order to
hide, simmering shadows stuck between gowned socialites, heedless
bathers, blooming parasols. Bridges and towers and churches and towns.
We pretended we were elsewhere. Anywhere else.
They showed up wherever we went. A tiny Pissarro in the car, a framed
Renoir at the office. I blamed you and you blamed me. Until the
paintings began to mock us. Nude women prettier than you, cheek-boned
men handsomer than me, hanging above the fireplace as we slept together
out of routine, desperation, spite. Tangled and timed, we felt painted
ourselves, oceans and mountains blending into our skin, sunscapes
gleaming like a sheen of sweat. We stayed up at night wondering if,
when, how to escape. Dappled children—cherubic, calm—haunted our
eyes as they shut.
Eventually, I decided to burn one. To burn them all. You decided to burn
the house, too. It went up in bright flames that summoned swarms of
trucks. The paint popped and boiled as the gold frames turned black. We
pinned it on the gas stove before remembering we had an electric. Before
remembering we were in trouble. When we sat and examined the ashes,
smoke still blotting the sky, I said, as Monet lost his sight, he
painted with violent reds and yellows, attempting to recreate his
previous paintings through the abstract lens of death. It looked just
You began to cry. I followed.
Sean van der Heijden is a writer/editor in Washington, D.C., originally from the suburbs of New York City. He is a graduate of George Mason University’s MFA in creative writing program, where he also taught literature. He is currently working on a novel.