Stan Marsh awoke to his mother pounding on his bedroom door. It wasn't long until she burst in. "Stanley!" she said, shaking her head. She was in her dowdy pajamas, hair sticking everywhere in a wakeful mess. "Didn't you hear the phone ringing?"
"What?" Stan had, maybe, heard the phone ringing, in the confused dream he'd been having, where he was talking with Arthur Laurents about getting a beach shack together at the Pines next summer. In the deep stew of consciousness that was Stan's brain, things became muddled together very quickly. In the car he'd been listening to Gypsy. And at dinner the night before, they'd all been joking about getting a house somewhere for the summer? Did Fire Island come up?
"Stan," said Sharon Marsh. She was shaking her head. "Pick up the phone. It's Kyle, he's — pick up the phone, Stanley." It was a lot like his mother to change tacks in the middle of a sentence, or so Stan thought.
"Okay." Stan sat up. He was quite disoriented. Perhaps most suspicious, even horribly upsetting, was that Stan's mother was dead. She'd died when he was 19, from ovarian cancer. And yet here she was, standing in his bedroom looking cranky, saying Kyle was calling — but, from where? Kyle usually slept right next to Stan. But not in this bed, clearly, that would be hard; it was a little boy's bed. Stan looked up, his eyes focusing on oddly painted walls, a Denver Broncos poster ... this was his childhood bedroom. Right. Stan shifted. He always woke up hard in the morning, always, every day for the past 20 years.
But, he wasn't hard now.
"Stan," his mother warned.
"All right!" he said hopping out of bed. His phone was portable, and he staggered over to the desk and picked it up. "Hi," he said, not waiting for a response. "Come over." It was pretty much an immediate thing. He wasn't quite sure what was going on, only that Kyle was on the phone, and Kyle was a constant, pretty much. He was going to have to report to Stan and clarify this situation.
But in an indignant little tone, Kyle said, "No." The timbre of his voice was so familiar, but Stan was shocked by how small and high it was. "Can't. I've got temple this morning."
"Oh." Stan turned around, and saw that his mom had left already. "Then come over after." He got back in bed, only to realize, too late, that it was wet. Had he peed — oh god, no. Oh no, he did not.
"And after services I have a bar mitzvah lesson," Kyle said.
"Um." Stan was shifting around, trying to get a sense of things. His dad had sold this house years ago, when Stan was in college, and it was so much smaller than he remembered it. "Come over after that?" Stan stuck his hand in his boxers. He felt for his cock — and he found it, slick with nocturnal emissions, so small and hairless in his hand it felt babyish, and for a moment he was hit by a wave of nausea, as if he were molesting a child. But it was his own dick, he figured, so whatever.
"Okay, sure." Kyle sounded distracted, like he was doing something else. Was Kyle also a prepubescent boy suddenly? Stan wasn't going to ask. "Listen, my brother's banging on my door," he said, "like I'm really gonna be late, so—"
"Why'd you call me?" Stan asked. For the first time he listened to his own voice, and he was pleased to hear how thin and dry it was, and how small.
"What do you mean, why'd I call you?"
"Well. I asked you to come over, but you're busy, and now you have to rush off the phone—"
"You told me to call you in the morning!"
"Yes, yesterday! Before I left? You were being a dick trying to get me to play Madden when I wanted to talk about history, then you said to call you now?"
"Did I say that?" Stan asked. "History?"
"World history," said Kyle. "Yes. Ugh, now my mom is trying to kick the door down. I'm coming over after, around, like, 1, do not text me, okay, I'll get in trouble. See you at 1."
"See you," said Stan. "I love—" He realized Kyle had already hung up the phone. Kyle never hung up the phone without saying "I love you." So that was weird. How much weirder was it going to get? Stan wanted to know. Although he was tired, he decided to go into the bathroom. He left his sticky boxers on. He hadn't been in this house for decades, but some antique sense memory guided him there.
There was no window in the bathroom Stan had shared with his sister as a child, so he had to flip on the light. He knew he shouldn't be shocked, that all the evidence had been pointing in this direction, but when Stan looked in the mirror, he gaped at himself: at his broad mouth, too large for his face; at how he could barely tell he had a chin. His hair was long, but thick, a real mess, and he hadn't any sideburns, probably because he couldn't grow them. He had to pull some of his fringe back to see into his own eyes clearly, and tried to see what people had always said about him his whole life, that he had his mother's eyes. He couldn't, though, his whole face smoothed together, the fine details obscured by its youth.
Stan didn't feel gross about his underwear situation. Actually, he was ... not aroused, clearly, but maybe it would be accurate to say he was charmed by it? He shut the door and sat on the toilet, wiping at his balls, marveling at how clean he could get them clean with just some hot water and a washcloth. There were some fine, black hairs, just peeking out. Stan held his little cock in his hands. It was barely anything. Something about this made him feel wistful. If Kyle were here, Stan would have made him lick it clean. Then he would have rewarded Kyle with a blow job. Well, Kyle was coming over later, wasn't he?
It took Stan no time to dress and go downstairs. He put on all the most absurd clothing he could find — printed sleep pants with faces of cartoon characters, an ASPCA hoodie with rabbit ears, a soccer jersey, argyle knee socks he pulled over his pants, and plush slippers. If Stan owned let alone wore any of this shit back at the house, Kyle would be mortified. They both would. But Stan seemed to be trapped in his life at —what, 12, 13 years old? Kyle had said he was going to bar mitzvah lessons, so at least Kyle must be younger than 13.
Stan sat on the living room sofa and ate soggy fruit cereal, watching the milk turn pastel pink like an Easter egg as he ate it, slowly. He thought about Kyle. Kyle must have been sent back, too. But then, Kyle had said that Stan had said to call him last night; maybe that meant this was 12-year-old Kyle he'd be dealing with? Stan realized he wanted to know the date, so he put his empty cereal bowl in the sink and went to get the newspapers from the front stoop. Papers didn't come to the door anymore, where Stan had come from; in fact, paper was largely obsolete. Stan used paper for ornamental, quaint reasons, like writing love notes to Kyle, sending cards on Kyle's birthday. And, of course, for compositions. In the kitchen, Stan unfurled the local South Park weekly and the Denver Post. Today was November 2, exactly two weeks after his 13th birthday.
Back to the living room, where Stan laid down on the couch. The best course of action, in his recollection of tropes in genre fiction, was to retrace the steps he'd taken the previous day. He remembered pretty clearly. It had been a Friday. Kyle had made him breakfast. Stan had a meeting in Culver City. It went fine. He'd picked up a disc of revised storyboards for a commercial. Stopped at Huitre, a lesbian bar that had amazing gin fizzes and sloppy joes made with venison meat. Stan was on a perpetual diet so he didn't have a venison sloppy joe, but he had a gin fizz. Two gin fizzes. Casey was there. He kicked Stan in the shins while they ate. Stan paid for Casey's sloppy joe and kissed him on the cheek and left. Stan hated that sort of thing, but people in LA expected you to do it or they'd act cold, and one day you'd come home and find a bill from their therapist with the big red letters THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT written all over it. These people were crazy; who requested paper bills anymore unless they were using them to make some wackjob point? Came home, Kyle was still out getting his nails done or his butt waxed or moaning at his shrink or crying at the public library, whatever he did during the day. Stan worked until Kyle got home, and then Kyle started admonishing him to get ready: "The reservation's at 8! I'll pick out your shoes."
Got dressed and got in the car. Kyle drove his horrible little Australian nightmare, this very shiny blue thing that did not have auto-guide. Auto-guide made Kyle nervous. Stan told him for the umpteenth time that he was living in the past. "I'd rather be in the past than in one of those awful machines when it decides it's had enough and wants to go berserk." Fair enough, said Stan. They were on their way to dinner with the Tiller-Maizels, and Stan was kind of dreading it. He liked Asher Maizel; he was a quiet little gold-digger with big lips who Stan was pretty sure had started out as a call-boy in Houston. He didn't have a Texas accent, but he could put a decent one on. Asher was one of these young-looking guys whose faces betrayed them; he must have been 30 or 32. He had a very sweet, boyish face, but when he smiled, or you saw him in the wrong light, all the little lines on his face bunched up and he aged 15 years instantly. Stan's interest in him, which was purely academic, was basically rooted in his resemblance to Kyle. Not in looks, because Kyle looked exactly what he was, insecure and aging, but Stan thought he was beautiful. Yet Asher had a similar impassioned way of making his own lethargy seem dangerous and meaningful. Stan had often told himself that if Kyle died, god forbid, Stan would steal Asher from Graham Tiller because seriously, fuck that guy. He was an over-the-hill venture capitalist with a family he'd left behind in New Jersey about 18 years ago, and Stan was more or less certain Graham's interest in Stan and Kyle was a years-long plot to drag them into an orgy. Stan knew that he and Kyle were Graham's "artsy" friends, although Kyle wasn't artsy and Stan's creativity was limited in the way that you might call establishment literature "creative." Maybe Graham Tiller thought they were so starved for it that they'd go along with just anything.
Actually, Stan and Kyle had a very nice sex life. Last night, for example, had ended like this: Kyle was too drunk to drive home. Stan was, too, but less so than Kyle, so he drove the car, without auto-guide, and parked in the driveway, which Kyle hated because seagulls would end up crapping on it. Kyle took off his clothes in the foyer and carried them upstairs. Stan pressed Kyle's naked ass against one of the bedroom windows and kissed him with one of Stan's legs wedged between Kyle's, working that narrow dick of his so effectually that Kyle bit Stan's ear, then threw his arms up and cried, "I need it, I need it," until Stan tossed him onto the bed. While Stan undressed, Kyle got on all fours and lifted his ass up into the air, pulling his cheeks apart, and started baying for it like some kind of barnyard animal. Stan fucked Kyle's face into the mattress so hard that when they were done, collapsed on each other, panting, the weft of their duvet cover was burned red into Kyle's cheeks. He got up on his hands and knees again and showed Stan the product of his labors, an ass so well-abused that it was visibly distressed, ringed with frothy come and still distended, gaping.
It had seemed to Stan at that point that something had to be done about this, so Stan put his mouth to Kyle's hole, maybe with the intention of relaxing him, but soon Kyle was humping the mattress, to the point of coming. By the time Kyle spilled across their sheets, he was sobbing. Stan was hard again, too, his body sheathed with such an amount of perspiration that he shuddered to think what kind of horrible chafing their overworking bodies might induce together, but no caution was strong enough to keep Stan from slinging Kyle's legs over his shoulders and fucking him again, this time missionary style, their chests touching, Kyle's whole ruddy body folded up while he wept, clutching at Stan's hair and the back of his neck. There was lube on everything and when they were finished, finally, so incredibly tired, Stan's hands were so slick that he couldn't get a good grip on Kyle's shoulders.
They huddled together in the center of the big bed, a California king that embarrassed Stan, honestly, although he was more worried about what their housekeeper would make of their duvet so soiled. Kyle opened his arms, and Stan put his head on Kyle's chest. His last memory of the evening was Kyle saying, "Sometimes I think you don't want me anymore." And Stan reached around, letting his fingers brush against where he knew, from memory, Kyle's long, ugly scar ran. "Don't," he'd said, but Stan did. He just did what he wanted. He fell asleep more sated than he had in years.
Then he'd woken up here.
Stan sat in the living room for quite some time, flipping through very boring TV shows he never remembered liking or even watching.
- paramécie -
Then he found an episode of an old cartoon, Terrance and Phillip — except it wasn't old, was it, it was ... well, now it was contemporary. Stan typically didn't watch cartoons, or anything for pleasure, except for movies. He spent too much of his life working in the industry to want to subject himself to bullshit, to feelings of intense competition. The first thing Stan noticed about the cartoon was that the cues were all off. "Say, Terrance!" one of the characters barked, and then something else, and then he farted, and then they were both cackling like witches at a cauldron, and then a little trill of a cue told the viewer to laugh. It was the stupidest, most obvious thing Stan had ever heard. He hadn't seen this show in years, and he felt embarrassed for everyone involved in it. Had he liked this as a kid? He pulled down the rabbit-ear hood to hide his face, from no one, in shame.
"Jesus," he said to himself, "I could do a lot better than this."
But he didn't stop watching.
By 11 his mother came downstairs. He turned off the TV as soon as she entered the room, dropping the remote on the floor. He looked up at her; she'd fixed her hair a bit, probably with her hands. He wanted to get up and hug her. Was he too old for that? He honestly didn't remember when he'd stopped hugging his mother. He knew when he'd started again, but it had taken him until college to realize that there was no shame in a gay 19-year-old boy hugging his sick mother. But it had taken a lot of grief to get there. She was looking, or glaring down at him, like he was in trouble. That was when Stan figured, fuck it, maybe he wouldn't have hugged his mother at age 13. But he wanted to, so he did it.
"Stanley," she said, in that reproachful way, "that's not going to work."
"Acting all affectionate," she said. "Sorry, but I can see through you."
"See through what?" he asked.
"I know he's your friend," she said, "But you have to tell Kyle he can't call at 7 in the morning on the weekend anymore."
"Oh." Stan climbed back into the couch. "Sorry," he said. "Really." This was weird. No one ever took this tone with Stan, this cautionary sort of warning tone. Kyle came closest, but he never bothered to issue warnings, just demands and pleas.
"Especially on Saturdays! I mean it, Stanley. Your father and I don't get to sleep in very often. During the week he goes to work and I get up with you guys. On Sundays we've got church. What does that leave us with?"
Stan couldn't believe he was part of this conversation. "Saturday?"
"Yes. And what day is Kyle not allowed to call early?"
"That's right." She was taller than he was, by about a foot. She had been model-tall, grazing 5'9, and Stan didn't top his final height, an inch over her, until his last year of high school. He'd forgotten this, but he suddenly remembered how it felt to be smaller and shorter than an authority figure. So when she parented him, she patted his head, smoothing out his shiny hair. "Did you have breakfast?"
"I'd have made you something," she said.
"I was up early."
"Well, I'm making french toast for me and your father. And — is Shelly up?"
Oh, Jesus. "Don't know," said Stan.
"That girl's always sleeping. Well, her loss." She padded into the kitchen.
Stan followed, sliding into a seat at the kitchen table. He remembered sitting there throughout his childhood, watching her cook and doing his homework. She started taking pots and pans out of the cabinet, looking for the right one.
"Any plans for the day?"
"Yeah." Stan tucked his legs up on the chair, and wrapped his arms around his knees. "Kyle's coming over."
"I guess so," he said. "It's Saturday, so..."
She stood up with the frying pan in her hands, holding it by the handle. She seemed shocked. "Honey. What the hell are you wearing?"
Stan shrugged. "Some stuff from the closet."
"Yeah," she said. "I'll bet."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing, honey." She walked to the cabinet above the stove and reached in for a big spray can of Pam. "Just, maybe you should change before Kyle gets here."
"Just a suggestion." She pulled a carton of eggs from the fridge. "I wouldn't want to inhibit your burgeoning identity through self-representation." This came out in a sarcastic kind of voice. With a bowl and the eggs, she began setting up on the table across from him.
"Who are you mocking?"
She looked up from the dish over which she was cracking eggs, then tossing them back into the carton, which was almost empty. "Hm. Sheila, actually."
"Ugh, yes, she's obsessed with this book about 'parenting your middle-schooler' " — she made air quotes — "and I keep having to tell her I've already had a middle-schooler. You guys aren't that tricky."
"I'd like to think I am," said Stan, who had never thought about it, even as an adult.
"Sorry, honey. You're really not. Although that outfit is incredible. You really want to change, Stanley, you don't want anyone to see you wearing that."
Stan got up and his knees on his chair and looked around to the entrance to the kitchen, where his father was standing.
"Jesus, Stan," said Randy, his hands on his hips. "You look..."
"I look what?"
His mother was now scrambling the eggs, lightly. "Don't say it," she warned.
"I was going to say you look like you come from a household where we don't buy you the right clothing, and if anyone sees you they'll call child services," Stan's father said. "And we don't need that. ...Again."
"Thanks, Dad, for inhibiting my burgeoning identity."
"If this is your identity, son—"
"Ugh, whatever." Stan's father was in his underwear, he usually had been on Saturday mornings. It had been so long since Stan was a child in his parents' house, and so long since he'd seen his parents together, that he'd never had the chance to think about their relationship, what it was or how they felt about it. But when his father paused by his mother's side and said, "Good morning, Sharon," and put his arms on his shoulders and kissed her behind the ear, two things occurred to him:
1. These people loved each other, and
2. These people had totally just fucked.
She giggled and said, "Randy!" again. Stan felt this was his cue to get up.
"Where are you going?" his father asked.
Stan very nearly gave him the finger; that's what he would've done to his dad in his proper life, and the old man would have laughed it off like it were the naughty misdeed of a clever poodle. As things stood, Stan wasn't sure his father would appreciate being flicked off by his 13-year-old. So Stan just shrugged him off.
"Any plans for the day?" Randy asked before he'd made it out alive.
"Kyle's coming over," said Sharon.
"Oh, great," said Randy. "Love him."
"Nothing," said Randy. "Kyle's great, love Kyle."
"What's wrong with Kyle?" Stan asked. Again, he was overly familiar with present-day (or future?) Randy's feelings on Kyle, which straddled a line between tolerant and mildly uncomfortable. But surely his dad hadn't always felt that way? Surely before they started sleeping together...
"Nothing," said Randy, taking a step away from Stan's mother. "He's a great kid. Thumbs up."
"No, really." Stan took a step closer. "I want to know."
"Just ask him not to call so early on Saturdays, please."
Stan shrugged. "Yeah, Mom already told me."
"And maybe practice keyboard today, Stan, okay? Play Kyle something on your little keyboard," Stan's mother suggested.
"That is not a little keyboard," said Randy. "It is a Kurzweil SP4-7, Sharon."
"Whatever," she said. "Just try to practice it a little today, honey. It was a very expensive birthday gift."
Stan walked out of the kitchen the opposite way, through the dining room. The keyboard sat on the table, and its long cord ran to the socket on the wall near the china cabinet. The sight of it made Stan smile.
When the doorbell rang at 1 pm precisely, Stan vaulted off his bed and ran downstairs to fling the door open. He'd been up for six hours now, six hours of twiddling his thumbs and waiting for Kyle to arrive. Now Kyle was here, and Stan's heart was pounding, which was absurd; he'd spoken to Kyle on the phone that morning and, if he was going to be technical about it, had fucked Kyle in the ass twice the night before. But something about the curious circumstances Stan was now facing made him want to bury his face in Kyle's neck and cry. Stan didn't cry, though, just stuck with the head-burying.
"Uh, hey, dude," Kyle said, like he didn't know what to make of this. He patted Stan's back as they stood on the doorstep to Stan's childhood home, Stan in a T-shirt and jeans and Kyle in a starchy black suit, his yarmulke swinging precariously from a tangle of dry curls, attached only with a silver snap-clip. Stan did him to favor of removing it and handing it back. "Thanks," Kyle mumbled, putting it in his pocket. He was so much taller than Stan remembered, having burned off his major growth spurts earlier and less dramatically than Stan. "You all right?"
"Just so happy to see you," said Stan. "You really don't know."
"You saw me about 18 hours ago. ... What's wrong? Really, you can tell me."
"Nothing, nothing at all." Stan pulled him into the house and shut the door. His parents had gone out shopping, prepared to leave them home alone under the assumption that Stan's sister would watch them, if she ever woke up. "Let's go up to my room."
Once they got there, Stan pulled Kyle onto the bed. Kyle shrugged his suit jacket off, and untucked his shirt. "Now what?" he asked.
Stan realized he wasn't sure. What had he wanted to do up here? Kiss? Fool around? He looked 11-year-old Kyle up and down. Kyle was kneeling, hands on his thighs, his posture taut and fussy, shoulders back and chin up. Many of the features Stan loved on adult Kyle were there: his bleached-wood skin, his flourishing lips, his hazel eyes, which were such an unusual color that Stan had asked that his office be painted to match, so that when he worked he was reminded of Kyle at all times. The shade was difficult to imitate, so deep brown and murky olive, but it set off Kyle's hair color nicely. As for the hair, Stan noticed that it was much redder when Kyle was young, a burning rust color, that had settled over the years to a kind of dried-blood auburn. Stan was proud to know these things.
But all in all, he didn't want to fuck this little boy. The idea made him sad, and then it relieved him. Even with Kyle so much taller suddenly, he looked positively untouchable. Stan thought about his own body, its relative youth, but the things he did with his Kyle, perverse, adult things — this kid had never given Stan his consent for those things. It was kind of a mindfuck.
"I, um." Stan didn't know where to begin.
"Can I change my clothes?" Kyle asked.
"Sure." Stan pointed to his closet. "Borrow whatever."
As Kyle slipped into a blue striped T and some track pants that grazed his ankles. "This bar mitzvah stuff's gonna be pretty intense," he said.
"Well." Kyle crept back onto the bed. "There's a lot of memorization. And I have to sing. Or, I mean, chant, I have to chant. Incantations! It sounds scary, right?"
Stan, who'd lived through watching this process already, said, "No."
"I have to write a speech," Kyle continued. "Granted, not for a year. The rabbi wants me to read all this commentary on my passages. God, it's gonna be a lot of work. It's gonna suck." The rapidity with which Kyle said all of this betrayed his supposed reservations. "But, yeah. Why'd you want me to come over so bad?"
"Can't you just come over for no reason?"
Kyle wrinkled his nose. "I dunno. On the phone this morning, it sounded like you wanted me for something."
"Well, I'm here, so what are we going to do? Do you want to play games?"
"What kind of games?"
"You're the one who wanted to play last night," said Kyle. "You're right, I like sports games. You want to play Madden? We can do that. Since you don't want to talk about world history, I guess."
"Oh," said Stan. He knew a great deal on the topic, having lived with Kyle while he wrote his dissertation on the topic. "No, we can talk about that."
"Oh, okay. But, can we do games now? I've had a lot of learning-type shit today and I just—"
Kyle didn't need to ask again. They went to the living room and Stan fiddled with the primitive-looking machine.
"What's the matter?" Kyle asked.
"I seem to have—"
"Ugh, here." Kyle slipped off the couch and padded over. "I'll do it."
Stan sat back on the couch while Kyle turned the Gamesphere on, observing Kyle's little behind as it shook. It wasn't quite the magnificent thing Stan loved to burrow his face into, the perfectly symmetrical handiwork of an Austrian cosmetic surgeon whose Wilshire Boulevard office had a gurgling fountain in the lobby and Philippe Stark chairs in the waiting area. It wasn't even the ass Kyle's current ass had replaced, which was perfectly glorious in Stan's memory, just with a bit of sag. But, Stan reminded himself, someday it would be.
Barely into the game and the doorbell rang.
"Fuck." Stan tossed his controller on the floor. "Who the hell is that?"
Kyle shrugged off the couch and picked up the controller. "Dunno," he said. "UPS? It's not my house." He followed Stan to the door.
It turned out to be a little girl, roughly Kyle's age, with dark brown hair parted on the left that fell to her shoulders, thin and flat. She wore a little purple rain coat and mustard corduroy slacks that flared out from the knee. She was not happy. Her name was on the tip of Stan's tongue — why didn't he know it? They had dated on and off for four years in elementary and middle school, Stan remembered the first time they'd kissed, in third grade — Kyle had been there! Why couldn't he just—
"Hey Wendy," Kyle said, giving her a limp wave.
"So, here you are!" she barked.
Stan was shaken, but he gathered his wits and said, "At my house, yeah. What's up?"
"Well, we were supposed to hang out today, Stan, and here I find you just sitting around doing nothing with Kyle. This has happened for, like, the zillionth time."
"Hi," she said. "Dickface."
Stan grinned. "So charming," he said. He could remember suddenly, with perfect clarity, why he'd liked her as a child: She was bossy, like Kyle; smart, like Kyle; would not put up with being mistreated, like Kyle. He'd admired all those things about her. Still did, actually. But as an adult or, well, whatever, he knew how silly this little relationship had been. "Oh crap," Stan said, opening the door as wide as it would go. "Come in."
She stepped over the threshold and removed her coat, handing it to Kyle. "Thank you, Kyle," she said, brushing past him.
"Wendy." Stan took the coat from Kyle and threw it over the nearest chair. "I'm so sorry!"
"We had plans!"
"I know," Stan lied. "I just—"
"You did this last week, too!"
Kyle shut the door and joined them by the living room windows. "What plans?"
"Well," said Wendy, "we were supposed to be seeing a movie. We were supposed to be meeting at 1."
"I like movies," said Kyle. "Let's all go see a movie."
"Private plans," Wendy insisted.
Stan knew this should annoy him, and that he should feel remorseful. Instead, he stood there grinning. "Do you guys want some cereal?" he asked. "We have the best cereal."
"I haven't eaten since kiddush," said Kyle.
Wendy shot Stan an incredulous glance. "I suppose I'd like a glass of water."
Stan fixed two bowls of cereal, a rainbow of neon fruits, and set them on the kitchen table. The dishes from his parents' brunch were still in the sink, and Stan left them there. He was about to pour the milk when he remembered Wendy's water.
"So," he heard her saying, "any plans for the weekend?"
"Well," Kyle replied, "I just got here."
"You're wearing Stan's shirt."
"Oh, I guess I am."
Stan had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at the embarrassment in Kyle's voice. He shut off the tap and brought Wendy her drink.
"Sorry," Stan repeated, slipping into his chair. "Wendy—dude—I didn't realize."
"Yeah, well." She took a sip of her water. "It's not the dumbest thing you've done lately."
"Sorry." Stan watched Kyle eye the carton of 2 percent in the center of the table.
"I'm pouring," Kyle announced. He reached over Wendy's glass to get the carton, then got up and walked all the way around the table to splash some into Stan's bowl.
"Sure," said Kyle. "You're welcome." He beamed over his bowl of cereal.
Stan peered down at his second bowl of Trix for the day. The milk was beginning to turn rosaceous, just slightly.
"What were you going to see?" Kyle asked.
"Well, we were going to discuss it," Wendy began, but she was interrupted by the sound of the back door flying open, and Stan's older sister stumbling in.
Shelly Marsh swept a pair of aviator sun glasses away from her face, and used them to comb the voluminous splendor of her clearly unwashed hair from her eyes. "Oh shit," she said, dropping her red patent clutch on the floor and kicking the door shut with a cowboy boot. "Kids."
"We're not kids," said Kyle.
Peeling off a filthy denim jacket, Shelly raised an eyebrow at him. "You're 12," she said. "You're kids."
"Stan is 13 now," Wendy said.
"Ugh." Shelly did not pause to contemplate that. "Where's Mom and Dad?"
"Out," said Stan. "I think they went grocery shopping?"
"Do we have coffee?"
"Should be some left." Stan pointed to the machine with his spoon. "Mom and Dad thought you were home. They thought you were sleeping." He remembered saying these words so often in his youth that he felt he was reciting them from a libretto.
"Whatever." She practically fell into the cabinet where they kept their mugs. It took until she turned around to squint at them as she gulped down lukewarm coffee for Stan to realize that she was wrecked, hungover, maybe even still drunk. He saw the runs in her sheer black tights disappear up under the little gingham sun dress she was wearing out of season. From one ear hung a big pink feather earring; her other was missing. Her other earring was missing.
"Hey Shelly," said Kyle, preempting Stan. "You're missing an earring."
"Am I?" Her hand flew to her ear. "Oh, fuck. I liked those." She groaned and put her fingers to her temple.
When Stan had been 13 the first time, he'd barely paid any attention to his older sister. She wasn't that interesting to him. She'd had lots of boyfriends, and some of those guys had caught Stan's attention, if not for the fact that almost all of them were musicians, than for the fact that they for some reason chose to date his sister. Thrust back into this situation, he could see that at 16, she hadn't a very nice face; she shared her father's chin, which was awkward with her delicate nose and small lips, and the fine black powder of mascara chipping across the wells of her eyes didn't help much. Her lips were either bruised from misuse or stained with the end of last night's final red lipstick application. What Stan could plainly see was that despite this, she had her mother's body, generous height and breasts that threatened to spill out over her deep neckline. It was obvious to Stan now, though he'd never even thought about it before, that she'd probably stayed over with some guy.
In Stan's timeframe, Shelly no longer boasted a physique of much note. She was 41 and had three children, Stan's niece and nephews, and taught elementary school German classes, although she did not much like children, except for her own. Stan liked to tease her, "You'd like my kids, though, right? I know it. You would." It was a cool thing to joke about because the possibility of Stan having children was so remote. She was typically too exhausted and frustrated to do more than roll her eyes at him. He didn't hassle her about her weight, or her "career," or the fact that she still lived in South Park. The last time he'd seen her was in August, at their father's 70th birthday party, where Kyle had made a point of evangelizing surgical butt lift practices. "I feel like a whole new person!" he kept saying. That was not even the low point of the party for Stan; the low point was when his father introduced him to someone who had known Stan for 35 years as, "My son, the homosexual composer from Malibu." Which wasn't inaccurate, but it seemed so willfully cruel that Stan had made a pointed face about it.
Then Randy had gestured to Kyle and said, "And this is his lover."
"Boyfriend," Stan had corrected.
"I prefer 'life companion,' " was Kyle's response.
"I am totally supportive of their relationship," said Stan's father, more or less reciting what Stan's mother had taught him to say, a long, long time ago.
Shelly, in planning this party, had told Stan that he was going to have to contribute something. "I'm coming," Stan had said, "from 1000 miles away, so what else do you want me to do?"
"Play the piano," she'd said.
So Stan had found himself playing "Happy Birthday to You" at the piano in Shelly's living room, with his step mother waving her arms around idiotically like she was conducting, although Stan was doing a good job of ignoring her. Then Randy had blown out the candles, and then Stan started in on, "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." Nobody stopped to applaud, so Stan kept playing. He worked through everything he could think of that was vaguely appropriate, meaningless pedantic tunes with no sentiment behind them that Stan identified with. He tried the Beatles' "Birthday," and that segued into "Julia." Stan knew he'd done it backward, but he was reaching for anything, anything that felt honest.
Then Kyle had come over with a plate of cake. At this point in Stan's life, he could carry on a perfectly decent basic conversation while playing, so long as what he was playing was soundly inane.
"Is that your second piece?" Stan asked.
"No." Kyle set it on top of the piano, where the fork clattered with Stan's implementation of the pedals. "I brought for you."
"Kyle," Stan had said. "I don't eat cake." He bit his lip and held a chord too long.
Kyle sat down next to Stan on the bench, which wasn't really long enough to fit both of them. Stan scooted down; he didn't mind hanging off a bit. "You should eat some cake," Kyle said. "Really. It's your dad's 70th birthday."
"I think he's having fun."
Stan shrugged into a chord deep on the far side of the piano, stretching his arm over Kyle. "It doesn't matter if I have fun. It's not my birthday. My sister asked me to play, so I'm playing."
"Well, I don't really have anyone to talk to." This was patently ridiculous. Kyle had known most of these people as long as Stan had. Kyle's own parents were in attendance. He even got along with Stan's step mother, although Kyle tended to agree with Stan that she was a bit of a pill.
Kyle patted Stan on the back and stood, walking back around to the other side of the piano where he'd left the plate of cake. It was a triple-layer cake with blue vanilla buttercream, the kind you'd get for a kids' party. Stan figured this was because there were kids at the party, Shelly's kids. They'd requested a chocolate cake with strawberry preserves; Randy liked preserves, and it was least offensive to the children. The cake had read "Happy Birthday Grandpa Randy," and the slice on Kyle's plate had a big capital G and R.
"Poor Stan." Kyle had sectioned off a neat corner of the slice, staring off into the distance as he put it in his mouth. The memory was so clear to Stan, the sensation of his fingers on the keys as he leaned over and let Kyle feed him cake as Stan played.
In Stan's childhood kitchen, he stared across the table at Kyle, who had pink cereal milk in the corners of his mouth. Then Stan turned to see his sister fishing in her purse and pulling out two orange Advils.
"I'm going upstairs," she said.
"Hold up," said Wendy, hopping out of her chair. "I'll come, too."
Rather than following his sister and girlfriend upstairs, Stan dragged Kyle back into the living room.
"You shouldn't have told me to come over if you had plans with Wendy," Kyle said.
"What?" Stan shrugged. "Oh. Uh. I didn't remember."
"You don't remember making plans with your girlfriend?"
"People forget! Plus, I dunno. Maybe I wanted plans with you more?" Stan knew it was what he would have wanted. It was what he wanted at the moment, anyway; Wendy Testaburger might have been cool for a sixth-grade girl, but she didn't hold the same interest for Stan as observing sixth grader Kyle did.
"That's so fucking rude, Stan," Kyle said. "We can hang out every day if you want, but just forgetting about Wendy meeting you somewhere — I'd like to think you wouldn't do the same thing to me!"
"Sure you would! If you'd do it to her, you'd do it to me."
"I wouldn't," Stan repeated. "Honestly."
"Why? What's the difference? If you're the sort of guy who'd do that to anyone, you're liable to do it to everyone. Me included. So how do I know you wouldn't?"
Stan knew the right answer. It was: "Because I'm 37 and I've been in love with you for 25 years and in that time I've had plenty of opportunities to leave you, and plenty of reasons, and yet I haven't because to me there is everyone else, and then there's you, and I can't explain why it's you but it always has been and I don't think you understand this as an adult, let alone a child." Stan couldn't say this, though, so he tried to think of a suitable substitute. He began to say, "I think—" when the doorbell rang. "Fuck," said Stan. "What now?"
"What is it with you and UPS?"
Kyle threw his hands in the air. "I don't know who else would ring your doorbell!" He seemed exasperated, but he followed Stan to the front door anyway.
It turned out to be a kid with dark, ratty black hair to his chin, big holes in the knees of his jeans. He wore a thin sweatshirt with a hood, which he lifted over his head as Stan answered the door, scowling, "So," he said, in a flat, nasal voice. "This is where you're hiding."
"Why would I be hiding from you?" Stan asked. He hoped it sounded like bravado, although truly he was hoping he might find out.
"Because you're a little pussy," said the kid. "I got it on good authority from Clyde who got it from Bebe who got it from Wendy that you were seeing a movie at 1 p.m. So do you know what I did, Marsh? I waited at the theater. I saw Wendy get there. I saw Wendy leave. But I didn't see you."
"Wendy's here," said Stan.
"What about him?" the kid said, nodding toward Kyle. "He your bodyguard?"
"Fuck you, Craig!" Kyle barked.
Craig shrugged this off. "I want my money, asshole."
"My dad's money," Craig corrected. "But he said he'd give me 10 percent if I could extract it from you on his behalf. He says he knows a guy who can replace his window for 200." Craig didn't smile, but he crossed his arms. "And I could use $20. So, pay up."
When Stan heard that Craig was here sniffing after $20, he almost wanted to pat the poor kid on the head and send him home with a sympathetic laugh. As an employed adult, and due in part to inflation, $20 was nothing to Stan. When he went to New York for meetings, he brought home chocolate bars for Kyle that cost $20 a piece. They had Himalayan pink salt and a very fine layer of raspberry buttercream. Stan had tried a square once and thought they were insane. Kyle was always grateful for them; he'd start off eating one as slowly as possible, letting a square of chocolate dissolve on the roof of his mouth, but by the end of the third and final bar, he'd be inhaling it so fast he'd barely have time to pause to think about it. Kyle could eat $20 worth of chocolate in about five minutes. Stan loved watching him do it. It was worth a lot more than $20. Speaking of—
"Of course," Kyle spat at Craig, "you would tattle to your father."
"If he asks me who accidentally let a football go flying through the window of his car, yeah, I think I might tell him," said Craig. "Wouldn't you?"
"I'd be a loyal friend," said Kyle.
"Well, lucky you guys are such good friends. But we" — Craig pointed between himself and Stan — "are not. So cough up my dad's $200 and I won't feel the need to tell your dad that you guys were tossing balls in the rec center parking lot."
"I don't think my dad would care," said Stan.
"He might if it lost him $200," said Craig. He had not stepped into the house, but fell back against the door frame, leaning on it.
"It's not Stan's fault," said Kyle. "Stan just tossed the ball. It was a good toss! It's Kenny's fault he didn't catch it."
"I don't care. You think I'm stupid enough to try to extort McCormick? Those assholes don't give a shit and couldn't pay anyway. No point."
Kyle started to say, "We can think of something—"
"Hold on!" said Stan. He turned and fled up the stairs.
Stan's mind was racing. He was trying to figure out how he'd gotten out of this when he was 13. He was trying to remember how he'd gotten the money — then it occurred to him that he hadn't. Craig's parents had called his parents, who were angry not just about the $20, but about Stan's recklessness, and especially about his concealing this problem from them. Being grounded hadn't been so bad, Stan figured, except that it had meant being isolated from Kyle. Stan couldn't imagine being isolated from the stringent, beautiful little boy he could hear arguing with Craig downstairs, imploring Craig to back off and pick on someone "his own size," which was absurd because Craig was even shorter than Stan was, so Kyle towered over Craig by something like a foot.
In a panic, Stan knocked on his sister's door. He heard Shelly bark, "What?" and Wendy say, "We're busy."
Stan slowly opened the door. It wasn't locked, so he knew it was nothing private. He found Wendy sitting on his sister's bed, legs crossed Indian-style, while Shelly kneeled behind her with a flat iron, the kind Kyle used to do his hair with in college, before he could afford to have the living shit relaxed out of it for three hours every month.
- paramécie -
"What do you want?" Shelly asked. She did not even turn to look at Stan, but kept focused on Wendy's hair, which she was wrapping around the prongs of the straightener, and then drawing out, leaving one flouncy lock and moving onto the next one.
"Um," said Stan. "What are you guys doing?"
"Girl stuff," said Wendy.
"I'm showing her how to make volume with an iron," said Shelly. "Seriously, what do you want?"
"Can I borrow $200?" Stan asked. "Or any money at all?"
"Oh, Stan," said Wendy, sounding pitiful. "I told you."
"Told me what?"
"To tell your parents?"
"Tell them what?" Shelly asked. She sounded pissed, but didn't miss a beat in her handling of the straightener.
"Stan put a football through Craig's dad's window," Wendy tattled.
"Thanks," Stan said. "Thanks a bunch, Wendy."
"And you need $200?"
Finally, Shelly turned off the straight iron and yanked the plug from the wall. She got up from her bed and hobbled to the window ledge, where she picked up a big red can of hair spray. Shaking it, she handed it to Wendy. "Go into the bathroom and apply this liberally," she said, handing it over.
"Won't breathing this in make me light-headed? Should I do it in a well-ventilated area?"
"You must already be lightheaded if you're dating my idiot brother," she said.
"Hey!" said Stan.
Wendy did not say anything to him on the way out, just turned away so they wouldn't lock eyes. She shut the door on the way out.
"I know $200 is a lot—"
"That's, like, a month's worth of babysitting," said Shelly.
"Only a month?"
"I think you should tell Mom and Dad."
"Really? Won't they, like. Ground me?"
"Maybe," said Shelly. "But, what are you going to do if they find out before you get $200?"
"I'm going to have to try to find it," said Stan. "I don't want to be grounded."
"Why are you smiling?"
"What?" Stan shrugged. "I am?" He considered the perverse delight of trying to think his way out of the situation. He didn't know what he was doing here, in the past, but there was no reason he couldn't live his life over — didn't people dream about receiving such an opportunity? Having a second chance, knowing what he knew now?
The best part was, it wasn't really for him, or it wouldn't be — Stan's life was already pretty great. He looked at his sister, his breath scented with a sour mix of coffee and weak beer. He thought about his mother; he had her back now, didn't he? Didn't he want that? And Kyle — he could give Kyle everything he wanted!
If only he knew what Kyle wanted.
"Shelly," Stan said. "Can help you me?"
She shrugged. "I'll give you $20. But you owe me."
"God," she said, stumbling over to her purse, slung over her desk chair. "Don't be so fucking excited. If I give you 20 bucks I want 30 back." She began to dig around in the clutch for her wallet.
"You're going to charge me 50 percent interest? Are you that hard-up for 10 bucks?"
"No," she said, coming over with two wadded-up tens in her hand. "But maybe this'll teach you to just go to Mom and Dad next time."
Stan accepted the money. "But you won't tell them, right?"
"Ugh," she said, starting to close the door. "Leave me alone for the rest of the day." Then she shut it in his face.
Flying back downstairs, Stan found Kyle and Craig sitting on the couch. They were no longer arguing. Craig was sitting with his hands in his sweatshirt pockets, his hood down now, his left heel stacked on his right toes.
Kyle's arms were crossed, his legs spread in front of him, and he was slouching in his seat, scowling. It seemed like he'd lost something.
"Here," Stan said, handing Craig the money.
Craig accepted it, enthusiastically at first. Then he frowned. "This is only 20 bucks," he said.
"Then I owe you 180, I guess," Stan said.
Standing, Craig pocketed the money. "My dad wants it all by Thursday," he said. He turned and strode to the door.
Stan followed. "I'll see what I can do."
Grunting in reply, Craig opened the door and, without saying goodbye, slammed it shut behind him.
When Stan turned, he saw Wendy standing on the staircase, a hand on the banister. "I'm going," she said, in a small voice.
"You'd rather hang out with Kyle. So I'll just go."
"That's fine. If that's what you want?"
"Is it what you want?"
It was, but Stan shrugged. "I dunno?"
She grabbed her coat and pecked him on the cheek. "Have a lovely Saturday." She didn't slam the door, but paused over the threshold while she zipped up. "Goodbye."
"Bye," said Stan.
Wendy lingered for another moment. Then she sighed, and Stan shut the door, slowly, latching it.
Back in the living room, Kyle was sitting with his arms still crossed.
"What?' Stan asked.
"Where the fuck do you think you're going to find $180?"
"I guess I'll have to think about it."
Stan turned to glance around the room and then out the window, and said the first thing that came to his mind. "I dunno, I can just rake some leaves or whatever."
"There aren't $180 worth of leaves in this whole town!"
"Well," said Stan, "maybe I'll have to go raking in the next town."
Kyle scoffed, and slid off the couch.
"Don't tell me you're leaving too!"
Scoffing again, Kyle said, "No, I'm just going to the bathroom."
Reassured, Stan followed him, out of habit, up the stairs. At the bathroom door, Kyle turned and said, "Don't follow me in! Jesus, what's wrong with you today?" He slammed the door behind him, leaving Stan to slink over to the top of the stairs, where he sat with his head in his hands, wondering where his father kept the rake.