Illustration by Sofie Praestgaard

Derek’s torso is longer than his legs, and he has four fingers on one hand, the result of a motorcycle accident that killed the driver of the car that hit him. Derek went flying and skidding across the pavement. His arms were burned up and took months to scar. The other driver veered off into a tree and died at impact.

Derek does not think the accident was the other driver’s fault. The police said it was but to Derek his participation in the death of another living thing is the worst type of hell.

Derek grew up in a white Catholic community in Florida. He was the only half Black boy in a Catholic school. His family all support Trump, but do not support Derek, who renounced God by fucking men, left home when he was sixteen, and became something that wasn’t liberal and wasn’t conservative. He tells me it is the Catholic thought that lingers, that makes him feel guilt and blame for a death that wasn’t his fault, but I know it is something more than that. After the crash, when I wrote to Derek’s parents that he was in the hospital, they did not reply and did not come.

Derek’s hands always ask before they touch. Derek makes breakfast in the morning and brings it into bed and feeds me what he says he does not want anymore. Derek plays with dogs on the streets and in college led a protest against a pet store that kept its dogs in small stinking cages.

Derek believes in things I don’t. He believes humans are the most powerful and accountable beings on earth and can’t be victims. He believes in solitude and pursuing an argument at any cost. But Derek also believes in things I do. He believes in complexity. He believes in staying up all night to talk about his mother. He believes in simultaneities and making wishes underneath a full moon.

For instance, the night we passed each other on the street, going different places, after not talking for a few months because I had told him I couldn’t fuck anymore without wanting him to be my boyfriend, and it was causing me distress.

When I saw him on the street, the moon was a crescent half-smile, and we both commented on it. It was the first thing we knew how to talk about after the time apart. I knew he was really asking me if I’d thought of him when he said had I seen the last full moon, it was blood orange and he’d thought of me. I took his hand then and we forsook our other plans and went out for a drink, and underneath the table he lifted my foot onto his lap and pet my toes without really thinking about it or knowing how good it felt.

Then the accident happened, and I waited for him to open his eyes in the hospital. It was me and him. Other friends came in and out. I hadn’t planned for this type of commitment between us, but I was sitting for hours in a hard white plastic chair, and I realized commitment wasn’t the right word. Commitment belonged to older generations, to the men and women who married without ever touching bodies, strange and unknown. For Derek and me, the commitment was merely a side effect, happening because something—time, or vulnerability—had made us very familiar to each other, and a new creature was born.

That creature is the monster in Derek’s closet. That creature is the darkness under my bed. In the months after the accident, I bathe him. I lift him into a tub and run soft cloths over the burns on his arms. Thank you, he says, until he can stand on his own. Then we are fucking again. I can’t keep away from him. His body is different than it was a year ago. It is all different: the creature has emerged, is running between us. When he sees me find an old, ratty white tee I’ve pulled from the bottom of his drawer, he watches me dress. The tee once belonged to a man he slept with in Paris, I discover. He’d rather I wear it now, he says, and he admits he is suddenly afraid of being left alone for good. All his friends he spent his twenties with gloriously uncommitted are coupling off and fading. I ask him why he uses this word “fading.” He looks out the window and says: people are more vibrant as themselves, uninhibited, in control. I say, if people fade when they are next to another person, maybe that isn’t the right person.

Derek does not believe in the “right” person, but I tell him he should believe in “right” people. It doesn’t have to be “you are the one,” it can be “you are one of the ones.”

Derek is sometimes full of a feeling he won’t say out loud, and when he is deep in it he dances from foot to foot and leans into me, or splays his arms out on the wall above me so that I am tucked underneath him, and I feel like a little kid. Derek is a student of abandonment, he looks up to it, he is still learning how to disagree with it, he has developed some professional intimacy with it. But I keep my hand on his chest when he sleeps. When he wakes I will be there in his bed.

Erin Winseman

lives and writes in Manhattan. She has an M.A. in Cultural Reporting & Criticism from New York University and a B.A. in English & American Literatures from Middlebury College, where she was the recipient of the Mary Dunning Thwing Prize. "Derek" was a semi-finalist for the 2020 American Short(er) Fiction Prize.

All contributions from Erin Winseman

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