Two: The Last Time

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All Along the Watchtower played the night Ely lost his virginity. It was the crappy U2 cover, not Hendrix's transcendent paroxysm or even Dylan's understated canticle, but neither of those artists had been relegated to the record store bargain bin, not that Ely would've known the difference. He didn't care about old things, but Vera did, and if he'd learned anything in his seventeen short years of life, it was that people would take most anything if you offered it as a gift.

Her bedroom was a shrine to myopic nostalgia, full of ephemera cherry-picked from times when self-awareness seemed at a nadir. Vera's idea of happiness, Ely guessed, was the unconscious embodiment of an aesthetic, the art of perfecting something she never sought to perfect. By such logic, one would not—could not—become happy through endeavor; those fortunate enough to sleepwalk their way to Nirvana wouldn't know until it was over, or possibly ever.

Ely winced when he made the connection, saw the incompatibility of her constitution and her craving laid bare in every bokeh, side-gazing Polaroid clipped to string lights above her desk. Enlightenment must have caused her unimaginable pain, the sort that drove monks to take vows of silence or Plath to stick her head in that oven. Either that, or it passed through her like cosmic radiation, peripheral phosphenes flashing a truth her brain was barely equipped to detect, let alone decipher.

It seemed the best Vera could do was collect LPs with spare, spumoni-colored covers and peeling, yellowed 8-tracks; clothing that was notably over- or undersized (or, like her cropped mohair poncho, both at once); Chia Pets suspended from the ceiling in beaded, macramé hammocks; chopsticks for her hair, chapsticks for her vanity; antique bildungsromane with marbled endpapers, stacked in helices; chipped china cherubs and dead Tamagotchi; and so many posters for long-forgotten art exhibitions that they plaqued her walls like a psoriasis, Chagall at the Pitti Palace flaking off to reveal Schiele at the Staatsgalerie. She assembled her catacomb with intentional whim, knowing better than to speak any incantation over the bones, yet still hoping for the magic.

"Magic" is too generous a ruling for what occurred between them that night. They moved in the ways that were necessary. They didn't say much, which is never a good sign between neophytes. Only afterward, when she lit a Camel Blue—the second in the pack; Ely guessed the first had been a trial—and ran her finger along the thin brown stripe linking his ribs like a legato slur, did he vocalize a want.

"Please don't touch my scar."

Vera raised the finger, distally crooked like a turntable needle, and combed it through her hair. She arranged herself in the cheval mirror across the room, then flinched, as though shameful of her obvious breach. Observation was betrayal. Worse was its echo, how every moment she atoned for the broken rule was another spent floundering farther outside of herself. Ely sought refuge from her mute neuroticism in the white glow of his phone screen, anachronous next to her faux kerosene camp lantern. The truth was that both of them were elsewhere and had been all night—she suspended some five to ten feet above the bed in her usual psychic rigging, he miles east, across town in a Tudor craftsman, sprawled beside a girl with whom Vera shared some 12.5 percent of her DNA, give or take a few standard deviations.

First cousins—the best they could do.


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"Could've done better if we'd waited." Ely leaned forward in the vinyl booth to trawl his French fry through a pat of ketchup.

"It was never gonna be perfect. We could've waited till we were a hundred," Jake said from across the table. He was Ely's double down to the last detail, the same light brown eyes and light brown hair, decidedly unremarkable save for their duality. Even the waitress had perked up when they walked in (which, for someone who worked the Denny's graveyard shift, said a lot). People just didn't order doubles at the rate nature used to sling 'em.

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