Holding On by Adam Zmith
We’ve lived in separate boxes in Hackney all this time.
I pull off the mask that conceals my nose and my mouth. I’m among the trees now, looking for you. Are you on the towpath? I check my phone. No messages. You are coming, aren’t you?
I know it’s awkward because the path isn’t wide enough to keep a two-metre distance. A tangle of low hawthorns and London plane trees on one side, murky water on the other. No one comes here except for illicit behaviour. I look down and around, my glances filleting the litter from the dead leaves. A crumpled plastic bottle. A white T-shirt, covered in crumbs of soil. A Sainsbury’s carrier bag, more plastic.
There you are, snapping off your latex gloves, stuffing them in your pocket, rubbing cold sweat together between your fingers, pulling down your mask. Here you are. Smiling, because you always did smile at me before we spoke. We were something once, among the trees, in an alley, in toilet cubicles. When I close my eyes here, now, and I hear the birdsong above me, I can feel the press of your body against mine again.
You slow down, and I can see all of you, you’re still smiling. It’s an expression of bemusement, really, and I can’t help but smile too. It’s like no smile I make when I am at home, alone. I hear a boat chugging along the canal. Are the police patrolling by boat here yet? I am sixty one years old and I never imagined that I’d be evading the police again. Not like this, not for this.
But here we are, among a new disease. This one flies in the air.
I’m nervous and you’re bold. Already your torso is free. The yellow sunlight moves among your chest hairs as it does the twigs and leaves around us. I think I can smell you. Yes. You didn’t shower this morning. I breathe it in. Sweat and skin. Tree bark and soil.
I kneel and pull a silver flask from my bag. You didn’t notice my bag until now. Two small cups, white flashes resting on the brown earth. You flinch as I reposition myself on my haunches. I just want to pour carefully, but perhaps you thought I was breaching the two metres?
Funny this / Yeah it’s a bit weird / Are you working? / Is it really thirty four years? / Are you also living alone through this?
Thick black coffee streams into the cups. I stand back, more than two metres, so you can take yours, but you don’t. I pull off my shirt, dropping it to the ground, wanting to lie on it, in the dirt. I long to lie with you, to touch you. I think I would, finally, once more, if you said so.
My coffee is gone, and your hand is in your jeans, and suddenly you’re out. I can see your dick, right there. I want it. Instead I take out my own and I give myself the same pleasure you’re giving yourself. We are together, apart. Is this a sexual offence these days, or just a breach of the lockdown order?
I remember the feel of your skin, and it looks so tender here among the thick bark and the spiky branches. Soft and delicate skin. I watch you and you watch me. We are safe like this. Only, you look unsure. We are taking a risk, two householdscoming together like this. This isn’t our daily exercise.
When I get home I go straight to my bed. I place the spare pillow in the centre, and I curl myself around it. Soft and delicate. My hands rest, one on top of the other. Before my nap befalls me, it feels like there are four hands in that knot. Together like that, holding on.
The branches were so strong and spiky that I scratched my arms. I pushed through, because I had come this far. Mostly London plane trees, I realised, looking around because I thought the place was empty.
You were already there, waiting for anyone. I could barely walk, my legs were unsteady. You heard someone moving, and you looked up, at me, your eyes firing straight into mine, and I nearly ran. But you tipped your head, and then I couldn’t do anything. This is how we met.
A train screeched by.
I must have been on that trainline a thousand times. Down to Bethnal Green, or all the way to Liverpool Street. I could have seen so many things from the window if I’d looked down into this triangle. Even just a glimpse, for a second.
But I had never looked. I just went there, on the day I met you. One Sunday afternoon in June. The final, stretched weeks of the school year. I was exhausted, but also dreading six summer weeks with nothing to do. I would visit my parents for a week, perhaps my brother and his wife for another. I was so tired of their questions. I used to say I had no time for a family because I was already raising a whole class of kids. They liked that answer.
Our first time, you took my dick into your soft mouth and I could barely stand. I wanted to look this way, and that way, but my head tilted skyward, and then I was holding your head, and I had never ever touched a man’s head before. I realised this at the moment I came. You sucked harder, deeper, and I don’t remember verbalising anything. Later, you told me that I had yelped. You had the grace not to tell me in the moment.
I’ve never seen you here before, you said. I told you I didn’t live in London — and then I showed up at the triangle at the same time the following week. That was when I admitted to you that I lived in Hackney. You told me you’d been coming here since you were seventeen. You gave me the feeling of everything I had been missing, a feeling of rot inside me. We were both twenty seven, so you had already been doing this for ten years.
If I knew then, on the first time we shared the triangle, that your partner had recently passed away, would I still have returned? If I knew not only that he had died, but of what. I thought about that for a long time after we lost touch.
After our first meeting I felt terrible, horrendous, disgusting — the rot, rotting, something subsiding inside. The kids couldn’t read minds, of course, but somehow one of them whispered the word ‘poofter’ near me in class. I threw an exercise book over their heads and it slapped against the back window. It’s the end of term, I said, and everyone is a bit frazzled. The little buggers in the front row glared up at me, their chins collapsing.
We were in Victoria Park when we eventually spoke of the man who had died. Your lover, you called him. We sat on a bench, and I saw you notice the space I left between us. You even rolled your eyes at it, and then you sighed and explained how you’d held him for as long as you could while his spirit lifted away. You knew that after phoning his family, you would never see him again.
I became a different man in those moments with you that summer. We walked or we drank beer or we met in the triangle. We littered the earth with condoms. We never laid together in a bed. Again and again we met. At the triangle next to the railway, finding each other, and others, and dropping to our knees. We were all inside each other, so, so close even with the latex between us. Oh, that summer. How we wanted each other and everyone else who dared to meet.
The more I saw you, the more I sulked about turning up at school in September. The rot festered in my stomach. I no longer wanted to stand in front of a class and pretend to know everything. The more you or others touched me, the more I realised I didn’t know. Really. I knew nothing of anything. If another’s body could change everything about how I felt — his fingertips, or just his breath, hardly anything — then how on earth had I even lived as a person? How could I teach anything?
You lost two more friends in just a few hot weeks.
You said, What’s the point in getting tested? There’s nothing they can do.
We were dodging piles of rubbish along the towpath, but we stopped because I was crying. You placed your hands on the side of my face. You said, We’re all dying anyway. Some are just going faster than others.
After I had a test, and I told you I was negative, we argued. I had wanted to protect the school. Fuck the school, you said, Would they protect you?
Those kids are all I’ve got, I said. I didn’t realise that I had you too. Maybe I could have had you? I didn’t think about that until after the rot had hardened.
That argument about testing was how our thing ended, on a Sunday in September 1986. We never said we wouldn’t see each other again. I just never went back to the triangle. You never phoned me.
I worked, and began rock climbing, and got my minibus licence, and I took the kids on trips. I didn’t know what happened to you. I didn’t even know if you got tested, or found someone. I used to imagine spotting you somewhere in Hackney, but I was always in such a hurry over the years. It was always a new school term, and I always had thirty-one new names to learn.
My breath is fucking hot and I can’t decide which I hate more: these masks or the condoms we used to wear. They were thick in those days, and the smell mixed with everything else made me gag. Now I have to cover my face with a rag that cost ten quid on Etsy.
There he is — the teacher in the triangle, waiting among the trees. I still don’t know the names for these trees, and I can’t remember how it felt to touch him, if I’m honest. It’s been thirty four years; how could I?
I do remember him telling me about the different types of rock in England, and how he explained things like that to the kids.
My boyfriend had just died. Steven. I had washed our bed sheets over and over, a new set every day since he’d come home from hospital. They were always drenched after his night sweats. I cleaned the gunk out of his mouth so he could speak. I slept with him, in his shit. And I washed again. When he died, I didn’t know it. I woke up and he was gone, and all I had wanted to do was get the hell out of that stinking flat. I wanted to run up to Parliament Hill and scream. I was so young, but I didn’t have the energy.
So I came here, to the triangle, and found this guy. Here he is again, pouring a bloody coffee for me. How bizarre. It’s only an hour since we met, again, on an app this time. We’d been sitting on our sofas tapping away at our little glass screens. What a world.
How would he feel if he knew more about the first time we met? I had simply needed another’s living body. His pulse. Yes, I remember that now. The pulse in his thighs as I gripped them, even through his jeans. He’s still wearing jeans.
I don’t want to take the coffee. I won’t.
In his profile on the app he’s a faceless sunset. Discreet, it says. What a waste, I think. Waste of my time, of everything. I don’t usually respond to those profiles. I’m sixty one and I’ve got better things to do. But his first text to me was, Sorry, but did you used to live here in the 80s?
So I chatted, and then I came down here. I can’t believe it. He’s looking at me as if we were married for fifty years and then he had to live another fifty years without me. His eyes are blinking in the daylight as he moves closer, nearly breaking the two metres. I’ll use that garish lime-green bottle as a marker. I recognise, and like, the branding design — it still pops out even when it’s just rubbish on the floor.
This guy is sipping his coffee and watching me. His bafflement turns me on. I pull out my dick and start to wank. Now he’s doing it too, and I like his dick. I’m afraid of this whole thing, so it’s quite the thrill. Good to feel my curiosity kick in again. But I’m deeply aware of my heart. I’m afraid that someone will see us among the trees, and snitch. Can the police stop us? I don’t know how many new powers they’ve been given. And I’m afraid of a fucking virus, of course. Again.
I remember seeing a poster advert for the Tube years ago with an illustration of people standing in a row. It was designed to show how many different types use the Tube. Sometimes, I line up all my friends and lovers and exes like that, just as an exercise. It’s all in my head. I delete the ones who died of AIDS. That’s nine. Then I remove all the others who I’ve shared hugs and kisses and fucks or just moments with. One by one.
I started doing that as a way of being thankful, and to give me hope about who I would see again after lockdown if I can just hold on. But now I’ve left home to see this guy I fucked thirty four years ago. I’m standing with my dick in my hand in the triangle again, and something tells me that he doesn’t have many people in his line.
That kills me. I imagine all those hugs and fucks he’s missed over the years. He’s probably still scared of AIDS. Even if you don’t get it, it’ll kill you anyway, I told him that on a walk in Vicky Park. He flinched when I moved to touch him. Maybe he could smell death on me, or just the puke or the shit, and he was too scared to be close to me. I met so many others with the same fear, as the years came one after the other like trains.
How do I tell this teacher about the first few things I want to do after lockdown? Fuck one friend, hug another, and cook with one more…
If I want to make sure I can do that, I really shouldn’t leave home at all. My immune system is already compromised. If he leans towards me now I’ll back away and not care if I offend him. I’m not going to take that risk. I will not let this fucking stupid virus get me before I can see everyone in my line again.
Has he tortured himself for thirty four years? I can’t tell, but his eyes look tired. We’re not even very old. I still want to work for another ten years. I’m on my fourth career and I’ve got stuff to do. I bet he stayed a teacher. I bet he married.
He asks me if I settled down — now we’re done or, rather, after I’ve given up and packed my dick away. I don’t know what he means, so I shrug. I tell him I’ve shared different parts of my life with different people, and he looks at me like he doesn’t understand.
We leave it there. I’m walking home, mask hoisted, breathing my own warm air. I’m passing face after face in front rooms behind glass, and I have to stop. The line of my people has reappeared in my mind, and I’ve lost my breath.
Adam Zmith is a writer of short stories, a novel in progress, and a forthcoming collection of essays. He is also one of the producers of The Log Books podcast about queer history.