When they first met their names were Maria and Earl. It was 1984, and they each lived in brick townhouses in Hoboken that had a diagonal view of each other if each were to stand on a rooftop. Before this meeting, they knew nothing of each other. Maria didn’t know much about anyone or anything in Hoboken outside of the medical lab where she was a technician.
There were only a few things that Maria believed about herself: that she was good at being alone and she was a good dresser. She wore acid wash jeans, work boots and black t-shirts tucked in, a vest open and loose. She had a solid, handsome face that could have looked hard and rigid if not for the eyes, which peered out warm and hazel beneath wispy lashes. The eyes gave too much away, something of fear and tenderness, a desire to take one person in and hold them there in some humid dark pool for good. For this reason she kept them turned down so that the people who shouldn’t find her vulnerable wouldn’t, and so that the wrong person wouldn’t think those eyes were only for them.
Maria liked this town that had all the physical brick aspects of a city, she preferred this sense of anonymity even if that meant more strangers to fear. She was not a familiar face, and this was still a town with generations of families. There were more looks that implied inquiries—always some version of the same question: what are you?
She hated those three words because when they were said to her—always from someone unnecessary, a cashier at convenience store, a child in the bathroom, a drunk kid feeling brave with his friends—they were never a question but always a statement. Something accusatory. The looks and discomfort followed her home through the door and made themselves comfortable on her couch, or at the card table in her kitchen. At times she felt like nothing but these questions. She stuck to the things she could answer and quantify: the walk from her house to the lab, shifting blood vials into machines, coding results, the quick shuffle home. The lab was a shabby, fluorescently lit space, and the room where she worked was deep in the back. It had a taste of that isolating power that Maria found so liberating—back here she was just a lab technician. The isolation precluded any fear. A respite before she would have to exit the lab and exist again in the outside world where everyone felt called to reveal the inconsistency of Maria to herself.
She didn’t have a name for how she was, but when she did let herself sit and be still she thought of it this way: a see-saw forced to tip on a square rather than a sharp angle. She was close to something on either side, but rather than feeling balanced and centered, the board tipped clumsily and got stuck, tumbled toward the ground. She was six when she first thought this way, after her mother instructed her to pull on a t-shirt, rather than be topless, before running into the front yard. It was an early moment of clarity: Maria was not what her mother thought she was. She looked down at her own flat chest and then looked at her mom. That body seemed big; full of folds of skin and smells she had no interest in. It didn’t seem possible, that her body could become that, and she felt a sudden and powerful heartache—that this was what her body would become.
The body hadn’t quite grown into her mother’s—developed, instead, a lean and muscular build, height, a face shaped from the mold of her father. If someone decided she was a woman she was recognized as a certain kind of woman. One time in Manhattan, late at night, someone stood outside a bar and Maria recognized her as she imagined herself to look: the broad cheekbones, the square jaw, and a dusting of light brown hairs over the upper lip. She was bigger and heavier than Maria and when they made eye contact Maria looked away. The woman grabbed her arm and tried to pull her closer to the bar, but Maria slipped out of her grasp.
“I’m not interested,” Maria said it firmly. The woman laughed.
“What, in lesbians? But you are one.”
She looked at herself in the mirror and told herself, quite matter-of-factly, you’re supposed to like women. She could see that. And if she could look this way, and like women, it would be such a beautiful bonus, such a strong and certain ability to be just one thing. To have only one possibility. To have people see her and know and understand and for Maria to agree with them.
But ever since she was young, she loved to watch the men, how they seemed to take on a variety of physical proportions, vast shades of masculinity. She noticed them sitting on benches with their lovers, exiting and entering the subway. She stared at the hard line of their faces, the length and width of their hands and wanted them to notice her too.
The night Maria met Earl it was June. There was no cooling down her apartment and so she sat on the roof drinking a beer. Her sleeves were rolled, revealing thick, strong muscles around her elbows and she rested both of them against her knees. Earl was one amongst a party of men standing on a nearby rooftop. This was one of the few streets that wasn’t over run by three generations of families; instead a slow trickle of artists and recently this influx of gay men. Maria pulled on the mouth of her beer. She watched them. She liked the way they touched each other. The sky shifted shades from pink to purple. Her pupils struggled. The building’s timed floodlight flipped on behind her, darkening the men across the way, but illuminating her roof, her chair. She heard a whistle in the crowd and she realized that one of them was calling to her. A few others noticed and began calling to her as well.
“Get over here,” one deeper voice shouted. There was laughter and some more hoots. She wondered what they saw. She shook her head, waved them away, smiled. There was no way they could see that smile but still they laughed and whistled on cue. She heard a set of boots on the metal stairs that led to the roof, and when she turned around she saw a tall bearded man emerge. He had a cool masculinity that Maria recognized immediately. He had a t-shirt under his leather jacket, tight black jeans, boots. How badly she wanted it, how what he had was what she desired.
He smiled broadly, and his cheeks pushed up against his eyes, the way she had seen pictures of gnomes.
“Hey,” he said, “I hope this isn’t creepy, I just wanted to say hi.” Maria pressed her lips together, the flesh turning white. How different, she thought, the rules were for men. The man frowned. “Should I leave? I thought you were calling to us. I’m Earl.” She tried to smile. It was work to repress the response of a body that had been taught something about fear, that tensed, ached and shouted: this is creepy, he’ll throw you over the edge of this building. Maria breathed slowly and tried to convince her body otherwise, that she is safe because he sees and expects a man.
“It’s okay, I just was expecting to be alone tonight,” she spoke quietly and with inflection. Her voice gave nothing away.
“You’re young. It’s the weekend. You sure you want to be alone?” Earl asked, moving closer. The flood light switched off, and her eyes worked through the blue fuzziness. Maria wondered what gave that away, there was too little light to distinguish the subtleties between a grown man and a young one. Her eyes struggled. There was very little she could tell about Earl now except that he was coming closer. She decided not to stand. He leaned over her. She could hear his breathing and she laughed, and he laughed and placed his hands against the building’s ledge, to either side of her. For a brief moment, when they kissed, Maria felt a surge of being connected to exactly what she was. She put her hand to the waste band of his pants. He rested one hand on her shoulder. Earl pulled away for a moment and Maria shivered. Now she knew what her body would feel like going over the side, the remorse, the fear, tangled with all she could assert now that she knew who she wanted.
“You should go,” she said, making her voice sound hoarse, lower.
“Oh,” Earl said. “Okay. Sure.” She heard hoots now from the other roof from those who pretended to see something. She thought she could make out the shape of Earl as he walked to the roof’s door.
Maria went to work the next morning aware of the dream of Earl, the taste of liquor, the way sun and heat smelled on skin. She could picture his hands, the knuckles and she could feel the impressions of his hand resting on her shoulder. The more she thought about these elements, and she couldn’t stop thinking about them, the quicker they began to fade. She tensed her face as if she could squeeze out these details. A hand, a smell, the sound of a chair tipping on its back legs, all began to lose the sensation associated with them, like words written in a book and not lived. She gripped the lab’s counter in an attempt to revive what his presence tore open. She paused on the same labels on the same test tubes for hours, the tasks she usually flew through, halting.
She left work early and sat outside her building waiting to see if Earl would be going to that apartment, if maybe he lived here. The more she thought about him, the more she felt connected to him, as if she could direct him to live exactly where she wanted him to, simply from the base of these feelings.
A row of mailboxes sat outside the building and Maria pulled the chain of keys from her hip to open her own. She stood flipping through the mail with her eye focused down the street. She flipped through the three envelopes until they started to tear a bit at the edges. An old woman walked by with an elderly, fat pug. Maria looked down at the panting thing, one eye sealed closed and the other barely open, watering down the front of its little face. It snored and coughed and then, its muscles trembling, collapsed; legs splayed and head tucked. It was there, on the sidewalk, just below the boxes that she saw the pink post-it note pressing into the dirt. The handwriting was assertive, the impressions on the paper firm and dark. Maria ran her hand over it because she knew she was running her hand over Earl.
Go to your roof.
From the roof she could see the sun setting—the beginning of it; the pinks and oranges, the clouds curling in on themselves. Initially she didn’t see Earl, it was when scanning the rooftops that she heard a whistle, then a slight jingle of something—like bells. He was on the adjacent rooftop—he seemed so close. He waved with his whole body, his wide hips swinging with the motion, sending the keys that hung from his belt loop from side to side. He didn’t look the same from last night—a little less put together, a little goofier. He was bigger in real life, a rounder belly that sagged through the restraint of his tucked shirt, the skinny legs that supported this large upper body. All of this was in the same leather jacket from the night before and upon recognizing that, even from across the roof, Maria could smell Earl.
“Hi!” Earl called out. Maria smiled then tried to relax the muscles in her face. The result was a little cock-eyed, a side of the face that drooped. Earl’s eyes followed this.
“I’m glad you saw the note. About an hour ago this crazy man with drool on the front of his shirt came up and I had to talk to him for awhile.”
“I thought you’d have a sweet name like that.”
“No. The super, he’s Donny.”
“I’m glad you’re the one who is here.” The traffic was loud below but it couldn’t touch them.
“I saw a pug collapse, downstairs.”
“The poor thing.” Earl’s voice hopped the building like a coo.
“That’s how I saw the note—from watching it.”
“Thank God for that then. For those fat things and their breathing problems.” They both laughed and Maria touched her own stomach. From across the roof she wanted him. She felt a pull like a magnet. She wondered what he could tell. What it was he knew.
“Boy, what’s your name?” Maria inhaled sharply. She shrugged. Light split from Earl’s eyes and he rubbed at his chin. His mouth straightened into a line.
“If I take you out, will you tell me? Will you come out with me tonight?”
She struggled to keep her eyes looking into Earl’s, to not tilt her head down, to not touch her face.
Earl gave the name of a bar in the city.
“I’ll meet you there,” Maria said.
“You gonna give me your name or what?”
“I’ll see you tonight.” Earl shook his head and lightly touched his heart. There was bright color in his face.
“If you don’t tell me soon you’ll just have to start going by what I call you. And it might not be pretty.”
The bar smelled like beer that had been waiting for too long; a strange flat smell indicating yeast that would never rise—of the inevitable—of poorly chosen evenings. There was no one standing out side when she walked in, and Maria was relieved for that. She sat at the bar with a beer she wasn’t sure if she should drink yet. She had never been in this position. She was always the one strutting in and maintaining control, her level of involvement was as deep as the relationship would get. She figured he was there already, in some dark corner of the bar that she would not walk to. That evening, after putting on her sports bra, she reached for the masking tape, wrapped it around once, then twice , then again and again until her ribs swelled against her skin. She’d done this before but never purposefully likes this, never honestly like this. Even though Earl had seen her twice with breasts unbound, and they were small enough to go undiscovered through a shirt, she didn’t want to give him anything to look for. She was used to the eyes of grocery store clerks who, finding something borderline in her face, scanned her body, chest, hips, and thighs for a confirmation.
She waited for him to come to the bar to order his drink, to find her. It took an hour to drink the beer, the end turning flat and sour and she grimaced after these sips. She looked at the others dancing and talking around the bar. A few guys had approached her and offered to buy a drink but she declined. She had never felt so fully herself and so fully an imposter.
A hand came around her shoulder and rested on the bar’s counter. The muscles of her back came together and she turned with her stool, a foot slipped to the floor. She recognized Earl before she pulled her shoulder back, before her hand was even formed into a fist, but he understood the tension in her body, the angry fear that shimmered for a brief moment in her eyes. He looked into them. Earl’s beard was cleanly trimmed and his shirt was pressed, gleaming. He dropped his hand from the bar.
“I should know better than to do something like that.”
“No, no it’s okay,” Maria said.
“It really isn’t.” Earl rubbed at his chin and then stopped horrified. “God, I’ve been such a creep with you.”
“Climbing up on your roof. Inviting you out even though you wouldn’t give me your name. Approaching you like a fat burglar from behind.”
“Stop.” Maria touched his forearm and she felt how soft it was under the hardened tips of her fingers. She left them there and Earl carefully placed his thick sweaty hand over them. “You aren’t going to want me by the end of tonight. So don’t feel so bad.” She let her voice fall out naturally and she was disturbed by the rhythms of it. Her throat, with these words sounded ready to open up into song. Earl didn’t seem to notice. He sat down and ordered them two more beers. Despite the dark of the club and the growing bodies around them, despite the ones that even touched their shoulders, who recognized Earl, they were very clearly alone. Earl talked about his job renovating and landscaping houses down the shore. He almost had enough saved to buy a few houses in Ocean Grove. He wanted to spend his life flipping them. Living in one and making it perfect, selling them all off for much more than they could have ever cost before.
“Is that okay, morally?” Maria asked. Earl’s laughter implied he heard that question every day.
“Is anything really done morally?” Maria considered this statement briefly.
“It sounds like art.”
“It’s like having the first and last line and then facing the puzzle of coming up with everything that comes in between.” Earl moved closer and let his knuckles play against Maria’s hand. She gripped onto her dripping beer. She felt a leap in her guts that began in her pelvis and shot through to her sternum. She felt nauseous and hungry, she wanted to be touched.
“I have to go. I don’t know what I’m doing here.” Maria stood and Earl rose with her.
“Wait. You aren’t out. I get it, I can deal with that.”
“That’s not it.”
“What then?” Some spit flew out of Earl’s mouth when he said it and she could smell something spicy from his dinner. His eyes were focused, intent—the moment before scorn.
“My name’s Maria.” It took a moment for this to mean anything to Earl. He squinted at her face.
“Do you…do you want to be Maria or are you already Maria?”
“I was born Maria.” Earl scanned her body then, first to the chest, and then to the hips where the slightest curve rose above her jeans.
“Oh.” The two of them looked at each other and Maria longed for the door. To get out of this, outside into the safety of an apartment where no one could see her. “But you—” He found something, and whatever it was that appeared in her face for him seemed to blossom, consuming whatever he had seen previously.
“I liked you. I don’t know what I was thinking.” She walked towards the door. She wondered if Earl was close behind her but thought it best not to look back. She kept moving, into the streets, past the women who now recognized her, who now hooted and called to her. She was revealed. The street was filled with people as if they were celebrating some holiday, as if there was something to see outside. And it seemed perfect, that it was this night, when Maria wanted to slink away in shadows that everyone who wanted to see her could.
“You know, you don’t need to run like this. I’m not going to stop following you.” Earl stepped in front of Maria and their bodies bumped carefully together. She looked at the over arching forehead, the manicured eyebrows, the deep set eyes, dark circles, the small nose, round dry face. This was how he really looked, she was sure. This was how he would look to her now.
“I really wish you wouldn’t be embarrassed.”
“How can I not be? Maria asked. Earl nodded. He looked like he was going over what he was about to say.
“I’m impressed that you told me so soon.”
“I didn’t have a choice.”
Maria’s jaw was held tight and she looked down.
“Could you really not tell?” she asked. Earl took a breath in, as if he were going to say more but didn’t. People pushed through them. Maria looked into Earl’s face and couldn’t quite figure what she saw there.
“I’m going to keep walking home now,” Maria said. Earl didn’t deserve the causticity of it, but there was a wrenching pleasure in it, when the words fell from her mouth.
The night came back with her to the apartment, and joined the other questions on the couch, around the room. The moments swarmed around her, outnumbering who she was. If she had a number maybe she would have called him. She might have gone on her roof if she believed there was a chance he would be there. She pulled off her shirt took scissors to the tape and heaved breath in, unnecessary gulps and her vision darkened briefly at the edges. She recognized the look on his face, pity. It’s an infuriating sentiment, to be pitied. Maria didn’t want to believe that her situation was as pathetic and as impossible as Earl recognized.
She dressed that week as drably as possible. Went to work, spoke little, went home. Ate food until she thought her stomach might burst, went to bed. It was easier to be a machine of basic functioning, a prop on someone else’s set. At the end of the week there was a postcard in her mailbox. An image of the carousel in Asbury Park all lit at night, the horses reared on their hind legs, teeth forever bared. It was the same strong, clear handwriting. There wasn’t very much written, but there didn’t need to be. Couldn’t Maria meet him at the shore? He didn’t know why, but it was what he wanted. Couldn’t they try to forget everything else and start from there?
Suppose you’re Maria, and you take a drive to the beach. The windows rolled down, your hand out and free in the air. In a car, even if it’s rented, a body can be anonymous, a body can be present, and a mind can too. The sun shines down and the car can move quickly past other cars. The music on the radio seems special and selected, and in a car, the car itself could be Maria, not the body that drove it. Her presence was the brain for what propelled her forward.
It felt good to leave the apartment behind, to park the car and climb the steps to the boardwalk, see families and seagulls, fries, and the crash of water. She didn’t have a bathing suit to wear, but she walked to the water anyhow, dipped her feet. It was icy and she didn’t mind. It was nice to be reminded that the feet were hers, the most anonymous part of the body.
She heard Earl before she saw him, the whistle—the breathy, spitty sound of the notes between his lips, the spin of the keys.
“Hi.” The greeting vibrated from his lips and Maria wanted to hear it rumble on forever. They didn’t touch, but it felt necessary that their bodies should soon. They ate dinner on the boardwalk, fried clams and beer. The two were shy, Earl wiped his fingers after each time he picked up a clam, and Maria covered her mouth as she chewed. She felt generally at ease, sitting across from him, and it could have been that it was summer, it could have been that in this part of Jersey, people let other people be, but it seemed to Maria that she was suddenly, blissfully, anonymous. That next to Earl she was something, that people seemed to make a decision and move on. Earl was definite enough for the both of them.
Afterwards they walked the boardwalk into Asbury. Their conversations were polite and simple. Occasionally Earl’s body swayed closer to Maria’s, and they each would move a step away before coming back towards each other again, a gentle and curving dance. There was little to talk about with these unclaimed bodies between them. Asbury Park gave way to Ocean Grove—the houses here were from some other time, Victorians in pastels.“Would you like to see the house I’m working on?” “I would.” They turned down a side street, only two blocks from the ocean. He pointed to a yellow house. The porch looked ready to rot through but there were paint tarps and a few steps lay with fresh wood and new beams to cross to get to the door. Despite the evidence of the work, there was something about it, looking the way it did, it already felt like someone’s home.
Inside it smelled like new paint and their feet on the floor made a loud, cracking sound that filled the house.
“Most of it’s still empty, except the bedroom. I’ve been sleeping here.” Maria looked around—the molding was freshly up but finely so. The wood had a deep shine. She closed her eyes, heard the rushing and hum of the beach.“You can hear the waves here, you must sleep so well.” Earl touched her shoulder and Maria put a hand to Earl’s chest. They stumbled over themselves and each other as they pushed towards the back of the house. They found a wall and rested. Their thighs pressed together and they groaned. Their lips met roughly and felt only the sharp burn of friction, teeth and tongues.
Somehow their bodies didn’t tear that little house down though they slammed against the newly painted walls hard enough. Maria’s nostrils flared open and took in the sharp sour smell of the paint and Earl’s own scent—a little sweet like over ripe fruit, a little heavy like mower fuel. They each put a hand on the other’s buckle and paused. Neither were sure which way to go, what happened next. Maria didn’t want him to touch this body the way it was. She lifted his shirt and pressed her mouth to his shoulder. He touched her shoulder, his hand full with it and she imagined clearly that it was his own shoulder that he gripped. The chest he touched like his own. The thighs, the ass. Maria moved hands across Earl and he responded, the body he touched becoming his own.
“I’m gay,” Earl said, afterwards. “I’m not even attracted to you because you’re a woman. I don’t look at you and think of that.” Maria rolled closer to Earl, into his chest, and his hands went around Maria’s back.
“You have such a strong beautiful back,” Earl said.
“This is crazy.”
“How do you get it so strong?” Maria’s body jerked as if falling. There was drool on Maria’s lips and Earl wiped it with his fingers.
“Born that way.”
“I’ll bet.” Earl pressed his nose to Maria’s. He pulled away, his eyes wide and urgent.
“Maria,” he said.
“Don’t call me that. I don’t like the sound of it, when you say it.”
“How does it sound?”
“Phony, like someone else’s. I liked it better when I was nameless.”
“If you could change it, what do you think you’d change it to?”
“There were these guys in my neighborhood,” Maria said. “They used to just hammer boards on top of each other. We were little, maybe ten or eleven. They all had their dad’s hammers and would swing them against these nails and one board would be nailed to another and to another. Sometimes we just swung and tried to hit nails, tried to get them in on one shot. I took my dad’s hammer and just went out there with them. For years. When we were fourteen we all built a tree house together. I want to be named that.”
Maria rolled away and Earl slid an arm under her neck. His hand stretched out toward the edge of the bed and Maria placed her hand in his.
“I don’t know.” Maria laughed knowing the sound of it was beautiful to Earl. “One boy told me that I smelled like a girl now. He said, ’it’s time’ as if he were going to help me into some next stage.” Earl’s lips grazed Maria’s shoulder.
“A builder’s name,” Earl said. “An either or name, I’d think for you.” Maria grunted in response and sleep returned heavy to the body Earl held. He touched the space between Maria’s eyebrows, as if the name appeared there and he just had to pick it.
“Mason” Earl said. Maria’s eyes opened. Air filled the lungs.
“Mason, Mason,” he said and then kissed Mason’s nose, his lips. Mason felt drunk in this kissing. With his eyes closed he could detect the ridges and colors of their mouths together, something purple and hollow. Everything outside sounded like part of this, the crash of the waves, even the sirens too sounded like cheers, like swirls of color transformed into noise.