Mine and the Other

By Robert Frankel

When at first he saw the photograph again, his senses tingled with cascading memories, not all of which could have possibly been true: the dance of morning sunlight on a wet terrace, ice cream on a bench outside a flaking abbey, the smell of roasted hops through open windows after a hot shower, cold coffee on a gray square with a blanket across their laps, the malted-lemon taste of semen cupped in foreskin, a thick Dutch stew the color of mud and roots. The name was still warm when it touched his lips and tongue, even after so long. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw the photograph. He hid it as it had been hidden before: buried beneath gigabytes of data and years of frantic backups housed in folders-within-folders-within-folders. He showed no one.

With the photograph resurfaced, he would return to it when he thought he was alone, sometimes simply to admire the shot—which he had no recollection of taking but could only have been taken by him—but usually to escape into it. In fact, I had glimpsed it once but thought nothing of it. It only began to intrigue me after I found him some other day absorbed by the curve of the outlook, the faceless figure, the gleam of sun on lazy mist. I felt a rolling ache within me fill some void long untouched. I said nothing.

The photograph would not leave my mind. There seemed a disconnect between what he saw and what I saw. I felt I had not viewed it correctly, as if it were some work of modern art that revealed or hid itself at varying angles. I knew I couldn’t ask him to show me; after all, he had kept the photograph’s existence from me already, and I had long since explored every inch of his body. I determined to find it for myself. When he was gone one day, I did.

The photograph was of a man overlooking a city. He stood upon a viewing platform with his back toward the camera, gazing at European buildings poking through a half-turned blanket of fog, the sun blotted with clouds, two birds in flight at what must have been a dizzying height. The man was not mine; that I knew immediately. I sensed the rolling ache again, more pronounced. It was some sort of hunger, some dim memory of need. The man seemed oblivious to the camera behind him. It was a good photograph. I couldn’t imagine why it had been kept hidden from me. I made a copy for myself.

I decided to ask him about the photograph when next I caught him looking at it. But that took some time, and, meanwhile, I spent much of the interim studying the photograph. Away from it, I felt a sweaty thrill of uncovering this secret, his secret. But whenever I returned to the photograph, I felt again that rolling oddity, now almost a churning wave, of desire. The photograph had a purple tint, I came to notice, due to some fault with the lens. Purple haloes bruised the edges of the man’s glasses (the man wore glasses) and the clouds where the sun shone through, as if inflamed or infected. The hanging mist, the airborne birds, the man frozen at the edge, alone but for his photographer, filled me with melancholy. I could hardly think of one question to ask before another followed. Was the man family, a friend, a stranger? (I could not believe the man was just a stranger.) When was the photograph taken? Why were they not photographed together? Had they seen each other again? If they were lovers, I wanted to know what the man smelled like, felt like, tasted like; what had happened, where they’d gone, what they’d done. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to know why it was all so sad.

Finally, I awoke alone and chilly one night and followed a shadow of light down the hall. I found him naked at his workstation, his skin sheening with the tones of the photograph stretched across the monitor, the knobs of his spine protruding fist-like as he leaned into the depths of the image.

I measured and weighed the question twice before I asked: “What’s that?”

He flinched. “I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said. He darkened his monitor.

I approached him and found myself surprised by the distance between us, as if the room had expanded but we had maintained our approximate locations. I molded my hands to the shape of his shoulders and brought him into my body. His skin was so warm. Feeling him, and seeing the place where the photograph had just existed, and seeing the photograph itself just before, sent the rolling ache crashing through my body. I wanted to kiss him, fuck him—no, no; not just him, to kiss and fuck anyone, to subdue a body and then offer my own without condition, to merge into another and remain there for hours, growing smaller and vanishing between heat and breath and half-sleep. I felt his chest stiffen and knew his eyes were closed from their tight twitch against my belly.

I asked again: “What is it?” I said, “You can tell me.”

He stood with my hands still on his shoulders.

“A friend,” he said. “We were intimate for a while.” He met my eyes.

I said, “I’m not jealous.”

He took my hands from his shoulders and held them in his, then placed them by my side and returned to the bedroom. I wondered if I had answered incorrectly.

I thought of the two men—mine and the other—in a bed or on a couch, naked and sweating; walking down an avenue lined with trees, each parsing the other’s words for clues to his existence; sharing meals in kitchens of different sizes and colors. I imagined their youthful eagerness, when bodies all seemed so much stranger, and each person a whole different life to touch. But when I reviewed the photograph the next day, I instead found restraint, a sense of guardedness lurking beneath a layer of ease. The man on the ledge stood, one leg stiff with weight and the other loose, his hands either in his pockets or clasped in front of him—from the bent angle of his arms I knew it was one of these two. His gaze at the yawning city below was not relaxed, but pensive. He seemed struck by the view, or perhaps caught by it, and at a loss. He did not know someone was taking a picture. I doubt he knows it exists even now. I saw the picture as it was taken: two men on a rainy morning, alone. They find an outlook. One drinks in the view. The other stands back and snaps a photograph—the only photograph he will ever have of this man, the only reminder he will ever have of their time together.

It was raining when I asked if they’d seen each other since.

He said nothing. He stared at his reflection in his coffee.

I asked how long it had been.

His reflection shivered. He said, “This was from when I was living in Germany.”

“What was his name?” I asked.

He searched my face, and I searched his. He rose and poured his coffee into the sink.

“Dries,” he said. “It’s Flemish.”

Dries. Dries. Dries. Like Dreese, but with a curled velvet “r” I cannot approximate. I saw Dries more clearly, now. There was a coyness to the photograph, but I was insistent. Though Dries stood just outside the sun’s rays, I could see the glint of hair the color of old gold, and curly, not straight like I’d first thought. I could see the color in sharp specks trailing down his cheek, following the arc of his lips and chin.

Now, at night, I could feel the coarse texture of Dries’s body when I touched my own man’s smooth one: golden-brown hairs spreading winglike across his chest, that narrowed and crept down his belly, darkening and stiffening on the approach to his groin, matted and rugged where his sex relaxed warm and whole across my palm. When I felt his forehead as he slept, I imagined Dries doing the same to him, and then to me, a calloused hand with golden hair like frayed wire at the wrist caressing the nape of my neck. I relished the warmth I shared with him because it was the same warmth he had shared with Dries; and I imagined that now I was Dries, sharing my warmth with him, and that, as we lay together naked, we spoke as they spoke, new and uncertain of ourselves and each other and all the things between us.

I could see in the photograph the yearning of the photographer from the distance separating Dries and the camera. The framing: of Dries in the left third, and a whole receding city before him. A few scattered beams of sun doing little to brighten the darkness of the day. How much he had struggled in that distance from Dries, unable to be near Dries, or to feel and smell Dries, or to vanish with Dries into the fog. I saw his face when Dries’s green eyes, surprising and vivid, met his, and I saw those eyes rise elsewhere from their own sleepy haze and fall back again into a shallow bed. I saw him and Dries walking through a park at midday in Monschau and biking through green hills with grass that waved in the wind like ocean tides in 's-Hertogenbosch. I saw them in an art gallery in Maastricht—in a room filled with canvases of bold lines and drizzling colors—and saw him slip his hand into Dries’s for a miracle of a fraction of a second. I saw them separate once on a purpling evening. When they hugged, Dries kissed my forehead and not his.

“What are you doing?” he asked me.

I said I only wanted to know more about his time with Dries.

He swallowed something down and said, “We can’t talk about this anymore.”

I crossed my arms. “Why not,” I said.

His breathing quickened. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. He gasped for air. He said, “When I think about Dries, I see you where he is, or you where I’m supposed to be. Like it’s a movie. Like it’s not mine anymore.”

I brought my arms to his waist. I said, “I love knowing you, though.”

He threw me off. He said, “Stop it, stop it!”

The photograph had been taken the fourth time they’d met. Neither he nor Dries intended to begin anything serious; after all, he would have to return Stateside eventually, and Dries was committed to remaining in Ghent. Still, he thought many times of asking Dries to return with him. I began to see that nascent tension in the photograph. Dries may have faced away from the camera, but his head had turned slightly to the right—to gaze across the city, yes, but also to look for the friend who ought to be at his side. I saw the scene anew before the photograph was taken: mid-morning, cool, with a sharp, toothy wind; the night’s rain texturing the cracks and splinters of the sidewalk. I saw the scene as we raised the camera, some distance behind Dries, and secretive with our lens, for Dries hated, truly hated, to be photographed, and we knew this; through the viewfinder, we adjusted the F-stop and the shutter speed, because the image was backlit and we’d need to be careful with the exposure; and we waited for the right moment when Dries would turn, just a little, to the right, to face the city, and we could have an outline of his handsome, narrow face—though we would not always have those eyes, or his observatory’s worth of freckles, or the bliss of his accented English, or the weight of his head on our tummy, or the mossy scent of his armpit in the morning, this much we could have, would keep for the stinging-sweet rush of memories. And that is when I took the photograph.

Dries showed me how to make hutspot one day so cold we still wore layers of heavy clothes inside, and we passed orange-and-white plates between ourselves while huddling at the table. We once spent an entire frigid afternoon following the Rhein so that in the howling dusk we were forced to take a cab back to the car. We crept through streets silent with sunset and snow in Aachen. But our nights were always warm, and I learned from Dries on these points: the tingle of breath beneath my chin, the skin against my tongue from the perineum up up up to Dries’s mouth, and the use of fresh seed for further pleasure.

We walked through Leuven together, down cramped streets and twisting alleys, sharing an umbrella as rainwater poured off the overhangs of restaurants, chairs spilling like marbles along the sidewalk, our bodies tight together.

“How do you know that?” he snapped. “I never told you about Leuven.”

“You must have told someone else,” I said, “and I heard about it from them.”

But I knew he was right: He had never told me about Leuven, or Aachen, or Averbode, or Charleroi, or 's-Hertogenbosch, or Liege, or Maastricht, or Monschau, or even Villers-le-Bouillet. He had never told anyone.

I found him later drunk and sobbing, his lips violet from wine. “You took Dries from me,” he said.

I said, “You shared Dries with me.”

He shook his head. He said, “Dries is not for you.”

“Dries is ours,” I said.

His face tightened. He sat on the floor and closed his eyes.

They walked once through a sunset-stained park that smelled of woodsmoke and stew. They didn’t say a word the entire time. It was then he saw Dries once more as in the photograph, facing away and at a distance. This time, Dries looked out upon a shimmering tapestry of gold and orange and red, autumnal petals drifting in the wind. They held hands and walked paths that always returned them to where they started, their shadows lengthening with each loop. The air was crisp, and when Dries turned to look at him they both knew they would never see each other again—that they would have little of each other beyond their memories. Now those are mine, too.

Often, I’ve considered apologizing for my greed: Dries was not mine to take. But it wouldn’t change anything. I have another man, now, of whom I am quite fond. We keep nothing from each other. Except, I think about Dries and smile, and, sometimes, when I am certain I’m alone, I return to the photograph. Dries stands there still, gazing into the distance. He has given me so much. And I have given so little.