Fiction

Colonial Conditions

Brandon Taylor
Graphic with a window with an orange glow, cigarettes, and wine bottles
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

The election was on tuesday, but first, the Halloween bonfire.

When Carson and Roma arrived, Roma discreetly removed her mask and said that she had to find the host, who had spent most of the late summer and fall cycling across the Mountain West. Carson knew this because the host had documented the trip with a string of photos manipulated to look like Polaroids and posted to social media. He was long-haired and from Rhode Island, and he wrote long, flabby essays about having played football in high school and how his father was kind of a mean drunk.

Stranded as he was by Roma, Carson gave some real thought to leaving. Then he dropped down into a battered chair and squinted through the smoke from the petering fire across the yard at the other guests, who stood breathing into each other’s faces without masks on. These were not his people. One woman wore a red plastic dress with a high slit and a cutout over a silicon breastplate, as well as a long fur coat constructed out of Christmas tinsel. She looked like a drag queen. There was a man in a skinny suit with a skinny tie and platinum hair who looked like an FBI agent or someone from a mid-2000s music video. And then a man in a loosely deconstructed cowboy outfit. Carson felt insecure because he had come in jeans. He wore a flannel under a navy-blue chore coat. It seemed a little ridiculous to be the only one wearing a mask, so he pulled the mask down under his chin. Besides, he tended to assume a kind of honor system even though he had been told that such an assumption betrayed an overreliance on rugged American individualism.

Just then, a man pulled his own chair over the lawn, digging ruts in the grass. He was a sommelier, he said, and he lived in Des Moines. He’d had plans to open a cocktail bar in Iowa City that ended up getting scuttled after the shutdown, so he moved laterally into wine distro.

“Didn’t change my registration though,” he said. “Totally slipped my mind.”

“I see what you mean.” From the way the sommelier sat back on the lawn chair and crossed his legs, Carson sensed that he was a socialist. Carson was not a socialist, but he was interested in having sex, so he nodded along when the sommelier talked about tax code reform and the moral urgency of health care for all.

It wasn’t that Carson didn’t believe in the need for health care and the redistribution of wealth and all those other things. But something in the socialist fervor among people his age made it seem like their politics were just something they had picked up from their friends at a party, something tantamount to attitudes or styles that would go out of fashion as they got older. They would stop caring quite so much. Or else they’d turn into people who were just rounding into early middle age and still went to protests and composted and had slightly more children than they could afford. There was nothing sadder, Carson thought, than being thirty-eight, married, with a kid, and still complaining about the environment on Twitter or at potlucks. But this Carson kept to himself, and when asked if he’d like to try some of a Pét-Nat that the sommelier had been working on getting into broader distribution, Carson said yes.

The cold wine had a deep but tart flavor. He swished it between his teeth and then gulped it back.

“You can really taste the grapes,” he said.

“That’s the beauty of it,” the sommelier said. “Nothing gets between you and the taste. It’s all natural.”

“I’m not much of a wine guy. I don’t know the lexicon. But it’s good. Not too sweet.”

“Yeah, it’s a lighter wine, for sure. Not too acerbic.”

The coolness of the wine and the silvery pop of the bubbles made Carson’s mouth feel slippery and alive.

“It’s great,” Carson said.

The brick firepit had gone dark and emitted a stinging scrim of gray smoke. People coughed discreetly or adjusted their shirts up over their noses and mouths. Someone piled a bunch of wood and soaked it down with lighter fluid. The result was a soggy mess, dangerous too, because to light it again would risk an explosion. A girl had been burned on 40 percent of her body just the previous year in North Alabama when one of her friends had gotten a little too zealous with the lighter fluid.

“I don’t think they know what they’re doing over there,” Carson said.

“They didn’t have Scouts.” “You were a Scout?”

“Dropped out right before Eagle,” the sommelier said. He knocked back the last of what was in his cup and stood. He was tall, but not skinny. He had a solid frame and curly hair. He moved easily, like he could see clearly in the dark. Carson followed him over to the pit and watched him heap more wood onto what was already resting on the gray ashes, then light some newspaper and toss it onto the pile. Carson flinched when the fire flared and hissed. The sommelier grunted and poked at the woodpile with a long stick he’d found.

“That won’t work,” Carson said. “Yeah, it will.”

The sommelier made a show of handing the stick over to Carson, bowing deeply. Carson busted up the pile. The logs were too wet to light. He reached for some of the dry wood stacked near the pit and made a little tripod over the ashes. Then he shaved some splinters from a log with his pocket knife. The bark came free in loose red fibers. While he was arranging the pit, the conversation quieted down. He could feel, with a cool sweat on the back of his neck, the sharpening focus of the others in the yard. He pushed his knife shut against his thigh and, sitting on the brick foundation of the pit, patted his pockets. Like a damn fool, he hadn’t brought his lighter with him. He was trying to slow down on the cigarettes and had, in an act of silly virtue, left his lighter at home.

“Gimme a light,” Carson said. The sommelier’s lighter was a flash of silver in the night, and Carson plucked it neatly from the air. Striking the lighter one hard time as the sommelier watched him, Carson lit the kindling. The fire was small at first. He willed it to grow. And it did, now that it could breathe. When the fire grew enough to catch hold of the wood, he nodded and stood up from the pit. The yard was full of light then. And he could see their faces. These people he did not know.

The sommelier looked on in awe and with a nervous laugh said, “I did say I dropped out.”

“Fair enough,” Carson said. It was not the first time that Carson had been at a party with graduate students and people with elite educations who did not know how to start a fire. When he lived in Wisconsin and dated a writer, his starting a fire had been a little bit of a party trick. Every fall, they had dinner parties and potlucks outdoors. And each time, the guests would look at him and say shit like Oh but you’re so good at it or I bet you’ll have some critique of my technique, insinuating that he thought he was better than they were because if their roles had been reversed, they certainly would have felt that way. It was the worst kind of fake piety, he thought.

“Man, what did you say you did in town?” the sommelier asked. “I work at the deli,” he said. The sommelier squinted at him. “You’re not in the writing program? I’m used to being the only person at these things with a real job.” “I’m here with a friend.”

“Where’d you stash him?’

“She had something she wanted to talk over with the host,” Carson said slowly.

“He’s such a slut. You know that big trip he took this summer?” “I have Instagram,” Carson said.

“Yeah, well, he did it because he got dumped. And he needed catharsis.”

“Getting dumped is rough.”

“When you get dumped because your girl catches you on Grindr and you try to make it all go away by saying it’s for the attention, I have no real sympathy for you.”

Carson whistled, both because of what the sommelier had said and how he’d said it, with increasing pettiness and anger.

“She’s a friend,” the sommelier said. “The one who dumped him.” “And you came to his party? Some show of loyalty.”

“Well—she was supposed to come too.” Carson nodded like it made sense.

“Black vintner.” The sommelier pointed the bottle at Carson, who shook his head.

“Is that the brand?’

“No. I mean, a black guy. He makes the wine.” “Oh. Good for him.”

“It’s not very common. Black vintners. I try to point it out when I’m talking to clients about it.”

“How does he feel about that?’ “About what?”

“You turning his wine into a black wine.”

“There’s no such thing as a black wine,” the sommelier said.

“No, I mean, like, it’s not just wine when you do that. It’s suddenly a black wine.” The sommelier stared at him, and Carson wondered if his meaning was unclear. Or his tone, maybe. He was trying to be funny about the way white people turned race into another one of the things they felt passionately about. Like the way they felt about the tax code or abortion rights or composting. All of it attitudinal, gesture, posture, the right values assembled and deployed at parties in just the right way so that it all hardened and cohered into a liberal argot.

How could it be that people in graduate school still presumed that everyone had a place to go back to? How could you go to graduate school with certain illusions still intact? How was it that people could be so smart, so educated, and still so stupid?

“I don’t get your drift,” the sommelier said coldly, and Carson could only nod.

“Ah, it’s just a joke.”

“Black wine. I don’t even know what that would look like.” “Well, I imagine it’d be black. Wine.”

“Stop saying that,” the sommelier said. “You bet.”

His face had gone red, and Carson watched the light lash his eyelids. He was good-looking with a rounded, boyish nose and full cheeks. He had a slightly full but dimpled chin.

“Yeah, fuck you, pal.” The sommelier tipped his bottle back and sucked more down. Carson thought about how when he was in middle school, everyone used to grab water bottles at random from the side wall of the gym or fieldhouse, sharing drinks. His mom had utterly melted down in the parking lot when she glimpsed him drinking from a friend’s bottle. A few months later, meningitis swept the state, and three kids died. And dozens were laid up for weeks and months. All the fountains in the schools of Alabama were turned off. His mother just said, See what happens when you drank after folks?

“I wasn’t trying to be racial,” the sommelier said. “I was just trying to say something nice.”

“I’m happy for the black vintner.”

“He works really fucking hard. Grows his grapes right fucking here. Out by Waterloo.”

“In the Midwest? Grapes?”

“Hell yeah,” the sommelier said. “It’s a whole new world, my friend. This guy? He’s saving old American varietals. Things we haven’t tasted in a century or more. How incredible is that? And he’s doing it right. Sustainable. Clean. Organic.”

Carson closed his eyes and tried to imagine the grapes and the vines stretching out along a field in rows and rows. He had never been to a vineyard, but he had grown up seeing his grandfather planting out greens and beans, peas and okra. He knew how prickly the undersides of leaves could be, how pods came in with a bristly white fur. He knew about the color of the soil, what it meant when it was dark or pale and sandy. Carson had sliced open watermelon in the field with his grandpa and cousins and had sucked the juice from the tender flesh and chewed the rind. When he closed his eyes and tried to imagine the grapes, what he imagined were his grandfather’s fields, narrow and dark, stretching out behind and at the side of his house, that creaky blue Jim Walter set up on blocks on what had been an old graveyard.

They sometimes stepped on graves and got their legs or tires caught in holes that appeared right beneath their feet. One time, Carson had seen his grandpa go down with the weed eater, and he’d sprinted across the yard to grab him up by the arms. His grandpa had made the sign of the cross and gripped Carson’s hands tight. Get me out, he’d said, Get me out. Carson pulled and his grandpa came loose, but his foot was bent wrong. He wasn’t the same after that. None of them were the same. Because the fields went bad, and the grass grew high, and the cousins did dope, and nobody looked after anything, and then his grandpa died, and the cousins went to jail or else to Texas, North Carolina, or Georgia, and Carson didn’t see them anymore, and they were like a different people. Hardly people at all.

“That must be nice,” Carson said. “What?”

“Having your own place. Growing grapes.” He was thirsty and wanted some of the wine or beer, but he didn’t feel like drinking after the sommelier. So he stood up from the cold ground and heard his knees pop. The sommelier tilted his head back and watched Carson. The firelight was in his eyes. The heat fell on them like cheap wool.

“You heading out?” “Not yet.”

It felt weirdly intimate to say that he was not leaving. Something in his stomach squirmed and beat. The sommelier nodded, and Carson’s throat felt drier still. He didn’t know what else to say so he walked along the side yard and went up the concrete steps into the house. Music played quietly from the living room. There were people standing around the old-fashioned kitchen. It was all seventies chintz and cupboard doors hanging slightly off their hinges. He did not see Roma anywhere. Nor the host. The sink was filled with ice and beers. On the counter, whiskey and gin and vodka. More ice in a metal basin. He considered his options. He could smell the smoke on his clothes. In his hair. The people in the kitchen were murmuring about books, about movies, about things they would do after the election. Someone was going on a trip back to Portland to see their family for the first time since they had transitioned. Or come out and begun to transition. One of the poets, tall, thin in a soft wool peacoat. Carson had seen her around downtown. Her eyes tracked to him across the room and she smiled, fleetingly. And then she took the elbow of the person she was talking to and maneuvered them down the hall.

“I know what my brother will say,” her voice trailed back into the kitchen. Carson scooped some ice into a clear plastic cup and splashed some vodka over it. He pinched a sad, brown lime from a dish on the counter and dropped it into the cup. Through the window, he could see the sommelier putting more wood onto the fire. Squeezing lighter fluid which made the fire rear back and kick high into the air. People on lawn chairs had taken out their phones to take a picture of it. The sommelier stood with a stick high above his head like he had killed something powerful and mighty. He shook the stick and posed and flexed for the pictures the people took, and Carson liked him a little better.

The kitchen door squeaked open, and the host and Roma came into the house. They were laughing, swaying.

“Oh shit, hey,” the host said. He pulled Carson into a hug and clapped him on the back between the shoulders. Carson winced, but then felt his chest swell with warmth and goodness. This, he thought, was what it meant to be a part of mankind. He felt woozy on good feeling, but it was, of course, only the insane rush of touching another person in so casual a way for the first time in months and months. As though they were impervious, invincible. As though the world outside that kitchen weren’t on fire or riddled with disease and risk. But perhaps it was the case that the world was always burning and haunted with calamity and disaster. Perhaps it was one of America’s greater illusions that those who lived in it had ever been safe.

Roma stood by the archway to the kitchen, her hands clasped behind her back, shifting her weight from side to side. She wouldn’t meet Carson’s gaze. The host released him and patted Carson’s cheek with his cold hands.

“I’m glad you could make it buddy.” The host turned to look over his shoulder at Roma, and then patted Carson’s cheek again. “Thanks for bringing this one.”

“Sure. She brought me,” he said.

Roma pushed away from the wall and rolled her eyes. “Stop talking about me like I’m not here.”

The host put his arm around her waist and pulled her up close. They smiled at Carson, though the host’s smile came first, and then Roma’s.

Carson bit the lip of his plastic cup until it flexed in his teeth.

The music in the living room changed from some classic guitar song that Carson could almost place to sad piano which he could not. But the music, though loud, was so full of human feeling that it was hardly fair to call it the same thing as the banal guitar riffs that had given way to it. The piano sounded real. It sounded alive. “Oh brother, what’s that?” the host asked. He went through the archway. Roma squirmed. She was wearing a man’s coat, much too big for her, over the cardigan she’d worn when she and Carson had walked over.

“I did tell you it would be cold,” he said. “Shut up.”

The music went back to classic rock, and Carson felt something in him deflate at the shift.

“Well, we better get going,” the host said. “It’s your house.”

“I meant, upstairs,” he said with a smirk, and Roma’s face darkened.

“Well, have a great time.”

“God,” Roma said. “I’m not being given away on my wedding night.”

“No, bet,” Carson said. He tipped his cup to them. “I wish you great happiness.”

“This is killing my boner,” Roma said.

The host laughed. But then he took Roma’s hand and led her back into the hall and up the stairs. Carson watched them go. He wondered about the poet he knew who had gone down the hall earlier, if she and her friend were still talking about the first trip home.

Sometimes it surprised Carson when people talked about going home for the holidays. He hadn’t been home for a holiday since he left five or six years ago. Time added up that way. By the time he had left, there was hardly any holiday left worth celebrating. They had nothing but each other and their cold trailers and cars in need of gas or oil or repair, scrap they burned in barrels in the back yard so they could sell it for booze, for cigarettes, for dope. The last Thanksgiving he’d spent with his family, sleeping on his parents’ couch, he was twenty-six and kind of hard up. He was thinking about cutting out for North Carolina to give college another try. His grandmother had said she wouldn’t be cooking the big meal. They’d have to fend for themselves. And Carson had woken up to find all the ovens cold and empty. The fridges were humming and so white on the inside it seemed no food had ever touched them. He went across the street to his aunt’s house and saw that she wasn’t cooking either. No one was cooking.

It seemed ridiculous that the two of them could sit at a bonfire in the most prosperous nation the world had ever seen talking over the immortal soul of another person like it was an argument that could be won.

That was the year of the food bank. Of canned beans and meat that had a purple tint to it. He’d drive his grandma’s Blazer out to the small church near the Citgo, and he’d walk down the long gravel driveway to the church kitchen, where he had to stand outside and wait for the old ladies to look up his grandma’s name on the clipboard. Then he’d carry the three or four boxes of stale crackers and expired bread and lukewarm lunch meat up to the truck and drive home with it. He lived on the snack cakes and cookies. The instant coffee. Moldy tangerines. He had a job doing little odd things for his great-uncle’s widow. She paid him in crumpled twenties and tens with rips down the center. Sometimes the money had been taped back together. The money was always warm when she pressed it to his palm.

He had forgotten what it was like to have a family. To have a place to which he could return. When he lived in Madison and dated the writer who was in the graduate program there, her friends sometimes asked him if he had plans for the break. If he was going home. And he always felt bad for reminding them that he wasn’t in school. He had no break. How could it be that people in graduate school still presumed that everyone had a place to go back to? How could you go to graduate school with certain illusions still intact? How was it that people could be so smart, so educated, and still so stupid?

Carson sipped his cold vodka and watched the people in the yard. The sommelier. He listened to the sounds of footsteps overhead, the scrape of a door being pulled open. The firelight shivered. The ice in his cup clinked and shifted, opening up channels and grooves through which the vodka flowed. He squeezed the thin plastic, felt the ice gurgle and slide apart. His palm was tilting from painful to numb. The cold was doing its work.

back in the yard, Carson sat in his chair. The sommelier was still on the ground near the firepit. One of the nonfiction students

pulled a chair up to Carson and asked him for a light. Carson was about to say that he didn’t have his lighter on him when he remembered that he still had the sommelier’s. He snapped it open and lit the end of her cigarette.

Danke,” she said. “Oh, uh, bitte.”

Her eyes were dark green, catlike, and she surveyed him for a few moments while she took a few experimental puffs off the cigarette to see if the light would hold.

“Which program you in?” “None,” he said.

“I know you from somewhere though. I’ve seen you.” “That might be true. I work in the deli.”

She narrowed her eyes, inspecting the fact of it on its face but then let it ride.

“At the Bread Garden.”

“The very one,” Carson said. “I’m in translation.”

“That sounds painful.”

She laughed and leaned back in her chair. Crossed her legs at the ankles. Her trim dark jeans were cuffed primly back over brown wool socks. She had on half boots, all scuffed worn leather. Her jean jacket had a shearling fringe, mottled white and green.

“What’s your name?” she asked. “Carson.”

“Netty.”

“What do you translate?”

She sighed and put her chin on her hand. She flicked some ashes free. “Nothing lately. That’s the problem.”

“Isn’t that what writers always say? That they’re blocked?” “I’m afraid the rumors are true.”

“What would you translate if you weren’t blocked?”

Netty took another drag off the cigarette. She looked out over the yard, the fire in the pit, the sommelier who was stretched out flat on his back. She looked up into the milky purple sky where shards of firelight rose and broke and vanished. She had curly hair tucked under a knit cap, and there was a dark mole on her right cheek. She seemed to be really thinking about what he had asked, and he regretted it because he hadn’t meant to ask something about which he knew nothing and could know nothing. But then she looked back at him and smiled like none of it mattered.

“There’s this poet I love, she’s Algerian. French, but, like, Algerian. Like Camus, you know? YSL? In the seventies, she wrote this series of poems about Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville. Which, like, random. But they’re these gorgeous little poems about political intrigue and making horrible choices like giving up your son to his murderous uncle or the great hope of your family dying on a battlefield. And betting what you have against what you might get, I don’t know. She compares the wars for Algerian independence, that whole colonial mess, to waiting for the war in England to end. It’s a sad series of poems. But that’s what I’d want to translate.”

“Word? Cool.” Carson laughed, but his face was hot. Netty scratched the space above her eyebrow. They had both misjudged something, and instead of drawing them closer, their embarrassment dropped down between them like hard wedge. Carson wanted to say something that would dispel the awkwardness. But he couldn’t think of anything to say. He couldn’t think of anything that would draw them up next to each other, and so the moment dropped painfully into the next and the next until there was a whole straining mass of moments. When he couldn’t stand it anymore, he looked away from her to the sommelier, who had rolled onto his stomach and was looking at his phone. Carson would have given anything to draw him over to them.

“So what makes a normal person come to a party full of writers?” Netty asked.

“I came with a friend,” Carson said, hoping that his relief didn’t show. Whatever was locking up his chest unclenched. He could breathe again. “She’s off somewhere.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, I think she has her sights set on the guy who lives in this house.”

“Really?” Netty asked. She leaned forward conspiratorially. “She a glutton for punishment?”

“I think she’s just young,” Carson said.

“He’s got a real talent for dishing it out,” Netty said.

Carson looked at her closely then. Something in her face, her voice, pricked at him.

“Wait, were you the one who dumped him?”

Netty took a long pull off the cigarette then dropped it to the ground. She let the smoke issue up over their heads.

“That’s kind of a childish formulation.” “You’re the girlfriend.”

“Oh, a million years ago. I haven’t dated men in, like, two years.” “My bad. I thought you were the one who found him on Grindr.” “No, that was my friend. Corrine.”

“Small world.”

“She about hit the roof when she found out I used to mess around with him. But I told her I was basically a different person then. We went to undergrad together.”

“Oh,” Carson said. It was another of those moments in which he felt that he was among people whose whole churning history was beyond his grasp. They were connected to each other by the weird, deep gravity of stars and planets.

“Wait. Is your friend an undergrad?”

“She graduated this summer,” Carson said. “Fuck, no way.”

“Yeah. Why?”

“He was fucking one of his students,” Netty said. She had taken out her pack of cigarettes again and was flipping the cardboard tab open and shut. The fire snapped brutally. Carson felt a little queasy, but then it wasn’t his business. Roma was an adult. She could do what she wanted and with whom. It was none of his concern, and anyway, he had once slept with a professor during one of his not so successful flirtations with a college education. The professor had taught an introductory math class at NC State, the one Carson had to take because he couldn’t afford the AP Exam and had been too late in registering for the placement test. He’d been put into the college algebra class. The professor had a tight, mean mouth and wore her hair in a coppery chignon. She came into the tapas bar where Carson worked that year, and he’d give her free drinks and sometimes he’d ask her about her life. That was how he came to know she’d been a dancer and had grown up in Montana. She didn’t sound like a Westerner. She had a clipped New Jersey voice that seemed totally out of place in North Carolina. One night, she said that it got dark out where she was, in the country on the edge of town, and Carson said that he knew what that was like. He was on his break, sweating through his shirt, and tired. His wrists ached from carrying trays of drinks, and his lower back throbbed. He said he’d grown up in the country, in that deep, eternal dark that came when the sun went down and all there was were the lights from the porch and through the trees, the lights of his uncles and aunts’ trailers. She said it was primordial. And then she put her hand in his shirt pocket and said that if it was all right with him, she’d like to take him home with her. And then a sad little laugh, so pitiful that he thought it would be worse to say no to her. And he went. And then she pulled his shirt up over his head and they fucked in her narrow bed. The next day, in class, she wouldn’t meet his eye. And he didn’t meet hers. Instead, he looked down at the handouts she sent around the room. The quadratic equation and the parabolas. He knew about them already. He’d gotten an A in AP Calc.

“Happens,” Carson said. “People fuck their profs.”

“Yeah, but it is ethically—I mean, it’s fucked up,” Netty said.

Carson hummed. “It seems like that’s a pretty silly idea. People have agency.”

“What about coercion. Power dynamics.”

Carson struck the lighter and held it out. Netty watched the fire for a moment, and then, as if she had only been waiting for the mere suggestion, took out another cigarette and leaned over for Carson to light it.

“People do what they want to do.”

Netty closed her eyes and drew on the cigarette until the fire had a good hold. Then she leaned back and exhaled the wide plume of smoke.

“Men always think it’s fair when they feel good.”

“I can’t say I disagree with that. But I do think if someone doesn’t feel taken advantage of, you can’t make them feel it.”

“It’s not making someone feel something just to tell the truth and show them. You can’t know what you don’t know.”

Carson sighed. It was all getting too theoretical for him.

“She’s my friend,” he said. “I don’t know what happened when or how or where. I don’t know about any of that. All I know is that she seems…” he was almost about to say that she seemed happy with her choices. That she seemed to have made her peace with her decision. But then he saw her in the kitchen again, in his mind. That irresolute look on her face. That tenuous, aching strangeness in her eyes. It seemed dishonest to say that she was happy. Or that her choice had been made of her own free will. It seemed ridiculous that the two of them could sit at a bonfire in the most prosperous nation the world had ever seen talking over the immortal soul of another person like it was an argument that could be won. The very act of their talking over her agency seemed unfair. It seemed silly. It was a reductive process, he thought. The machining down of the complicated turns and edges of a person’s life into a set of values to be parsed. The extraction and presentation of information as a set of finite values that could be manipulated and computed.

“Seems?” Netty prompted, but Carson shook his head. “Anyway, tell me about this Margaret you’re so invested in.” Netty blinked, then, with a slow dawning smile, she said,

“Margaret of Anjou was one of the most powerful women in history.” “I believe that,” he said.

“There’s this one poem in the cycle I want to translate. It’s in the voice of Margaret, at the moment she realizes that all is lost. The battlefield is hazy and there’s this cold mist and no one can see anything, but she feels, like, in her heart of hearts that her son has been slain. And she’s just looking around the field and her veil is heavy, because she’s sweating and bloody, and all she sees is ruin. And it’s a really beautiful lamentation. About the moment when you realize that you’ve bet it all and come out empty-handed.”

“That sounds awful,” Carson said.

“Yeah, but it’s this beautiful, desolate feeling. Like, of total clarity.” Netty’s eyes glowed as she talked, and Carson could feel the thing behind her words. That spongey soft thing that was meaning and truth. “There’s so little clarity in the world.”

“That much I do know.”

“And then the poem kind of comes back to Algeria—the war for independence. Whose independence? The particular, messy intractable colonial condition.”

“That’s a lot of words,” Carson said, laughing. “Whole lot of words.”

Netty flicked ashes at him. But then, growing serious, she said, “How about this then. And I’ll stop talking your ear off about it. Imagine what it’s like to feel owned. And then imagine what it feels like to know that your only recourse is to chew through the hand that’s got you held down.”

“I can imagine.”

“Can you?” Netty asked. “Do you know what it’s like to be owned? Held down?”

There was heat behind Carson’s eyes then. Sometimes the white people to whom he was speaking forgot that he was not white, forgot that he was not like them, and got so deep down into their abstraction of values and their socialist principles that they overlooked the basic fact of it. How else to account for such a stupid question? Carson thought about the farm. His grandfather’s fields. The graves. The empty refrigerators. The moldy tangerines. The watermelon. The empty dark. All the things he knew about but had no way of making legible to these people without it turning into one of their empty, silly ideas like black or working class. Their idiom, because it was an idiom, was devoid of the real substance of what they were trying to draw into relation. All that existed was the facile charm of making connections between things. They were like children playing board games.

“Yeah,” he said. “I think I’ve got some idea of the colonial condition.”

“No offense, and really, I say this as someone who likes you, even if I don’t know you, but, no offense, that’s really naive. And I say that as someone with a little bit of privilege myself, but like, colonialism? There is no greater evil in the history of the world, maybe. And, hey, we live in a First World country? Right? Like, maybe we shouldn’t presume to know what it’s like to be in a colonial relation to a global superpower.”

Carson scanned Netty’s face for irony or deceit or some impish humor, but found only refulgent, glowing earnestness. Which made the condescension worse, because it was coming from a good place. That perpetual good place he heard so much about in moments like this. He wished he still had his vodka if only to have something to do with his hands.

“Maybe you’re right,” he said. “I’m sure you know best.”

“Hey, what do I know, right? But I think, hey, you didn’t have the leader of the free world flying drones into your uncle’s weddings and blowing half your family out of existence.”

“I don’t think it’s really a contest though,” Carson said. “It’s not, like, whose grief boner is bigger.”

“That’s so disrespectful, that is way disrespectful, man,” Netty said. She sat up straight then leaned toward him like she’d changed her mind. “Look, let’s not argue.”

“I’m not arguing,” Carson said. “I’m not arguing at all. I don’t even know how we got into this conversation.”

Sometimes the white people to whom he was speaking forgot that he was not white, forgot that he was not like them, and got so deep down into their abstraction of values and their socialist principles that they overlooked the basic fact of it.

“Look, let’s just both admit that as, like, American capitalist drones,” here she made a little loop with her hand between the two of them, and did a funny voice like they were on Comedy fucking Central, “that we can’t know what it was like for certain people held in subordination in a colonial dialectic.”

“I don’t speak French,” Carson said.

“Okay, funny man. You Dave Chapelle all of the sudden? Don’t be defensive. I’m just trying to dialogue with you.”

“I almost respect you for that joke,” Carson said. Netty didn’t answer. Both of them looked out toward the fire. The sommelier had gotten to his feet and was walking, swaying, toward them.

the sommelier was heavier than Carson imagined he would be. They were about the same height, but the sommelier was thicker around the middle. Carson supported him as they walked along the sidewalk. The sommelier had his arm around Carson’s neck, and every couple of steps, he would belch and say that he’d had a good time.

“Yeah, I can see that,” Carson kept saying.

“You know,” the sommelier said. “You’re all right. You’re an okay dude.”

“Thanks. Glad you think so.”

When they got to Carson’s place, the sommelier tripped on the carpeted outdoor steps and almost cracked his head open on the sidewalk. But Carson caught him just before he fell backward and down. Their first kiss was sour from the wine. The sommelier put his hands down Carson’s pants without undoing them. His fingers were cold.

They fucked on Carson’s small couch. Which took some doing because they were too big to fit on it at the same time. The sommelier couldn’t stay hard because of the drinking and also perhaps because he was unused to men. When he tried to give Carson head, his teeth cut painfully and awkwardly. But he moaned a lot and made his mouth exceedingly slick with saliva. It wasn’t the worst blow job that Carson had ever received. But it was not satisfying. Still, Carson slid out of the sommelier’s mouth and looked down at his flushed face. He looked happy and silly and had a big grin, and it was the grin that made Carson hard. The happy abandon of someone enjoying themselves. He ground their cocks together and managed to get enough friction to get them both off, and then they kissed again. Long, slow, their semen cooling and sticking to both their stomachs. It was almost like affection. Almost like tenderness.

The sommelier wanted to shower, and Carson showed him how the knobs worked. Then he waited in his room. The apartment was cold, drafty. The heat hadn’t been turned on yet. Carson nudged on his space heater and listened to the sound of water striking the tile wall in the bathroom.

The election was on Tuesday. The sommelier came out smelling fresh but cold. He was so pale and white that he seemed to glow in the dim room. He got under Carson’s blanket, and wrapped himself around Carson for warmth.

Carson was aware of how raw and how much like sex he still smelled. But the sommelier didn’t mind. Carson stroked his hair, and the sommelier sighed and said something quiet and low.

It was the middle of the night when Carson woke with the sommelier still on top of him. Carson’s eyes felt dry and stiff. He hadn’t had any water before bed, and he could feel the grainy edge of a hangover coming on. He peeled the sommelier off him and got out of the bed into the cold dark of the room, a little sore from the bad blowjob the sommelier had given him earlier. At the window, he peeked down on to the sidewalk, which was empty except for the cars nestled up against the curb. The garage below the large apartment building across the street had a gaping mouth that permitted cars in and out of itself. Carson let the blinds fall shut again, and looked back at the sommelier, who was curled into the blanket now.

In the shower, Carson stood under the warm spray until his skin felt alive again. The numbness receded into the prick of the water’s heat. He opened his mouth and let some of the chalky shower water in. He swallowed it down and drank more, all of it hot and fizzing as it slid down his throat. It was like the Pét-Nats before, all those bubbles.

Carson watched the sun come up, and the sommelier grunted himself awake. In the morning, Carson made eggs and toast for him. And offered him water, aspirin, coffee. The sommelier took each of these offerings with groggy gratitude, a flannel blanket wrapped around his naked body. It was Sunday, and Carson didn’t have a place to be yet. He thought about calling Roma to see how she was, but decided against it. The sommelier chewed the toast slowly and with great effort. It was endearing. He had ash-blond hair under his arms and around his cock.

It was often the case that Carson didn’t know what to say to the people he woke up with. The morning was different from the night. The whole condition and context of your relationship changed when you woke up and were yourself again and not the version of yourself you were the night before. It was embarrassing having to face other people with the vulnerable, anxious self that had to eat and shit and piss and drink coffee and water. He didn’t remember what he and the sommelier had talked about the night before, not that they’d done much talking. But he had slept with the sommelier pressed to his chest and he felt a real need to look after him. Was this a part of the colonial condition? Could the colonial condition be expressed as the relation between two hungover people who had fucked the night before? Or did the possibility of such a formulation, as blasphemous as it was, preclude its expression? As in, was it so offensive a thought that the very thought of it had to come undone before it could be thought? Was the colonial condition not only an expression of a relationship of power, of subject and master, but also a series of thoughts that could not be thought? Or thoughts that were not your own but were inherited by you from whatever overcultural imagination had conceived of you in the first place? Was the colonial condition an act of suicide? Could he trust his own impulse to look after the sommelier? Would it have been better to kill him, perhaps? Would it have been better to bash his head open and rob him and throw him out the door? What was the solution to the colonial condition if not violence? If not a rebuke? Was he living in a colonial dialectic as the subjected? As the subordinate? Carson watched the sommelier drink the coffee into which too much milk had been poured. He watched the sommelier breathe and shift the blanket against his shoulders.

Was sex an extension of the colonial argument? Or was the colonial condition just the name you gave the discomfort of the morning after. Or the name you gave your need. Your want. Maybe he was heretical for having the thought. Or maybe it explained his life. Maybe it explained him. Maybe his discomfort with himself was simply the colonial condition. Or maybe that’s what white people called it when they felt guilty about something. Maybe every human life was a colony. And everyone you knew was a colonizer. And you took and you took and you took from others and tried to hoard it but were taken from again and again. All of life just one long balance sheet of things taken and things lost.

The sommelier asked if he could play some music. It was almost noon by then, so Carson didn’t see a problem. He took the sommelier’s phone and connected it to the Bluetooth, and handed it back. The sommelier asked for the WiFi code, and Carson, face going warm with embarrassment told him that it was littledog.

“It’s the one it came with,” he said. But the sommelier just nodded and laughed.

Carson waited to hear what music the sommelier would pick. His eyes squinted, his phone quite close to the end of his nose, the sommelier browsed and nudged and stroked the screen, and then, seeming to light on what he was looking for, he said, “Here we go.”

The sommelier flicked ashes into the tray on the kitchen table and then took a long pull. Then waited. They both did, for the music to come on.

Brandon Taylor is the author of the short story collection Filthy Animals and the novel Real Life, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.
Originally published:
September 13, 2021

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