“Hannah’s engaged, did you know?” Valerie asked Devon, as they converted the couch to a bed. “No,” he replied, attempting to nestle a pillow in its case with repeated tugs. “She was probably going to tell you during this visit. I’m sorry,” Valerie shook her head and sighed. “No,” Devon gave the pillowcase a good yank, “it’s better for me to be prepared.”
They discussed the particulars. How long had Hannah and her partner been dating? How long had they lived together? Devon didn’t know the answers to these questions, hadn’t asked these questions, had only exchanged texts with Hannah occasionally. His nomination as board member of the church, the crisis that erupted only weeks later and rolled into the next year, had kept his attention localized. The crisis, of course, was about gay marriage, and now it was moving from hypothetical to practical, from there to here, a toggling of the mind; for a moment Devon’s whole system became humid, thick, almost panicky. After he and Valerie said goodnight, he sat on the bed, wondering why Hannah hadn’t told him, wondering how she would tell him.
The weather that night was marvelous, early spring in the south, but the more persuasive reason for taking a walk was Robert DeLong’s album In the Cards, which Devon had downloaded recently. The guilt of feasting on music was justified by accompanying it with exercise. Devon put on headphones and started out. The music seemed inspired by the night, cloudless, windy. “Don’t wait up for me,” Robert sang. “I’ve got a restless mind.”
Valerie’s subdivision was rather Escherian in its design – circular, incestuous, repetitive. Even though Devon had been visiting for years, he still tended to lose the way. Passing someone’s back porch, there was movement in his periphery. He turned to look and almost gasped. The blackest shadowman crouched towards him. A demon from Ghost? A hit man assigned to him? It was a covered grill.
Still looking at the shadowman, and pulling out his phone from a front pocket, Devon searched “gay” on Twitter. The usual combination of his people and their porn appeared, and, slowly at first, for every user that provided the latter, he blocked. It was obsessive, it was satisfying, like cracking knuckles. He blocked and walked and blocked and walked and felt increasingly safe, strong, grounded, like the boy in that Gaiman novel who is instructed to remain in the center of the fairy ring, no matter what is said, no matter who says it, no matter how convincing they may appear or sound; the attempts are relentless and legion and the boy begins reciting poetry from Alice in Wonderland to distract himself.
About a half a block from an intersection, Devon saw a black car with tinted windows stop, although there wasn’t a stop sign. As he drew closer, the passenger window went down. Just keep your headphones on and keep walking, Devon instructed himself, but 20 feet away, he couldn’t resist, casually removing and resting them around his neck, like jewelry. He heard a few words – the end of a sentence – an interrogative sentence? Then the car drove away.
“Thank you for not drawing a line,” Hannah said the next day, but not to Devon; she was recounting her mother’s reply to the engagement. Actually, Hannah explained it all in a letter, which she gave to her mother, adding, “read it in front of me.” The letter was not the expected ultimatum – affirm this commitment or I will not associate with you – which her mother appreciated: “I just want you in my life.”
Devon felt the same but didn’t say it. He didn’t need to say anything. Hannah was saying anything, and everything – about the trip to Civil War sites, how her partner was so anxious that their accommodations would be in small homophobic towns, the painstakingly romantic proposal, how Hannah got her period the first day – and Devon was just overwhelmed, wonderfully overwhelmed, to be a witness.
Could he be a witness later, too? That was not a question for now. Not for himself or Hannah. Now they walked the city, smoking Marlboros, he a regular visitor, she a resident. At his car, they glanced about for the right background for a picture and settled on a stone wall; leaning against it, they held the phone far back, both trying to fit in the frame.