Garth floats to the communal pool’s milky surface and frisbees his pink diving ring back to me.
Every afternoon Garth sits me on the diving board and calls me coach while he does exercise his physical therapist prescribed. I wear the rings over my sleeves and pretend they’re my mom’s jangly bracelets. They must’ve been rainbow-colored before I knew Garth, but now the rings are faded to powdery Easter pastels. Everything here is fading away. Calcium streaks the tiled pool sides, blurring the feet markers so bad I can make out only one and five (my age) on the right side and three and five (Garth’s) on the left. That’s only been true since Garth’s birthday last month, and after my birthday tomorrow, it won’t be true anymore.
When I pointed this out to Garth, he said it was a sign we met at the right time. “You’re my little gift from God,” he said. “You’re his apology for everything else.”
What was Garth’s everything else? A crash, I know, but before that he won’t say. Garth only answers questions if he asks them himself.
“Party time?” Garth shouts, breathy and gurgly from the water. He planned a birthday for me to feel good about himself, which is why we’ve worked as long as we have: I only have to be what makes Garth feel good, which is easier than worrying about how I feel.
I shake my head and throw another ring. He sucks in air and dives back down. I want the diving game to end, but I don’t want him to see when I reach into my jeans to scratch where moisture makes me tickle. I love when he’s down there, love imagining myself invisible to his goggled eyes: a little darkness blocking the light, not a boy, not a me at all.
“Nice butt print,” Garth says five rings later. I’m standing by the gate while he towels off. He goes over to the board and traces my damp imprints with his finger. The sun can’t evaporate me fast enough.
No neighbors use the pool but Garth, maybe because Garth uses it, or because of the sign on the gate that says UNSWIMMABLE. All the neighbors are pale but Garth. All the neighbors protect their skin. They stay in their duplexes and watch through shaded windows when we walk home from the pool. Once, I said the neighborhood was sad, and Garth corrected me.
“It’s modern,” he said. “Brutalist, to be specific.”
But inside Garth’s apartment is sad in a different way. What light gets in through his potato-sack curtains stains the room. Oils from the backs of his legs and neck darken his white couch cushions. The TV doesn’t work, and above it, Garth has a shelf of flea market trash: shirtless G.I. Joe dolls with missing arms, a framed drawing of a muscular man nude except his police hat, and three gross old milk cartons Garth calls vintage, the kind with pictures of missing kids on the side. I thought Garth was a creep at first, but he’s just like all the gay guys I’ve seen on TV: obsessed with himself, always talking, not that smart.
“I love the sun on my skin,” he says in the living room. “I even like a burn. A burn is the body reminding you of parts you forgot you had. Check me.”
I get close to his skin to look for redness while he squirts balm onto his hand.
When I saw Garth’s ad on the library bulletin board—YOUNG MAN CRASH SURVIVOR NEED LIVE IN HELP—no one had torn any of the strips he slit and scribbled his phone number on, so I took them all. My first night, I hid them in my pockets and under my shoe soles, so if Garth killed me and hid my body, there’d be evidence. Sometimes I forget they’re there, and when I find one in my pocket, I’ll mistake it for an old Chinese food fortune. I’ll pull it out, read Garth’s number, and for a second think it’s lucky. Maybe it is.
Sunscreen and sweat streak down Garth’s back. I look but don’t touch— Garth’s rule. He doesn’t like the feel of skin on his skin. He’s not a bad guy. I point and he balms himself.
“A little red under your armpit,” I tell him. “And at the top of your suit.”
It’s awful to see him slathering up, like a carrot cake frosting itself, but it’s true the creams have kept his body nice. No scaley splotchy parts, just a smooth, deep orange. His skin looks younger than mine. The way I’m going, I don’t have much longer until I look like my mom, with every day I’ve ever lived visible somewhere on me—a mole, a scar, a sunspot from my Garth month.
“What would I do without you?” he asks. “I’d be cancerous and wrinkled. I’d look, God forbid, my age. Speaking of—makeover time? Sixteen is the age I wish I started my creams. I didn’t know about wrinkles then. I didn’t know about sun. I’ll get my tubes.”
Garth has never shared his peels and creams, but my birthday has him on edge. He’s worried about losing me, which isn’t ridiculous. When I turn sixteen, I’ll have my pick of fast-food jobs. I’ll get my own place in another town, forget him.
Garth disappears into the bathroom and I’m alone. The apartment is small, and Garth sleeps with his door open, so I’m only ever by myself in the sound of his liquidy slosh coming from the bathroom when he bathes or shits. Garth is addicted to laxatives.
“I do not like there to be anything inside myself,” Garth has said. “Think of it. The body wasn’t meant for it. If you swim full—sick. If you run full—sick. We have holes because evolution wants us empty.”
When Garth is in the bathroom, I touch his things because I don’t have things of my own. Today I take his vintage milk cartons down from the shelf, and I read about the unfound children.
I thought there might be little stories, but there’s just a name, some numbers. I subtract the date of birth from the date missing listed on the first carton, and when I take down the second, I try to imagine if that kid would be friends with the first. It’s hard to imagine them. Four foot three, four foot four. Even I’m not that small, and to quote my mom, who didn’t mean it meanly, I “hit puberty like a pussy.” It’s hard to imagine when I would’ve been so small, when I was ten, eleven maybe? Those years are a blur to think about. I might not have minded being kidnapped then, taken away from myself, strained out.
I put those two back and look at the third carton. The kid looks like any kid, but I recognize the birthday, March 17th, as Garth’s. I do the math fast, 2014 minus… but it adds up to thirty-seven, not thirty-five, and the name above the boy isn’t Garth, it’s Glenn. I put the carton back when I hear the toilet flush.
“You should take your shirt off,” Garth says to me, cradling his tubes in his arms like a baby. “The creams stain fabric. It’s how you know they work.”
“It’s an old shirt. I don’t care if it stains.”
“Suit yourself. Take a seat.”
I realize I left the kid on the milk carton facing outward, so when Garth sits on the stool across from me on the couch, Glenn is hovering behind him, looking down at us both.
“Are you excited for your birthday?” he asks.
“I used to hate them,” he answers. “I’d think another year closer to death, but then I read that parts of us die every day. Here, look at this tube. Rejuvenating. Do you like science? I used to hate it. I love it now. Science plus God. That’s the secret. Every certain number of years, you know, the cells they die and get reborn. Rejuvenated. You know that? Well, with this cream it’s overnight. Death and birth, death and birth. Science plus God. Hold out your hand.”
He squirts some cream into my palm. I can’t tell if I’m imagining the burn.
“As you age the skin holds toxins in it. And the toxins have a psychical effect. We only talk about wrinkles. It’s beyond wrinkles. You’ve heard of memory. Toxins in the skin is the physical manifestation of memory. You know when a memory makes your body hurt? That pain is the toxin in the skin. Memory is not incorporeal.”
Glenn on the shelf is making better eye contact with me than Garth, who stares at his tubes or his fingernails while he talks. I’ve only ever seen Garth talk to kids and dogs. I can’t imagine what an adult would make of him. He’s said that before the crash he was a schoolteacher in another state, I don’t remember which. I can tell it’s true because he talks like he’s teaching a class.
“So you don’t have memories?”
“I didn’t say that.” He squeezes the cream into his palm, more than he gave me. “I have memories. My body doesn’t. The skin you see today won’t be my skin tomorrow. Neither will yours. Come on, spread it. I’ll do it too.”
As he spreads the cream onto his face, I try to see the resemblance between Glenn on the shelf and the Garth in front of me. It must be there, and I try to see it, but I don’t. I spread the cream the way Garth did—on my cheeks, my forehead, then under my eyes—and I try not to wince as the tingle becomes a burn, but I can’t not.
“You’re crying.” Garth reaches toward my eyes, like he’s going to wipe my tears, but he stops himself.
“I think I want to go to bed.”
“Good idea,” Garth says. “The turnover happens faster in the dark. Out of sight.”
That night Garth shuts his door. Enough light comes through the curtains that I can’t stop seeing Glenn, his milky good skin, his dumb smile not knowing he’s here on a shelf while I, burning, stare at him.
When I climb into Garth’s bed, I lie completely still beside him. I feel like a mummy. I feel the cream pulling my skin tight, feel my bones trying to poke through. It hurts to close my eyes, like if I do my skin will rip, so I look up. There’s a green glow from the ceiling—not a whole star but the prong of one, part of a set probably, like the one I had at home. When my eyes adjust to the dark, I can see spots still darkened by dried glue, and all night I imagine how the solar system must’ve fallen, planet by planet, onto Garth’s sheets, onto his ageless skin, without him noticing until here we are tonight, my face burning up in some sun’s last ray.
In the morning I touch my face. It’s smooth and dry and dying. Beside me, Garth’s is too. He’s flaking away, and I reach over and rub him. He jolts awake, and I straddle him. He twists his head but still I knead my fingers into him, watch his dead skin snow down onto the black sheets. Cold stars far away. There’s a boy somewhere under here. I can feel him.
“Glenn,” I say to the flakes on my fingers. “Glenn, do you want to go home now?”