Five Points, Vol. 21, No. 3

Sample Content

Xavier Blackwell-Lipkind
Flawed Machines

The turnstile just opens. Metal maw empty. No card has been swiped. No card has even been pressed. He passes through, feeling a mix of excitement and fear. What if at Metro Center they do the math? Come for him with handcuffs? Two metal maws stuffed with hands. Overcorrection by one metal maw.

Smells like piss. Specifically: asparagus piss. (Garlicky?) He catches a glimpse of his shimmering reflection in the tile wall. He’s wearing a shirt with horizontal gray and white stripes. My God. Looks like a bed. Will Visiting mind? Will Visiting think, my God, NoHookupsPls looks like a bed? A train thunders through one of many tunnels. NoHookupsPls takes this as a tentative no, mostly because he wants to.

He misses the train by an instant. It lurches away as he gets off the stairs. 7 min. There’s an old woman holding her glasses between two trembling fingers and cleaning them on her shirt. He thinks of his mother. Not because she wears glasses. Because she is old. And because something about the quietness of this woman, her quiet dignity, her quiet confidence, that quiet confidence of a person who has seen enough to be unsurprised by everything that exists, reminds him of his mother. He jumped out at her once, from behind the door to the basement, and she let a slow, mechanical smile spread across her face. Don’t try to scare me, NoHookupsPls, she said. You’re wasting your time. Sometimes he wondered if she was a robot.

Oh, there he is. Man peeing over by the ad for the old musical made new. This must be Asparagus (Garlic?) Man. What power, controlling the odor of an entire train station. That’s virility in its purest form. Man, jeans at ankles, peeing by the tracks. Fleeting thought: and if this is Visiting?

Eight minutes later, 7-min train screeches to a halt. Old woman, unflinching, slides glasses over nose and waits inches from the doors. Then the thing opens all of its metal maws at once and he and she disappear into different stomachs. In his stomach there is a boy who can’t be more than six. (He did not eat a boy.) Boy is alone and is playing a game on an iPad with the volume turned up all the way. Boy doesn’t look distraught about being alone. LEVEL UP, screams the iPad with an accompanying sweep of fake violins. Boy taps furiously, no doubt claiming something.

He looks at Visiting’s picture on his phone. Visiting looks kind of charming, in a way. Just not ugly enough to be not ugly. But also attractive, somehow. As long as he doesn’t look at the ears. Like sonar dishes. Or like beds themselves.

At Metro Center, where the air smells only vaguely of asparagus piss, he transfers to the Red Line. At Dupont Circle he takes the fucking eternal escalator up to the normal world and finds the Japanese place where they’ve agreed to meet. Visiting is leaning against some sort of cement potted plant structure near the restaurant. The motion of his thumb makes it perfectly clear that he’s swiping on guys on a dating app. NoHookupsPls doesn’t resent this. It’s just a fact. Like, sea cucumbers aren’t cucumbers. (Right?)

Hey, he says. Are you Visiting?

Um, yeah. From Chicago. Why?

No, like, are you Visiting? Capital v Visiting?

Oh, oh. Yeah. You’re—you’re NoHookupsPls?

Yeah. I mean, I’m Theo. But, like, you can call me NoHookupsPls if you want.

I’m Andrew. Or Visiting, I guess.

Let’s get some sushi, Visiting.

Oh, I hate sushi.

This place was literally your idea.

I read they have good soups.

Oh. Okay.

Andrew sits facing north. Theo south. A waiter approaches. Definitely not Japanese.

Good evening, he says. Welcome to Restaurant. (This he says with a clear Japanese accent, which makes Andrew visibly uncomfortable.)

Thanks, Theo says.

Can I start you off with something to drink?

I think water’s good, Andrew says. Right?

Theo nods.

We do have a few specials today. We have a cucumber eel roll with spicy mayonnaise, a tomato and cucumber salad, and a vegetable udon soup.

Question, Andrew says.

Of course, says non-Japanese waiter.

Is there cucumber in the soup?

Theo snorts.

Yes, says waiter.

I think we need a few minutes, Theo says. Thank you.

Any allergies I should know about?

No, Theo says.

No, I don’t think so, Andrew says.

Waiter leaves.

The place is cute in a dingy, distinctly uncute sort of way. Black-and-white photos of cityscapes line the walls. The cities are definitely not in Japan. The management team appears to have gone with a general theme of non-Japaneseness.

So, Andrew says, what do you do? His eyes are almost concave. Does that make sense? Like, you could shoot a laser in there and the beam of light would just bounce around forever.

I’m a writer, Theo says. Or I’m trying to be.

And what do you do?


I mean, if you’re trying to be a writer, writing presumably isn’t paying the bills.

I’m a receptionist. At a hotel.

Oh, cool.


Lots of tourists?

What do you do?

Real estate agent.


Something you want to say?

No, no. That’s cool.

Uh huh.

I mean, I’ll take real estate agent over hotel receptionist any day.

I can show you some listings. I’m about to start working for a company in the area.

I thought you were visiting.

People bother you less if they think you’re leaving. Plus, I am kind of visiting, but, like, to move in.


That’s my middle name.

Wait, really?

Are you—no. My middle name is Reginald.

That’s a horrible middle name.


Waiter is back. His hair is literally parted in the opposite direction. Has he just been in the bathroom? Like, desperately re-parting his hair at the sink?

What can I get you?

I’ll have the soup, Andrew says. The special.

Theo orders a bunch of sushi, which Andrew doesn’t seem too thrilled about.

The waiter takes no notes. This impresses Theo until his sushi arrives.

That’s not what you ordered, is it? Andrew whispers.

Theo shakes his head. Hidden in the tuna rolls, there’s one stray piece of sushi with what looks like chicken. It’s almost good.


When the waiter brings back the check he says arigato gozaimasu. He is definitely not Japanese.

Thanks, Andrew says.

The waiter puts a hand over his mouth and giggles, then disappears into the kitchen.

Seriously? Theo says.

That’s, like, problematic, right?

No, that’s, like, definitely problematic.

Okay, that’s what I thought.

No, yeah. He is definitely not Japanese.

Oh, no way. He gives me Utah vibes.

I’m from Utah.

Wait, shit, seriously?


Outside two men play steel drums to ABBA songs. It’s just getting dark, and the air hums a grayish blue. Black clouds rolling in from the west. Like a study in charcoal.

They’re pretty good, Theo says.

Why ABBA, though?

Why not?

They start to walk. They’re heading away from the station, though perhaps that choice is arbitrary. Hands in their pockets. Theo wonders whether Andrew will try to kiss him. It would almost be a shame. If something like this ended so normally. He almost hopes that Andrew will run away screaming obscenities, or go rob a steel drum. He’s afraid that the night will grow less and less strange as they walk away from the station.

But then Andrew isn’t kissing him, and Andrew still isn’t kissing him, and he starts to wish Andrew would kiss him, because if Andrew isn’t kissing him Andrew must not be interested.

Do you want me to kiss you? Andrew asks.


Oh, fuck. Jesus, okay.

No, no, I mean—can we just—

Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

There it is. The rain. Slow and fat, and within seconds Theo’s bed-for-a-shirt clings to his stomach with wet desperation. He tilts his head back and lets the water wash down his cheeks toward his ears. The sound of cars fades beneath the hum of drops striking earth. They could be in a meadow, or a forest, except then there would also be the sound of drops striking leaves, a chorus of reedy thwacks that echoes overhead. Here there is only the sound of liquid meeting a hardened thing: sidewalk or road or roof or wall.

They walk slower, not faster. They don’t discuss this, nor does Theo feel that he is copying Andrew, nor does Theo feel that Andrew is copying him. They have come to a consensus independently. They have agreed on the answer to a question that hasn’t been asked. Which is so much better than a kiss.

Soon it all starts to lose its charm.

The whole Singin’ in the Rain thing is getting kind of old, isn’t it? Andrew asks.

Yeah. It was nice at first. Now I feel like a sponge.



Automatic sliding doors. They’ve moved the umbrellas to the front of the store, which is either a show of goodwill or a savvy business move, but definitely not both. A woman takes a red umbrella and decides it would be a good idea to open it in the middle of the store. Knocks a few candy bars onto the floor, looks around, and slinks off toward the self-checkout area, her shoes squeaking on the linoleum floor. Another woman is leaving with a single bottle of Pepsi and no umbrella. She is absolutely soaked. She creates little puddles behind her as she sets off down the street and guzzles her soda. By the time she has disappeared from view the bottle is almost empty.

They’re playing, like, mid-Atlantic country. Something about tractors in Annapolis. Andrew selects a black umbrella—very classy, Theo thinks—and heads to a self-checkout machine.

Thank you for choosing CVS, says the machine. Its halting voice is that of a woman taught just minutes ago that the English language is not spoken in a monotone.

Please select your language. Another machine: thank you for choosing CVS.

Oh, Jesus, Andrew says. I hate these things. I hear them in my nightmares.

Please remove your item from the bagging area, says the machine. There is nothing in the bagging area.

Beep, says another machine. Beep. Beep. We apologize for the inconvenience. An employee will arrive to assist you shortly.

Andrew clicks English and nothing happens. Theo reaches in and clicks English. The screen twitches.

Please select your—please select—help is on the way. Thank you for your patience.

There are eight machines. Help is on the way, says the first machine. Help is on the way, say the second and third and fourth and fifth machines. Help is on the way, say the sixth and seventh machines. Help is on the way, says the eighth machine. The sound of rain drumming on the windows.

For an instant, the machines line up: HELP IS ON THE WAY. Then they all splinter into different warnings and requests and explanations. Do not scan the same item twice. Please swipe your card quickly. Please swipe your card more slowly. Items placed in the bagging area may be removed once the transaction is complete. Please place your next item in the bagging area now. Please do not place items in the bagging area until they have been scanned. Welcome to CVS Pharmacy. Thank you for shopping with us today. Goodbye. Please swipe your card again. Bienvenue à CVS Pharmacy. Por favor, não escaneie o mesmo item duas vezes. Goodbye. Au revoir. Goodbye.

Everybody seems to give up at once. Is there not a fucking human cashier here? candy-bar-knocking woman mutters. Andrew’s hands are trembling with rage. They all have umbrellas, black and white and red and striped and dotted. Theo can almost imagine it as an opera. Choreographed, scored. Dramatic singing in Italian about rain and flawed machines and the eternity of a moment. FUCK, screams a man somewhere.

Kiss would be good now, Theo says. Andrew forces a laugh.

An old woman with an illegible nametag emerges from a faraway aisle. Oh, Jesus Christ, she says to herself and everyone else. She scans their umbrellas one by one, all the while cursing the machines, which once again promise that help is on the way. Eventually she caves and uses her middle finger to tap an eight-digit code into a console at the cash register. And the machines fall silent. People cheer. She is a hero. Andrew breathes a sigh of relief.

By the time they get outside, the rain has already stopped. They open the umbrella anyway and huddle under its fabric canopy. Theo tries to imagine himself in a forest, but he’s not in a forest, which makes it difficult.

Do you like ostriches? he says finally.


I fucking love ostriches.


Badass necks. Like, why do they have to be that long?

Do you like giraffes?


They have long necks.

It’s not the same.


At the station, Theo remembers that he looks like a bed. Andrew didn’t seem to mind. Some guys are into that. Water sits in the cracks between the tiles. The train approaches and the trackside lights flash in perfect unison, as if to say: You can trust us. We are all together, so you can trust us. The train will be here soon. We promise. See? Here it comes. Can you hear it yet? We wouldn’t lie to you. Things that work are always true. We are all together. We are one. We flash as one. Here’s the train. Here’s the train. Here’s the train. Goodnight.


He meets Andrew outside a big brick house one block from the Embassy of Ghana. Andrew is wearing what Theo can only assume are his “work clothes.” Khakis, a button-down shirt. He looks good. His hair is tousled in a very specific way, and his left hand clutches a fat manila envelope.

Hi, Theo says.

Hi, Theo.

There’s something about hearing Andrew say his name. Theo imagines kissing Andrew, right here, in the yard. Or inside the house. But again he’s struck by the strange desire not to kiss Andrew, not because he actually doesn’t want to kiss Andrew, but because he doesn’t want to relegate this relationship to the pits of normalcy. He’s been on so many dates that ended with a polite kiss—or an impolite kiss—and disappeared into the part of his brain that stores memories not worth remembering. And it seems to him that it would be a shame to forget Andrew, because there’s something about hearing Andrew say his name, something that Theo doesn’t want to forget.

He smiles as he thinks these thoughts, and Andrew smiles back. Theo notices that Andrew always lifts the left side of his face more than the right when he smiles. In twenty years there will probably be more wrinkles around his left eye than around his right. And people passing by will think, here is a person who always lifted the left side of his face more than the right when he smiled.

Should we go in? Andrew says. Theo is not sure how long he has been standing silently in this yard, staring at a man with a manila envelope and smiling to himself like an idiot.

Sure, Theo says. After you.

Oh, no, I insist.

I wouldn’t dare.

Just fucking go.

Okay, okay.

It’s nice, nicer than Theo will ever be able to afford. They walk into an open space cut in two by a massive staircase; the ceiling, dotted with skylights, floats far above. A cluster of plants on a thick wooden table by the door. Theo tilts his head all the way back and tries to focus on the clouds passing above the skylights, but they’re so far that he can’t discern anything more than a blur of white.

Makes me feel small, he says, mostly to himself.

And poor.

That too.

Andrew looks proud as he leads Theo around the staircase and into the kitchen. A maze of islands. Marble countertops. Copper pots hanging from the oven. A little statue of a pig sitting by the sink.

How much does this place even cost?

Oh, don’t worry about that.

Upstairs, they sit in paired rocking chairs by the window in the master bedroom. The view is of the road and nothing more, but somehow it seems new and beautiful from where they are. The yellow dashes, the stray leaves. Like an abstract painting on a long, thin canvas that stretches past where the windows end, unfurling toward the embassy in one direction and away from it in the other.

Theo finds himself struggling to ignore how close the right arm of his rocking chair is to the left arm of Andrew’s. He sets his right arm on that of the chair, and a few seconds later Andrew does the same with his left, without looking, seemingly without thinking. Theo knows that this should thrill him, but instead it terrifies him. He can’t decide whether Andrew has moved his hand on purpose or not. There can be no middle ground. Either Andrew knows it all, or he knows nothing. Either Andrew knows that Theo is screaming at himself inside—not words, only their outlines—or he knows only that he and Theo are sitting in rocking chairs by a window, saying nothing, considering the road’s slight curve and listening to the plaintive coo of a mourning dove, a sound that somehow manages to pierce the mansion’s brick facade and papered walls. On some level, Theo registers all of these things. He does. He sees the road and he hears the bird. But he is not thinking about these things. There is registering, and then there is thinking. He is thinking only about Andrew’s left hand, about the pink bluntness of Andrew’s thumb, about the greenish vein that cuts from Andrew’s wrist up through the center of the hand and toward the knuckle at the base of the middle finger, about the swoop of Andrew’s pointer nail, about that fleshy fold of skin between Andrew’s thumb and forefinger. He is thinking only about Andrew’s left hand because he cannot decide whether he wants to hold it or to push it away or to sever it, because something about the closeness of it all is becoming unbearable, to the point that Theo begins to wonder whether Andrew can hear the gibberish that he screams in his brain, whether the meaningless sounds are seeping out through his ears and through his eyes and through his mouth. Andrew, of course, is not thinking any of these things. It is simply not possible. Andrew is looking through the window with a blank, stupid stare. Andrew is not thinking about anything, Theo thinks. Nothing at all.

Can I hold your hand? Andrew asks, his voice cracking on the final word.

Theo does not hear this question over the deafening noise of his inner scream.



I was—I was asking if I could hold your hand.


Obviously if you

No, yeah. Yeah. I’d like that.


Theo nods, and Andrew picks his hand up from the arm of the rocking chair. Theo can see now that it is shaking, just barely. It crosses the canyon. Hovers for an instant above his hand. Lowers itself. When they finally touch, Theo experiences two things at once.

The first is a tingle that passes up his arm and into his face and down into his feet. It feels like rain down his spine. His cheeks flush red and his breath quickens, not from arousal but from an anxious excitement that makes him feel younger than he is. He’s reminded of the rainy April Saturday when he first touched the hand of another man during his otherwise horrible semester abroad in Paris. This is the first thing, and it makes him smile. When he sees Andrew smiling, too, smiling that lopsided smile, he is sure that they are smiling for the same reason. And so he smiles more.

The second lurks beneath the smile. The second is some sort of glitch, and in the exact moment when Andrew’s left hand tangles itself in Theo’s right, Theo feels a shock, like he can’t breathe, like he’s short-circuiting. A zap of electricity up the arm. A separate, simultaneous tingling, stronger than the first. Are they really separate, the tingles? He doesn’t know, but something about it feels wrong, fundamentally wrong, irredeemably wrong. He tells himself that this is what it feels like to be in love, but still he can’t push away a mental image of a glass wall, a wall so clear that nobody knows it’s there, a wall that’s barely a wall. Maybe he should have kissed Andrew that first night. Or maybe he should have waited longer to touch Andrew at all. Maybe he should have said no when Andrew asked to hold his hand. Why did he say yes? He can’t remember why he said yes.

These thoughts drone on and on and grow closer and closer. (To what? To whom?) So when Andrew squeezes Theo’s hand and says, I really like you, Theo hears not only Andrew’s voice, quiet and probing, but also a strange buzzing sound, like the sound a fridge makes when everything else is really still.

Theo smiles, the buzzing grows louder, the second tingle becomes unbearable. I really like you, too, he says, pulling his hand free. And the mourning dove coos through the wall.