Zeros and Ones

by Michael Don

Our bellies are full of Easter, mine for the first time.  I wonder what Neal is thinking.  He likes to start and finish his thoughts with silence.  I do the opposite.  Neither of us is eager to be alone together even though a week has passed and what happened could have happened to any two housemates, any two best friends, any two men in their late twenties.  Just by chance, just that one time, just for the sake of not being all or nothing.

Neal’s mom, Beverly she has us call her, is driving us back to Boston.  We don’t have a car and Beverly says buses are dangerous these days, too many have flipped over or caught on fire.  But I think it’s that she wants to spend more time with Neal.  There are four of us in the front of her slim pickup truck.  I’m folded up into three quarters of a man.

“Who do you like better, short people or tall people?” Adrian, Neal’s little brother, wants to know.  Neal is talking even less these days, so I answer, “Short people,” though I’m the tall one.

Beverly glances beyond Adrian and sees two male figures who for many years have not been boys but who also don’t live like men.  She glances a second time in search of a clue, because these days Neal will only offer one or two words at a time.  Maybe she notices the physical space between us, an inch we’ve managed to create out of nothing, but what could that possibly let on?  She looks again and rests her eyes on Neal’s emerging beard, a length of facial hair he has never attempted. “Makes you look distinguished,” Beverly says, letting the car drift across a lane of traffic.

The blaring horn of an eighteen-wheeler jolts us out of our private thoughts.  I pop out of my seat, my head stopped by the ceiling.  Beverly yanks the wheel and swerves back into our original lane.  Adrian squeals then pushes out a string of staccato breaths.  I find my hand clutching Adrian’s knee and quickly pull it back hoping it wasn’t there too long.  Neal stares blankly at the road in front of us.  He has no reason to react to a near accident.  What’s done is done, and what will happen will happen. What’s avoided is avoided.

We pass a sign that reads “Worcester 25, Boston 68” and our vehicle starts going much faster. Beverly seems of no particular age.  She went to college on a swimming scholarship but dropped out and married when Neal started growing inside her.

“Do you like brown grass or green grass better?” Adrian is only nine but weighs as much as Neal.  His flesh flattens against my left side.

Beverly’s frizzy hair blows into her mouth then she sighs and rolls up the window for a quarter of a song on the radio before she can’t take it anymore, rolls it back down, then lights up a Merit.

“Brown grass or green grass?” Adrian demands an answer.

I want to take back some of what I said at Easter dinner, but I also want to say more. “Brown grass,” I finally say.

Adrian looks satisfied with me then turns to Neal. “What about you, Neal?”

Neal only shrugs.

I wonder if Adrian is testing us – his questions could easily be metaphors.  Now I worry I chose wrong.  I was just trying to have fun, right? Go against the grain, to see what happens.  “Actually, I like green grass better,” I say, but no one seems to hear me.

The road curves right, and now I’m pressed against Neal.  His oblique holds its ground and digs into my side.  I wish he were softer.

“Brown or green? Green or brown?” Adrian shifts in his seat pushing me further into Neal and Neal further into the window.

“Yeah, yeah,” Neal finally says, “I prefer concrete.”


“The guest makes the toast,” Neal’s dad said. “That’s how it works at the Caraker house.”

I used simple words like “Grateful, wonderful, together, special, family, delicious, feast,” but without knowing it, I left out a few words everyone was expecting to hear. Neal’s dad popped up, thanked me, and finished what I started.  I should have been silent and grateful, but that’s not the way I work when there is more to say, so I jumped up and resumed center stage to the clinking of glasses. “I want to thank you all again for having me.”  Out of the corner of my eye I could see Neal’s clenched jaw telling me to wrap it up and sit down before I let on too much, before I made Easter about something it’s not, but I needed to admit to something.  “And what else can I say other than” – I looked to Neal ’s dad’s girlfriend for empathy, a short Guatemalan woman who during the kid’s egg hunt had politely answered a series of questions about Mexico from Neal’s grandma, but she was looking down at her plate of ham and green bean casserole and scalloped potatoes.  “This is my first Easter,” I announced.  Blank faces turned into jumpy eyes and gentle smiles. “And it’s even better than Passover!” A couple of chuckles. “And I have a hole in my sock.” Roars of laughter.  “And once I peed in a Gatorade bottle because I was too lazy to walk all the way to the bathroom.”  One pity laugh.  “Just one room away,” I added.  A collective sigh.  And I masturbated in my grandma’s living room. And the Synagogue bathroom. And I thought about people way younger than me and some way older and some in this very room.  And I’ve never physically harmed anyone, well, not a human being, but sometimes I imagine a situation in which I do.  And sometimes I consider stepping in front of a bus so I can face the inevitable on my own terms.  And I cheated on every single assignment in my college computer science class.  The only concept I bothered to learn was binary. The simplest of them all. 


There are four urinals at the rest stop bathroom but Adrian pulls up next to me. Neal hangs back by the sinks.  Adrian finishes first.  While I shake off those lingering drops, Neal whispers to Adrian.  I turn my head slightly but can only make out a phrase here and there, “not polite…too crowded…that guy.”

On the way back to the truck, Adrian asks Neal, “Who do you like better, Mom or Dad?”

“Beverly,” Neal answers automatically.

Adrian frowns and waits for an explanation.

Our legs are stiff, our upper bodies sore, so we zigzag back to the truck delaying things as much as possible.  We pass a group of three men and two women, wearing UCONN sweatshirts and hats, leaning against a blue Escort missing a couple of hubcaps.  They share one cigarette and flirt with each other in all sorts of different combinations.

“I like them both,” Neal says forcefully. He then softens his tone, “For different reasons.”

Back on the highway the blue Escort flies by us, smoke billowing from its tailpipe, arms dangling out the windows, indie rock blasting.  I think of our trip to Montreal back when we were in college.  A bunch of us went up in our friend’s mini-van with only our wallets and winter coats.  We popped in and out of shops, flipping through racks of shirts we found intriguing but would never buy.  We drank dozens of Labatt Blue and finished the night at the casino hemorrhaging what little money we had.  We kept saying stupid things like, What happens in Canadia stays in Canadia and Spring Break 1997, woot woot, even though it was November of 2001.  At the casino I lent Neal fifty bucks because his parents still received his bank statement, and he didn’t want them after the fact to learn he’d been in Montreal.  Neal had been talking to his parents less and less as it was becoming clear they were talking to each other less and less.  He wasn’t trying to keep secrets, but he wasn’t going out of his way to keep them updated.  He didn’t want them to keep him updated.  On the way home we pulled off the road and slept in the van, using each other’s shoulders as pillows, our breaths musty, our clothes sweaty and stuck to our backs.  We were drunk and exhausted and a bit dejected from losing all of our money at roulette.  But we woke up in good moods, content to be heading back to our little bubble where together we ate and slept and wrote papers and made love to our girlfriends, not realizing that one day in the near future many of us would drift to different corners of the country, buying houses and making families with people whom we’d yet to meet.

Adrian grins at the speeding Escort and says, “What do you like better, going fast or going slow?”

“It depends,” I say.

Adrian nods.  He does not care what it depends on.  He just wants both of us to answer his question.


“It depends,” Neal agrees.

Adrian continues to grin.  He is amused by our answers.

Beverly eases up on the accelerator, and the back of the blue Escort disappears around the bend.


Back in our college days, Neal and I lived in one of the smallest doubles on campus.  I dated Rachel and he dated Cynthia, roommates who lived in one of the largest rooms on campus.  They pushed their beds together to create separate quarters for sleeping and studying.  Neal and I figured doing the same might open up our space, so we did and it did.

Later that day we played Wiffle ball on the quad.  After a couple of games, the other boys gulped down Gatorade in the student union while Neal and I lay in the grass.  I revealed my recently acquired fear of death as if I was the first person to recognize our non-permanence.  “You’re no different from anyone else,” Neal assured me.  I laughed, then said, “That’s not even close to true.”  The sun in his eyes, Neal only squinted.  “We’re full of disparity!” I declared, but I wasn’t sure if that was the right word or if I was even responding to him.  The brewing of the clipped grass, damp soil and our sweaty backs emanated a rich earthy odor that reminded me of what I had recently discovered under Rachel’s jeans.  Neal patted my thigh and forced a smile.  I must have amused him.  But he in his coolness, in the way he never bothered to worry about the things that make us or don’t make us, filled me with an urge to do something I’d never done.  I waited for a pack of off-balanced frat boys to pass, then rolled onto Neal’s stomach, pinning his hands above his head with my hands and his thighs down with my thigh, elbows with elbows.  A bead of sweat rolled off my cheek onto his lip.  “You’re so goddamn calm,” I avoided shouting, not wanting to draw any extra attention.  Neal only breathed.  I shifted so our bodies aligned with each other in a way that felt both pleasant and painful.  I kept him there.  I occasionally shifted to feel more friction, but ultimately the lack of movement, with all that potential, became too much, as if holding your breath.   The others emerged onto the quad, refreshed and ready to start up again.  We let our bodies untangle and pretended we were just boys being boys, but later in his steadiest, coolest voice, he said, “You better sleep with one eye open tonight.”

We left the beds together.  To move them we would have had to acknowledge certain things.  But when Rachel and Cynthia finally saw the arrangement, Rachel forced out a throaty laugh and Cynthia said, “Very funny, guys.” And then, before we headed out to dinner, Rachel insisted we separate the beds, “In case we get back late and you’re too tired.”


“What’s Jewish?” Adrian looks to Neal.

Beverly’s phone rings.  She checks her screen, smiles and then leans on the accelerator.  Neal clamps his mouth shut and nods.  I think of the woman who showed up during dessert and hung back from the adults, haphazardly watching the kids hunt for eggs between short intense glances at Beverly.  We blaze through Framingham.  Not a single car passes us.  My left side tingles.  My right side aches.

“Are you Jewish, Neal?”

Beverly shakes her head as though she’s made some terrible mistakes and they’re finally affecting the well being of others. “It’s not good to ask so many questions, hon.”

These questions are nothing, I think. They’re not metaphors.  They fill time and space and that’s it. They spew from a nine-year-old’s mouth – a little boy who eats too much junk food and plays too many video games – who arrived eighteen years after his brother – who has every right to be curious until –

“Am I Jewish?” Adrian interrupts my thought.

The gentle curve of the exit ramp is enough to send Adrian into me and me into Neal.  I now remember the way Neal’s hipbone dug into my thigh and how mine must have dug into his.  I can’t blame him for what happened.  We were free, between girlfriends, had enough money, an entire city to run around, yet we’d been this way for years with no one to obsess over, no one to make decisions for or with.  All it took was a late night in the living room, a few beers, another round of our perpetual argument over which city had the best baseball fans, followed by a particular silence; me pinning him down like that day on the quad, excited and frustrated, not knowing which feeling to follow.  “I could really stand to hurt you,” I said.  Neal’s silence was inviting and assured me we could try something new and never have to talk about it.

“Short people,” Neal says. “I like short people better than tall people.” The question was asked back on I-95 over an hour ago, but I’m the only one who recognizes how this answer could matter.

We hurry through the narrow, winding streets of Boston, just barely avoiding other cars and pedestrians.  Beverly speeds past our split-family house before she uses her entire body to brake and flip the truck around. Neal and I untangle and drop out of the vehicle.  Neal limps around the driver’s side and hugs Beverly with one arm.  She mostly talks and he mostly nods. Finally Neal says, “Keep an eye on that one,” pointing the crown of his head at Adrian.

Beverly looks at Adrian and must wonder when exactly she’ll start to know him less.  She then looks at Neal and must wonder when he became a stranger.  If only she could pinpoint the moment.  “You look tired,” she says, then waits for Neal to respond, but he just tugs on his beard.  “I hope you’re having some fun, not working too much.  Letting yourself live.” She waits again, but Neal only nods.  “Take good care of yourself.”  Beverly’s statements are more posed as questions.  Are you tired? Are you having fun? Are you taking care of yourself? What the heck are you up to?  Neal continues to nod, sending Beverly back to the truck, unsatisfied, empty-handed.  As she opens the door, I blurt out, “We’re taking good care of each other.”

Beverly hovers over the truck.  Her face is relieved and curious.  She must want to know, How exactly do you take care of each other?

I slap my hand onto the back of Neal’s neck.  I can’t see his face because I’m intent on looking Beverly in the eye, but I can feel his body tighten up, holding his breath, waiting for this moment to pass.  “We go out on weekends and cook during the week.  Plenty of veggies,” I say.  Beverly gives me a grateful smile.  “We introduce each other to all kinds of new people.”  Beverly shuffles closer to us, her eyebrows raised.  “Sometimes we have a drink or two and there’s some horsing around.”  Neal exhales and I find myself squeezing his shoulder. “Sometimes we get a little rowdy,” I add.

I bite my tongue and squeeze Neal’s shoulder harder, as if wringing out a wet towel.  I feel my fingers digging into muscle, not wanting to stop at bone.

Beverly’s smile fades.

Neal doesn’t move.  To react would be to reveal.  Still I wonder what his silence means.  I wonder if he himself knows.

Beverly crosses her arms over her chest and narrows her eyes.

“What’s going on out there?” Adrian shouts from the truck.

This is an excellent question.  My hand starts to cramp up, but it’s either this or saying more, so I smile and tighten my grip.

“Are you hurting him?” Beverly says, lighting up a cigarette.  Neal’s face must be bright red and contorted.  “He’s okay,” Beverly answers her own question.

I wonder if I’m hurting him.

“Beverly,” Neal says softly, but she doesn’t hear him.

He takes a deep breath.  My brain clicks back on.  He sighs and my hand goes limp and falls from his small shoulder.  I frown at Beverly and think to mutter the words “I’m sorry,” but nothing comes out.  I’m not sure these are the right words.  So I just stand there trying to decide whether to feel proud or guilty.  If only one of these options felt true.

“You’re still just boys,” Beverly says, mostly to herself.

“Mom,” Neal says.  “He wasn’t hurting me.”

Beverly takes a long drag from her unlit cigarette.  “Right,” she says, reaching into her jean pocket and fumbling for a lighter.  “He’s practically family.”

Neal won’t reply.  He won’t utter another word.  He won’t say what we are because words like friend and family and lover bleed into each other.  He won’t assure Beverly that they’re still mother and son and always will be, and after many more years of growing apart, they will one day start to grow closer.

Neal and I idle over our unkempt lawn, willing a tree to fall or even a phone to ring.  Beverly waits in the truck.  She wants to make sure we get in. She wants to see which one of us opens our front door.  She wants to peek inside.  Neal scratches his beard, how he hates facial hair.  I refuse to think what I sometimes think: two men in their late twenties should not live together.  Adrian leans over Beverly and waves out the window, his pudgy hand flopping around like a fish washed to shore.  Our neighbors are pulled out of their side of the house by a chocolate lab.  They seem older than us but younger than most people.  They wear jeans and sweatshirts and always seem to be yawning.  They keep to themselves, but we know sometimes they fight and sometimes they make love.