Shift Changes

Itey works the night shift down at the docks. It’s fitting really, because he’s prone to insomnia, and there are really only so many Korean infomercials a guy can take in one lifetime.

It’s a tough job sometimes, unloading heavy boxes and operating forklifts on two hours of sleep and cataloguing inventory until his eyes can‘t keep the numbers and letters separate anymore, but he doesn’t mind. Sometimes after a really, really long stretch of sleeplessness, he’ll leave the warehouse at five a.m., step out into the first rays of dawn. All he sees of his dismal surroundings is the white-gold glow reflected off ship paneling and the sea, dancing across the skyline of the city nearby.

++

Meeting Skittery is an accident, but a happy one. It’s a Thursday morning, the sun’s only just risen, and already the humidity is thick and oppressive. Itey’s water has been shut off back home for maintenance, and he needs a drink like crazy. His only option is the 7-Eleven down the way, centrally located in the roughest stretch of street Itey’s ever known. He’s no stranger to this area, though; he’s lived all of his life in this neighborhood and learned to dance on its asphalt. Problem is, he’s not really up to the trip; it’s a white-gold kind of morning and all he wants is to be home in his bed trying to coax his restless mind to sleep.

He drags himself through the heavy glass doors and goes for the fridges in the back, gathering up a few bottles of Dasani. The shop is silent, just as it always is this early in the morning, and the quiet buzzes in his ears like static from a television.

Hi Kloppman, he begins to sign, dropping his things on the counter, but then stops, confused. It isn’t Kloppman at the register but a young guy in a pink shirt, his face gone pale.

"Jesus Christ!" the guy cries, hand flying up to clutch at his chest. "Don’t just sneak up on a person like that! What the hell were you thinking?"

Itey blinks, a bit unimpressed, and then bounces his shoulders up and down in a shrug. Sorry, he signs, and the stranger stops mid-huff to drop his jaw on the floor. Wasn’t quite the reaction Itey had expected, but at least it’s entertaining.

"Oh," the cashier says after an intensely awkward moment. "Oh, shit, man--sorry, sorry...I didn’t know...fuck, uh..." He scratches his head frantically and attempts to sign something back, does something that looks nothing like sign language but does appear a bit rude, and Itey would bust up laughing if he had a voice to laugh with.

He pulls the little block of Post-Its he keeps in his pocket out, and gestures to the pen the cashier has tucked behind his ear. The guy scrambles to pass it to him.

dont sweat it Itey writes. i can hear you

"Ah," the guy says, bright red flush still blazing away on his face. "Sorry, I’m just. Kind of a dumbass. You know. You scared the shit out of me!"

Itey grins. The guy is cute in a frightened animal kind of way. He’s got messy hair, a nice nose, and dark, deep-set eyes. He’s pretty tall, too, which always earns a person points in Itey‘s book. Maybe half-Italian, maybe not. Pleasant voice.

new here? writes Itey. The guy coughs.

"Uh," he says, staring down at the pen like he’s contemplating maybe using it too. "Nah. I usually work afternoon."

kloppman put you on night duty Itey writes back.

The guy scratches his head again. Itey would make a comment about anxiety and going bald if he thought it’d go over well. It won’t, clearly.

"Yeah," is all the guy says, and shuffles his feet. "You a regular?"

Itey studies him for a moment, and he can’t help but smile a bit wider. He’s making the guy nervous. It’s pretty fun. Itey nods.

"Oh," is the reply. "You’re stuck with me now, then."

got a name? Itey asks. The guy fidgets; points to his badge. EVAN, it reads.

"People just call me Skitts though," he tells Itey, frowning.

hi schiz writes Itey.

Skitts goes even redder. Itey hadn’t thought it possible. "Not like schizophrenia," he protests. "Like Skitts! Like it’s short for Skittery. You know, like nervousness. Jesus, I‘m not crazy."

Itey does laugh then, stomach shaking from the force of it, a slight wheeze crackling up through his throat. Skittery wants to know what’s so funny.

Itey likes him instantly.

++

Itey returns a few mornings later, a little less sleepy. There’s a woman at the counter giving Skittery a bit of a hard time; Itey recognizes her as a tennant at the apartment complex across the street from the bus stop he gets off on for work. Skittery’s getting pretty stressed out; Itey can see it in the tense set of his jaw and the sweat glistening on his forehead. The woman wants triple-A batteries, and apparently the shop is fresh out.

Itey sits back and watches quietly, grinning at Skittery over her thick shoulder. By the time she storms out, Skitts is a wreck.

"Did you see that?" he cries, fists clenched on the counter. "That was totally uncalled for! If I don’t have the batteries, I don’t have them! Seriously. What is wrong with people?"

Itey shakes his head in exaggerated sympathy, and goes for a packet of gum. He watches as Skittery takes it with a trembly hand and slides it under the barcode scanner; eyes the jumbo can of Red Bull popped open beside the register.

Out come the Post-Its.

you ok you look tired

"No," Skittery sighs, sliding Itey’s gum back across the glass. He leans forward a little. "Can I complain at you?"

Itey nods, a little skeptical, a little amused.

"I haven’t slept in like three days, man," Skittery goes on, like this is a deep dark secret. "Except then I show up at work, and it’s like my eyelids--" he emphasizes this by pointing to his face "--are filled with lead. I can’t stay awake at all. But then I get home and I can’t fall asleep. I don’t get it. How do you survive the night shift? You work night shift, right? This is crazy."

Itey considers for a moment, chewing thoughtfully on his bottom lip, and then sets Skitts’s commandeered pen to paper.

start looking forward to seeing the stars. then day time wont keep you awake anymore

Skittery takes the Post-It; scans it with his eyes. His brow furrows and he says, a little dully, "I don’t get it."

Itey shrugs. just got to think of sunrise like sunset instead and night time as day time

Skittery just shakes his head blankly. Itey raises a wry eyebrow.

alright that is bullshit i dont sleep either he writes back. It’s the first time he sees Skittery smile. He knows, the way he knows that he’s thirsty or hungry, bringing out that smile is going to become an addiction.

++

Itey begins visiting the 7-Eleven at least twice a week, usually on the mornings when he’s the most tired, or on days when he knows Skittery is likely to be suffering sleep deprivation too. On Thursdays, for example, Skittery visits his friends for poker, and is usually stressed out about money by the night’s shift. Come Friday morning, his faculties are stretched so thin and tight he’s like a guitar string, all humming with nervous energy.

Itey likes to pluck Skittery a little sometimes, watch him freak out and start knocking things over or reciting long-practiced diatribes about the world’s failings, but it’s only because Itey takes such great satisfaction in winding Skittery back down again; in knowing that Skitts finds comfort in him.

It’s a little intoxicating, like watching the stars disappear into the purple-golden haze of morning.

++

In late July, Itey picks up a pretty wicked cold and takes a night off from work. He sends his room-mate Jake to pick up ibuprofen and packets of red Kool-Aid, and settles in for a sleepless night of television reruns and YouTube.

Jake returns from the store with a knowing grin on his face and a bag full of Thera-Flu and Sudafed and Nyquil and herbal tea and cold compresses and all matter of superfluous cold care. Itey stares up at him questioningly as he dumps the stuff all over their makeshift stacked-crate coffee table.

"Didn’t have to pay for any of it," Jake says, all smirky and amused. "Somebody’s gay for you at 7-Eleven."

Itey’s never been embarrassed of showing off exactly what he’s feeling at any given time, and this occasion is no exception. He beams smugly, sniffles a bit, and dismisses Jake to the kitchen to mix his Kool-Aid with a cheerful wave.

++

Itey shows up a few mornings later and Skitts is waiting, watching the time clock nervously.

"Dude, you okay?" he demands as soon as he realizes Itey’s come through the door.

Itey grabs his arm and pulls him out onto the street and makes him take in the sky.

"Sick," Skittery says, like he’s never seen a sunrise before. It surprises Itey sometimes, how few people actually notice these things.

Yeah, Itey nods, and they stand there together, watching the day begin and end simultaneously.

++

They are walking to Skittery’s studio one Wednesday when Itey begins to feel it; the ache in his bones that means rain is coming. They walk up the six flights of stairs it takes to get to Skitts’s room and by the time they reach Skittery’s front door, Itey is achy and miraculously sleepy.

He doesn’t have to go for the Post-Its for Skittery to drag an extra sheet out of his closet. Skittery drapes it over the couch, carelessly pushing throw pillows to the floor.

"Just stay," is Skittery’s simple explanation, waving vaguely in the direction of his tiny bed. Itey shakes his head; tries to get him to give up the couch, but Skitts won’t do it. He plants himself firmly on top of the sheet and refuses to move.

Itey flops down on the mattress, breathes in the peculiar spicy scent that belongs to Skittery alone, and curls into a ball. He sleeps for nine and a half hours that day, and when he finally wakes up, it’s to find Skittery asleep too, long limbs flung messily over every bit of couch they can reach.

Itey waits around; makes a strong pot of coffee the way Skitts likes it. When Skittery finally does wake up, Itey’s a bit late for his shift.

"What’re you still doing here?" Skittery asks, padding onto the strip of crumbling Formica that separates the kitchen from the rest of the room. He rubs blearily at his eyes.

Itey doesn’t say anything. Skitts gets twitchy.

"I slept finally," Skittery says at length, maybe a little grateful, watching his coffee pot fill.

Me too, Itey wants to say, but he just pats Skittery’s back instead.

++

August trickles by slow as molasses and quick as a single breath. It reminds Itey of being a high school kid spending his summers with his zia in the Bronx, wasting all of his time break dancing and smoking and flirting.

Now he wastes his time in Skittery’s little apartment, playing cards, meeting Skittery’s strange and wonderful collection of friends, eating Jell-O (the orange kind, which Skittery loves), listening to Skittery sing when Skitts thinks he isn’t listening, and even sleeping if Skittery settles down long enough to let him.

It’s late afternoon--a rare occasion when they both have the night off--and Skittery’s feeling broody and talkative. They’re sitting on Skitts’s fire escape, still in scruffy pajama bottoms, beers in hand.

"So I kinda want to go to school for, you know, composition," Skittery says idly, legs swinging back and forth off the edge of the metal platform. Itey nods. "Miss music sometimes. Fucking rent." He leans his temple on the railing; gently tugs the cigarette out of Itey’s fingers to take a drag. "You ever want to go to school?"

Itey shakes his head no; mouths, I wanted to dance.

"Dance?" Skittery passes the cigarette. "You dance?"

Itey shrugs. He doesn’t have much of a chance to these days. Sang too, a little. Wasn‘t very good, he mouths lazily. He doesn’t really care if Skittery catches that last part, but it feels dishonest somehow if he doesn‘t say anything.

Skittery does catch it, of course. Skittery catches everything. "You did?" Something dark and sad passes over his face.

Itey just laughs a bit, though, and cracks out the Post-Its. It’d been a stupid accident, a really stupid accident, but stupid accidents happen. He’d been fifteen, drunk, and out of control. They were at a house party (he can’t even remember where anymore), and there had been a chandelier, and he’d been dared to climb it. He did--Itey’s always been the type to seize the day; latch on to every opportunity to live--and it turned out the ceiling wasn’t designed to support both his and the chandelier’s weight. His neck suffered the consequences, and he was damn lucky he made it out alive, much less able to feel his toes, walk, or--miraculously--dance. His voice had been the smallest price to pay, and luckily (besides a slight scratch to his pride) the only one.

i am too happy to care now Itey pens in conclusion. life is too good to worry about the bad things

Skittery stares at the paper in his hands, taking in the twists and turns of Itey’s sloppy handwriting. He still looks a little heartbroken, so Itey ruffles his hair.

"No big deal," he grinds out in the mess that is his scratchy, breathy, toneless voice. Maybe it’s a little cruel, but Itey has a plan. Sure enough, Skittery looks even more shocked, and maybe a little traumatized, and a lot like he needs to be kissed.

So Itey does kiss him. He isn’t at all surprised at the way Skittery’s arms instantly wind around his waist, tugging him close enough that he can feel the drumbeat of Skittery’s racing heart reverberating in his own chest.

When they break apart, Skittery is breathless and accusatory.

"You did that on purpose. You are so manipulative," Skittery whines, lips puffy and bruised, just the way Itey wants them. "Was that story even true?"

Itey nods in a quite self-satisfied manner (You’re welcome.), so Skittery attacks his sides with vengeful, dancing fingertips.

++

Autumn’s first breath is a shock, ending a stifling week-long heat wave with sly bursts of cool wind. It’s a Monday, plain as any; as Itey wraps up nightly inventory, Skittery is counting out his register for the next cashier.

It’s still dark when Itey arrives to pick Skittery up, and he’s got goosebumps creeping from under his shirtsleeves. Skittery yawns at him in greeting.

"Don’t think we’ve walked home when it was this dark before," Skittery says, tossing the jacket he’s brought for Itey over the counter. Itey catches it; shrugs into it with a grateful nod. He isn’t very good at worrying about things like fickle, quick-changing weather, but that’s what he’s got Skittery for now. They grab a few boxes of Jell-O and three packets of Kool-Aid; Skittery’s manager waves good night to them and disappears into the back again once they leave.

They take their time getting home, drinking in the moonlight, staring up at the few bright stars visible from the already awakening street. They’ve got a good seven minutes before the sun appears again.

"It’ll be like this til Spring, now," Skittery says, slipping his fingers between Itey’s. He swallows; stares resolutely sky-ward. "You gonna stick around ‘til then?"

A pleasant, warm, slightly anxious feeling courses through Itey’s blood, and he presses up a little closer into Skittery’s side. He doesn’t need Post-Its to convey how happy such a simple question makes him, and Skittery doesn’t need to say anything in response to show he’s understood.

When they crawl into Skittery’s little bed together, the blankets are striped by September light peeking in through the blinds. Neither of them have any trouble falling asleep.

Back.