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The two of them sit on the curb across the street from the Fun Church listening to the Christian rock jamming out the stained-glass windows. It’s that day: the perfect one between spring and summer that everyone in Chicago waits for. No humidity. No clouds. The grass has reached its greenest. The rehearsal of music that they’d both normally hate sounds pleasant. And the potential for that afternoon in the sun is overwhelming infinite. So they sit on the curb with their backs to Wicker Park scattered with other single people sunbathing and playing chess and softball and Frisbee. But they are not happy.

“We should do some magic maybe,” she suggests, resting her head on his shoulder. “Like go to one of those Mexican witch-crafty shops on Milwaukee Ave and get some candles and herbs and maybe some other stuff to cast a spell.”

“You want to go in La Botanica? Ew, it looks so creepy…” he says, resting his head on hers. “All those dusty saints and stinky smells. Wait. What kind of spell?”

“You know: to make guys fall in love with us. Smart guys.”

“Hot smart guys.”

“Cool hot smart guys.”

“Do you know how to cast a spell?” he asks, completely doubtful of the idea, but fully willing to have an adventure.

“Well, no. But who says we can’t write our own magic?”

“We’ll each make up an incantation.”

“They’ll be top secret.”

“For our eyes only.”

“We won’t ever tell anyone.”

“I need magic underwear so when I go to Boystown I can–” And that’s where he stops, because he doesn’t ever go to the gay neighborhood and he doesn’t know what magic underwear would grant him.

“Yes! I need a sexy magic bra!” She likes saying it out loud. “Let’s go shopping!”

“To the Botanica?”

“No, we’ll go to Myopic Bookstore and see if they have a section on magic…”

He hops up and dusts his palms off, then reaches down for her hand, glancing quickly at the smattering of single men in the dog park not speaking to each other. They continue concocting the plan as they walk away, laughing. She threads her arm through the crook of his elbow as they set off. By sunset, they’ve bought expensive underwear and a tattered used book full of imaginary animals and poems pondering love. They set their purchases under their chairs on the patio outside their favorite restaurant and drink margaritas, their matching Moleskin journals and pens at the ready, as they inspire each other to spells that might get them loved the way they want to be loved. Both will head home tipsy and alone and to bed early. There will be no incantations. The book will end up on a shelf in her house and the underwear will continue to be underwear.

 

Their summer fills with galleries and museums and concerts and performances and vodka and tonic. He gets tan riding his bike on the Lakeshore path. Her blond hair lightens and glistens, especially after a vacation spent on the beach. As autumn arrives, they are still both single. There have been no dates. Neither one realizes that both of them are clueless about dating and even worse about giving the other advice. Both have switched to bourbon. Both sit on bar stools. She leans against his thigh, staring out the window at the hipster boys with their tattoos covered in tight sweaters and thrifted scarves. She sighs. He pats her hand and tries to catch the straight bartender’s eye, not knowing what he’d do if he caught it.

“I’ve figured it out,” he says, looking away from the man’s muscled arms.

“Figured out what?”

“I’m too fat to date,” he says. “That’s the problem.”

“Me too,” she says watching one of her recent one-night-stands catch the North Avenue bus. She doesn’t realize that couple of the guys she’s slept with think they’re dating her. He doesn’t realize that he’s dating his best friend.

“Yeah, but it’s different for me, because I’m gay.” He gives her a look.

“Oh, like you’re judged for your appearance and I’m not?” She gives him a look.

“Well, sure, we’re both judged too harshly…,” he says and they grow silent.

Both of them are the skinniest they’ll be in their lives.

 

That winter, they both finally get dates. His is of the blind kind. Hers is a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend. His Date is tall and slender which only makes him feel fatter. They meet in The Loop at new bar that will be shut down by the city in few months for a rat infestation. They sit by a window that has a clear downtown view of neon and elevated train tracks. The Date is a window dresser. He orders them both cocktails that come in what looks like a flower vases. That is why The Date wants to meet there, that and the half-off nacho platters. Midway through their drinks and nachos, the electricity goes out all around them, for blocks. They laugh. The bartender lights candles. The darkness makes the moment special enough for them to kiss. They’ll sleep together that night, but they won’t call each other. “A power outage isn’t enough to make a second date,” he tells her the next morning.

“Totally.” She supports him, but doesn’t really understand what that means.

“Besides, he didn’t have a single book in his house,” he adds.

That she understands.

Her Date has a tattooed sleeve of Where The Wild Things Are, smokes Dunhill cigarettes from a gold pack, and DJ/bartends at Subterranean. They ride the bus so far north that she thinks they’ve left the city. He takes her to Moody’s for burgers and the room is so dark she thinks they could have sex on the table and no one would notice. She wants to have sex with him. Her Date has read Italo Calvino and watched every kung fu movie she has. But they don’t have sex that night. They say good night with a hug and she’s confused. “I need you to meet the guy,” she tells him the next morning. “He’s so confusing.”

“We’ll go tonight. I’ll be your wingman,” he tells her but he’s a very bad wingman.

And when he sees Her Date spinning records in the dark, he tells her, “Honestly, I think he’s too ugly for you. He kinda looks like one of those troll dolls with all the crazy hair.” Honestly, he thinks no one would be good enough for her. She never sees Her Date again.

 

It’s summer again and the weather is finally perfect again, but only for a few days, and they are still not happy. In fact, she is beginning to think it’s the way she smells; that she is giving off some pheromones or something that warn men she’s undateable. She has changed all of her lotions and perfumes. She’s doubled their applications. And no matter what she does, the men just stare at her blankly, in the bars and on the street and in her graduate classes. So finally she stops wearing them all together. She’s so embarrassed by this, she won’t even tell him. And she tells him everything.

He has begun to believe in God. Though he won’t even admit it, he thinks that Mr/Ms Devine Power has made a decision on his behalf, a proclamation about his lot in life. S/He of the capital S/H has decided to give him everything he’s ever wanted—a good job, a nice home, a great family, fantastic friends, an awesome best friend, even the coolest city ever to live in—but he of lowercase h will forever be unloved. How the hell do I speak something so depressing?

They’re at the Andersonville Midsommarfest standing in the crowd watching the band, Bumpus, rock out while they drink rum out of whole pineapples. He taps his foot. She bobs her head. They smile at each other knowingly. They’ve seen the band play so many times and so much has happened while watching Bumpus. He puts his arm around her and laughs. Without asking he takes the maraschino cherry off the toothpick-umbrella on her drink. She hates cherries. They freak her out a little. She doesn’t thank him, because he’s done this so many times.

Over the music, she suddenly shouts, “I’ve figured it out!”

“What?!”

“Why we’re always single!”

“Awesome!”

“It’s us!”

“Us?!”

For a long time, he’s thought that he’s wiser than she is, because he confuses youth for ignorance. He’s only beginning to figure out that she’s wise in ways he’d never thought about.

“Yeah! I think we look like we’re dating each other!”

“Really!?”

“Yeah! And I think we need to not do that!”

The band begins playing ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ and both of them cheer. “Bookmark!” They both yell, their understanding that a topic needs to be revisited later. Then they dance, and later, as they walk along Clark Street looking at all the venders’ jewelry and postcards and candles, she continues from the bookmark. “What I think is that we need code names.”

“Okay!” He flips through a rack of witty t-shirts and stops at one that says:
 I’m not gay, but my boyfriend is.

“Seriously.”

“Okay, seriously.”

“See, if we had code names then we could use them when we’re around someone we like.”

“Huh. But what would the code name tell us?”

“Like ‘don’t touch me’ sort of.”

“Or they’re our alter-egos. We’re like spies!”

“We’re undercover. We’re playing siblings.”

“Yes, you’re my sister. What’s your name?”

“And then when I call you by your codename, you call me ‘Sis’ real loud.”

“Or if I use yours, you talk really loud about how you talked to Mom on the phone today and she asked about me.”

“Exactly, so like say I meet this great guy,” she points to a tall slender guy in a t-shirt that says “I MAKE THINGS” who’s in line to buy a brat and who has been eyeing her since Bumpus stopped playing, “and I say–wait– What are our code names?”

They walk awhile, tossing out ideas. The guy with the brat fades into the crowd. Finally, as they reach the end of the festival and begin to feel their skin burning a bit, they agree upon their code names. They are satisfied–not happy, but satisfied–as they head back to their neighborhood not holding hands. They have a plan. Something to keep them moving. Even though the plan won’t work, it’ll keep them going until suddenly life jumps in and surprises them in ways they couldn’t possibly plan.

J. Adams Oaks J. ADAMS OAKS is the author of the Booklist-starred novel, WHY I FIGHT (A Richard Jackson Book, Simon and Schuster), which is a Junior Library Guild Selection and won awards from the National Society of Arts and Letters, Friends of American Writers, Illinois Arts Council, and has been included in the “2010 ALA Best Books For Young Adults” and “Texas Tayshas Reading List.” His short fiction appears in River Oak Review, Cellstories, The Madison Review, as well as The Way We Sleep and Windy City Queer Anthologies, and has been featured on Chicago Public Radio. He currently lives in Chicago, where he is a performer, curator, editor for the 2nd Story storytelling series. He is hard at work on his second novel.

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