It’s dark in the movie theater and Martin’s throat is tight because of some dumb chick flick. The little boy just tumbled over on the playground — the juice is spilled and everyone is laughing — but Martin only sits, cheeks wet, and stares at the unfamiliar silhouettes in the rows ahead. He breathes out softly and tries to keep the tears balanced on his lashes. On screen, a woman in a pink blouse begins to brush mulch out of her son’s hair. Clasping Kate’s hand just a little tighter, Martin watches the smile on her glossed lips fade with the audience’s giggles. Kate’s movements are gentle; she draws Martin’s arm into her lap, then reaches into her purse and nudges a tissue into his other hand. For the remainder of the movie, Martin focuses on the cotton of her shirt and the flickering lights on the walls, taking in the snug press of her fingers against his palm.
They slip out of the cinema just before the credits start to roll. Pushing through the glass doors, Martin’s head pounds and his eyes sting, but he smiles as Kate hums beside him, adjusting her camera strap against the plush neckline of her sweater. She leads Martin through the damp evening glow, searching for the clouds in big puddles. Shuffling ahead in her sandals, Kate snaps portraits of Martin in the hazy reflections. Afterwards, they look through the camera roll together.
“You look the best in this pink one,” she decides, shifting her grip on the camera to tuck one arm around his angled hips. “You look soft, somehow.” The screen is small, but Martin takes in the slouch of his brows, the unsteady curve of his mouth, the hunched arc of his shoulder blades. Soft. Martin shuts his eyes against the colors on the screen and hears his father’s voice, the splintering of wood. Tightening her arm slightly, Kate draws Martin out of the depths and down the glistening street.
“There’s nothing wrong with soft, Martin.”
Martin watches the asphalt passing beneath his shoes. Now is not the time to tell her about the torn canvases or trash bags full of paint in his memory. He leans into her, just to let her know that he heard. Smiling down at the camera screen and nestling the back of her head against Martin’s shoulder, Kate begins to hum again.
Long after she has gone for the night, in the pulled-taut stretches of quiet, Martin locks the door to his room and draws — draws monkey bars and wood chips and grease stains on plastic slides — and he draws, and he draws. But nothing fills the loud spaces in his head like the soft hums of the hazy-pink evening, together with her.
“Tell me that story again, the one about Benny.”
Martin lifts his eyes from the photo in his hand. Morning sunlight seeps through the curtains behind Kate, scattering rounded panels of pale yellow across Martin’s torso on the bed. She watches him expectantly from her perch on the desk and smoothes her deck of new prints along the wooden surface. Dropping the photo onto her desk with a sigh, Martin feels the crunch of his knuckles against the crack of Benny’s chin. Takes in the noise, the violence.
“It was ninth grade,” he says. “I punched him in the face.” Curling back onto the sheets, Martin remembers the empty inside of him, feels it grow bigger than her voice and the sweet smell of her pillow against his head.
Kate, shoulders small under the creases of her T-shirt, nods like he’s said it all out loud. “Right — but why?”
Martin closes his eyes and he’s 16 and lunchless again, hunched in the hallway as he walks past the other boys and their harsh calls. Pussy, they jeer as he turns early corners to avoid them. Gay, they hoot at his long hair and loose sweatshirts. Their voices seem to grow louder with every millimeter that Martin’s head droops, heavier with each new ravine that forms between his ribs. On the worst days, Martin draws holes into his sketchbook, swirling the graphite until they grow to the size of his fists.
“Martin?” Kate brushes his shoulder. “You’re doing that thing again.” His hands twitch; he wants to take a pencil from her desk, just to have it between his fingers. Instead he takes a long breath, pulling his palms through tangled hair.
“I was hungry,” he says on the exhale, nothing more. Nodding, Kate snicks a piece of tape from the dispenser and spreads a photo onto the cream-colored wall. When she doesn’t push for more, Martin swallows around the sore lump in his throat. Over Kate’s lilted tunes, he hears the smash of a tennis shoe on his unfinished painting, remembers carving into his sketchbook until the fibers frayed and the fringe tore loose. He feels the chill of daybreak and the weight of the trash bags over his shoulders on the walk to school. His fist had begun to swing long before Benny or the other boys had even spoken a word.
Kate stops humming, dispersing the images in Martin’s mind. “You always skip right to the important parts of your stories,” she says, reaching over the desk as she looks at him. She grasps at the film paper for a while, then holds up the next portrait.
“You think I should hang this one upside down, so you look right side up?” It’s the pink photo from last week. Martin shrugs. “Upside down it is.”
A few more scissor snips, a muted pat against the plaster. The lull of filled silence. Martin’s mind settles and wanders until a gentle, sloping weight on the edge of the bed makes him open his eyes. Kate runs a finger down his concave wrists, hair falling smoothly across her shoulders. Tilting his head to face her, he takes in the gentle slope of her cheeks and the chestnut glow in her eyes.
“Martin,” she starts, and he can tell from the crease between her brows that he doesn’t want to hear the rest. “I think you should talk to him soon.” A torrent of voices crescendos inside of Martin, so violently that he feels that Kate must hear them, too.
“This isn’t the kind of thing that you should be ashamed of in the first place,” she tells him, following his knuckles to the veins of his hand. “I don’t know who gave you the idea.” Martin keeps his eyes open, unwilling to be left alone with the tumult behind his eyelids.
“Why don’t you talk to Hunter first, ask him to support you?” Hunter, all thick wrists and bulging angles, the elder brother, the man. Hunter, who had grown into the replicated image of their father. Martin’s answer is to pull his arms away from Kate’s delicate hands.
“Martin, please.” She chases his fingers, clasps them in her own. “Talk to me. Don’t keep avoiding it.” He stares at the tender hues on the wall.
“He’s your dad,” Kate pushes. “He loves you, he’ll get it.” She gestures to Martin’s backpack, slumped against the desk. “Just show him your sketchbook.” Shaking his head, Martin wills his breath to settle smoothly over the skip of his heartbeat. He wants to tell Kate that there are some things that just won’t budge, that Dad isn’t Benny, that a single punch can’t right all the wrongs and disappointments of Martin’s soft little world. Instead he doesn’t say a word, just fixates on the faded ripples on the wall, fixates until the bed slopes upward again and his hands are cold and her humming is gone. She leaves the deck of photos on the wall, muted portraits of Martin from every angle.
When Christmas comes, Martin tries to play the prodigal son. When no comfort comes, he runs out the door, as far as he can with one swelling eye. His bare wrists tremble as he calls Kate, as he waits to hear the soothing lilt of her voice. Instead, blame pours from his lips — blame for her, for Dad, for Hunter, for all the things that made him soft and then told him he couldn’t be. And he doesn’t stop, because that is the only way he knows to keep the tears from coming. When Martin’s voice breaks, the dial tone fills the quiet.
A week later, Kate presses a gentle touch to the fading blues and yellows on his cheek.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I’m sorry, Martin.” Still, she goes. She goes and, lost amongst the voices, Martin searches for all the words he needs, the ones that he has misplaced. He searches for so long that he forgets what they were. So instead Martin draws and he draws, draws until his veins are bulging nooses, until his rib cage is a jagged ladder. When he runs out of white space and the ink has run dry, he imagines instead. He imagines the boy in the mulch, the laughter, the parent who came running. He imagines the sons that he will raise and the playground they will grow up in. He imagines what he will teach them, how he will pass on what he knows best — how he will pass on the only thing that he knows. And before his sons are boys, he will raise them into men.