The phone call didn’t go as Henley planned. But then, what ever does?
To calm himself down, he played an ambient channel through his computer speakers and drew the blinds to spill a few razors of white gold across the floor. He thought about having a beer to loosen himself up, then decided he didn’t want to be too loose with someone he was still trying to impress.
First he asked Éibhlín how they built a smartphone big enough for her to use; she explained it’s more a large console the titans wear on their head for calls, about the size of his dorm room. He looked around his environment, trying to estimate her beautiful head sitting in it. That led to what he would do to her, if he had her lovely face so close in his personal space, those glacial blue eyes that smiled so hard on their own, and his pulse fell down the stairs and he coughed to steady his voice.
“There was just something you said the other day,” he offered, trying to regain control through a redirect. “You’re not animals. What did that mean?”
“I don’t recall,” Éibhlín said too blithely.
“I mean, humans are technically animals, primates. Are you saying that… your people…”
“You can call us titans.”
“Is that how you refer to yourselves?”
“It’s good enough. It’s not offensive yet.”
“Are you saying that titans aren’t primates? Or something?”
There was a crash on the other end of the line. “I guess I don’t know exactly what you’re asking.”
“You okay? Something happen over there?”
“Conall wants the phone, but Duibhne has it next.” That last bit was called out away from the mouthpiece.
“How many, um, titans live over there?”
“Lots, we come and go. Different assignments and stuff.”
“What’s the turnover like for your job?”
There was a pause, during which Henley thought he heard machinery or heavy vehicles. “About ten years.”
“I’ve only seen maybe five of you at the farmer’s market. Are there more?”
“Yeah, we help out with government work and construction, all sorts of things. There’s a lot of us, we’re always in demand.”
“And you’re not people?”
“Henny, don’t be mean.”
Sitting on the edge of his bed, he turned and stretched out in the rumpled linens that needed changing a month ago. He wondered if he was being too pushy, “but, sorry, I just don’t understand what that means.”
“It was just a dumb comment. I’m a terrible conversationalist. Can we please drop it? I wanted to see you tonight.”
He sat bolt upright. “Tonight? Oh, man… um, sure! I’d love to. We could go for a walk down by the river, or what were you thinking?”
“You’ve got something else going on? It sounds like you have other plans.”
Shit, he thought. Legs for days, lips to curl up in, and perspicacious as hell. Watch your fucking step, son. “It’s easy to cancel, don’t worry about it.”
“No, I don’t want to take you away from your life. Believe me, I know how important these moments are.” If his ears didn’t trick him, she said this with the weight with which he would have warned a friend from a dangerous part of town.
“It’s not that big a deal, really! Just a thing some people were maybe going to do. It’s really nothing to bail, and if I go, I’ll just mope about how I could have, should have been with you.”
“Go to it. See your friends, I mean that. We’ll do something another time, I pro—”
“I would cut off my leg and set fire to my dorm to be with you.”
Another long pause. “What?”
“Shit. Um, psyche.”
“Why your leg?”
His armpits prickled with sweat. “I’m just messing with you. Hyperbole. I’m into absurdist humor. Guess I got a little dark.”
“Please don’t cut off your leg.”
“But the arson of a thousand college students is still on the table?”
“Let me look at them first.”
“…Sorry, dropped my phone.”
“That cracked you up? That was so stupid. You’re easy.”
“So you’d respect me more if I bailed on you and went off and did whatever dumb thing with my friends?”
“Who needs respect. Sounds self-defeatist. I’ll be at the Commons in ten minutes.”
“Henley, really. Go be with your friends. I can’t make it either.”
“While we were talking, I got a message from Meadhbh.”
“Who’s Maeve? Have I met her?”
“No, she doesn’t show up for the markets. She’s more like our boss. I guess she needs to see me about something, so we really do have to reschedule.”
“All right, I get it. Let the record show I tried.”
“Like a warrior.”
Keeping his voice light, Henley wrapped up the conversation with tentative plans for tomorrow afternoon or evening, but swore darkly once he confirmed his phone was properly hung up. “Just one little fucking I want,” he muttered, “and the world moves mountains in my way. And who the fuck is Meadhbh? Who could boss the titans around? He got up and yanked the dirty sheets off his stupid mattress, wadded them up and tossed them at the laundry basket by the armoire. Another titan, he guessed, but how freakin’ powerful would that titan have to be. At the same time, it was weirdly normalizing to realize that Éibhlín and Doireann and them also had a boss, just like he did. Even if Éibhlín didn’t see themselves as humans. He wanted to know what that meant, but he sensed it was a sensitive topic and he was proud of himself for picking up on that. Maybe he wasn’t hopeless.
The laundry was running in the dorm basement, his window was opened to freshen up the room (it was insidious how squalor could sneak up on a guy), and Henley was slouching across campus to his weekly hangout with Cobie and them. They watched sports and got heavily buzzed at Arafa Brewing, a block from the library. Henley wasn’t into “sportsball” but they had some great flatbread pizzas on rotation that he looked forward to, and once in a while he could pull someone aside for a substantial conversation. He looked up and watched salmon-colored clouds catch the early sunset against the sky-blue sky, in one second admiring how picture-perfect they appeared, and in the next, regretting it was one more moment he missed out on sharing with Éibhlín.
He didn’t hear the footsteps rush up behind him but spun around with a hand gripped his shoulder. His fist was pulled back before he knew it, but he relaxed when he found himself face-to-face with some hipster-looking fuck.
“Leave her alone.” The serious tone did not match the stylized spectacles and curled mustache with goatee. The face would’ve gone better with a ukulele and whistling.
“You need to learn how to approach people. I nearly…” It felt unnatural for Henley to describe what act of violence he was about to do to someone. Like when he nearly attacked Cobie: that was new, it was not him. “Look, sorry, there’ve been a lot of muggings on campus and shit. This isn’t the time to get in strangers’ grills, you know?”
The other person shifted his weight quickly but still didn’t look comfortable. “Just walk away from her, man,” he said, stretching the last vowel too long. Henley guessed he was freaking out… or just a freak.
He squared his shoulders and let his arms hang. “Let’s pretend I don’t know what you’re talking about. What are you trying to say?”
“That girl? You were talking to? She’s supposed to be mine!” The man did a strange rocking thing on the balls of his feet, then backed up half a step.
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about.” Henley made a show of losing interest and turning to leave.
“The girl, the giant girl. You know, the other day, down in the woods.”
Henley blinked. “Wait a minute. You’re that jackass.”
The man flinched. “What?”
“You’re that asshole that tried to tell me Éibhlín belongs to you.” Henley stepped closer. “She doesn’t know you, and you don’t know anything about her. You don’t own her, and you don’t fucking tell me to transfer her to you like property.”
“But she’s supposed to be with me!” The man’s shoulders rounded and his tone turned whiny.
“I don’t see how this is my problem, there, guy.”
“All my life, I’ve been fantasizing about meeting one of these titans. They’re all over, building buildings, repairing rivers, doing promotional displays for sports.” The man bit his lip, and his fingers curled and curled by his sides. “I’ve just… always wanted to meet one! I’ve just wanted to get close and talk to one.”
“Wait, fantasizing? Is this, like, a sexual kink for you?”
“No, no, it’s not just that! I really want to be with one! I’ve been trying to find a way to get close and work up the courage to…”
“You’ve never talked to a titan before?”
The man frowned, and his handlebar mustache accented the sad-clown look. “They’re really intimidating. And what if they didn’t like me? They can kill you without even trying.” His eyes closed slowly, opened slowly. “But I was just about to talk to one, and then you swooped in and took her away.”
Henley jerked in surprise. “What, Éibhlín? I didn’t take anyone away. We’re just getting to know each other.”
“You don’t deserve her! You don’t appreciate her like I do, you can’t!” The hipster bounced on his feet again. “You have to tell her about me and tell her to meet me. This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life! She belongs with me, not you!”
Henley blew out a long breath. “You’re an awkward, lonely dork. Stay away from me. And it sounds like you know what’ll happen if you bother her.” He turned and walked off, listening hard for footsteps rushing up behind him, but the strange man only called out a couple swears and that was the end of that for Henley.
Cobie and friends welcomed him when he showed up at the brewpub, and there was kimchi pizza with slow-roasted pork waiting for him along with a pitcher of Praegradis IPA; he ordered himself a milk stout to settle down with. The others turned to watch people in one kind of outfit running around with people in another kind of outfit, but Cobie pulled up a stool by his friend. “Everything okay?”
Henley’s laugh tripped on its way out the door. “Ran into some kind of psycho on the way here.”
“No, just…” He glanced at the others, but everyone was rapt with the screens. He took a long pull of stout and held it in his mouth, letting it cool his skull. “Some guy we ran into. Éibhlín and I were taking a walk by the parkway. Tried to tell me that she belongs to him or something.”
Cobie laughed. “Who owns a titan? What’d he want?”
Tearing off two side pieces of flatbread pizza, Henley explained the story as well as he could, the first encounter and today’s run-in. Cobie agreed that the guy was an asshole, but also contributed “a fetishist.”
“Like people who can only get off on one thing. Like that documentary we saw about the guy who’s attracted to his car or that woman who tried to marry a wall.”
“That’s a mental illness.”
Cobie shrugged. “The heart wants what it wants. But it sounds like this guy’s way too intense about it. He’s into titans, and even though he’d never go up and talk to one if you held a gun to his head, now he’s pissed that you just stumble up and befriend one.”
“That sounds like his problem. I’m not going to tell Éibhlín to go out with him. Shit, I wouldn’t do that to anyone I liked, the guy’s a hot mess.” Henley picked at the tough edge crust, separating it from the area with toppings, forgetting to eat any of it. “What do I do if I run into him again?”
“Go after him like you did me. Sounds like he’d go down in one.”
“That’s another thing: what the fuck? Why did I step up to you? That’s not me. I don’t have a violent bone in my body.” Freed of the edge crust, the pizza slice got rolled up into a mini burrito for Henley to gnaw at, looking without looking at the struggle on the TVs. “I’m feeling imbalanced lately. I don’t recognize myself, not this new stuff.”
The copper-haired pal grinned hugely. “Sounds like my man’s in love.”
“Really? Love makes me want to send my best friend to the hospital?”
Cobie stared. “You wouldn’t.”
“I don’t know, man, I don’t feel like myself. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Cobie nudged him with his shoulder. “Get your shit together, guy. Relax, get enough sleep. Go do some hobby you like, like burying yourself in the library. Ask… Eileen out again. Don’t let some back-alley French mime sweep her off her Volkswagon-size feet.”
“We were gonna hang out tonight—” Henley pinched his mouth and looked away.
“But you came out here instead? Are you fucking insane?”
Henley looked at the last bite of pizza, rolled up between his thumb and finger. “I told you, we’re not supposed to use ‘insane’ like—”
“Get out of here! Go get your girl! This is just preseason, you can afford to miss this.”
Henley shrugged. “Her boss called her away, too. We couldn’t meet if we wanted to.”
Cobie’s eyebrows shot up. “The titans have a boss? You’re already learning more about them than I ever knew.” He leaned in, grinning. “You thinking maybe you’re into them, too? You got a fetish?”
Henley rolled his eyes and grabbed his beer and told his friend to go back to the game, but Cobie was already yelling about something on the screen. He finished his slices, and when the BBQ chicken pizza came out, he tore a couple slices off of that while everyone’s backs were turned. The idea that titans weren’t human rolled around heavily in his skull, while he plucked thin rings of pepperoncini out of the sweet Memphis sauce. That was probably something he shouldn’t share with Cobie.
He did think about Éibhlín’s large toes, wiggling in their industrial-strength sandals, and the way her muscular thighs rubbed against each other within her skirt. He thought about what it would be like to hug her leg, like hugging another person, and what it would be like to be squeezed between those legs. Gently, of course, Éibhlín wouldn’t want to hurt him… but maybe he’d want to be hurt. A little, maybe. By her legs.
He picked up his pint glass and swirled the last half-swallow in the bottom, watching the thick, chocolate-milk foam churn. Was he a titan fetishist? What would that mean? What would be the difference between that and wanting to make out with Éibhlín? Were the ideas inextricable?
No, of course they were. He went out with a woman once just because she had big tits. That didn’t make him a boob fetishist. Did it? Nah. He also dated a woman who had a great sense of humor and wrote incredible music. Why didn’t that make him a music fetishist? It was the difference between dating someone who has these traits, and dating someone strictly because of these traits, that was obvious. But that laid the question open: was he into Éibhlín because she’s Éibhlín, like, would he pursue her if she were normal-sized?
Yeah, he would. Doireann was hot, but Henley felt nothing with her outside of heightened self-preservation. But would he date Éibhlín if she didn’t have those laughing eyes and that bright, sharp grin? There was that long phone call with her this afternoon, he couldn’t see her during that. Except that wasn’t quite true: he could envision her expressions at certain turns of phrase. He could picture the way her nose wrinkled when she laughed at his stupid jokes. Éibhlín was very, very present with him on the phone, he could see her.
But did he see her-her, or did he picture himself talking up to a mountain of a woman? That was a harder question to answer, and he wasn’t sure why it was so hard.
Would he ever be able to make love to a normal-sized woman? The answer to that was just to date Éibhlín forever, obviously…
Henley ordered a stronger beer and shut off his mind by staring at the little people running around on the screen.