fiction

The Low Countries

A young deli worker named Carson spends a day with with an actor in town to promote a film.

Illustration: Jarvis Boyland
Illustration: Jarvis Boyland
Illustration: Jarvis Boyland

The actor was in town with a small film he had directed and starred in, based on a novella by a recent workshop grad. The whole thing had a fizzy, hometown air about it. The actor had been seen the night before at one of the Ped Mall bars, and now he was sitting in the bookshop café, sunglasses on, drinking espresso and seltzer.

Carson thought the actor looked utterly incongruous with the rest of the town in his lightweight navy blazer and black skinny jeans. He smelled like an expensive cologne, all musk and bitterness. The actor was about 39 or 40, and while he no longer looked ageless, as he once had, he might still reasonably pass, with the right makeup and lighting, as someone in their mid-20s. But in the weird, angular light of the café, he just looked tired.

“I liked your movie,” Carson said, passing the table on his way to the long bench at the back of the café.

“Oh, thanks,” he said. “It’s not really my movie, you know. Group effort.”

It was the sort of polite, bland thing you might say after Sunday school while the youth pastor was watching. A way of deflecting a compliment that was full of virtue and had no real feeling. The actor looked up, and Carson’s reflection swam in his shades. He had a tiny tear at the neck of his white pocket tee, and his black jeans were going white at the crotch.

“Well, I liked it.”

What did you like?”

The movie was about a young man who had grown up in Coralville and lived in one of those stretches of duplex subdivisions, all white paneling and cheap railing. It featured a lot of shots of windblown grass and steel-blue twilight falling with the yellow windows of homes illuminated at odd angles. The young man smoked and drank with friends in the gully behind the subdivision. He drifted through his high school with much undisclosed angst and pain. His homelife was tense and shot through with pointed silences. His father worked at a factory of some kind and his mother smoked menthols on their balcony. The actor played a teacher, new to town and struggling to fit in. The young man and the teacher began an illicit relationship, at first telegraphed only by a series of long-held shots focusing on their lips or their hands, scenes of increasing frequency until there was a consummation of their desire in a swimming-pool locker room. Then the film dissolved into a series of lyrical, gestural shots: students walking in slow-mo down hallways, people drinking beer in Walmart parking lots, the trees dark overhead as the young man and the teacher talked about their feelings and their desire to be somewhere else. Then, in a crucial moment, the young man’s mother saw them coming out of the gully, and the movie turned into one of those preachy gospels about Middle American values. The teacher left the town, and the young man killed himself.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Carson said. “It just. Felt great. I really liked it. Very immersive.”

Carson had liked the movie for the cinematography, which seemed to elevate its subject matter. It had been like watching someone else’s beautiful dream unfold. He had liked the spiky, prickly silences that filled the scenes and the spaces between characters. He had liked most of all the kind of understated, dulled wardrobe the actor wore. His denim and flannel, his boots, the way he gripped the little manuscript in his hands as he taught the students about Pericles.

The actor’s eyebrows lifted slightly, and he motioned toward the seat across from him. Carson sat. The actor pushed the glass boot of seltzer between two fingers, balancing it.

“That’s an interesting answer. Vague. But interesting, I guess. You watch a lot of movies?”

“No,” Carson said. “Work too much.”

“What do you do? You a writer?”

“No. Deli.”

“A deli? That’s a real job,” the actor said, leaning back against his chair and stretching out a little. Carson recognized the tone. The fake deference people adopted when they thought they were better than you but knew better than to say it.

“It’s a living,” Carson said.

“So you liked the feel?”

“It felt like a book.”

“It was a book. You read it?”

Carson’s face warmed. He had read the book. In one afternoon, upstairs in this very café, he had read the novella in the recently reissued collection in which the novella was first published. The new edition had a glossy, supermarket cover with a photo of the actor and the young man sprawled under the trees at night. The book had been renamed The Low Countries, after the novella that formed the basis of the film. The title came from a scene in in which the teacher called the gully where they met for sex the Low Countries, and, upon leaving, gave the young man a map of the actual Low Countries as a keepsake.

“Sure,” Carson said.

“It’s a good novella. I think what I liked most about it was that it felt immediately like a movie.”

“That’s funny,” Carson said.

The actor laughed a little, and Carson felt slightly less stupid.

“I guess. Or maybe it means we’re all just getting worse.”

“How do you mean, worse?”

“Television. Movies. The whole of it. You know? Maybe art is converging in some awful way.”

“You sound like those old commercials about moms and smoking and drunk driving.”

The actor laughed again, and Carson felt like he had scored a point in some game whose rules were so abstract that he couldn’t discern them. He looked down at his own sad latte and felt a little shocked by its presence in front of him. He became aware in that moment of how easily he had drifted out of the course of what he had meant to do and into the actor’s orbit. This was what they called charisma, he thought. The ease with which someone could slide you out of your own intentions and into theirs. The actor was watching him. Carson drank from his latte. There was a tension in the air. Not between them, exactly. But from outside of their table, people looking at them, wondering at them. Questions that would never be asked rising and falling like the shadows of leaves. But then the actor didn’t say anything else, and Carson realized that the invitation to sit at his table had been rescinded, wordlessly.

“Well, thanks for letting me take up your time,” Carson said. “I’m sure you’re busy.”

“No, a pleasure to talk to you.”

Carson stood, pushed his chair in. The actor was looking down at his phone. Carson took his coffee not to the back bench, as he had originally planned, but out of the store and into the heat of the day.

Iowa City was white with steam. Hazy and hot. Carson sat in the shade of the Ped Mall, though it did him little good because there was no breeze. Everyone sat stewing in the hot air. He tried to read an article on his phone about the governor and the new heartbeat bill that was coming up for a vote. It seemed likely that the governor was going to sign it if it came across her desk. Several of Carson’s friends were organizing a march on the Old Capitol on the Pentacrest in order to protest the injustice of the bill. The article was dry with facts, and half of it was behind a paywall, so he stopped reading after a few minutes.

A few days ago, Carson had been added to a Facebook group with logistical information for the march, and he had removed himself from it because he had to work that day and also because it was a reflex to remove himself from Facebook groups and also from group texts. But then, 15 minutes later, he had been added back. It went on that way for several hours, him taking himself out of the group and someone else he knew adding him back, until he gave up. They wouldn’t know if he went anyway. They weren’t really his friends. Carson had come to Iowa City a couple years before with a girlfriend who was no longer his girlfriend because it had turned out that she had been writing about him on a blog re: their race and their class. But before they broke up, he had gotten involved with her friends, who were mostly writers and professors of writing. Involved mostly meant that he had followed them on Facebook and Instagram, and they had followed back. But he scarcely spoke to them in reality and never online. It was also true that part of his reason for wanting out of the Facebook group was that she had been doing the organizing.

Some birds combed through the branches overhead, and Carson sighed and looked up to the shifting canopy where their dark forms darted and hopped among the green leaves, flashes of white and brown as they flicked into and out of sight.

He gave some thought to going to the river, but it would only be more humid there, the water frothed and filled with bloom and loam from upriver where they were blasting apart a hillside to widen the road. There was nothing to do for it except wait for it to break and lay down like a tired animal.

Some kids were running through the fountains farther down the Ped Mall. He could hear their high squeals of laughter. The brunch spot behind him normally would have been churning out the usual Top 40, but it had shut its doors to the heat. All the windows of the storefronts behind him were fogged with condensation. He could have gone into the grocery store, sat on the patio in the AC, but it depressed him, the idea of going in there when he didn’t have to, watching his coworkers and wondering if he looked as sad as they did when he worked. It felt too much like a zoo that way, and so on his days off, he avoided the grocery and the deli section. He chose to do his shopping on his lunch breaks, storing his groceries for the week in the back cooler and taking them home when he punched out.

He usually spent his off days walking around Iowa City, looking at the homes real people lived in, wondering about the shapes of their lives and how they had come by those shapes. At 31, Carson no longer enjoyed the provisional, improvised quality of his life in Iowa City. He had a job and he had some people he saw semi-regularly, and he had lived here long enough to accumulate a routine, things he liked and places he visited. But he lacked a reason to be here outside of simply not having enough money to leave. Carson always imagined that other people, the ones who came into the deli, the students, the professors, the admin staff, and so on, had a reason for being in Iowa City. They led with it when they introduced themselves. Their jobs. Their designations. All of it flashed out before them like a signal. But the rest of them had no signal. They were just the people behind the bar or in the deli or the café or the janitors or gas-station attendants or the post-office clerks or the people on their porches on the south end of town or the nursing aides or the receptionists. Carson felt somehow lodged between those two gravities.

So, he took walks through the neighborhoods of Iowa City and dreamed, in a way that he couldn’t break himself of entirely, about designing houses. Like when he was a kid and he’d spend hours drawing floor plans, laying out gardens, patios. For his birthday when he turned 12, one of his aunts bought him a computer game that was, ostensibly, about simulating real life, but in Carson’s hands, it was all about the architecture. Building out homes, designing individual rooms for all of the little people to carry out their imaginary lives. He spent hours on that game, installing it each time his computer broke and had to be wiped and restored.

The game had put out more iterations, each update making the digital people more human. Adding new dimensions to their lives. Giving them jobs. Giving them diseases. Introducing socializing across the internet. Introducing calamities. Magic. Pets. What was it, Carson wondered, that made people think that simulating humanity had to do with the accumulation of responsibilities? The way Carson played the game, he just made houses. He didn’t even design people to go into them. He loved to imagine the immaculate, perfect shape of a house. Its roof, its drainage system. Figuring the elevation, how to smooth down the lumps in the terrain, how to build in the foundation. Where the windows should go. That’s what the game lacked, he thought. Every lot within the game was bathed in light that was perfect no matter what you did. It came from every direction, and you didn’t have to consider east or west, north or south. There were no consequences once you got past basic space calculations, making sure they had enough room for their stuff. Nothing mattered.

But out on his walks, he enjoyed thinking through how the architects had solved the problems in elevation. How they had imagined the water would flow when it rained or flooded. How they’d reasoned their way to this kind of gate or that kind of stairway. The dimensions of the porches, the pitch of the roofs. The windows. All of it. He walked the shady cobbled pathways of the outer edge of the city, and among the smaller, stiffer houses of the south side. He took it all in on his days off, dreaming, imagining.

It was too hot to walk the neighborhoods, though. Too hot to do anything except sit and boil in his own sweat. His eyelids grew heavy. He felt his head tilting back farther and farther. He would close his eyes for just a moment. Rest a little. Just a minute.

“Well, hello, stranger,” someone said. It was the actor. He had his blazer slung over his shoulder. He wore a white shirt that was damp under the arms from sweat, the sleeves rolled and capped neatly.

“Oh, hey,” Carson said, feeling like he’d just surfaced from some deep, thick nap.

“You’re going to get heatstroke out here.”

“I’m from Alabama,” Carson said. “This is nothing.”

“Tell that to your shirt,” the actor said, nudging with his jaw in the direction of Carson’s chest and stomach, where the fabric was soaked through entirely. How long had he been asleep?

“Fair enough.”

“You sleep in public all the time?”

“No,” Carson said. “Just sometimes.”

“You’ll get sunburn,” the actor said. “You only get one skin.”

“It replaces itself. All the time.”

“Not as often as you’d think.”

Carson nodded. His coffee had gone lukewarm. He discarded it into the bin nearby. The actor was standing there with his hand in his pocket, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to another. It was clear that he was not accustomed to being warmer than was absolutely necessary.

“Something I can help you with?”

“I don’t really know anyone in town,” the actor said.

Carson laughed. “You’re famous. You know lots of people, I bet.”

The actor frowned when Carson said that, which made Carson wonder if the actor was like rich people who disliked being told that they were rich or white people who did not like to be reminded that they were white. Like it was a moral failing or something. Though sometimes Carson could understand why they felt that way. It mattered to the people Carson fucked that he sometimes slept with women and sometimes slept with men, so he kept that fact to himself. He did not consider it particularly interesting, but like his left-handedness or his Blackness, people felt it was appropriate to comment upon the immutable facts of his life like they were negotiable or like they were something to be discussed. Having someone fixate on a thing that was, to you, anyway, obvious and immutable could be tiresome.

Carson stood up and the actor relaxed. They began to walk the Ped Mall, going near the playground and the line of stores affixed to the hotel. Sometimes people looked at them, but mostly no one noticed or seemed to care that the actor was walking among them like a regular person. Because, in a way, sheared of the context of his fame and his accomplishments, he was a regular person. Carson realized then that fame was simply an extension of your context beyond the realm of your family and your friends, so that even strangers encountering you on a street in a midwestern city might know of you or recognize you. But here, that was not the case, and Carson could see it bothered the actor as much as the heat did. He was accustomed to being known, seen, recognized. He did not seem relieved.

“So, where do you head next?” Carson asked.

“Some festival in Oregon — hey, man, do you know where I might get some weed?”

Carson shrugged at the question. He did not do coke or weed anymore, but he was accustomed to being asked if he knew someone who knew someone. Once, a guy who had ghosted him after a hookup had texted not to hook up again, but to see if Carson might connect him with a weed dealer. Carson hadn’t done coke in years, not since that weird fall in Colorado when he was sleeping with a woman whose husband made software for airplanes, and she’d invited him out to stay in their vacation house. And they’d done coke and fucked in the sauna, and the woman, around 45, maybe 48, had broken down and sobbed because her husband apparently had some kind of thyroid condition, not fatal or anything, but a little troublesome, and she was tired of having to take care of their two kids who were almost college-aged and mostly looked after themselves, Carson thought, but she just sighed and said that it was a lot of emotional labor and that she was constantly picking up wet towels and jock straps and grimy mouth guards and stiff socks from almost every surface. She was tired. So tired. When he was on the flight back to North Carolina, where he was staying at the time, he couldn’t shake the feeling of vertigo he’d gotten sitting in their sunroom while she cried, the trees aflame with color, arrowing down into the valley below, how beautiful and sad it had all seemed. He didn’t do coke again or call her back when she called him. It had all been too pitiful.

“I don’t know about that,” Carson said.

The actor sighed and put his head back. They were near the hotel, near the discreet alleyway lined with ivy and vines that allowed you to loop around back to the hotel’s courtyard. It was a kind of hidden sanctum if you didn’t want to go through the Ped Mall entrance.

“It’s a college town. It shouldn’t be this hard.”

Carson looked back over his shoulder to the undergrad bars that were already starting to fill, though it was just late afternoon.

“I could probably scrounge some up, if you want. I can’t vouch for the quality, obviously.”

The actor still had his head back in a posture of either profound despair or tremendous resignation. A bead of sweat collected at the base of his skull, and Carson watched it drip down into his shirt collar, where it fused with the fibers.

“You just said you didn’t know anyone.”

“I don’t. Hence the not being able to vouch.”

“Forget it,” the actor said in a way that made him sound young and petulant. Carson hummed.

Children played in the jets of water that erupted from the in-ground faucets. Occasionally the spray drifted wide and back to where they stood near the alley. Cool mist. The kids ran with their chests forward, centers of gravity constantly shifting. On the playground, more screaming chatter. Their little bodies falling from the jungle gym to the cushioned flex play surface below. Then getting up and doing it again.

“This little town is so weird,” the actor said.

“Yeah. Sort of. But it’s like any place, I guess. It’s regular.”

The actor looked out over the painted benches where people sat eating ice cream and drinking beer. And then toward the bars pumping music. Overhead, the sky was still terrific blue, peopled with high, complicated cloud structures. Still no wind.

“Well, I think I’ll push on,” Carson said. “This heat is killing me.”

“Alright, deli-man,” the actor said, but he hesitated like he had more to say, and Carson stood there waiting for the end of his thought. But it didn’t come, and Carson realized this was another of his little tricks to get control of the rhythm of a conversation. He held on to it like the end of a kite string until it drew taut.

“See you,” Carson said, but then, turning so that he was walking backward, “I did like your movie.”

“Yes, the feeling of it,” the actor called. “It’s not mine.”

“You only say that because you think it’s bad.” Carson turned then and stepped around some kids getting ready to make a run back through the jet of water. It pulsed out of the ground, broke apart, and they ran toward it a little too late, so that the water splashed on their faces but mostly shot over their heads. They squealed and ran back, trying to catch it in their hands, but it slipped through.

Carson had walked about five or so feet when he looked back and saw that the actor was still standing there, watching him. He stopped, tilted his head to the left and raised his shoulders. The actor gave his own head a little flick, through the alley. And Carson frowned. He didn’t like being played. He was sweaty and tired. He wanted to go home. But home was boring. He knew that much. There was nothing for him to do there, nothing except sit by his window and watch the sky drop. Then maybe head out to the bars.

The actor gave another flick with his head and motioned to his bare wrist as if to a watch, and Carson gave up. He crossed back to the actor, who laughed at him and said, “You always do what you’re told?”

“This is vaguely asshole behavior.”

“Don’t pout,” the actor said. “Come on.”

They went through the alley. Through the vines, you could see the painted brick, murals that were hidden until the frost killed all of the green.

The actor was staying in a nonsmoking room that smelled very much like someone had been smoking in it. It had a wide terrace and a view of a leafy part of Iowa City. You could see, also, the new glass high-rise where the new indie theater was housed. The actor had hosted a talk after the film the other night, followed by a fundraiser dinner. The actor had been in conversation with the writer whose book he adapted, and they’d both seemed handsome and put together, the writer a decade younger and iridescent in that way white men become when their notoriety slips just beyond their actual talent.

Carson had seen the movie the week before, when it opened, and he’d left the theater that evening just as dusk was falling, blinkered and his vision full of floaters. It was like leaving a pool, exiting one medium and entering another. The night so saturated with light that it had seemed of a piece, at first, with the light from the film. And the fact of it having been, onscreen, a representation of the very sky that he was seeing then. That night, Carson walked home and got in his car and drove out to Coralville, out to where the duplexes sat, and he coasted up and down the winding street, looking out the window into the houses. They were tall, stoic-looking and, because the subdivision had been planned and designed, they all seemed to belong to each other. What took his breath away was how the houses rose and fell with the hills in the subdivision or how they fell along the curves in the street, so that the layout of the homes seemed to be a living, breathing thing. Prefab was, of course, thought to be an aesthetic dead-end, but driving the subdivision, he thought he felt something stirring underneath him. Something real and human. He made a couple loops and then drove home and went to bed because he was, after all, a Black man in a car driving loops through a white neighborhood.

The actor ordered two drinks for them, gin and tonics, to be brought up by room service. The room was humid and cold — the bed neatly made, pulled so tight that the surface of the sheet was like fondant. When the G&Ts arrived they sat in the sitting area of the room, which consisted of a long chaise and some deeply upholstered chairs. Their eyes stung and watered from the smoke that had seeped into the fabric. The actor sat in one of the chairs and draped his legs over the arm. He looked childish. Carson sat on the chaise, quite forward, the glass sweating in his hands.

The drapes were white and diaphanous, allowing a kind of gauzy light into the room. The actor looked out the sliding door into the city. All those green trees and the houses seemingly nestled in among them. At this height, Iowa City looked less like a city and more like a town, once you got out past the cement of downtown and pushed into the dense, wooded stretch that moved eastward toward College Green and Hickory Hill. During the primary, the candidates had given speeches in the park about taxes and personal liberty. They had defended their military records and their private-university education, had tried, in their expensive shirts tucked into denim, to make themselves seem normal and not like elite assholes.

Over the hum of the deli coolers, Carson had heard people arguing about it. He found it all kind of tiresome. The very stance of I am like you, I am not above it all, I’m down here, shoulder to shoulder was an irritating presupposition of the virtue in hard work and struggle. The new-prosperity gospel was anti-prosperity gospel. Poor people wanted money. Rich people wanted money. People who wrote essays for a living wanted people to think that they did not have money and did not want it.

Carson had slept with a lot of writers in town. And political-science grad students. People who wrote essays for a living. They talked about how Carson had a real job and how great that must feel. But what he really felt and thought, listening to them arguing about elections and electability in the deli, was that the thing they thought of as being great was a sense of moral superiority. An unflankable high ground.

But here he was, carried by some random chance, some oblique wind of fortune, to the actor’s hotel room. High above everything, in a room smelling like smoke. The G&T was watery. Underpoured. But he drank it anyway, squeezed the little corner of lime into it. The cold was nice.

“You’re a good kid,” the actor said, nodding.

“Well, thanks, I guess. Though I haven’t been a kid in a long time.”

The actor laughed. Carson saw a copy of the book resting on the table. He picked it up, flipped through its pages, saw that they were covered in notes and marginalia. Written in a cramped but neat handwriting, black pen, some pencil. Things crossed out, starred, underlined. He flipped through the stories in the collection until he landed on the title story, that long novella that had been turned into the movie.

“That’s right, you read it,” the actor said.

“I did,” Carson. “But not this version.” The actor’s copy was the paperback that had been published by a small press some years before. The original, soft, dark-blue cover, elegant and spare. The paper inside was kind of cheap-feeling, rough, yellowed.

“Ah, you got the movie version.”

“Yeah,” Carson said. “Wait, this is different.”

He was reading some middle page of the novella, the scene where the young man and the teacher kiss for the first time. In the version Carson had read, the writing was crisp, tight, full of some pulsing nervous energy. A paragraph he remembered as having felt like something snapped off was instead a long, dreary description of how the teacher’s mouth tasted like cigarettes and ashes. It was bad, schmaltzy. The more Carson read — the paragraph stretched on for two pages — the more he thought that something had gone wrong and that he now existed between two universes. One in which his taste was good and one in which his taste was bad, because he distinctly remembered it as having been really different. A tense, nervy scene of desire and pain and love and want and loneliness was now a discursive, meandering description of dense philosophical inquiry.

“Wow, it’s really different. Fuck. What?”

The actor tipped his G&T back and drank half of it on the trot. Then said, “Yeah, I changed a lot of it.”

You changed a lot of it?”

“Yeah, it was bullshit when I first got it. So I worked on it with the writer. We changed a lot.”

“Oh,” Carson said. “That’s allowed?”

The actor smiled wryly and tilted his head to the side. Carson felt his face grow hot. He put the book back on the table.

“That was cute,” the actor said. “Allowed.”

“I just mean. It was already published. And you changed it.”

“Well, yes. We made it actually good.” The actor crunched on the ice that hadn’t already melted. The noise was horrible. Carson’s skin crawled.

“Why did you want to make a movie out of it if it was bad?”

“Because,” the actor started to say, then, drinking more of the G&T, continued, “there was something in it. You could feel it. Some charge. Like standing in a field before lightning strikes.”

Carson laughed at the cliché of it, but he had felt it the first time he read the novella in the tie-in version. That strong sense of something in the air, some tingling, alive thing. He felt it, too, sitting in the room with the actor. The hair on his arms standing on end. That feeling like you were being marked out.

“So you changed it,” Carson said.

“Had some notes,” the actor said, shrugging.

“It’s a big change,” Carson said. “Didn’t people notice?”

“I think like five people read that book when it first came out.”

“That’s sad,” Carson said.

“It’s common,” the actor replied. They were looking at each other. There was another moment like the one in the café, tense, hard.

“Just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s not sad. You work on something for a long time and no one reads it. That’s sad, right?”

“Don’t feel too sorry for them. They don’t feel sorry for you,” the actor said.

“I guess that’s true. Yeah.”

It felt then that there was nothing else to say. Nothing else to do. They set their glasses on the black tray, and they got undressed. It seemed that it had always been meant to happen that way. Them taking off their clothes in that room, the scent of smoke all around them. They got under the covers, and the actor situated himself under Carson. He said that he was clean and on PrEP and that Carson didn’t need to use a condom. The actor was almost hairless under his clothes, kind of bronzy in a way that implied spray tan and not nude sunbathing. Carson could smell his sweat. That musky cologne from before.

They did not kiss when they had sex. Instead, Carson inserted fingers into the actor, and the actor moaned and arched against them. The actor opened easily, and Carson felt the tips of his fingers sink into the warmth of him. The actor’s body was taut, hard like that of a hungry animal. When he bucked against Carson’s fingers, the actor’s hips rubbed against Carson’s forearm. He had no pubic hair, so it was just skin and skin, and with the sweat, there was chafing. Discomfort.

When he slid into the actor, there was a sense of closeness. The actor closed his eyes and breathed through his nostrils. Carson watched his abdominal muscles clench. It was that paradoxical tension that allowed him to open further. It was like a magic trick. Then, the fucking, gliding back and forth, striking some firm, inner ridge of the actor’s body. The actor did not get hard. His dick remained semi-soft, flat to the actor’s stomach under its own weight, lolling like the head of a sea creature. It emitted a trickle of clear slick that grew glossy and smeary against his smooth pubic bone. The actor then put his elbows back and shifted up hard against Carson, and he grunted.

“You feel good,” he said. “You feel so fucking good.”

Then he turned over and Carson fucked him from behind. Carson tried to imagine that it did feel good. But the actor grew more ardent, throwing his head back in ecstasy and moaning, and there was a moment, a beat, when Carson recognized in his intonation something from the movie. Not a word or even an accent. It was subtler than that, more minor. It was instead some weird plosive, an exhalation or something. A scene flared before Carson’s eyes. The long tracking sequence following them into the gully at night, the rustle of trees all around them, the tinkle of their belts coming undone. The actor’s handsome face hovering over the young man, their panting, their breathing. And then the plosive, his voice cracking open in an oral posture of desire. Carson recognized it. Because in the theater, it had felt real, emergent from the moment itself, a rare sighting of the human behind the façade of acting. A moment of realness in a credible performance. But the gesture, so close to the one in the movie, made Carson’s dick soft. It was bad acting. Carson pulled out and the actor, panting, turned and said, “Did you finish?”

“Yeah,” Carson said.

The actor turned on his back and put his fingers inside of himself and moaned and said, “Yeah, I can feel it. You’re dripping out.” Then he jerked himself off and moaned and arched. Carson kneeled there watching him while the actor got himself off, and when he came, it was like seeing someone stifle a yawn.

Carson got off the bed and handed the actor a towel. The actor cleaned himself off and said that Carson could shower if he wanted to. But Carson said he was fine. He was okay. He just wiped himself off with a wet towel and pulled up his pants.

“You want to get dinner or something?”

“I better go,” Carson said. The actor lay on the bed, stretched out among its heavy white folds.

“All right,” the actor said, but his expression was a little hurt. He was not used to being told no, and Carson did get a little hard thinking about that. The idea that he held some bit of power in this exchange. But he put on his shoes and stood up.

“I think you made that story better,” Carson said.

“I know I did,” the actor said.

Then Carson left, and he was walking back out into the Ped Mall, thinking about the movie and the book and the other, original version of the book. He wondered what part of it was real. What, if any of it, corresponded to the part of him that had recognized some of himself in the story and in the movie.

He felt stupid, like he had been tricked into thinking something that he did not believe. It was like accidentally stumbling behind the curtain just as the magician reveals the rabbit tucked inside of his sleeve. The world felt cheaper somehow. It had to do with the book and the movie, but also with the actor, his faking, the spectacle of his pleasure.

Carson was walking across the bridge, looking down into the high, green river. He had lied to the actor. He had lied because he had felt lied to. All the falseness in the world was clear to him. And he was in it. A part of it.

Evening was upon them. The heat broke, and there was a strong breeze.

Carson climbed the hill next to the art building. He thought of how he’d posted a picture of the old galleries, the squat, modernist buildings nearer the shore. They sat like sentries. They sat like sober reminders of a better, more optimistic time. When Carson had posted the picture, a friend of his had commented on the post, saying, “Poor doomed creatures. They’re going to flood.”

Carson stood at the top of the hill a little while longer, imagining how he would have made them. How he would attack the problem of the rising river and the eroding shore. He could almost see the cursor of the computer game descend and grab hold of the Earth, pull it up to a more suitable angle. He could almost see the level of the land change before him.

In his imagination, it was all so easy.

The Low Countries