“What’s all that?”

Nigel lumbers through the door to Adam’s apartment awkwardly, laden with plastic bags so heavy they feel like they’re cutting strips into his fingers. He brings them as far as the table and lets it all rest there for a minute, flexing his aching hands. “It’s a fucking nightmare out there,” he says.

Still, he feels rather pleased for himself. Adam doesn’t like crowds, and nobody likes the particular kind of crowd thronging New York grocery stores at the moment. Frightened, irritable people buying as much as they can.

It’s the sort of situation that Nigel was practically born for; where the combination of physical imposition, a foreign accent, and a certain number of ill-considered tattoos give him the natural advantage. So it makes much more sense for Nigel to go to the grocery store, instead of Adam. And if pressed he would have to admit that it feels good to take care of Adam like that. To do something for him where Nigel’s years of rough living are a good thing.

Adam isn’t helpless, and Nigel would never admit out loud that he kind of gets off on imagining that he is. It’s a fantasy; after all, fantasies are harmless. Buying groceries for your lover is harmless too, and Nigel has caused enough harm to the people around him that he tries to indulge the harmless when he can.

Adam is staring into the bags. They’re sorted by item, and there are two jumbo packages of toilet paper sitting by the door. “Nigel,” he says, “Did you buy all the macaroni and cheese in the store?”

“Two stores,” Nigel says proudly. “Cleared ‘em the fuck out.” He turns on the kitchen tap, and starts soaping up his hands according to the instructions on the poster that Adam has tacked above every sink in the apartment.

Adam just keeps staring. He moves from the mac ‘n cheese bags to the bags full of flour and beans and frozen vegetables and powdered milk.

“I know you don’t like that stuff,” says Nigel quickly. “It’s just– just to have.”

“Just to have,” repeats Adam, and Nigel crosses his arms in front of his chest. This is not going the way he had planned. He’s not entirely sure what he’d planned, but it had involved… feeling better, somehow. Safer. Like it was possible to provide and be provided for.

Adam just looks irritated. “What if other people also want macaroni and cheese?”

“Fuck ‘em,” says Nigel easily, moving in on Adam, reaching out his hands to telegraph his intention to run his hands through Adam’s hair. “I don’t care about other people. I care about you.”

Adam reluctantly allows the touch for a moment, then jerks away. “I don’t always know what other people are thinking,” he says, “But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The point of a grocery store is that there’s supposed to be enough for everyone, Nigel.”

“Yeah, well, sometimes there isn’t,” snaps Nigel. It comes out rougher than he means it, and he wants to apologize. He also wants to dig in; make Adam understand.

Nigel wants to tell him about being seven years old, taking a bath in the old claw-foot tub in his mother’s apartment in Bucharest, and seeing the water suddenly start to slosh around. Maică running in, telling him to get dressed, because she didn’t want her son to die naked.

They’d gone out into the street, everyone huddling together and waiting for the aftershocks to hit. Nigel remembers the wind feeling cold on his neck as water dripped from his hair, and the way the evening sky had looked so dark with all the power in the city out. He remembers the stream of patients being evacuated from the nearby hospital, thin and frightened-looking, and asking Maică if they were going to die from having to leave the hospital. Don’t think about them right now, Nigel, she’d said. Only think about you.

Adam flings himself down on the couch, staring into space and scowling. Nigel bites back his anger. Adam already knows that Nigel isn’t a good man, and he stays anyway. He doesn’t need a live demonstration.

Nigel puts away the groceries. There’s already an entire row of macaroni and cheese; he adds four more. There’s plenty of room in the pantry for the staples, and he shoves the toilet paper, boxes of tissues, and the largest bottle of hand sanitizer he could find into the cupboard.

By the time it’s all away and the bags are folded under the sink, he feels calmer. Nigel is aware that his own temper is a quick-burning fire; hot and quick to burn itself out. Violence usually helps it burn out faster, but tends to leave unintended consequences in its wake. He’d rather just look at Adam, and remind himself of why he doesn’t go out to punch strangers in bars to let off steam any more.

Well, one of the reasons. The other reason being that there are currently no bars open to punch strangers in.

Adam is less quick to settle. He requires careful handling, and most of the time, Nigel likes that. Makes him feel useful. Now he just wishes whatever cloud is currently hanging over them could just go away. “Baby,” he says, “Doesn’t it feel better, though, to have lots of your favourite stuff? So you’re not anxious about your routine being disrupted?”

Adam fixes him with the briefest of glares, just a fleeting moment of eye contact, like Nigel’s noticed he does when he wants to be entirely sure he gets his point across. It seems to be an acquired habit, rather than an innate one; like someone, once, had told him that’s what he needs to do if he wants to be really fucking sure someone else is paying attention.

Nigel is paying attention.

“I’m anxious about my routine being disrupted every single day of my life,” says Adam.

Nigel takes a breath to answer something reassuring, then stops. He sits down heavily on the other side of the couch. If Adam can force himself to make eye contact, he figures, maybe it’s only fair for Nigel to do something equally unnatural to him and actually fucking think before he speaks.

There’s been a ball of nerves growing inside him for weeks; Nigel knows that. Usually he can get rid of it with coke, or booze, or a fistfight, but he’s trying not to do those things as much any more. And anyway, he suspects maybe those remedies aren’t enough, now, against this.

So it just grows, until he feels like he’s going to have a meltdown just like Adam does when the world becomes too much for him, only he doesn’t even have that release; it’s never come naturally to Nigel to lose himself without chemical aid. So instead he buys out two different grocery stores of macaroni and cheese, and it never even once occurred to him that this is how Adam had always felt, all along.

“So– what?” Nigel says, and his voice sounds strangely soft. “You just fucking live with it?”

Adam frowns for a moment, but it’s thoughtful now instead of angry. “Yes,” he says. “Mostly. My routines and habits are compromises between my desires and the real world. You can’t own all of the macaroni and cheese in New York, but you can own a week’s worth. You can’t flap your hands when you work with sensitive instruments, but you can tap your thighs. You can’t punch things when you’re frustrated, but you can squeeze a ball or get under a weighted blanket.” He grimaces. “It doesn’t always work. You know that.”

“Yeah,” says Nigel. He’s seen Adam in full-on meltdown mode. At first it had seemed grotesque; now it actually seems pretty rational. He’d freak out too, if he’d spent his entire life feeling like this. He suspects that everyone else at the grocery store, edging around each other with their masks and bottles of hand sanitizer, would feel the same.

He stares at the cupboard full of macaroni and cheese. “I guess I should take that back,” he says. “You’re right. Someone else might want it.”

“There are still other brands they can buy,” says Adam gently. “And the store will get more tomorrow. It’s okay. I’ll eat it all eventually.”

“I’m sure you will,” says Nigel. And then because it’s pressing out from his chest like a physical force, “Baby, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“You don’t get angry with me when I get upset and do things I regret. I’m not angry with you either, Nigel.”

Nigel nods. It feels like more of a release than he’d expected. Than he’d realized he’d even wanted.

He remembers returning to the apartment after the earthquake, a full twelve hours after they’d fled it. There had been an aftershock that had roused him from where he’d fallen asleep where they sat on the sidewalk, cheek pressed against Maică’s side. The apartment building, despite its shoddy construction, had held.

They’d walked into it carefully, like it might still crumble around him, and Maică had led Nigel to the faded image of Christ Pantocrator in the corner. “We have been saved and given life,” she’d whispered to him. “Pray in thanks with me.”

Nigel presses himself against Adam, safe and warm and well-fed, at least for now. He closes his eyes, and gives thanks.


End Notes

The event referred to here is the 1977 Vrancea earthquake, and I owe the story of the bath to a friend and colleague who lived through it.

This story is part of the Fic Journal of the Plague Year project, a collection of stories written during the coronavirus pandemic that include an end note contextualizing the story in the author’s experience of the pandemic.

I kept trying to write this story in the way it was prompted, which was Adam, an autistic adult, having a harder time dealing emotionally with pandemic-related scarcity than Nigel, his criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold (if fandom is to be believed) partner. And it kept just not working for me; but as soon as I flipped it around, to Nigel being the one struggling more and Adam having the coping skills required to help him through it, everything fit together.

I think this was because of the pattern that I’ve been discussing a lot with lovetincture and thebeespatella: that an external crisis is mainly a test of internal coping mechanisms. And the people with the strongest internal coping mechanisms are often the ones who are called upon to use those coping mechanisms not just in times of external crisis, but to get through normal, daily life.

Obviously “shit I see on twitter” isn’t a representative sample of everything, but this has also definitely been influenced by seeing a lot of people with anxiety, with depression, with all sorts of conditions that can make it more challenging to navigate daily life, saying stuff like, “This actually feels pretty normal to me. It’s like suddenly the entire world is operating on my level, but at least I’ve had a lifetime of practice being here.” Clearly it’s not a good thing at all that people who never experienced those symptoms before are experiencing them now; but it does indicate that whatever level you’re on, if something gets worse for you mentally, someone else knows how to operate on that level, and you can learn the same tools they learned. Which is kind of hopeful.

Adam’s coping skills are internal: routines, habits and ways of seeing the world that he can apply to any situation, including an acute crisis. Nigel’s coping skills are external: find something to punch, fuck, or put up your nose. He’s gonna learn some new ones now! I hope we can all be so lucky.

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