A Catalogue of Touches: Friendship, Loss, and What’s Left Behind in Lee Mandelo’s Summer Sons

I know next to nothing about Lexington, Kentucky upon landing there.

My journey isn’t arduous so much as paranoid and antiseptic with pandemic travel. A red-eye from the Bay Area to a layover in Minneapolis, sandwiched in the giddy moment between being “fully-vaccinated” and the threat of the Delta variant. Less than six feet away, a mom “fixes” the masks of her children by pulling the fabric firmly beneath their noses. I try not to react. After all, ten years into living in the US, there are still places whose contours and interior currents I haven’t encountered, cannot pretend to grasp. The woman’s hair glints a straw yellow. Discomfort washes my face out like sky in the tint of airplane light.

Everything feels weighty; oversignifies to me.

But pushing outside the glass doors of the airport, it’s hot. Air droops with the vegetal scent of overgrown plant life. I perch my backpack on the curb and shed my sweater. Kentucky might be alien, but I grew up on the equator and my skin turns automatically towards what humidity it can find. Sweat cloaks my body, a familiar protection from the heat. I swat mosquitoes away with fatal skill learned in a swampy Singaporean playground.

An old lady waiting for her grandson to fetch the car asks me why I’m wearing a uniform. I’m not. Or well, it kind of is. A Wednesday Addams dress—black shift, white collar—that I treasure for being understated yet appropriate for most occasions, from bookstore hang to gallery opening. “Oh, so you’re wearing it by choice,” she says affably. “Not very fashionable for a young lady. Where are your jeans? Goodness, you look right out of the sixties.”

I’m not sure how to parse her comment. Laugh nervously instead; my dislocation like the wrench of a bone from its joint. As the axes of meaning around me slip and I have to start grasping for the poles.

*

Lexington, Kentucky may be foreign to me but it is, in fact, the home of writer and scholar Lee Mandelo, who I’m visiting.

“come home, i’ll be waiting,” is how his novel, Summer Sons begins, an unanswered text to protagonist Andrew from his best friend Eddie. It’s the last missive delivered before Eddie is discovered dead—wrists slit in Nashville, Tennessee while he’s doing research into local folklore for his PhD at Vanderbilt University. Eddie and Andrew, adopted brothers after an accident took Eddie’s parents’ lives, possess the kinds of secrets and manipulation that can only be borne from longtime codependency. And as Andrew returns to Nashville, their shared hometown, to pursue his own studies and seek answers about Eddie’s death, the mysteries only intensify, begging a slew of questions about attachment—to place, people, history:

What can’t we let go? What won’t let us go? What is the difference between the two?

Early in the novel, we learn that Andrew is literally and figuratively haunted by the ghost of Eddie—grabbed by a chilling, intangible hand at the most inopportune moments, his grief materialized as supernatural revenant. And although his quest to discover Eddie’s killer is the central engine of the novel, the process of searching for clues, following leads also forces Andrew to delve into dissonance: between memory and reality, hometown fable and factual history. In other words, the mystery of the book becomes inseparable from Andrew’s most daily efforts, in fits and starts, to accommodate a new, uncomfortable reality that’s materially structured by Eddie’s absence.

But allegories of death and loss in Summer Sons are never simplistic or direct. That would be too easily resolvable. After all, being haunted is not a straightforward encounter; has always been a matter of knowing too much (about the circumstances of a death) and not enough (about the reasons behind it or how to deal with its consequences). The impossibility of reconciling the two.

The novel reflects this dilemma. Never letting the reader settle, it’s a tantalizing mix of genre, shifting from Southern gothic to bildungsroman; horror story to academic whodunit. Rather than indulge in the twists and breakthroughs that make for a straightforward exorcism, Summer Sons brews a simmering melodrama out of these tensions, provoking aberrant, irreducible emotion not in spite, but out of its generic features.

What is grief anyway, if not losing the plot?

*

A few days before my arrival in Lexington, Lee tells me in a message on Discord that he’ll pick me up from the airport in a blue-purple Ford Fiesta. I mention I might be wearing impractical patent leather platforms.

It’s worth saying that Lee and I have never met in person, only interacting in the context of The Untamed and Word of Honor fanfiction; on twitter and in liminal late-night DMs. My return to fandom after a decade is another story, not worth getting into, but suffice to say it’s the fortuitous means by which I’ve found kinship with Lee—trading horny content, sure, but complaining about work too, venmo-ing snack funds back and forth between us on bad days, processing inconvenient feelings or crowing about kitchen equipment obtained on sale.

Yeah, it’s easy, to bandy about screenshots of whatever art or theory we’re thinking about alongside shards of incomplete threadfic and ao3 recs. Validating, to be able to embody fandom as we both prefer to think about it—less as a practice of intertexuality and archive (as fan studies has traditionally presented it), and more as a specific form of queer intimacy, mobilizing sexuality and friendship in numerous forms, shapes and displacements; seemingly never to end and in turn both joyous and absurd.

Still, the nerves when it comes to consolidating a virtual friendship in meatspace are particular. The lag of the screen, the curated performance of chatlog and scroll means it’s impossible to know if an in-person encounter will feel like a soulmates AU, or more like the disastrous beginning of an enemies-to-lovers fic.

But; “We can avoid walking more than .5 miles to accommodate the shoes,” Lee replies on Discord, very seriously. “I’ve been well-trained,” he confides to me later, wearing the bashful, slightly-hunted look of a queer with an implicit understanding of heels to a femme like myself.

And a few weeks previous, when our mutual fandom friend, Spike, meets me in the Bay Area, we go for it and commit to spending the day together. I make him drive me to the Land’s End cliffs so we can indulge our love of the ocean’s oblivion. Lee texts him, curious about how it’s going, or maybe wondering if I’m actually some kind of bad person or serial killer.

“What kind of car does she own,” is what he asks.

“A 2012 Mazda, but it’s my partner’s,” I groan, forced to admit that I’m a passenger seat princess to Lee of all people, the author of a novel described as “one-third The Fast and the Furious,” and who’s obviously taken part in more than a few street races in his youth.

“You’re so valid,” Lee texts back.

“You know, he thinks I’m a cautious driver,” Spike says, before swerving recklessly onto the freeway. I have to laugh, immediately set at ease.

When we enter the Sutro Bath caves, it’s cool and briny, sand too-yielding against our feet. “The rail’s here to keep people like us out,” Spike says wistfully, as we lean over rusty metal and watch the sea rush lethally into the spaces between wet black rock; share a moment of gentle nihilism. It’s heady, sustains me for weeks.

The truth is that I know less about Spike or Lee, than I would like to think. In our chats, the details always seemed secondary to our points of connection around objects, both actual and cultural. I don’t know about either of their families as much as what cars they drive; their habits so much as our shared appreciation for the inherent eroticism of cannibalism. But perhaps those objects say more about us than biographical detail can. Perhaps what’s between us feels richer for our geographic distance; like the gaps in knowledge are freeing, help us draw from a collective well of instinctive tenderness and shared affect. Trading it via touchable talismans and subterranean queer markers. Feeling known without all that much telling, accepted without having to disclose the more traditionally legible elements of ourselves.

But who knows, maybe Lee and Spike and I, we’re simply investing in fantasy, building characters out of one another from what we’re able to ambiently glean or assume. Bodies fabricated from a vortex of coded interaction.

Would that be so bad?

Lee texts Spike and I a quote by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, from her essay Queer and Now—“for many of us in childhood, the ability to attach intently to a few cultural objects, objects of high or popular culture or both, objects whose meaning seemed mysterious, excessive, or oblique in relation to the codes readily available to us, became a prime source of survival.

Objects are never simply objects. They are also surfaces, heavily inscribed by social codes and structures; the way we perceive and cathect upon them inevitably based on individualized patterns of experience and recognition. When you’re able to read or love an object in the same way as a stranger—be it a film, a plushie, a murdertwink or a knife—it’s difficult not to project. Hard to fight the instinct that you must already know them in the same flawed and vulnerable way in which you know yourself.

Of course, the fucked thing is that people are different; in most cases, this can only partially be true.

*

I think about the objects in Summer Sons, seemingly benign in life, yet after death, begging to be parsed and unstable with the threat of meaning. I remember Andrew poring through Eddie’s research notes, sitting in his flashy Hellcat. The unfamiliar gang of Nashville drivers he meets, led by the brash and elusive Sam Halse, have learned less about Andrew from Eddie than the car he drives or the drugs he might be willing to take, but on that basis alone seem to think he could be one of their pack.

So much between Eddie and Andrew is, in the style of normative masculine friendship, shared but unspoken, relayed instead by an intricate palimpsest of signs and things—“symbolism [is] half the engine of magic.” The room in the purchased home Eddie’s made for Andrew is carefully furnished with books, an academic planner laying out a path for him at Vanderbilt. Even Riley, Andrew’s new roommate, is marked by a tattoo of lyrics from Eddie’s favorite band, a reflection of the stick and poke that Eddie put around Andrew’s wrist. Because Eddie’s left behind objects include people-as-objects too, highlighting how much he and Andrew had invested in what was external to them as a kind of sublimated, but vital communication. In a particularly scathing moment, Dell, a woman they have both loved, calls Andrew out for the two of them using her as a fucked-up conduit to realize their homoerotic desire.

Like it or not, these objects, left behind for Andrew, but not quite his, remain the only means through which he can reconstruct the joint storyline, both past and future, that Eddie seems to have laid out for them. Wondering if he still wants to, or can cleave to this narrative. Wondering if his reading of Eddie, these objects, their past, is even accurate; if it matters if whatever existed between them was imagined or true, or truer for how either of them might have individually imagined one another in the dark.

“Eddie had put together a perfect room, a room that held all of [Andrew] without the slightest effort. He’d done it without question, knowing Andrew’s needs inside and out.” That’s the thing about objects: they can be traded and shared, but perhaps ultimately, they are meant to be owned. Objects can be a means to power, of exerting a claim upon the people we want to hold closest to us.

What’s mine is yours. You are mine.

The restorative generosity or insidious damage—fickle—that can occur in this slip of relation.

*

The weather blisters in Lexington. Sun flares in sheets of orange and wears us down via clammy intrusions between air, skin, and cotton. Deciduous green, worming out of chain link fences, is so garish it hurts my eyes. Lee and I walk around outside a little, and he points out what he thinks might interest me—landmarks like Crossings, one of the oldest leather bars in the country to the macabre corners along the town’s narrow roads where gnarlier car accidents tend to happen. Spike joins us the day after. Lee’s car breaks down. We take it as a sign to watch horror movies instead, make food, write together.

I don’t get enough of a sense of the town to be able to say I’ve been immersed in the South or have a thorough understanding of its past, but I catch glimpses here and there. Lee tells me that the wealth gap in his classroom is large—Lexington is simultaneously a blue-collar union town and racehorse breeding capital to the rich. We eat lunch outside at a sandwich place, adjacent to a commemorative marker of the Cheapside Slave Auction Block. In the evening, sitting on the concrete ledge outside Lee’s murder-motel-turned-apartment-block, we smoke cigarettes and watch lights flicker in the restored brick mansion across the street. Its wrought iron gate and ornate columns, rose bushes embedded with dread. Manicured lawn.

“Haunted as fuck,” Lee comments, and I hum in acknowledgment. Close my eyes and it’s all around me, the relentless chirp of cicadas, caress of the wind like damp fingertips on the back of my neck. The denim of Lee’s jeans grazing my foot. Like we’re in limbo—pressed between the mundane present and a history tangible enough to taste, smoldering like ash in my nostrils.

Yeah, a haunting is also what shapes the present with its pain. What won’t allow the violence of the past to be erased—refuses to let us forget.

Lee would be remiss not to be attentive to these ghosts. Summer Sons does drag with it issues of class disparity, racial dynamics and land ownership—Eddie’s parents and Andrew’s coolly sinister advisor, Professor Troth, are descended from old Southern families, their houses and wealth built on bloodied soil. Notably though, the novel is firm about not telling stories that aren’t its to tell. There’s no lip service paid to racist history, no reparative platitudes or grandiose observations told. Rather, Lee, as a white, queer writer in the South, forces readers to experience the weight of these issues in a manner he might be more familiar with—in daily minutiae, through the confusingly visceral, flawed and oft illogical responses produced out of those dynamics.

Andrew is Southern but not black; isn’t rich, but becomes the inheritor of Eddie’s family wealth; isn’t queer but could be. His stilted subject position means he spends a lot of time suspended awkwardly, unable to move with confidence through his surroundings. Out of place in Sam Halse’s gang of working-class men and their rural Southern masculinity, Andrew picks a fight with a dude who calls Eddie a fag, even if Andrew himself won’t own up to his homoerotic impulses. At Vanderbilt, he feels shame at any association made between himself and Thom West, his wealthy, well-dressed peer advisor and gay black man, whose own strategies of assimilation and survival in a predominantly white institution rub Andrew the wrong way. His emotional state, intense and withdrawn all at once, is heightened by Lee’s exquisitely discomfiting prose.

In fact, all the characters in Summer Sons are afforded refreshing complexity, not because of their diverse identities, but because of the contradictions that arise between those identities and personal circumstance. Summer Sons is flooded with people who are attracted to and impacted by various oppressive structures that have formed them and yet cannot escape. Riley and West, despite both being queer, have friction at school, where, as Riley points out “trust fund solidarity” reigns supreme. Sam Halse, the leader of the street racing pack is a hardheaded drug runner whose covertly soft loyalty is compelling precisely for being rooted in psychotic homosocial ritual. And rather than making any overarching arguments about class, toxic masculinity or race, Lee demonstrates the soft power of these insidious forces—makes them evident, not loftily, but in the continual pettiness of human desire, the outsized emotion borne out of minute social drama.

In my many conversations with Lee, writing inevitably comes up—first drafts, stylistic evolution, The Discourse. It means a lot to me, for us to both believe that writing necessitates a willingness to portray mistakes made in public. Examining that messiness through the characters and selves we render—one through the other and vice versa. The shifting planes of time and the fucked pressures that exert themselves unevenly upon people.

In Summer Sons, there are no cookie-cutter lessons to be learned from history so much as the fact that we’ll always be contending with it, especially within ourselves. There are no resolutions or sufficient reparations for the thefts and blood debts of the South. No clean separation possible from our inheritances or identities, no matter how we might wish it.

“Fire wouldn’t cleanse the history from that earth, but maybe it could put the bones to rest”—Lee writes, perhaps all we can do is make room for the ghosts of the past, enduringly diffuse within ourselves in the present.

Faced with the vastness of history, perhaps all we can do is pay tribute. Not simply by fighting for larger forms of change and reparation, but in acknowledging how we are, in moments, each possessed by these ghosts, filtering silently into our most innocuous of interactions. Trying to incrementally shift their meanings within ourselves as a way of laying them to rest.

Perhaps there’s work in letting what existed before have bearing on our bodies. On what is to come, what we might become; what can burn between us in relation.

*

Spike and I spend a few hours at the Land’s End beach, till the sky greys and the tide rolls in. Together, we climb to the top of my favorite rock—jaggedly steep and where I retreat to if I want to feel especially small or alone. Neither of us is wearing a bathing suit, but we end up soaked anyway. Weak to the lure of the water, while tourists in puffy jackets watch on in consternation.

It’s teeth-chatteringly cold when we return to my place, the roar of the Pacific still in our ears. Sitting on my couch, a broken Victorian chaise, we make a blood pact in a fit of sentimentality. I’m clumsy, fumbling in my bedside drawer for a knife; the blood emerges from our bodies with an embarrassing slowness. It’s anticlimactic in the way emblematic gestures are, often, in reality. The elation located somewhere else, in the sense memory of a cliff against my palm as I climb, salt twisting into the hair by my temples.

“Yours is bigger,” Spike frets, about the size of my wound, and I tease him for being a size queen even in the context of a friendship ritual. I scrounge up some Mickey Mouse band-aids before he has to catch the train. The cut scabs, then peels and scars, a jagged stripe across the back of my hand. It’s nice I can trust my body to remember.

Months later, Lee sends us a picture to the group text of a particularly vivid nosebleed he’s suffering. Even though we joke about it being 2010s-era Tumblr, and I can’t smell the blood, there’s a potency about the image. I feel it in my chest.

So maybe it’s unsurprising that for me, the true magic of Summer Sons, powerful, horrific and poignant all at once, emerges for me in points of physical contact. Andrew, mouth smeared with Eddie’s blood in an eerie childhood encounter. Tang of sweat when Sam Halse throws a lazy arm around Andrew and the too-solidness of a bruised eyesocket from a fight. Those moments when what’s underneath irrevocably breaks loose are also moments where change, for better or for worse, can no longer be resisted. Physicality, in Summer Sons—blood into soil, flesh against flesh—is what’s able to mar the logical conclusions of its narrative into something nebulous; tenuously freeing.

It’s arguable that the novel’s optimism lies less in the resolution of its central mystery than in the quality of Andrew’s hanting, turned from what’s destructively unreal into curse to live with forever—“Eddie’s remnant had let him go, but the vibration of their bloody inheritance remained in his veins… Curses weren’t as simple to put aside as a ghost willing to be laid to rest; that grim weight would nest inside of him until the end of his life.”

And okay, I’ll admit, that doesn’t sound great—Andrew is no longer possessed by Eddie’s ghost, yet he’ll never not be touched by what he’s suffered. But perhaps touching is a term that feels resonant because it is after all, what shaped the beautiful parts of Andrew and Eddie’s intimacy in the first place. Their shared objects and youthful roughhousing, standing in place of what could have been, maybe should have been said.

In a recent interview, Lee says, “in hindsight, I was also writing my way into believing that maybe it was possible for young men to actually be good to one another— that love didn’t have to be synonymous with ruin.”

Ultimately, the romance that brews between Sam Halse and Andrew might veer threateningly close to the noxious elements of his codependence with Eddie, but it remains a question left open, not a replication. In order to manifest it, Andrew has to forge a messy, destructive path through his trauma and face the daily reality of contending with Eddie’s enduring curse—this will he’s been left with that’s not all his, that isn’t innocent or scot free. That doesn’t disavow its harms so much as it has metabolized them. Andrew might be irrevocably touched by Eddie, but it’s exactly being marked by those traces, it’s living with it, that allows his desire for Sam—nebulous and imperfect and uncertain—to hazard into new and more loving forms.

*

A catalogue of touches: Lee, Spike and I covering our mouths in tandem when we laugh; photos of the animals in our lives; more than three instances of the black heart or bottom twink emoji in as single tweet; my person delivering a burrito to my bedroom while we’re glitching on a long zoom call; AO3 comments that defy the word limit; grocery store hauls; i’d like to put you in a bath of epsom salts; threatening imminent death to nemeses and enemies alike; dopamine is stored in Ginger Snaps; being dragged kicking and screaming into BTS fandom; the list goes on.

The thing about touch is that it doesn’t have the nonconsensual sheen of a haunting. It owns, but its grip can also loosen. Its effects are enduring, but unlike the ironclad connections of generational bloodline or inheritance, touching can hold the potency of kinship without any essentialist sense of fatedness or obligation. Forms of touching can change. They can change us. They can also be survived.

There’s a moment in Kentucky I’ll never forget. The sky, darkening in a matter of moments and opening up to the storm. Starved of the rain, I hang off a wooden column on Lee’s porch and hold my palm to the water. It’s not long before I give up on any semblance of restraint and find myself running gleefully through wet grass, soaked with the scent of regenerating soil, mineral percolation. Lee and Spike stay dry, watching me cavort. And perhaps our differences have become more evident, in the time we’ve spent together in Lexington. The dissonances of our personalities, mannerisms and lives rubbing gritty against the joints of the intimacies we’ve formed. But when I leap back onto the porch, I take a run at them and we collapse in a pile of slick skin and stubbornly-angled body parts. A patched-together being; our laughter, as life-sustaining as the rain.

“Touch is not a leveling gesture, even when reciprocated,” Snack Syndicate writes. “Touch does not make us undifferentiated from the one we touch, nor does being touched mean we become the one who touches us. If anything, the opposite is true: touching emphasizes difference – otherwise we would not experience it as touch at all. And so, we might desire the kinds of touching and feeling that bring us into social and collective forms; a touching and feeling that seeks not to possess that which is being touched but to hold on and then let go. Perhaps we can be more careful in our touching and more critical of our being touched, more careful with the tendency to equate touching with identifying, identifying with seeing, seeing with knowing, and knowing with possessing .”

What happens, now that Lee and Spike and I have touched?

When I get home, the distance yawns. We return to our routine communication; snippets of Discord chatter, texts and the occasional USPS missive, sweetened with White Rabbit candy from Chinatown, DIY stickers, Kentucky farmers’ market jam. Wrinkled notebook paper and stains on an envelope substitute the sweaty press of flesh. Thinking of my time in Lexington, I crave moisture. The aridness of Bay Area air feels like it skins me. When will we see each other next? “come home,” Eddie texts Andrew, but somewhere doesn’t have to be home for it to be instinctively familiar. Writing doesn’t have to come from me to feel like it’s mine.

Because Summer Sons has touched me. Not simply as object, in book form, so much as the people and places, too, that have shrouded its making. Friendship that doesn’t deny its imperfections also means a flexibility of relation. One that can accommodate difference and honor the traumatic sublimations we’ve made a part of ourselves, shared in greasy fingerprints upon beloved places and objects. It’s more beautiful that way, to never be able to predict how that touching will make me, or what’s around me, dark or golden, or new. “To understand each desire has an edge, / to know we are responsible for the lives we change,” I quote the poet Rita Dove, writing a letter at the kitchen table.

What comes now?

To trust that I’ll be held as much as let go. To not have to know as a means of possessing, or being possessed by others.

Sometimes, it can feel cursed, but it’s a better way to live.

Trisha Low is the author of The Compleat Purge (Kenning Editions, 2013) and Socialist Realism (Emily Books, 2019). She lives in the East Bay of California.

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