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BACHELORS June 2021 Issue

Welcome to the second issue of Bachelors, an occasional and free digital magazine for gay fiction in all its myriad styles.

It's Pride Month. A time when a fair portion of the United States opens the closet and shows off their colorful fabric by the yard. A time to remember the difference between guipé gents and lamé fellows. And to really embrace the Daddies on Father's Day.

I have honestly never needed an excuse to read a gay-themed book, but this month I'll do my best to avoid anything heterosexual without offended my mother. Perhaps she will take kindly to being greeted by "Mumsy." She was actually the first family member I came out to *coughs* years ago.

It is my hope that you, dear reader, will find this issue of Bachelors to your liking. If you do, please share it with your friends, lovers, tolerated ex's, and, perhaps, even your own mother.

And if you haven't gotten vaccinated, there's no better time than now. Kissing another guy is so much better without a mask...unless that happens to be your kink (and even then, go get yourself a prick).

Steve Berman, Editor

What You Talk About

Jameson Currier

You have made arrangements to meet him at a bar. He is a friend of a friend. When you talked on the phone with him, he seemed nice and interested in you, but you were hesitant about meeting him for a date. In the last two years, you have only had two other blind dates; one was bald and the other wore an earring in his left ear. Not that this really bothered you; you have dated men before with both those characteristics. But the first one had the mannerisms of a truck driver and the appearance of a nerd, the second looked like the type of person you would avoid in dark alleys. And what really did bother you was you could not connect with them no matter how hard you tried; they were both so vague, one was even mysterious. But when your friend from the city called last week to see how you were doing, he said, I know someone you might want to meet. You told your friend that you hated blind dates, and reminded him of your previous ones, the bald guy and the man with the earring. Your friend answered rather emphatically, I think this is someone you might want to meet. He only lives forty-five minutes from you.

You are meeting this blind date at a bar you have never been to. It is a bar attached to a restaurant. Your expectations are not high and you are a little stressed out from a tough week at a job you don’t much like. It is Friday night. You are only doing this because of your friend from the city, because he keeps hounding you to start dating again, to start seeing someone. Sometimes your friend, who still lives in Manhattan, doesn’t seem to comprehend that there are not many available gay men who live in this area of Pennsylvania.

The arrangement you made with this blind date was only for a drink; dinner together following was an option either party could refuse. However, you are already hungry. As you enter the bar, you hope for a moment you have been stood up.

There are only two men in this bar. One you estimate is over sixty-five. You know it is not him. In the light of this bar, which is dim, the other man looks quite handsome: virile and rugged, like the type riding a horse in a cigarette ad. You try to wipe the shock from your face as he turns to you and speaks your name.

You wonder how he recognized you. You worry a minute about whether you look too gay as he shakes your hand; after all, this is a straight bar in a small, rural town. Then you remember you told him you wore black wire-rim eyeglasses. No one else in the bar is wearing black wire-rim eyeglasses.

As he rises from the bar stool where he was seated, you see he is shorter than you expected. Though he told you he was six feet tall, he does not seem four inches taller than you. Perhaps it is because he told you he weighed 165 and you thought that he would be skinny. This six-foot guy looks healthy, you notice. He has a full head of hair and no earring. You observe right away that he has large hands and small feet. You sit down on a bar stool and worry because you think your feet are larger proportionally than your hands. He sits down beside you and places his hand against his beer bottle. You order a beer, even though it has been months since you’ve had any alcohol.

There is an awkward pause after your first sip of beer. The carbonation in your mouth and stomach has jolted your senses. You cough and look at the bartender, a short, husky man with closely cropped black hair peppered with gray, and admire the way the tendons of his arms flex as he wipes the inside of a glass with a cloth. You think that the bartender is not better-looking than this guy. Your blind date asks if you had any trouble finding this bar. No, you answer, only finding a parking space on this block. You ended up parking on a side street. There is another awkward pause. You look around the bar and say this is a nice place, you never knew it existed. He says he has only been here a few times and points to a doorway that leads to the restaurant. He says it is rather expensive. Another awkward pause and he asks you how your week was. A strange question to ask, you think, because at the beginning of this week he did not even know you. Rough, you answer, and begin to complain about the woman you work for and the hour it takes to commute to your job. You start to describe your car, an old relic, which you are convinced personally dislikes you because it keeps having to be repaired, when you realize you are complaining too much. You ask him how his day was, but your voice sounds edgy. It doesn’t sound as sincere as when he asked his question. While he tells you he got up early this morning to finish a few errands and do some cleaning before leaving for work, you notice he sounds calm, as though all his thoughts are carefully organized before he speaks. His voice is light and fluid; you cannot detect any accent. When you mention you saw a tiny field mouse run across your bathroom carpet this morning he laughs, and you like the way it ends in a quick, raspy crack. He says he was busy at work and adds he got home around four o’clock and took a nap before coming here tonight. No wonder he seems so at ease, you think. No wonder he looks so good. No wonder he doesn’t look bitter, angry, or depressed. He had a nap.

What you know about him already: He told you he does not smoke or do drugs. He is a teacher. Like you, he is in his early thirties and he is looking for a friend and/or lover. He likes to go bowling and refinish furniture and considers himself conservative. During the first phone conversation you had with him, he told you he has a cat, lives in a third-floor apartment, doesn’t go out to bars much unless with a friend, and was reading Significant Others when you called. Enough to convince you he was not an ax murderer.

You ask him what subject he teaches. He says botany. You ask if that is a requirement for a high-school diploma in this state. He answers that it is a special course for advanced students. While he is explaining the course he teaches, you are thinking about the house you are renting. You had heard that the previous tenants were amateur horticulturists. In your yard, there are several plants surrounded by chicken wire or propped up by long, thin stakes. You wonder how to work this into the conversation. You don’t when you realize you don’t know the names of any of these plants, and you are attracted to this guy, he interests you, and you don’t want to turn him off by seeming ignorant.

He asks you if you grew up in Pennsylvania. You tell him you are originally from the South and after college you moved to New York City, where you lived for ten years. You say you never even realized this state existed until you visited last summer with a friend whose parents live in a nearby town. You tell him you have only lived in Pennsylvania for three months. The only people you know are your friend from the city, who occasionally visits his parents, the real-estate agent who rented you your house, and a lesbian couple who run a bed-and-breakfast nearby. You don’t mention the reason you moved out of New York. You don’t mention that everything about the city was beginning to annoy you; your job made you irritable. You say nothing about your lover dying from AIDS. You don’t mention that after the funeral there was nothing else for you to do in the city and so you had a nervous breakdown. You only say you needed a change. You try to keep the conversation light. You tell him it is so different living in a rural area. You mention you just learned how to clean your chimney. You add you never realized you would spend so much time scraping frost off your windshield.

He tells you he has lived here for three years. Before that he was in North Carolina and Maryland and California. He asks you if you have dated much. You wonder what the term date means this year and in this part of the country. Does it mean date as in getting together with a friend, date as in one person pays for everything two people do, or date as it was known in the seventies, to have sex? You opt for the last choice, since he is your age, and you realize your answer really fits all three definitions: not much.

You notice he is staring at you. Looking you over. You think at last all those mornings you spend exercising are finally paying off. You know you look younger than your stated age. All your friends tell you so, tell you that you could pass for someone in his late twenties. You wonder if your date notices the tiny nick in the cleft of your chin where you cut yourself shaving this morning. He asks you if you drive to the bars in Philadelphia. You say you did when you first moved here, because you missed the city. But you don’t anymore. You mention you watch a lot of movies on the weekends now.

He is wearing a heavy knit maroon sweater, but you can tell he keeps himself in shape by the way the fabric stretches across his shoulders. You imagine what he looks like undressed, though you cannot determine whether his chest is hairy or smooth. You decide it must be smooth, because you do not notice any hair at his wrists, and though you remind yourself you must be interested in the person, not the physique, you cannot shake the mental photograph you have created of the two of you in bed together, your head resting on top of his smooth chest. You wonder if he likes to kiss, cuddle, wrestle, or massage. He looks briefly at you and then glances in the direction of the bartender. You know he is making a comparison. He turns again toward you and you study his expression, looking for some sort of sign of disappointment, but he smiles at you and takes a sip of his beer. You wonder what sex would be like with him. Is he rough or passionate, gentle or affectionate? You begin to twirl the bottom of the beer bottle between the palms of your hands, a habit you have when you are nervous. You wonder if he knows what you are thinking. You wonder when was the last time he had sex. You wonder if he would be afraid to kiss you.

When you spoke with him on the phone you told him you are hardworking and honest, stable but shy, which is why you are never relaxed at a bar. You said you are easily entertained and consider yourself a romantic. You mentioned you are both rational and adventurous, intelligent and athletic, and have a dry, sometimes cynical sense of humor. You said you like traveling, reading magazines, and playing the piano, enjoy the theater, photography, and biking. You told him you watch your weight, eat plenty of fiber, and keep your light-brown hair short and trimmed regularly. You added you are a casual dresser, choosing clothes for comfort, though tonight you are wearing the indigo shirt that makes your eyes look softer, bluer. You notice you are both wearing jeans, though his are a new blue and yours are an old black. You make a mental note of what you are wearing. If you see this guy again you must not wear the same outfit.

He asks you if you went home for the holidays. You say no, because you were just there in September for your younger sister’s wedding. You say this matter-of-factly, without any emotion. You think your tone sounded a little too blunt, so you add that your parents’ house in Memphis was too far to drive to with only one day off, so you spent the holiday with your friend and his mother. There is an awkward pause. You notice his expression, which you think looks serious. You think this is too much information for him to register at once. Then he says his sister is expecting a baby any time now. She lives in Florida, and he explains his mother spent the holidays down there this year. You think a moment about Florida and the sun and the beach and the hot weather.

Something else you remember you know about him already. His lover died of AIDS three years ago, roughly about the time your lover became sick. For a moment you wonder how he handled it; you wonder if he had a breakdown, like you.

You ask him if he thinks it is going to snow this weekend. He says they are predicting four to six inches. You remember you have just spent a fortune to have snow tires put on your car. You ask him how the roads are here when it snows. He says they are pretty good about plowing the main ones, but the back roads can be difficult.

You have finished your beer. He takes the last sip of his. He asks if you want to have dinner. He’s interested, you think, and you answer yes. He asks where you want to eat. You remember you don’t have a lot of money in your wallet. You suggest a place three blocks away, a restaurant that has a comfortable, homey feel: dark, nonpretentious, and inexpensive. You slip on your jacket and head for the door.

Outside, you walk slightly ahead of him. The sidewalk is narrow, and since you are the one who knows where the restaurant is, you lead the way. When you arrive at the building, you hold the door open for him to enter first. Inside, you watch him mentally take in the surroundings.

A blond waiter shows you to a table. Looking at the menu, your blind date asks you what you recommend. You say the chicken and veal are good, but you will probably order something light, like the chef salad. You think to yourself that this appears healthy, and when you ordered it once before, you couldn’t finish it. You don’t want to appear piggish.

The waiter brings glasses of water and takes your order. Your blind date opts for the chicken. You stick with the salad. When the waiter leaves, your date asks if you think the waiter is cute. You say, sort of, and mention that if he had shaved and showered this morning, he could probably be a knockout. He says he has a weakness for blonds. You feel like you’ve lost a race. You wonder what you would look like if you dyed your hair.

The lighting is brighter in the restaurant than it was at the bar. You notice for the first time your blind date has brown eyes. There is a small bend at the bridge of his nose. You wonder if it was ever broken. You want to ask him to come over tonight. Instead you ask him what his plans are for the weekend.

He tells you he has some work to do on Saturday and then adds he is having brunch on Sunday with some friends. He asks if you like to cook. You answer, only if it’s frozen. You have little patience for chopping, stirring, browning, and all that stuff. He says he enjoys cooking. You think he holds the invention of the microwave against you. He asks what type of food you like to eat. You say, just about anything, but your all-time favorite food is pineapple upside-down cake. He says he likes vegetables a lot. What type of vegetables do you like? he asks. You feel an urge to roll your eyes but you suppress it. Again you feel defeated. You are thirty-four years old and you are being judged by your interest in vegetables. Anything, you answer. Except lima beans. You wrinkle your nose. It is an ingrained reflex. You instantly regret your answer. There is only one other word in the English language which produces that same expression on your face and that word is liver. And though you don’t mention that, you can’t keep from thinking about it. He says he likes lima beans.

You try to redeem yourself by saying your mother was not a good cook. You explain to him how over the years you have developed a taste for things slightly charred. You know instinctively this conversation is headed in the wrong direction. There is an awkward pause. You panic that you have lost him. You change the subject. You ask him if he saw the new Bette Midler movie. He says he hasn’t been to a movie in about four months. You are thankful when the waiter reappears with your food.

You talk sporadically while you eat. You offer him your onions, which he accepts. He offers you a taste of his chicken, which you decline because you are not in the mood for chicken. But then you worry he might be offended you didn’t accept—you remember someone once told you sharing food is an intimate gesture—so you tell him you changed your mind, you will try a piece. You watch him slice off a corner of a thigh and place it onto your plate. You wonder what it would be like sitting down to dinner every night with this man. Would you like what he cooks, would your plates match his glasses, could you afford to live in a place that has a built-in dishwasher? You wonder if he is neat or sloppy. Does he leave the cap off the toothpaste, forget to flush, wash colors and whites together, remember to take the trash out on Wednesdays? You hope he wouldn’t object to your favorite towel, the old, unraveling, large dark-green one.

You have finished dinner and have ordered a cup of coffee, decaffeinated. You are frantically racking your brain so you can make some sort of connection with this man. He asks you what type of music you listen to. You say you enjoy everything except heavy metal. You tell him what you listen to is usually determined by your mood. You like oldies during the week, Top 40 and disco on Saturdays, and classical, preferably baroque, on Sundays. You also explain that you usually like a particular song more than an artist, which is why you haven’t bought any albums in a long time. He says he likes country music a lot. You say you like the way country music has evolved over the last few years. The way the lyrics have matured. You say you like country music a lot more since you no longer live in the South. He says his favorite singer is Patsy Cline. You agree, Patsy Cline is unbeatable.

You split the bill and leave the waiter a generous tip, in spite of the fact he was a distracting blond. Outside, the night air feels refreshing and you walk together in the direction of your car. You realize you have done too much talking and thinking tonight and you are tired. But nothing has been said about your lover who died, or his lover who died, yet you know you have both been thinking of both of them. You have mentioned nothing about drugs, insurance rates, or T-cell counts. He has said nothing about testing positive, though neither have you, but you know from your friend in Manhattan that this is the simple, ineffable link you share with this man.

When you reach your car, you suddenly remember you have never given him your phone number. You don’t want to seem pushy about getting together another time. You want him to make the next move, to see if he is interested in you. At your car he asks if you want to get together again next week. You say yes and write your name on a piece of paper you find in your glove compartment. You hand him your number and you both stand awkwardly on the sidewalk. You say, “It was nice to meet you, Carl.” There is no attempt at a kiss; this is a small town after all. You shake hands and he says, “I’ll call you soon, Tim.”

In the car, driving home, you wonder if he will ever call. You think again about Jay and miss him, deeply. And then you think again about vegetables. You wish you had told Carl you really like spinach. You have always liked spinach. You will always like spinach.

Why Didn't Someone Warn You About Prince Charming?

Blending heroic male icons, literary archetypes, gay relationships, and an observant, sharp humor, Jameson Currier’s newest collects twelve new tales of bad romances, backstage affairs, bittersweet recipes, and broken hearts.

"This collection is very much a tribute piece to the older gay man, the guy who has not achieved all of his dreams, but his power is in the fact that he hasn’t given up—he’s not down for the count, not yet. Where there’s life, where there’s love—there’s still hope. There’s still a life affirming story to tell.” —Lambda Literary
"A smart, heartfelt set of tales of gay men’s lives." - Kirkus
"This is a collection of fully realized and humorous prose that will satisfy many a reader..." - A&U Magazine

We the first installment have a new column, COLLECTED THOUGHTS, in which an author known for their short fiction chooses another writer's story collection and answers some questions on how the book inspired them.

Collected Thoughts

Jonathan Harper on Sam D’Allesandro

How did you learn about or find this book?

I couldn’t tell you the specific circumstances that led me to The Zombie Pit, but I know it was in my early twenties while working for the Lambda Literary Foundation. That was a wonderful and messy time of my life. I was a manic, over-caffeinated, twenty-two year old, starstruck with every writer I met. Sam D’Allesandro was one of those names casually tossed at me by someone with the expectation that I knew everything about him. Of course, I did not. I hardly knew anything and was constantly playing catch-up.

I originally bought The Zombie Pit because it was short, because my book list kept growing at an unsustainable rate. I’m a slow methodical reader and I figured I could finish this one in a single night. I didn’t. Instead, I savored it, reread it over and over as if trying to ingest the words. I have faint memories of sitting out on my apartment balcony, smoking cigarettes, chugging coffee, rereading the stories while bitterly thinking, “why can’t I write like this?” And then, for months afterwards, I took it everywhere, crammed in my knapsack like a trusted bible, and would pull it out wherever I sat down to write or when I wanted to be seen reading something obscure.

What story in the book is the most influential to your life or writing?

“Giovanni’s Apartment” was one of those love-affair fantasies a lot of have at one point or another. The narrator is walking late at night and feels the presence of a man behind him. What should have been a one-night stand turns into a two-month stay in the man’s apartment. It is a visceral romance, full of sex and rituals and uncertainty. Both of them are changed by it, not for better or for worse, but simply changed.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was living a subdued version of this fantasy. I had moved in with an older boyfriend, who would eventually become my husband, sharing this apartment with him while I was trying to figure out what my adult life should look like. I was very happy there, though I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that whole relationship was temporary and that one day it would end and I would have to move on. I don’t know why I felt this way.

In my own writing, I was constantly trying to capture these feelings, ones that D’Allesandro described with such ease. From the first few pages of “Giovanni’s Apartment”, the narrator says:

“When he asks me my name, I stupidly shoot back ‘Why do you want to know?’ Instantly I wish I could grab those words back out of the air. Instead they hover there, naked and embarrassing, like a bad child I can’t disassociate myself from.”

How many times had I felt this way? And why did I always lack the words to describe so accurately?

If you could ask the author today to add a coda, what would you want added to the book?

When I recently pulled The Zombie Pit off my shelf, I was surprised to find a folded piece of paper inside with a few printed lines on it. I don’t remember typing these or why I thought they were saving.

“Swallow me whole.” “Last week, we went dancing to the 80’s at the Rock ‘N Roll Hotel.” “I predict it will be a brief and disturbing affair. Brief in the way adrenaline skyrockets before the crash. “We meet at Union Station. 8am.” “Right now, I’ve got Sammy. We’ve been acquaintances for two+ years and he knows I’m willing as long as he gives a little chase.”

Whatever story I had circulating in my head at the time was never written and remains lost. That’s ok. They’re not great lines. And I don’t know any Sammy’s, so I have to wonder if this was some temporary desire to write some metafiction in which I have an affair with a deceased writer. Unfortunately, too much time passed and I’ll never know what I was thinking. But if I had the opportunity, I would pass them along to D’Allesandro himself. I’d tell him, “Here you go. Go make sense of these and turn them into something beautiful. You are the only one I think can do it.”

Get Happy

Mike Dressel

They wheeled their suitcases from the dock, all five of them in a little row like a troop of boy scouts, to the house off Bradford Street, with Ryan in the lead and Corey at the back. Ryan organized the week in Provincetown, handling the dates, the house rental, the invites. When they gathered dockside to take the ferry over, Ryan had presented each of them with a printed itinerary nestled in a folder, complete with photos and an index, to orient them to the town and their planned week there. Onboard, while the others, Luca, Harrison, and Rich, followed Ryan to the bar, Corey sat minding their luggage and flipping through the ad hoc guidebook. No boat cocktail, Ryan asked Corey, when he returned drink in hand, but Corey shrugged and mimed an upset stomach, and Ryan said suit yourself, plenty of time for drinking later. Corey held up the folder, I can see that, he said, imbibe alcohol 1-4pm Wednesday, and Ryan swatted him playfully on the shoulder.

Ryan had carefully selected his traveling companions, and anyone appraising them from outside their circle might be inclined to say that Corey didn’t altogether fit. Nothing too outwardly telling, his clothes were right-ish, his haircut on trend (even if the hair itself were thinning), so perhaps it was an aura he cast, something that radiated outward from him. That’s what Corey told himself, he gave off some aura of fraudulence. Of the group, Corey had known Ryan the longest, from back to their college days, and so he was grandfathered in, couldn’t be easily discarded or switched out of the clique Ryan otherwise curated with precision, like a venerable park avenue dowager selecting guests for a lengthy dinner. Corey was unsure what role he was to play now, resume a previous iteration of himself, the clown, the enabler, or was he already performing a part he wasn’t even aware of, unclear of the parameters and contours.

Harrison was the one to act deeply offended by their accommodations, once they arrived, stating his disapproval within the first few minutes through the door. Ugh, this coffee maker is ancient. There’s no French press? And is that Folgers, he asked, poking his head into the pantry. This is unacceptable, he said, throwing his hands up in slight horror.

Yes, the staircase leading to the upstairs bedrooms was narrow and vertiginous, the living room slightly musty smelling, the deadbolt on the rear door difficult to master, the thermostat ticklish, and the wi-fi spotty. Corey tried not to mind, or at least not to give voice to his disappointments. Corey was attempting to practice gratitude, that was what he told himself, that was his intention, to banish negativity, and he was here for the week not to complain, but to enjoy, and so he wouldn’t let himself snipe and grouse. When it came to travel, Corey wanted to believe that you conformed to the town or city or home you were visiting, not expect it to conform to you. If this rental house in this seaside town were a little tatty, a little down at heel and pedestrian, so be it, he told himself.

Luca and Rich, newly coupled, had disappeared into their bedroom. Ryan knocked to summon them. Boys, grocery run. Make yourselves presentable. They emerged borne on the pungent aroma of weed they’d procured in Boston, dressed in matching seersucker rompers.

We’re ready, they said in unison, then giggled.

In the text chain that went back and forth during the planning stages of the vacation, the group nixed, in a vote of three to two, coordinated outfits for all of them the entire week. The energy that would take, Corey thought while the messages flew back and forth, and so he was happy when the idea was voted down. Though it was less the energy and imagination than the cost. Corey couldn’t really afford this getaway to Provincetown, but he didn’t want to spend another week in August alone, sweaty and irritable in the city. Ryan had assigned him the smaller room—not quite a room, really, more of a porch with a futon, a nook—since it would cost less. Corey was still trying to dig himself out of the financial hole he slid into in the wake of the split, in same way climb out of the attendant depression, a full body despair that left him whittled down, frangible. He was not necessarily happy to be the spare-bed friend, but he wouldn’t be here otherwise and so thought better than to dwell on it.

And again the five marched together, heading over to the market, only breaking off once they’d gotten shopping carts. Per the agenda, each of them would be responsible for making a dinner one night of the week they were on vacation. Of course, this became complicated by the dietary restrictions of some members of their party: Ryan was a vegetarian, Harrison was keto, Rich seemed to subsist only on Diet Coke and differing strains of weed, whereas Corey pushed his cart through the aisles filling it with cheese and bread and chocolate and other comforting foods.

Next stop, bike rentals, Ryan said, after they’d stowed their provisions, putting the vegetables in the crisper and the vodka in the freezer to chill. So again the group set out together to the bike rental shop, securing their transportation for the week.

Two houses up, they passed a group of three guys hanging out on their porch. Rich said heeey and they said heeey back and Corey noticed the one boy bending over to apply sunscreen to his legs, wearing a crop top and a pair of fuchsia swim trunks with the word Vamp written across the rear in gold lettering. He looked up too and waved, the palm of his hand still gooey with sunblock.

Cute, Harrison said, when they were out of earshot pulling out his phone. I’m sure he’s on Grindr. He began scrolling through, now distracted by the sea of boxes he wanted to tick while here.

In the aftermath, Corey had reinstalled then deleted the dating apps from his phone a couple of times, the last only a week before the trip. He was avoiding them now on some principle he couldn’t articulate if pressed, a kind of abstention, a test of will. The rest of his social media he’d nuked, vowing never to return.

Found him, Luca said. On Instagram. Let me see, Harrison said, snatching the phone. Luca shared he had a savant-like ability to find anyone on Instagram by five degrees. Sure enough there they were, the fuchsia swim trunks and his friends, with plastic cups of drinks aloft, preening on the beach, their nudity artfully obscured by straw hats or the cross of a leg. There they were at a drag show, then eating lobster, bibbed with chins greasy from butter, them floating in a pool on neon-colored swim rings.

Rich said, his friends are even cuter, we should invite them over one night. Corey caught Luca looking a little forlorn at the comment, and recognized that feeling. Always alert, as if to try to divine any signs of imminent disaster from an innocuous line reading. The tremors at the beginning of a relationship that are harder to perceive by the end, when you actually need to be sensitive to them.

It’s not like we won’t see them around town though, Harrison said. No need to swarm them like seagulls around a basket of French fries. Corey, maybe just you should go over and say hello. Harrison gave Corey’s shoulder a gentle shove and his body locked and he fell out of step with the rest for a second and he saw Ryan shoot Harrison a look. Corey wasn’t sure what Ryan told the others, hadn't wanted to know precisely how it had been phrased, how broad the strokes Ryan had painted him, what the brief was—fragile, spooked, harrowed— knowing precisely how he was described would be like catching your reflection while on hallucinogens, Corey thought, a misshapen, funhouse resemblance to the truth. And yet. He thought he’d noticed some sidelong glances that weren’t too hard to interpret. He told himself he didn't want to cling to Ryan throughout the week, but wasn’t ready to be cut loose, untethered, either. They’d devised a sign, beforehand, in case Corey drifted too far, became too withdrawn, a nosedive back into depression. There was a real sense of worry, that even now, after so many months, he’d slip away. For a while everyone offered solutions. Drugs. CrossFit. Change of diet. Tantric workshop. This therapist, no this one. Get his testosterone levels checked. Until that well of advice was capped.

They pedaled their bikes back to the house, which Rich had jokingly dubbed, in his stoner-y way, the Ecru Cocoon, based on its drab exterior color and confining interior spaces. Harrison peeled off on his own. I’m going to get a gym pass for the week, he said.

First of the Lost Boys to venture out on his own, Ryan said, as they were parking their bikes. Huh, Corey said. Does that make you Peter Pan, then? Or maybe Wendy? Ryan rolled his eyes, looking somehow perpetually youthful, despite being two years older than Corey, and also deeply world weary, or at least he affected that pose. Corey knew that Ryan previously dismissed the kinds of things they were doing--everyone eating together, drinking together, dressing alike, affecting some sort of gay groupthink to the whole vacation, yet he took some kind of joy in it too. Disdaining and embracing it in equal measure. Ryan spent years feeling he was on the outside looking in, and now that he had the job and the paycheck that afforded a certain lifestyle, now that he was inside that demimonde, he aped the customs and rituals he spent years decrying. He held there was a right way of vacationing, and he was trying to manifest that throughout their stay. Ryan presented himself to the others as the paragon of discernment, but Corey remembered their years in undergrad when Ryan was scrappy and bumbling and always slightly agog, and sometimes shades of that unscrubbed Ryan would resurface and Corey would smile at the vestiges of the wild, uncouth country boy.

Dinner out tonight we think, yes? Ryan said, when they were all assembled again, sprawled across the saggy furniture in the living room, glued to their phones. No one spoke. Raise hands if you want to eat out, or else Rich can cook.

Huh, Rich said. Oh, no, and stuck his hand in the air.

They had to wait at least half an hour to be seated at the café. Rich and Luca traded surreptitious hits off Rich’s vape pen, Harrison reviewed the menu and argued with himself about what he could and should eat.

Did anyone check the weather for the next few days, Corey asked?

Not recently, no, was the general consensus, a kind of willful ignorance. So everyone’s phone came out, and they all scrutinized the five-day forecast, with the attention and interest of fishermen’s wives whose husbands were about to take to the sea.

But it can’t rain the whole time, can it? Rich said.

Harrison reflexively shivered.

Well we can’t truly know, can we? Ryan said. It’s not like we could have gotten refunds on anything now anyway. Look, tomorrow’s sunny, hmm, sunny-ish, so we should look to revise the agenda and maximize guaranteed sun time, yes?

You brought the agenda to dinner, didn’t you? Luca asked, and Ryan slowly pulled out the folder he had in his back pocket.

Over Portuguese kale soups and wedge salads, crab cakes and mussels, and several cocktails, they made amendments in the case of inclement weather.

We have tickets to shows most nights, so that’s sorted, rain or no rain. Beach or pool tomorrow though? Travel weary, and in the dozy satisfaction of a large meal, no one wanted to commit.

Ok boys, we’ll talk it through at breakfast, Ryan said. When the bill came Ryan snatched it up. Here, he said, I’ll pay this, just take a picture and you can each Venmo me your share. Corey mentally deducted his portion from the running tally for the week he kept in his head, trying to stay within the daily budget he’d allotted himself for this trip.

They trooped back down the street toward the Ecru Cocoon, the street dark now, excepting the lights in the windows of the neighboring houses, creating a warm little chiaroscuro, light bleeding into the yards and flower beds, the evening’s stillness punctuated by a burst of laughter from somewhere, the yip of some nearby dog, a snatch of the chorus of the ordained song of summer, on constant repeat wherever they went.

Ryan was sipping from his mug of coffee when Corey entered the kitchen the following morning. Corey tasted his and said oh, this coffee really is vile huh. Ryan nodded. They were both finishing their toast when Luca and Rich came down, yawning and stretching, the last to emerge.

We snuck out for a bit last night. After everyone was asleep. We were feeling a little antsy, Luca said.

And frisky, Rich added.

Ah, Corey said, thinking al fresco sex, but before he could say it Luca quickly spoke up. We just walked around and smoked a joint. The moon, though, was truly epic.

Coffee babe, Rich asked, and fixed a cup for himself and Luca. They both frowned when they sipped it. Then Luca said we have to get better coffee.

Harrison banged through the door, back from his pre-dawn workout, sweaty and energized, grasping some sort of putty-colored shake in a plastic container. Why do you all look so sour, he asked. Oh, you’re drinking that coffee, aren’t you?

Beach time, not pool time, was the vote. So they all dispersed to their rooms to change and collect their beach things, apply sunblock, primp and fluff.

It’s a bit of a trek Ryan called out, wear good shoes, and Rich stopped in the middle of the stairs and clomped back to his room to change footwear. Rich, who was tall and stocky, towered over Luca, who was compact and spritely. While Luca was fair and worried about getting burned, Rich, as they discovered, was fond of wearing little clothing wherever and whenever possible. For the beach he was dressed in tiny trunks that outlined his considerable anatomical gifts.

As they were walking out Ryan whispered to Corey, well now we can all see one thing that Luca likes about Rich.

How much farther, Luca asked, in a pleading sort of way, after they’d locked their bikes and began the hike toward the horizon line. With his straw hat, owlish sunglasses, and kimono, coating of zinc sunblock, loaded down with two bags holding their snacks and drinks and towels, he looked like a silent film diva trudging through the sand to a location shoot. Rich reached over and took one of Luca’s bags, hefting it onto his shoulder. They all squelched and traipsed through the mucky path, their various footwear increasingly wetter and caked with mud and sand: Ryan and Harrison in sensible water shoes, Luca in Birkenstocks, Corey in his low-top converse sneakers, and Rich in a pair of hiking boots.

Harrison said Rich, what are those, pointing at his footwear. And Rich, who’d been huffing and puffing through the sand said what, you said wear good shoes.

Finally, Rich said, as they rounded the dunes and found their tribe. Suns out buns out Harrison said, though the day was hazy and overcast.

As they’d been accustomed, they deferred to Ryan to select the right patch of sand to lay out their blankets, following him down the thin strip of sand, gingerly dodging other pods of guys who’d already staked their claim, until they found a clearing.

A speedboat was bobbing just off shore, and four guys were knee deep in water, laughing and joking with the owner, dipping and posing and flexing.

Time for book club Ryan said, fishing in his bag. He splayed out the magazines and handed one to Corey. No, trade me the US Weekly, Corey said, passing back his copy of People. All right, Ryan said in his best school teacher voice, summarize and report on your assigned reading in twenty minutes. And everyone remember to reapply your sunscreen.

Yes mother, Harrison grumbled, while Luca was already putting on a fresh application.

Harrison had assigned himself music and drinks, and after fiddling with the Bluetooth speaker, said I’ve been working on the perfect playlist, then began distributing solo cups to the group, except for Rich, who’d already fallen asleep and was lightly snoring, mouth open. He gets very snoozy on a beach, Luca said, shrugging.

Harrison shucked off his swimsuit and jogged down to the water. Corey watched as he tapped someone on the shoulder, who turned around in surprise then embraced Harrison. The blissful contact of skin warmed by sun, sandy and salty, in a firm embrace. Brotherly.

Isn’t this just paradise, Harrison asked, when he jogged back, plopping down to towel off. They all murmured assent but Corey wasn’t sure. He wanted it to be, and this was close to exactly what he’d wanted on this trip: a devotion to small pleasures. Nothing outsize and brash. He willed himself to get in synch with this vacation, not wanting to return after a week having regretted not doing something, not saying yes when asked. Not being open to things, as all the self-help memes and treacly circulated platitudes advised.

Rich sat up with a start, wiped a strand of drool from the corner of his mouth. I thought I’d died and when I went to heaven I was surrounded by hot naked men and now I’m awake and there’s hot naked men and what is reality? Are we dead? Rich grabbed Luca’s cup and downed the remains of the drink in one shot.

Maybe we should take a walk Luca said, with emphasis. Over there, gesturing behind them. The two got up clumsily, stretched. Then Luca and Rich strolled behind the dunes.

I honestly hadn’t pegged Luca for an exhibitionist, Ryan said.

Maybe he was just waiting for the right place or the right opportunity, Corey offered.

You know what I miss, Ryan said, holding up the magazine he’d been thumbing through idly.

What?

Celebrities I recognize.

You’re showing your age, mother, Harrison said, helping himself to a refill from the thermos.

No, but, you know what I mean. Like, if you don’t even vaguely remember Courtney Love throwing a make-up compact at Madonna during the VMAs, do I want to know you? If I say the name Kurt Loder and you draw a complete blank.

Where is this coming from? Harrison said. Did you forget to take your Geritol this morning? Are you peckish, maybe I put an Ensure in my purse next to the poppers, Harrison said, performatively rummaging through his beach tote.

Fuck off. Okay . . . fine. It’s just, and I know this is blasphemy, but I don’t like—he pointed to Harrison’ speaker—I don’t like, and here he mouthed the name Carly Rae Jepsen.

Harrison clutched his chest. Then, in his best drug commercial cadence, Are you suffering from bop-itis? Ask your DJ if Dua Lipa is right for you. Side effects may include . . .

Omigod I hate you so much, Ryan said, snatching up the nearest magazine and swatting at Harrison. Seriously, though, name one artist, Ryan said, one you won’t be embarrassed to have slobbered over in twenty years’ time. One that you’ll happily blast from that little speaker, who has real staying power. Ryan held up a finger. Beyoncé doesn’t count. Beyoncé’s eternal.

First off, we won’t have speakers, we’ll have the Bluetooth device surgically implanted in our, like, jawbone or something. Our social media feeds scrolling across our retinas. In the future we’re all going to be gay cyborgs.

Answer the question, though, Ryan said. I would sincerely like to know.

Ugh, let me think . . . Robyn! There will always be Robyn.

Corey lay down on his back, closed his eyes, listened to the two friends banter. The conviviality of the day, the setting. He’d missed this. When he’d made Dwayne his whole world he’d isolated himself, unintentionally, but after Dwayne he still felt cut off, unmoored, unable to navigate back to something as familiar as this. He’d gone from an I to a We back to I but somehow lesser than, and so what now? One consolation was that Dwayne would’ve hated this entire vacation. The thought was petty and it warmed Corey as much as the afternoon sun.

Corey was awoken by Luca and Rich’s return. Maybe we should think about heading back, Luca said, pointing at the sky, which looked stormy. The beach had emptied considerably. With effort they broke down their little outpost, shaking sand from blankets and stuffing everything back in their bags, then, shoes in hand, joining the slender procession back to the road.

It was while biking home, everyone warm and loose and sun-pinked, that the fat droplets of rain began falling. They were fairly drenched when they finally got back into the house.

I’ll throw together some pasta Ryan said, we can eat here quickly before the show.

The rain thrummed on the roof as they showered off the beach and dressed to go out.

Before Corey had reached the bottom of the landing, clean and toweled and in a fresh outfit, Harrison was foisting a drink in his hand.

You’re like the fairy godmother of alcohol this week, Corey said.

That’s right. Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Booze.

Corey had promised himself he’d watch how much he drank, not just because of the expense, though that was part of it, but because of what it led to. Self-flagellation and what ifs and replaying the final weeks with Dwayne, when things were becoming unglued, separating but not irreparably sundered. He was starting to go there when he heard a peal, came around the corner to find Ryan standing at the head of the table, lordly.

Where on earth did you find a dinner bell?

Ryan shrugged, and rang the bell again. Dinner is prepared, he announced. Serve yourselves.

By the following morning the skies still hadn’t cleared. Corey had begged off early the previous night, citing the weather, walking home through the shivery mist. Now a damp, grey chill clung to the town. Corey’s head paired with the weather, foggy and grim. It wasn’t quite a hangover, he thought, but possibly the beginnings of a migraine. Despite it being the middle of August, Corey felt in his body the early onset of fall, was preternaturally disposed to the change of seasons. And after fall, staring down that shift toward the bleakness of winter, he didn’t know if he had the fortitude to survive another one in the city, alone for the first time in a long time. Then again, what were the seasons now anyway with climate change, scrambled and sometimes illegible, any usual patterns hard to discern. Still, he knew fall was coming in quickly and the warmth of summer would recede. Sweaters replacing swim trunks, boots not bare feet, sunsets at four pm and radiators clanging alive and an extra blanket on the bed, but not the body next to him he’d become accustomed to, not that warmth to carry him through until spring.

Corey attempted to meditate. He’d been doing meditation in the mornings. Well, he had been promising to be more committed to meditating in the mornings, had downloaded an app, even. The speaker of the mindfulness program was meant to convey trustworthy assurance, borne on their honeyed cadence, a friendly manner and serene authority guiding his journey, but Corey found the instructions oddly chiding and ever-so-slightly exasperated, like an impatient fourth-grade teacher. So he hadn’t taken to the practice, and it hadn’t helped him allay the shattered glass feelings that littered his interior, the lowkey drone in his skull, hadn’t prevented sudden crying jags on uptown trains at rush hour or helped him remember to eat three meals a day or banish the deep weariness that settled in his marrow. As he sat now, eyes closed, trying to release the tension from his jaw and turn his attention to his breath, his mind drifted to the chatty dialogue between birds outside, the faint snatches of a pop song carried from someone’s open window, the metronomic groan of the bedframe across the hall where Luca and Rich were lodging.

The kitchen, when Corey came down the stairs, was quiet. He presumed Harrison had gone to work out. Luca and Rich were still ensconced in their bedchamber. No sign of Ryan. He grabbed his sweatshirt off the back of the dining room chair and stepped out.

The road was empty save for an older couple walking their lumbering Basset Hound in the drizzle, and when it balked and refused to proceed one step further, one of the men bent down to scoop up the stubborn canine and carry it like a child in his arms back toward their cottage. Corey passed the house with the boys they’d seen the first day. It was quiet, the porch a little mise-en-scène of unruly vacation. The Vamp bathing suit draped on the railing, damp. Striped beach towels slung on the back of the rocking chairs and a sodden ashtray overflowing with butts. A cocktail glass half-full of a diluted, ruby red liquid. Last night’s revels become next day’s regrets. Corey wanted to want to drink in that way, be drunk and thoughtless and blithe. He wished he could make mistakes again, without consequence. Innocent mistakes. Early twenties mistakes. Though was that ever really possible? Didn’t you have to pay for all your transgressions, sooner or later? The cosmic bill always coming due.

It continued to mist as he entered clutching his iced coffee and blueberry muffin, the kitchen smelling of breakfast food as Luca and Rich did a pas de deux cooking at the stove. In the dining room sat Ryan with his laptop open in front of him, on a call—work, he mouthed, after holding up his finger to stop Corey from inquiring. Corey flopped on the couch and picked at the last half of his crumbling muffin.

Sorry, PR crisis, Ryan said, when he hung up. I’m not even supposed to be on call. Today looks like more of the same, weather-wise, so we could try shopping or art?

Luca and Rich sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the coffee table, finishing their omelets. Harrison voted shopping. Rich and Luca voted shopping. Corey voted art.

Ryan said, ok, let’s stroll around the shops, grab lunch, and if we have the energy, after, and it’s not too rainy, we can continue east to the art museum and galleries. Good?

It was after lunch, when he left Ryan and Harrison to try on clothes, when Luca and Rich were stoned and in line for an ice cream cone, while paying for a pack of gum, that Corey felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around to see Jeremy.

I thought that was you! What are you doing here?

Dwayne’s best friend Jeremy.

I’m, uh, here with friends, Corey said, gesturing vaguely over his shoulder but remembering everyone has scattered and having no tangible proof to offer.

How have you been, Jeremy asked, purely out of politeness, sounding sincere but with a little down turn at the mouth that was too overwrought to be believed, and Corey was frozen with the weight of the question, of how to answer. He settled on, ta dah, as if he’d just appeared onstage in a flimsy magic trick, but the implication was what you see is what you get.

Listen, Jeremy began to say, and then Corey cut him off.

You don’t need to, you know, say anything.

Anyway! Jeremy said, not bothering to hide his relief, I’ll let you get back to it, and he went in for a friendly hug but Corey had already gone for a handshake and so as Jeremy bent forward Corey just jabbed at his midsection before course correcting for the light embrace, which trapped his hand awkwardly against Jeremy’s very solid abs. Maybe I’ll see you around this week.

Corey watched Jeremy saunter away, then pull out his phone and immediately start to text.

Rich, Luca, guys, Corey called, as they were wiping the sticky ice cream cone runoff from their palms, standing over the trash barrel, while the drops of rain grew fatter and steadier. I think I’m going back to the house. I don’t have it in me for more retail.

We’ll come too, Luca said. Corey almost discouraged them, but stopped himself. So the three walked back, dodging cars and bikes and puddles, Corey content with the company, despite being soaked through, walking a few paces behind with Rich rambling on about imaginary ice cream flavors, picking up the tail end of an inside joke he and Luca had started before, and Luca laughing and squeezing Rich’s hand, which made Corey wince slightly.

Another day of solid rain. Unusual, that was the word. And a bummer. At the drag show last night, Corey exceeded his self-imposed quota of drinks, and his daily budget, and woke up with his tongue sandpapery and the hazy memory of maybe trying to kiss Harrison as a joke/not joke. The late-night pizza slice sitting uncomfortably in his gut. He slid two pieces of bread in the toaster and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Harrison had apparently skipped the gym and gone back to sleep. Luca and Rich were still in their room, they’d broken off from the group after the show, arm in arm, into the dark and down toward the bay. Corey didn’t know when they’d come back to the house. Ryan came downstairs with his laptop again, setting up a makeshift office at the dining room table.

They played cards in the morning. The five of them, after breakfast. They played cards again after lunch, listening to the constant patter of rain. Rich and Luca, clad in their matching Kaftans, had taken a break to give each other pedicures. Then the card games resumed.

Some vacation, huh? Rich had said after he’d dealt a new hand. And Luca shushed him, tried to mollify him. Rich stood up, paced a bit in place, then said fuck it and marched up the stairs. They all heard the door slam.

He just gets cranky, don’t mind him, Luca said. Cabin fever.

Harrison said, Luca, you don’t have to apologize for his behavior.

Luca took offense, grew inward and quiet. I fold, he said, then followed Rich upstairs to their room. Their raised whispers carrying down the stairs until the sound was replaced by low laughter and the squeaking of bedsprings. Indoors more of their vacation days than out, they’d each come to memorize the specific utterances of the house, a catalogue of creaks and groans and drips that gnawed at their peace of mind.

Ryan checked his phone, sighed, and stepped out onto the porch to make another work call. Harrison shuffled and reshuffled the deck of cards absentmindedly. Should we see what the cute neighbors are doing?

Which ones? Corey said.

Heh, fair point.

But Corey knew who Harrison meant. They’d crossed paths with the gang from across the way twice earlier, and each group had waved to the other in passing, or ducking out of the rain, kept seeing them the way you seem to bump into the same people on vacation, like you’re locked onto the same track, looping around the same sights, a pattern either uncanny or pre-ordained. There was always a little charge, a little frisson as the two parties collided. They seemed to still be managing fun, despite the weather, whereas Corey watched his companions’ enthusiasm for the trip, each other, the town itself, seep away by the day.

Harrison picked up the agenda from the coffee table, a ring from a coffee cup staining the front. He flipped through it before holding it over his head and shaking it. Tell us what to do now.

It’s not an oracle, Corey said.

Fuck it, I’m going to work out. Do you have a spare poncho I can borrow? He looked out the window again. Or a canoe?

Corey gestured to the corner by the door, where they’d accumulated rain gear.

Thanks! See you soon! Harrison said.

Corey got up and plucked a book from the shelf. The owners of the house, or previous renters, or both, assembled a broad selection of beach reads, lots of well-thumbed Jodi Picoult and John Grisham and a whole slew of cozy mysteries featuring cats solving crimes.

Ryan nudged Corey awake, where he’d fallen asleep on the couch, midway through a novel about a bossy Siamese and a poisoned rhubarb pie. Come assist with dinner, he said. Everyone else was in the kitchen, taciturn, and Corey was handed a cutting board and knife, vegetables to chop for the salad. Luca was directing the preparations, Rich his sous-chef, while Harrison, looking like a scientist trying to cure a disease, was mixing and measuring alcohol into a cocktail shaker.

Try this, he said, pouring half a shot into a glass for Corey.

Corey brightened. Oh! That’s . . .

I know, right?

The drink was warm and fizzy and slightly tart, it tasted like an antidote. Harrison looked pleased, as he always did, when he’d achieved peak cocktail.

The mood around the dinner table was still desultory, even though Rich kept complimenting Luca’s meal, getting everyone to chime in and agree it was superb. By the time everyone had finished dinner, and two of Harrison’s cocktails, things were looser and louder.

Harrison looked through the blinds at the rain-slicked street. Who’s the weather witch here? Who’ll finally banish this foul tempest? He glanced over his shoulder and his gaze landed on Corey, who felt the comment was directed at him somehow.

According to the National Weather Service it’s finally banishing itself, overnight, or by mid-morning at the latest, Ryan said. So we’ll get one full afternoon of sunshine. Let’s make it count.

True to the forecast the sun had returned, mostly, by noon the following day, but the front that had blown in during the week still felt like a prologue to Corey, or a threat of what was in store.

A reprieve! Harrison said, opening the curtains wide after lunch.

Pool then tea dance, Ryan said, saddle up. Then like inmates sprung from prison, they disgorged from the Ecru Cocoon.

Save me a space, I’ll catch up to you, Corey said, lingering in the door frame. Ryan turned back and said something Corey didn’t quite catch, and didn’t ask him to repeat, but it sounded like don’t be a martyr. Ryan’s desire to corral all his charges, after the last few days, having diminished considerably. The terrible thing Corey wouldn’t admit aloud was he liked it better during these past rainy days, when they were all mired together in the doldrums, inert and listless, lethargic and mopey, when he didn’t have to fake enthusiasm for anything. Misery loves etc., Corey thought, locking the door behind him and squinting into the sun.

Corey noticed Vamp sitting on his porch, without his companions. Corey gave a slight wave and was gestured over. Was this the cosmic nudge, now? I’m just catching up to my friends, Corey said, but in truth he was more intrigued by the situation at hand than he was by the pool and daquiris. Seated opposite him in the shade of the porch, Vamp was younger than he’d first thought, twenty-two or twenty-three, probably, to Corey’s thirty-six, not that large a difference, but at the same time a magnitude.

Where are your friends? Corey asked.

Beach.

But you’re not?

He gestured to his ankle, swollen and purplish. That’s what I get for trying to sashay in heels when I’m too messy.

Ooh, Corey said. Ouch.

It’s not broken or anything, but there was no way I was pedaling to the beach in this state. So they left me, bitches, and I’m taking it easy on the porch watching the world go by. I’m Terrence, he said, his hand lightly touching his sternum.

Corey.

Offer you a beverage? Terrence said, holding up a can of something Corey didn’t recognize.

Vodka tonic in a can? Is this even drinkable?

Yeah, it surprisingly is.

Well, cheers then, Corey said, taking a sip. Oh, this isn’t awful. I don’t know what I was imagining but this is not bad.

Right, said Terrence. It’s definitely helping the pain. So, what’s you guys’ story? I always see that cute blonde friend of yours going to work out.

Huh, oh. Harrison? Yeah. He’s very work hard/play hard. He’s not wired for anything but extremes.

The others?

Corey ran down the roster. Ryan is our scout leader, he planned this whole trip. He has this whole . . . agenda. Like a laminated, printed out agenda, which on the one hand is great but it’s also maddening. We’ve known each other since college. He used to work with Luca, who moved to LA about a year ago and is dating Rich, with the bearish build and the long-ish hair, they just started seeing each other so this trip is, well, you know how you figure people out when you travel together? They’re figuring each other out. But it seems to be going well for them.

And you?

And me, Corey said, never sure what to offer up by way of recent biography. He’d told the breakup story too many times to count, in varying registers, to where it was now like a vaudeville routine that had lost its timing. Plural, then singular. Engaged, then not. Planning a wedding, then not. Two people performing coupledom online, their joint Instagram account, their wedding website, crafting a narrative, flaunting it—the proposal, the rings, the registry, the bespoke suits—until it became too all-consuming, too unwieldy to manage. There’d been an arrogance in the presentation Corey sensed from the start they would have to pay for. And after trailed a whiff of failed alchemy about the enterprise, that they couldn’t transmute the raw material of their relationship into the stuff of marriage. They had no good model, no template. That Dwayne was an actor gave Corey, in retrospect, even more a sense he was caught in some lengthy performance piece now concluded.

And me. But you and your friends are here from . . . Corey wasn’t sure if he should hazard a guess, but he heard a trace of an accent. Boston?

Waltham, actually.

Oh, I don’t think I know where…

Don’t worry, why would you? It’s funny, Terrence said, this is only my second time back here as an adult. I came a few times when I was a kid. With my mom and aunt Joyce. I didn’t really get it back then, but I knew that this place was safe, somehow? Like, when I was home, the weeks I had to spend with my dad—hey, child of divorce!—I had to help him chop wood and sort screws in his garage and stand by his side and hand him tools when he was working under his car and it was like death to me. This one year, I guess I was about seven, and I had this pink princess dress I loved to wear, that my mother would let me play in, but only in the house, right? And never tell your father. I mean, I knew that without her having to say it, instinctively. But I also didn’t understand why I couldn’t wear my pink princess dress outside to play with the other kids, like Caity had her sparkly gown and shoes, and Bryn, so it would just be me alone in my room in my little princess dress like some sort of fairy tale heroine, locked in the tower. That first summer we came here, with aunt Joyce like I said, who was a big ol’ lesbian though I didn’t know it at the time either, and we got to the little room where we were staying and I was unpacking my little kid suitcase and my mom had packed my pink princess dress. I looked at her like, really? And she nodded and said do you want to wear that when we go get some ice cream and you bet I did. So there was me, in the middle of Commercial Street, mom and aunt Joyce on either side holding my hand, in my little dress, and no one cared. I mean, I got compliments left and right, from all these people, adults, but no one looked at me like I was dressed in any way wrong, and I was just so happy.

The monologue seemed well rehearsed, and probably delivered often to new friends, or strangers, or both, and Corey was mildly annoyed at the dopey self-satisfaction of the teller, while not immune to the charms of the tale.

Hey, pass me those Marlboros would you?

Sure. Corey reached across the railing and snagged the near-empty pack of cigarettes, handing them back to Terrence, who fished one out then he held the pack back toward Corey. Want one?

Corey flinched a little. He did, rather badly. Wanted nothing more than that first sharp inhale into his lungs. But he’d quit. They’d quit together, him and Dwayne, for their health, for their future, they’d said. He hadn’t touched a cigarette since.

Corey took one, then the lighter Terrence proffered, heard the familiar click, the little jet of flame, the crackle as the tip of the cigarette ignited. He exhaled a stream of smoke and grimaced.

This tastes terrible. I can’t believe I used to smoke, Corey said, but took another drag anyway, settling back into the familiar gestures of an inveterate smoker.

Corey touched the wet bathing suit on the railing. What’s the deal with Vamp?

Oh, Terrence said, covering his face. I grabbed them off the rack in hurry when I was buying some new outfits for this trip and I thought it said Camp. Like, summer camp, or campy. But it’s Vamp, like vampire I guess?

Or seductress, Corey said.

Yeah, whoops. Not false advertising though, Terrence said, stubbing out his cigarette in the too-full ashtray.

It’s funny, Corey said, I kept thinking a vamp like, marking time in music, repeating a pattern of chords until the next movement.

Terrence shrugged. Huh, sure, I guess that too. He stretched his good leg out, the uninjured one, flexed his toes. Corey saw they had been painted a pearlescent blue, but most of it had chipped off.

Then they settled into silence.

Terrence’s phone chimed and he grabbed if from off the railing. Ugh they’re texting me photos from the beach. So rude. Look. He held the screen toward Corey, images of the boys carrying on.

Terrence clutched the phone and began texting back. Corey drained the last of the can of vodka tonic, set it next to Terrence’s empty, stood up. So I should probably go.

Terrence looked up, then back at his phone, texting as he spoke. Oh, ok. The agenda?

Right. Sun, pool, it’s kind of why we came. But thanks, Corey said. Meaning the drink, the smoke, and something else he couldn’t fully convey in the moment, eager to rejoin his own friends.

He turned onto Commercial Street, blending into the scrum of bodies coming and going, bikes, cars, dogs on leashes, not in a rush, though it was only a short way to go, feeling held by the scene filling in around him, and, like Terrence said, safe.

Cruising

Ian Rosales Cassock

You are everywhere, waiting at corners, eager for eye contact; or driving discreet cars, to slow down only by shadowed bends and uninnocent lanes; or chatting online and hiding behind indiscreet handles—BiBoy4U, GwapoKo, hotmale. You and I live for the intricacies of games. Our nights in this city afford this. But this is perfectly fine with me: my living thrives on your secrets and indiscretions.

My college ass is for sale. If you pay well, I’ll be your own private, first-class Shakespeare-spouting Jeff Stryker for the night. That’s something you don’t get normally from hook-ups on ordinary streets and corners. A call boy with high IQ. Literate. In my job, that’s called an “angle.” A specialty, like menu for the day.

Call it a bonus, an added feature—something to titillate the common trick, the way some straight boys like to sexify middle-aged librarians with glasses—but as far back as I can remember, the ultimate fantasy has always been to hustle. “If I had a nicer body, I’d be in porn,” I told Rita once, some time before, half in jest. She raised an eyebrow. “Or dancing ‘round a beanpole,” I continued. “Scott O’Hara, the porn star, was also a bestselling fictionist and playwright, you know. He was such an unexpectedly good writer.” And once again: “If I had a nicer body, I’d be in porn.” Rita nodded without ever trying to understand. That is what I like most about her.

But instead, I went to college for a philosophy degree.

Only later did I discover GymUltra tucked in the bowels of Uymatiao Building; for 650 pesos a month working out sweat and muscles, I considered it a bargain. Of course, their cardio machine doesn’t work, and the instructor is inept and narcissistic, always given to showing off by pumping iron or preening in front of the mirror-covered walls. But I decided then that this gym would do well for me: this was where I planned to endure months to look like Lukas Ridgeston. Or any one of those video faces that burned regularly the head of my VCR. This was it. Chances bloomed to deconstruct perverse wishes, Derrida meeting Nin. Or, if I have to be Jungian and mythological: the ugly duckling turned swan. Six hundred fifty pesos a month—steep sometimes, given my lot—is an investment worthy of any of the hustles to follow. A primed body is worth material comfort.

Even at nineteen, you must see by now, I already wear the world on my shoulders.

This is the deal: two hours in a single night for not less than a thousand, or maybe more, depending really on the take, and on my time. I’m a busy person, and I delude myself in thinking I have a reputation to maintain. I do this for capitalist fun really—to test Althusser and Marx, I tell myself: commodification as practical exercise, setting a price for an object of desire—John Berger’s thesis on “gaze” fleshed out. Thinking in the abstract makes me feel good. Reduces the guilt to a mental exercise. But basically, there is only the memory of needing money most, especially when final exams come and there are tuition fees to bear, like rough hands clawing at my flesh, enough to eat me alive.

My mother has no clue, of course. She sells Avon when she is not playing mahjong, and cannot be bothered. She thinks I have a scholarship. I nod and tell her lies; I lost my scholarship when I got a 1.5 for Algebra, for not sucking Prof. Manalastas’s dick. I had principles then.

Most days, I tell myself, I don’t mind. What’s a dick for a cellphone card?

You can take me in a nice car, one of those shiny new models that burn rubber. You can take me to a nice motel, maybe one outside town, like maybe that one near Cangmating Beach. The Honeybee Motel. Honeybee, Honeybee . . .. The name sings like a jingle.

Or maybe you can take me down to a cheap pension house somewhere—they dot the town and stay open 24 hours a day—for P400 a night, where the clerk never asks questions, only perhaps to give an impersonal nod, to nonchalantly give you the key to a small white-wallpapered room with no carpet (but with TV and cable), where the bed is large enough and soft enough and muffled enough to cushion my creaks and your moans.

The clerk has seen so many of your kind in this place to mind the fact, really, that you’re an older man with a young boy like me in tow. At nineteen, I look sixteen—and perhaps that’s what makes you mad, lecherous, for me. I look familiar to the clerk, too—but I do not have enough of the telltale, streetside swagger for him to better pigeonhole me. But he still nods at me, and I give him a blank look.

Such are the exchanges of the trade.

In your room, you ask me if you have seen me before. It is a nervous question—something most tricks like you ask, as if this face can also be traded for another. (That’s how we call you, “tricks.” Like in magic. Like in a disappearing act.) Perhaps you ask me if you have seen me before, a need for reassurance, for familiarity in unlikely situations. Psych 101 tells me that. So I just smile, and give you a half-nod, a half-shake: non-committal, like the exchange we are about to make: anonymous flesh for discreet solicitations. The whole world is a puta.

“Why don’t you lie back, sir, get naked—relaxed,” I tell you. My voice is soft but commanding.

You are not used to being told what to do—not from a pick-up you pay, noooo. But who says I am a regular pick-up? It was my peculiarity of station that struck you, if I have to remind you once again. A while ago, I was just on my side of road going to Bantayan, ostensibly to flag down a pedicab home before the late night became even later. I wore a dark-blue long-sleeved shirt over carefully pressed denims, punctuated by Adidas sneakers. I had glasses—fashionable enough not to seem nerdy. I had a backpack. I looked like your normal college boy. I am, in fact, a college boy. And your car was gray, and purred slowly towards me with such intentions, the headlights blinking. When you got to me, you rolled the windows down on the passenger’s side, and you asked me if I needed a ride home. I just told you, simply, that for such a ride, you had to have a thousand pesos, no more, no less—but perhaps, if you were satisfied . . . more?

I smiled.

You looked me down, and up—and something in my years and in my air satisfied you—the way those unfortunate parke boys in Quezon Park, dirty, uncouth, and shameless and obvious of their trade, might not have.

You smiled back at me and said to hop in.

“Do you do this often?” you asked the silliest questions—also tactless.

I smiled and smiled, and said, “No, sir.” And then I told you my regular line that all others before you had fallen for: “I’m in college, and I need the money for tuition.” Which is true. People like you fall hard for that needy line: in your mind, this is practically charity.

“Oh,” and then you had that look of fascination I’d seen in others slowly descending on your smile. “Wow. What school are you from?”

I told you.

“Fascinating! I went to that university, too,” you said.

And you looked at me again, and grinned—finding me an aberration, perhaps, but oh how that made you hornier for me. In Japan, I read somewhere once, some high school girls “date” older men for a little more cash money, dressed in their trademark uniform of white blouse, very short plaid skirt, and thick, white, knee-length socks. The Japanese call them enjo kasai—translated, it means “someday mothers.” Some older women prostitutes make this a regular fetish performance for demanding clients—with uniforms, pigtails, and all. The whole world is a pedophile.

Now, in this motel bed, I am master for the money you pay me, and I say again, “Why don’t you lie back, sir, get naked—get relaxed.”

You nod.

I straddle you and then I lower my chest towards you, my right nipple just so near, your tongue aches to lick. “Tempting, isn’t it, sir?” I say.

You nod.

“Well, sir, Oscar Wilde once said that the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” I say, huskily—meaning it, and saying it as academically as I can.

Oscar Wilde finally does you in, and you go for me like the temptation that I am, and I yield—beyond Marx, beyond Althusser, beyond guilt. Sometimes when I do this and I catch a glimpse of myself with an anonymous man in some stray motel room mirror, I do not recognize the body that heaves and works for pleasure: a picture of detachment is all I see—not I—and knowing, somehow, that abstract ideas are only abstract ideas. We live out our compensations.

Always, in these stray mirrors, I mistake myself for a little boy, and you the specter of a loss. Mother calls you “Son of a bitch!”, a “monster,” and has hidden your pictures from my reach. I do not know or remember your face anymore, only your smell on my skin. I suspect mother has burned all those photos, all memories of you, the way she burns her face every day and every night into an earnest concentration on mahjong tiles. This way she gives herself a good excuse—perhaps—not to see me, not to see my face. Something in me triggers her crying, so I have learned to stay away.

Then you moan deeply as you come, each spasm digging deep into me, into a certain hollow I do not even recognize. I realize all too suddenly that this is now, and this is you, not some shadow I do not even try to remember.

~ ~ ~

I am in Why Not? Disco. Inside, the crowd is milling: jeans-clad people on a bored Friday night, dancing to a beat, or raving madly to the guitars and deafening blasts from the band on the little stage. The band doing a little April Boy Regino, doing a little Natalie Imbruglia. Old, corny pop songs to cringe from. It used to be a good crowd, the A’s and B’s of the town with the designer shirts and skirts. But time and new places to go to have caught up with the tinsels and dusty vinyl records hanging from the smoky ceiling. Why Not? Disco is grimy like an abandoned whore, and looks its age.

Everybody talks American. Too much movies and Sidney Sheldon pulp—sometimes it is a slurred, swallowed up gurgle, the way these people speak, but it’s all mutant forms of Alicia Silverstone-and-Marky-Mark-talk.

Somebody asks me something.

“Whatever,” I mutter back, to test the waters. I sound ancient.

Tonight, the gathering crowd sports tsinelas and fake Penshoppe polo shirts. “Bakya crowd,” Rita growls under her breath, as if she does not belong.

She tugs at my silken shirt, and gives me a pinch. She wants to go to Happy Days where the waiters are cuter, and the Budweiser is cheap.

“Shhhh,” I pinch her back.

I look around, ignoring the croak of the lead singer with the baseball cap—he is pock-marked, pony-tailed, and full of attitude. The overhead camera pans his face, and his sweaty nose breaks into the huge TV screen behind him. He shrieks, he strums “Born to Be Wild” on his electric guitar, and the drunken crowd goes wild.

It feels embarrassing.

I scan the crowd and then I see you sitting in the bar stool a few feet away, alone, stiff collars on the neck, drinking watered-down vodka at the bar. Everything in Why Not? is watered-down.

Your hair is a bit curly, framing your Gaelic face in a nice mop. You look thin, you seem tall. Fuckable.

I like you.

You eat creamed sauerkraut, and munch slowly.

You stare, and I stare back.

I suddenly remember my brother who prostitutes himself in Finland, an “assistant” to an old businessman; he had told me once that if one wants a guy, the only way to communicate, “to negotiate,” is through the eyes.

Look at him, look at him hard, he had told me, look at him and mentally undress him. He will feel you undressing him. If he looks at you, bingo, you smile. If he smiles back, bingo, you smile back some more, and then you slowly get up from your sweaty seat, and go to the toilet, or to the empty seat near him.

Simple rules for the hustle.

So I stare hard. You stare back, too—but suddenly you are talking to mustachioed Marlboro Man with the muscles and tacky red-plaid shirt. Shit.

I look around. I tell myself I’m looking too hard.

“Will you be all right tonight?” I finally ask Rita, her hair streaked with blond dye.

She is nursing her Cali, and fiddles with her maroon lipstick. “Baby Tsina” I had called her when she emerged into the dancing floor, her new ‘do angling her small tulippy nose. She had smirked, and swished her red miniskirt in my direction.

“Yeah, sure,” Rita smiles. “I’ve got a cigarette in my hand, I’m all dressed up in my favorite red miniskirt . . .. Baby, I’m all dolled up.”

She laughs, hollow, like a hyena in menopause.

“Come on, Rita. You just got well from that fever you had. You sure you’re all right?”

“No shit, Manolo. It’s night, and you know I gotta do what I gotta do.”

I shake my head, slowly, because my neck feels strained.

That’s when Rita snaps.

“Aw, stop that. How else am I supposed to live? I just can’t lie down on that bed, sick, and do nothing.”

“Sorry.”

She downs her Cali, and then rifles quickly through her handbag.

“I worry about you. That’s all,” I say.

No shit.

I turn back to look at you. You are alone again. And staring. I call you Curly Hair in my mind. Marlboro Man is nowhere in sight. I stare back, but I add a little flirtatious smile. For once, there is an equality to both our being objects of desire. That keeps me interested, sated. You smile back, your curls glinting in the shower of crystal light flooding the disco bar. My heart leaps.

Rita takes out her compact mirror, and retouches her rouged lips.

“I know . . .” she begins, “But you . . .”—she peers from behind the mirror—“you don’t look too hot, either, Manny.”

She lightly dabs her lips with one last touch of maroon, and smacks her lips, once, twice, thrice. “How’s school? Did you get your mother to pay the balance of your tuition? Because if she didn’t I could lend you some, you know.”

“Yup, she did.”

Rita looks at me, watches my face intently, and then shakes her head.

“What was that all about?” I ask her.

“Nothing,” and then she sighs.

She taps her fingers on the bar and sways her head to the music. “You know, sometimes I still don’t know why you bother even to be friends with me.”

“You make me laugh, that’s all,” I grinned.

She playfully slaps my biceps. “Oh, do I, huh?” She smiles. “But still, you know . . . you knowing what I do . . .” She looks up to me, and lays it down, “Thanks.”

“Sure, no probs.”

I met Rita once, two years before, when I was doing a paper for Sociology 34, for Prof. Andrea Martinez, on Japayukis from Dumaguete. Rita was recommended to me by a cousin’s friend’s friend. She had arrived at our interview in Scooby’s Snackbar wearing short shorts, tight white spaghetti-strapped shirt, and bangles, a lot of bangles. She looked out of place—but never noticed it. She flaunted her difference, absorbed the stares people gave her, and tossed their judgments off with a toss of hair. I liked that about her—her nonchalance, her acceptance of self, her clipped high school English.

“How come you’re not in Japan anymore?” I had asked her when the interview ended.

Rita only laughed, and said, “Never again.”

She has never told me what she meant by that.

We met regularly after that, always unplanned, always in Why Not? Disco—where she is always in her element. We do not meet anywhere else. In Why Not, I study Rita like a hawk. She walks to any white man and gets what she wants: I figure it is her exotic appeal—the post-colonial Other to a white man’s lust. She defies my feminist theories.

Now she leans towards me, serious all of a sudden. “Manny, listen to me, okay? Me, I understand why I do what I do. But what about you? What are you doing here?”

The crowd roars as a Lighthouse Family rendition comes on. “High.” The crowd sings along with the band.

I laugh. “What do you mean? It’s a nice night out in the Boulevard. Did you see the nice moon outside? Romantic night. Might find a girl.”

“Bullshit,” she says. “I’ve seen you hustle.”

I catch my breath. She touches my arm, and I flinch. Putang ina.

Rita’s voice growls as she lowers to a whisper. “Tell me, Manny, how much do you cost? What do these men do to you?”

I cannot think.

I fall silent for a while. “The orange juice is making me tipsy,” I finally say, smiling benignly. I close my eyes to stop her stare, and I panic for the music to crash into my ears. Rita’s lips were tight, agitated. She is silent, like a snake waiting for her prey; her waiting eyes are venomous.

“Sometimes, Rita,” I say, after the song dies away and the clapping and the hooting starts, “sometimes, there are things in life best left—unsaid.”

She shakes her head. “Too dramatic. Try harder.”

“Can’t you get it past your stupid head? I . . . I don’t want to talk about it.”

She takes her hand away. She still has that smile.

“It’s all right.”

I do not say anything.

“Listen,” she finally says, “I have to go. The port’s Welcome Area waits for my beauty.”

She says too many things dramatically. I can only nod.

“Will you be okay?” she asks.

I nod again. “Yeah, I guess.”

When Rita leaves, I turn to look at you again. But you are gone. For a second, I do not even know if you were real or if you were an imagination, a Freudian mirage. I catch myself in time before disappointment comes, and then I believe nothing matters really. For now, I decide happiness cannot be you. Happiness is a cigarette stick.

I check my pockets for change.

~ ~ ~

The cold sea air blasts my face as I exit the heavy doors out of the darkness and the music.

I need a little air, I needed a little smoke, Curly Hair be damned.

Dumaguete at night looks like a flirt. The street outside crawls with night traffic. The scooters roam in moaning whir, like ants sniffing for stray food: blue, red, black… But they all look pale gray and lifeless under the orange glow of sodium light. So do the cars, the jeeps, the occasional Volkswagen.

The night sky is cool and dark, but I do not see the stars. I only notice the bright lights of neon springing at me with an enticing punch. I notice the little throng of badly-dressed young men, eyes roaming, crowding the little cigarette-and-candy stalls beside the street. I walk to one with an old woman in flowered prints, my legs striding cool, noticeable.

I walk like sex.

When I get to the old woman’s stall, I take my pick of nicotine sticks.

“Excuse me, manay,” I say.

Philip Morris. Light. The old woman hands me my cigarettes, my change, and a matchbox. The first matchstick breaks in my fingers, and I hear myself saying “Shit.”

“Excuse me, manay.”

She nods, and I light another matchstick. My cigarette burns.

Nice inhale. I can feel the smoke massaging my lungs in a menthol hug. Very nice.

I walk a little to the crossing of San Juan and Cimafranca Streets. And there you are under a lamppost, a lean boy looking at me with intentions barely buried under traces of teenage pimples. You seem nervous. You look away, twice, which irritates me.

“What do you want, kid?” I ask.

You stammer in answer. “Sorry, sir. I . . . I didn’t mean to disturb you. I just wanted to ask if . . . if . . .”

“Yes?”

“If . . . if you happen to know where . . . Ever Theater is. Do you know where it is, sir?”

“Ever Theater?” I grin, quickly sizing you up.

Ever Theater is notorious for its sexy Tagalog movies.

I look at you again. You’re only a little boy. You are thin, boy-thin, your cheekbones prominent on your angular features. You fidget, your hands carefully tucked away in the secret pockets of your khaki school pants.

“I’m sorry if I snapped at you,” I tell you.

You breathe more easily. You even try a little smile.

“Come on . . .. See that road?” I take you around gently by the shoulder and point down Cimafranca Street. “You go straight up ahead for two blocks. Then turn left. The movie house is right there. But, hey, it’s almost nine o’clock. You might be late for the last full show.”

“Uhh, thank you, po.”

You do not go away.

“Aren’t you a little too young to watch ST films? You in high school?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Never mind . . .. Anyway, the theater’s just down that way. “

You cough.

I repeat, “It’s down that way, kid, like I told you.”

You cough again.

“Come on, what else do you want?”

“I . . . I . . . I just wanted to ask sana, po, if . . . if . . . you know...”

You look away. The traffic drones around us, and little by little, beer bottles litter the paved walk beside the Boulevard’s beach. You look at my face, into my eyes—and, like a cosmic joke, God turns and pushes the mute button on his universal remote control: I am dimly aware of my own shallow breathing, the lapping of distant waves, the fall of cigarette ash on my silk shirt, the trample of asphalt beneath my leather shoes.

You look at my face.

Oh my God, is all I can think.

“You can’t afford me, kid,” I say in a low voice.

I can talk! I try to sound angry, to scream against this bullshit slapping my face.

“You can’t afford me. Not with some high school allowance you might have. Besides, I don’t go for kids.”

Something catches at my throat. You are silent.

“Look at me, kid. I’m 19 years old. What are you? Fourteen?”

You rummage through your pockets, the stain of sweat showing through your gray shirt. A varsity shirt. Like the one I used to wear in high school. “I have seven hundred pesos here, sir,” you speak slowly. “Just for one night. Tonight’s Friday. Wala’y klase ugma.”

There are no classes tomorrow. That makes me laugh out loud.

“Jesus . . .. Are you really serious about this? You’re so young . . ..”

“I saved for it po.”

You tell me that in a firm, polite voice.

Yet later, I find myself sitting back with you in the darkness of Ever Theater, wondering what I am doing here. You sit uncomfortably in your seat, which reclines backward when you push forward with your thighs. You look at the projector lights punching the darkness. Then you furtively watch my face, as if waiting for cues, for signs. I tap your hand. I gesture to the back where the anonymous faces are, where there are the constant shifting of walking, preying feet, and the quick looks, the groping hands, the pretense of going to the toilet for the usual reasons. The toilet door is on an eternal swinging—in, out—the hinges probably already worn out like the tired red light above the door spelling the word “Men.”

“Do you want more Mr. Chips?” I ask you. “I like nacho cheese.”

“Aren’t you afraid of getting caught, sir?” you whisper.

I do not understand why I laugh.

“Caught?” I shake my head. “That’s how they, the theater, make money . . . show all these sexy films to entice these men who never really watch the movie.”

On screen, Rosanna Roces runs almost naked through a deserted street pursued by good-looking thugs, her breasts popping out from behind her crossed arms.

You say, “A friend once told me things happen in the parks, too.”

“In the park . . .,” I say. And then, after a while, “Listen, is this your first time to...you know . . .?”

You nod.

Rosanna cries for help.

“Look at me.”

“Sir? What?”

“Look at me.”

“—Okay.”

“Give me your hand.”

I take your hand and lead it to my crotch. I did not expect your fingers to grip my groin like that, and suddenly—without knowing where it comes from—I feel violated.

“There . . .. You feel that?” I say, an edge to my voice.

You nod.

“Now, kiss me.”

“Po? Here?”

“Here.”

Your lips are soft and small, nacho cheese and Coke clinging to your tongue. I feel like crying, but I don’t.

Rosanna screams.

Music. Suddenly, there is music. Frank Sinatra warbling a tune, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin . . ..” I breathe deeply, standing as the lights go up, and then braving the long walk to the door to the night outside.

You run after me, but I do not hear or see you.

There are no theories to explain this.

I run a quick litany in my head. Foucault, Sedgwick, Altman, Butler, Halberstam, Weeks, Garcia. All the saints in academic heaven are suddenly mute to my violation.

The last thing I see on the glass of the revolving theater balcony door is my face on your face, reflections quickly blurring together—burning in my mind the way memory lurks and deepens the more one struggles to forget.

Jerome Stueart...

Most folk who are familiar with the work of Jerome Stueart know him from his acclaimed writing; his short story "Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun," was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award.

But Jerome is also a talented artist. "Drawing makes me feel like I can play. These postcards give me a freedom to make something quick--about an hour to an hour and a half to make—that is finished, complete. I can share it right away, and people feel joyful immediately. I've always liked art for that reason—it is immediate. Writing can have a deeper impact, but it also has a longer process. Few stories are written in an hour and shared (though conversations are stories shared in such a manner, which makes me think that good writing often has that need to be shared). When I did a cartoon in the school newspaper, I felt like I was accomplishing something twice a week, and those added up into a collection quickly. They felt real and substantial. I have a harder time feeling that with writing. But I want to. It's just not as full of joy, nor as quick to finish, or quick to get feedback on. (and blessedly, no one critiques or workshops my postcard paintings. They are finished pieces, and I have full confidence in creating them. If someone doesn't like one, that's okay. I'll make another one the next day. But usually I don't hear the negative. That really builds up good feelings in you as a creator too."

There are some stories I've worked on more years. At my quickest I can turn a story around in weeks, but that is rare. And friends won't be able to read it for another six months.

"I like to think my paintings are bright colored lights while my writing is the entire movie that demands a commitment to the longer creative spurt."

Arithmetic

Michael Alenyikov

After the accident it was the counting the four of us remembered most. We'd landed on Avenue Z being different than the other kids, as if left by alien parents who didn't believe in abortions (which was a dirty word back then, worse than fuck, damn, shit, piss or hell). We figured they’d decided to just zip over to Planet Earth and dump us on Z, in the city of Brooklyn.

We'd been dumped all right, and only by our wise-assed mouths did we recognize each other.

Marty had always touched the mezuzah, then kissed his finger—or was it the other way around? Kiss the finger first, then the mezuzah? “No, the finger, “Daniel said. “First he kissed his fucking finger.” We hashed this around after school—me, Daniel, Jeffrey, and Alessandro, who was from Italy—for days that became weeks. We all had them on the doorposts at the entryway to our apartments, all of us except Alessandro, who was Catholic; they were strange little objects left over from an earlier time—containing our birth certificates in tiny alien letters and, most importantly, directions for how to get home.

But Marty, who didn't believe in anything but knew way more about rhythm and blues than any Jewish white boy had a right to know—he had told us he’d seen James Brown and Little Richard at the Paramount, and we soooo totally believed him—Marty kissed the mezuzah every time. So, whenever we went trooping behind him into his empty apartment (his mom worked as a bookkeeper on Kings Highway), we all kissed it, too. Even Alessandro, who was, you know, very polite.

What Marty did, we did.

After the accident, we’d hang out together and try to figure out h ow many times Marty had kissed it—was it two, three, four times a day ?—times 365 days, times fourteen years.

“Fifteen,” said Alessandro, who was calling himself Alex by then even though we liked to call him the Alien-Times-Two, because being from Italy he was legally an alien, on top of being dumped here by aliens from another planet at, we figured, a different time than the rest of us. Which became the Alien-to-the-Second-Power after we got a taste of algebra.

“He’d turned fifteen just before,” Alex repeated.

“Like you would know,” said Daniel.

“Ten years!” said Jeffrey. “Only ten. How could he have touched it when he was a baby, you schmucks?”

“So why did he always say he didn’t believe in God?” I asked. “And why did he call his parents scumbags? It don’t add up to me.” (Years later, I thought maybe he was really scared of his parents and we didn’t see it?)

Jeffrey, who was taller that the rest of us, shrugged his shoulders, then punched me in the arm. “Dunno,” he said.

“Fuck you,” I said.

“Fungu,” echoed Alex with a giggle.

Daniel rolled his eyes.

“But why?” I repeated. “Why did he kiss it every time if he didn’t believe in anything?”

Back then I believed if I thought hard enough about stuff, stuff would make sense, that stuff would add up somehow.

“Hey,” Daniel said, “Screaming ain’t going to bring him back.”

It wasn't like none of us had known someone dead. Like for me my Bubbeh, who was a kind of extra-old grandma; she died, when I was small. She was gray and pale and kissed me with hairy lips. A major "Ugh" in my book! But it wasn't her fault she was old, I suppose, but it was really an ugh-experience. I told the guys about her dying, putting my arms around Jeffrey like Bubbeh did around me, because I felt so sad even though I hardly knew her.

“Get the fuck off of me, you homo,” he’d said, setting us all into giggling. “Not meaning disrespect for her, of course,” he added.

And Daniel had an aunt who died. She had angina, which he pronounced all huffy and pompous—because it was his favorite aunt. But the word got us back to giggling and poking because we sort of misunderstood him.

“It wasn't her vagina, it was angina—her fucking heart, you ignorant shits.”

And Alex said, all very earnest, how we're sorry Danny. Alex speaks for us when we've been stupid, as he knows protocol, which is what he says it's called in the Church, and it's not our fault we're going to Purgatory because we're Jews, he always has to add. As if we give a shit.

So Marty's dead, but nobody says the word; you didn't talk about it back then unless it was like someone real old, which didn't really count, so we kept talking about Marty like he's still alive, like he'll be bragging about going all the way with some girl—“Like man, it’s the tenth time I’ve been laid.”—and calling us pansies, and we'd be acting like, "Who gives a shit?" when really we were so fucking in awe of him.

~ ~ ~

We're in the cafeteria now, with its piss-yellow walls, and I’m looking down at a hamburger that’s gray as the seagull I saw washed up on the gravel off Gravesend Bay in Coney Island. The cafeteria is in the basement.

Maybe because the cafeteria is in the basement Danny, looking suddenly the kind of sad we all feel, says, “We're in Hell,”

And I say: “So maybe we'll just wait for Marty to show up.” Me trying to be funny.

But Alex gets serious, almost religious in this way his eyes get all wide and kind of hysterical, and he smacks me hard on the side of my head. “Marty, he's going to Heaven. After kissing that Jew thing (that's what he calls it, but not with disrespect), 48,000 times, he fucking deserves Heaven.” We take Alex seriously on the religious stuff because, like I said, he's a Catholic and says the Pope has all the answers. And besides he never ever lost his temper, so this shocked us into paying attention. He's the only Catholic we'd ever met, and we were still trying to figure out what they were. He says priests know more than rabbis, which Danny says is crap. Danny says all a rabbi and a priest know wouldn't fill Marty’s pinkie. And Jeffrey says, you mean his prick, to which Danny says, that's a joke as flat as your dumb ass.

Then we fall to arguing again about how many times—20,000 times, 100,000 times—Marty kissed the mezuzah: we figured that Marty was in and out a lot. We can't let it go, the number of times. It's like if we can get it right, I don't know, maybe that flying saucer will come back and our real moms and dads—or who knows maybe we’ve got two of each (you can't tell with aliens)—will come back and, oh God, fuck, shit, piss if I'm not praying; me, can you believe. I’m not caring if they leave us four jerks on Planet Earth, but I’m praying maybe they'll take Marty back to the home planet and fix him up like he's brand new and breathing again. I can even see the flying saucer—it’s like a big, fucking donut, the kind covered with powdered sugar; and there's music and lights when it lands and the head alien, their president or captain or king, will say, “Nope. You guys counted wrong and it's Z forever, you losers. Take Marty back? No way. We just came to take some more snapshots. We're sightseeing. Alpha Centauri tomorrow. Great beaches.”

I'm kind of squirming and hope none of the guys notice because you see I was there when the car smacked Marty’s bike, and it's one of my big secrets from the guys how I saw him on his bike one second, then flying through the air with the greatest of ease, as the line goes, except it was really, all too quick. There was the thump, and the brakes squealed, and Marty looked at me—at least that's what I remember even if it was so fast I know it couldn't have happened that way; he looked at me, like, “Hey man, isn't this cool, but you guys are too-fucking chickenshit to appreciate this moment, and I am so over you guys,” which is what he really said to me the day before. “I am so over you losers,” he said. “I'm going to move into the city and get laid every night while you assholes are still jerking off.”

“Fuck you,” I said. And he just laughed, and then I grabbed him 'cause I was so fucking mad. And next we're wrestling on the floor in his living room—I swear to God I did not plan this, but he's kissing me on the mouth, which is the biggest secret I've never told anyone...how much I wanted that from him. And then we just laid there, me on top of him, us both breathing heavy for what seems like a million, trillion minutes. I’m feeling his boner through his pants, and rubbing mine against it, until my whole body shudders and my underpants are sticky wet, and he’s holding on to me as if he’s drowning and I’m some kind of life preserver. There was so much I wanted to say but couldn’t, and I figured I got all the time in the world to work up my nerve on another day. Just not now, not today.

“You better go,” he said finally, which I did, touching the mezuzah on the way out, which I never did, then kissing my finger, holding it to my lips for a long time, not caring if I did it in the right order; then, before I closed the door, I turned around where I could see him, still lying on the floor, curled up, which was how he landed after the car hit him, except his head was at this weird angle to his body, like he was a puppet someone dropped, like Pinocchio. I didn’t see any blood at first so I kneeled down next to him, gave him a shake, and then all of a sudden I'm screaming, “Someone help me please someone help,” and then there's sirens all around me, and then I do see this trickle of something wet. I think, oh yeah, it's just dog pee, and I stop screaming because there's all these cops; so I touch the dog pee—I don't know why—but it's thick and red on my finger. I'm not stupid, I know it was Marty's blood. and I rubbed it into the part of my shirt I tuck into my pants; it's a bit of him I keep, just for me, the guys don't know nothing, not my earth mom or dad, either.

"Did you hear what I said?" Jeffrey shouts in my ear.

"Huh?" I say, looking down at my hamburger, thinking the ketchup kinda looks like blood. I feel like I’m going to puke.

And Danny says, “Let's get the fuck out of here,” and starts pretend choking. “I've got food poisoning,” he says, laughing.

So we all get up to go but then we just stand there, like we did at the funeral, looking at the walls, the ceiling, anywhere but at each other, and I’m gripping the edge of my chair, and Alex, all very solemn, says "Z without Marty,” like it’s the start to some Catholic prayer. That’s all he says: “Z without Marty.”

And really, what's left to say. Marty taught us all the shit that filled our heads so we’d know we're better than the other kids, even if they looked at us funny.

If Avenue Z wasn't Hell before, it is now.

Michael Alenyikov is the author of Ivan and Misha, which received the Northern CA Book Award for Fiction and the Gina Berriault Award. His stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines. He's a New York City native and a long-time resident of San Francisco. "Arithmetic" was performed onstage by the Word for Word acting troupe in 2019.

"Arithmetic" © 2016 by Michael Alenyikov and first appeared in Foglifter

Ian Rosales Casocot

"Cruising" © 2012 by Ian Rosales Casocot and first appeared in Beautiful Accidents (University of the Phillipines Press)

Jameson Currier is the author of numerous acclaimed books, including Where the Rainbow Ends, The Wolf at the Door, and the recent Why Didn't Someone Warn You About Prince Charming? He resides in New York State.

"What You Talk About" © 1992 by Jameson Currier and first appeared in Christopher Street

Mike Dressel is a writer, educator, and storyteller based in New York.

"Get Happy" is © 2021 by Mike Dressel and original to this issue.

Bachelors Magazine is published by Lethe Press, a purveyor of fine queer and weird books since 2001. Remember, this is free to readers!

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