“On Having Faith”

Published by The Bookends Review (May 2014).

On Having Faith

Mid-afternoon sunlight filtered into the Hayfords’ living room, throwing long, thin shadows across the carpet and softly illuminating objects in the room: the bookshelf, creased spines of mysteries and romances lined up beside photo albums, auto repair manuals; the plaid couch, matching crocheted doilies on each arm; the wood laminate china cabinet, glass doors protecting the shelves of plates, cups and saucers inherited from parents, aunts, a great uncle; and the padded rocking chair where Maureen sat, her body still except for her slowly pushing legs and tense, restless hands—which moved between fluttering about her lap and twisting the gold cross around her neck until the chain went taut—as she watched the light touch the objects around her.

Maureen looked from her and Gerry’s wedding photo on the wall to the cold, quiet street out the window, and then at the half-table that was pushed up against the aging wallpaper facing her, willing the cordless phone sitting on the smooth wooden surface to ring. The table was one of the only things Maureen still had from her childhood home—her grandfather had made the table for her mother, carving the edges to look like the elegant, lacy trim that the bank manager and mayor had ordered for their homes—and she kept it nice by polishing the hardwood surfaces, hammering in a new nail when one of the legs got loose. The table being older than herself comforted Maureen, let her believe that if a tiny little table could withstand the world for that long, then so could she.

Gerry had said he would call her the night before—he was hauling the rig cross-country in five days, and she hated when he’d try to get ahead of schedule by not sleeping, so she made him promise to call when he stopped each night—but as she sat up waiting on the third night, twisting and tugging on the cross hanging from her neck, the phone never rang. She had tried calling him around eleven thirty, an hour after he usually turned in, but his pay-as-you-go cell phone hadn’t even rung. Not unusual, she had thought while replacing the receiver, he turns it off while driving so he won’t be bothered—he’ll probably turn it on in a minute. After half an hour in the rocking chair, her sore knee began to loosen up a little and Maureen dozed off only to wake up seconds later, frantic that she had missed him. Once she saw the red LED zero on the answering machine, she got herself a glass of water and laid down in the bed.

But today, rocking slowly forward and back, her index finger rubbing the small freckled indent between her clavicles, she was worried, because the last time he’d taken this long to call, he’d been with another woman the night before, one of the lot lizards that stalk through truck stops. Maureen had never figured out if it was guilt or fear that she would somehow know—as if her feminine senses told her all his secrets—that had kept him from calling that time, but now that he still hadn’t called, she was just sure that it had happened again. She had spent the last hour racking her mind, mumbling to herself as she tried to recollect some clue in their recent lifestyle that would or even could allude to him considering such a thing—perhaps something he had said he’d do but didn’t, a mysterious tension when saying “I love you,” or maybe a foul remark she had tossed out in anger—but there was literally nothing that she could come up with. Still, though, if it happened once, it could happen again. “Bastard,” she said to the empty room as her fingertips moved against her chin, her lips. Her stomach felt suddenly hollow as she thought of the tearful look he had given her when he had confessed months later, sobbingly telling her it was the only time and that it would never happen again, and that really, he hadn’t even enjoyed it. She glanced up as she heard the wheeze and rumble of an old pickup truck turning the corner outside, then looked back to the phone. Nothing. That just has to be it, she thought, because he always calls when I ask him to.

She tried to come up with excuses for him: that maybe his pay-as-you-go cell phone had died, though he had a charger in the rig, or maybe had run out of minutes; that the pay phones at the stop where he spent the night had all been out of order; that the rig had broken down last night in the middle of nowhere and he had been trying desperately to call her, but was in a place with no reception—“And,” she said dreamily, as if only half-focused on the words, “in this cold, it’d be too dangerous to walk anywhere to try to call.”

A cool, dizzy feeling crept over her chest and head as she imagined Gerry walking through snowy banks on the side of a deserted road in the middle of the night, coat and scarf bundled around his hunched frame as he held his cell phone in the air, trying to get even the weakest signal to contact her. She could see the rig behind him, the hood propped up, oily rags hanging off the sides—evidence that he had tried to fix it himself, hoping desperately that someone would drive by, someone who could help. No, she thought, there couldn’t have been another woman. Not again. Her stomach groaned and she realized she hadn’t eaten anything today—hadn’t even had coffee, though she didn’t want anything anyway—as from the snowy banks of the darkened road, Maureen’s mind moved to memories more solid than the fleeting image she darkly hoped was true: the time after the second miscarriage, when Gerry had held her on the couch until she stopped crying and told her that he knew it hurt, but she had to keep fighting, that she always had to keep fighting, because that was the only way to make it to better times; the spring night when he planted an entire garden of daisies, wildflowers and geraniums while she slept, how when she woke up and looked outside, the blooms and hummingbirds in the golden morning light surprised her so much that she dropped her coffee mug onto the kitchen’s linoleum tile; and how when they were first dating—the firm strength of his hands and that bright laughter—Gerry would slip notes into her purse when she wasn’t around or paying attention, little treasures that smelled of his aftershave for her to find later on. “No,” she said firmly, surprised at the strength of her own voice in the empty living room, “not my Gerry.”

Maureen looked over at the little wooden table—shafts of sunlight gilded the legs, but the phone was wrapped in shadow—and exhaled sharply, her fingers now resting on the cross hanging around her neck. The inside of her chest had begun to burn slightly, as if a cold was coming on, the same way her lungs used to burn when she was a smoker and would cough too hard. She looked opposite the front window, toward the kitchen, past the sink that held her single dirty plate and cup from last night, and pictured the wilted wildflowers outside, the empty bird feeder lying prone on the ground. Before she could stop herself, she was imagining Gerry with another woman, some whore named Desiree or Kasandra, who looked young in that cheap way—frizzy dyed hair and skin too loose from sun exposure, chunks of slowly greening imitation silver nestled on her fingers—someone whose hands had run along the same spots on Gerry’s body that Maureen loved, those secret places that only she was supposed to know about: the strawberry birthmark at the top of his right bicep, a freckle just beneath his waistline, the scar that ran like a shooting star across his thigh. No, she thought as she felt the corners of the cross dig into the middle of her fist, drawing lines and angles into her palm, No, that can’t be it. Please, let it be anything but that, anything at all but that. She looked down at the cross and asked again, pleading with her distorted reflection to show her some sign, something to prove that Gerry would never, ever do that to her again.

As if to answer her, the cordless phone across the room lit up and chirped. Maureen jumped up and crossed the room at a quick clip, noticing that her vision seemed very sharp—more precise than it had been in years: she could see the dust motes moving around her, the tiny cracks in the porcelain teacups beyond the doors of the glass cabinet—and she thought to herself, This must be what miracles feel like. She felt her knee strain and try to slow her, but she fought against it, sure that the good Lord would sooth the pain later on, since it was—after all—her reaction to a sign from Him that made it hurt. When Maureen looked down at the caller ID and saw that the number was in fact her cousin Tina and not Gerry’s cell phone, she raised an eyebrow. Why would she call at a time like this? She probably just wants to talk about the latest thing that dirt bag Chip called her. As Maureen shook her head and turned from the phone, her knee suddenly felt swollen and her leg began to shake a little.

“Gerry, my Gerry,” she mumbled, once again scouring her memories of the past few months for any disruption in their routine, anything she’d done wrong by anyone that would make her deserve this, “Why haven’t you called?” About halfway back to her chair, she glanced at the bookcase by the door, pausing to focus on the glinting pattern on the top shelf that had caught her eye: Gerry’s family Bible. She stepped toward the wooden structure and reached out to run a finger down the fading gold letters on the leather spine, thinking back to their wedding day, when Gerry’s mother had given the book to Maureen, holding onto it even as Maureen stood with it in her hands. “It’s very old,” his mother, God rest her soul, had said. “Very old. Has the entire family line all the way back to my great-great-great-great grandfather.” His mother had pulled it from Maureen’s gloved hands and flipped open the cover to show her the hand-drawn family tree inside, the careful cursive of every first, middle and last name. “You can add your name in now,” his mother had said, closing the book slowly and handing it back to Maureen. “Just keep it nice. It’ll remind you to have faith.” His mother had leveled her hazel eyes with Maureen’s and poked the cover of the Bible, her index finger covering the “o” in holy. “Always have faith.”

Maureen stepped back from the bookshelf, her left hand tugging at the cross around her neck. She pictured Jerry rifling through the rig’s cab for his cellphone charger, an “Out of Service” sign hanging across the row of pay phones at the only truck stop for fifty miles, snow drifts and closed roads and broken brake lines, even as the phone behind her sat quiet, the little wooden table and sun-faded wallpaper the only witnesses to her curled fist and trembling leg.

“Gleaming like a Bluebottle Among the Waves”

Published by The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society (August 2014).

Gleaming like a Bluebottle Among the Waves

When Kevin thinks of Jason—of his curly brown hair and burning blue eyes, of the cute upturn in his voice and the way he would reach over and squeeze Kevin’s hand or thigh no matter who was watching—he also thinks of those goddamn leggings that Jason wore basically all summer the last year they were together, the ones that almost glowed from the purple and hot pink crests of the man-o-wars printed on them—and then of the marine biology professor Kevin had for “Principles of Hydrozoan Adaptation” the year he and Jason met, who taught an entire lesson about the “jellyfish that isn’t a jellyfish,” the Portuguese man-o-war, which is “actually a siphonophore,” he could hear Dr. Casings saying, “a collection of four different entities so evolutionarily tied together that they can’t live on their own: they are adapted specifically and solely to a life of companionship.”

Kevin figured he really only remembered this specific lecture because of the time he saw his tio stung by a man-o-war in Brazil while visiting his mother’s family—during an excited trip to the beach on a bright-hot day in December that was cut through by sudden shrieks as his tio lunged for shore, kicking like mad. “The stings hurt much worse than a jellyfish’s,” Dr. Casings had told the class, “and if the victim—be it fish or human—thrashes, the tentacles move about and the man-o-war’s nematocysts envenom the victim further.” Before being pulled away and cocooned in a towel by his tias, Kevin had seen fat tears rush down his tio‘s face as he cursed in three languages, his legs laced with red welts. “They float on the surface, after all, though they can deflate to drop below,” the memory of Dr. Casings chimes, face awash in light from a projector, “and the pneumatophore, or the sail, is perhaps their most recognizable feature.”

In Brazil, the delicate tentacles beaded with sand as they tugged along the bright blue air bladder like a deflated balloon already drying in the sun, the Atlantic leaving behind a thin layer of opaque minerals. As muscular twenty-somethings in little red shorts and large black sunglasses cleared everyone from the water, the slender woman who brought over thick gloves from the lifeguard hut to help treat his wailing tio‘s leg said that it was probably dead, that sometimes they float for a while after they die, but dying doesn’t make their poison any less painful. Now, Kevin imagines that: wind and sun battering the gas bladder that crowns the colonial being; the luminous colors of the man-o-war painted along the delicate bubble of the sail; the twenty, thirty, fifty foot long tendrils spiraling down to where the water gets cooler, the man-o-war’s venom still potent though all the life connected to it is gone.

The vision of those coiled tentacles always gives Kevin a sensation of cold water down his back as his mind submerges to the cooler depths he loved to secretly visit on those family vacations—out further than his tias told him he was allowed to go, past the lagoon’s sandy peninsulas, where the bright green turned to blue and darkened as you looked toward the horizon, and then under, where the bottom turned to rough coral and the current pulled at his thin limbs like a spirit, a lemanjá beckoning him onward, deeper, onward—except now he sees Jason floating there in those fucking leggings, gleaming eerie blues and purples like colored glass in the gloom as he reaches out for Kevin, tentacles drifting forward. “And inside their venomous arms are muscles that contract after a sting, pulling paralyzed fishes up to the man-o-war’s gastrozooids to be digested,” Dr. Casings reminds him.

Each time, despite everything, Jason looks somehow ethereal and inviting and familiar, even as Kevin struggles toward the wavering circle of the sun shining through the watery haze, his eyes burning and lungs shuddering as he beats his limp arms against the current, feels Jason stinging along his legs, searing across his skin as the muscles underneath tremble and seize, as he looks down through the pitch at stingers anchoring, tying themselves into knots around his ankles and thighs, binding Kevin as close to another living thing as he can be, then the scorching yanks and jolts of tentacles contracting like needles tearing his skin, pulling him further from the dimming spot of sun and into the gaping cold of green-black water below, dragging him deeper, closer, onward.

“About the Girl”

Published in Flash: The International Flash Fiction Magazine 6.2 (October 2013).

About the Girl

walking down the side of the road during suburban rush hour—saffron and bulgar in a bag hanging from her fingertips, hair wrapped in the same silk her mother used to wear—only her rosewood-colored face and hands revealed from behind a dress of black cotton. As she steps carefully along the road’s gravel edge, she wonders about what she looks like as the breeze from the cars pushes the fabric of the dress against her. She imagines what the wind shows the drivers trapped in traffic—a shadow of her naked form—and smiles just barely, feet moving softly forward, as in the minds of the men she sees, she allows herself to dance—moving to the rhythms of hips and hands—and she is stunning—turning on her toes, opals nestled and gold threads braided into her hair, her glistening skin under lacy mist—looking in these men’s minds the way she will feel, she knows, when she finally dances with him—whoever he may be, me or the guy in the orange Mustang, Azhar in the neighborhood two blocks over or someone she has yet to meet. She makes a left onto the street where she lives—her hair showering down her bare back—and stumbles for a step—my hands rushing out to catch her, lift her back up and follow her body’s movements—before regaining her footing. At her house, she turns again, walking up to the stoop—her shadow still dancing and smiling, revealing the goddess just beneath her skin—before pausing to smooth the fabric over her head and step gently through the doorway into the sound of her grandmother’s singing.

“On Fault”

Published by Oblong (May 2014).

On Fault

Allen stood in the bright morning light spilling through the narrow doorway of their bedroom, looking at the patched blanket across the bed where he and Elaine slept, the skin of his bicep molding around the corner of the door frame. His arms were folded and he stood in silence, one leg relaxed and behind him—as if it was dark out and he was pausing sleepily as he came back from the kitchen with a glass of water or a Tums. The bed—that same wooden, four-post frame where his grandfather had been conceived; the sheets Elaine usually smoothed after he had left for the auto shop; the quilt her grandmother had made when Elaine was still in diapers—sat empty, seeming very flat and far too large, as if a body should be resting there, as if a body should always be there. Even the sunlight that fell across the quilt was gray, Allen thought, as his eyelid twitched; all the blues and reds and oranges looked muted.

Across town—in another bed, with a white sheet pulled up to her chest and clear tubes making graceful turns out of her nostrils—Elaine laid awake, nestled between the dull whistles and murmurs of hospital machines. She had been home a few days before while Allen was still at work—after teaching her three piano lessons for the day—when she collapsed from a rare sort of seizure pattern that can pop up in mid-life without warning, a tangled string of syllables that the doctors said quickly and without relief in their voices. Allen had told Elaine that he’d be home at five-thirty, which turned out to be just a half-hour or so after she stopped walking and began falling down the stairs—laid there with her forehead daintily on the bottom step, her dark blonde hair fanned out around her—but Allen had forgotten she was making chicken parmesan and renting a movie—honestly—and went out for a beer with Dave after work.

Allen had not arrived home until six-forty, a full hour and fifty minutes after Elaine’s thigh jerked and her eyes rolled back, and by the time he found her—so still and beautiful, her face relaxed and eyes closed, like she had decided to nap in the strangest of places—her face was slightly puffy and a string of dried saliva ran out of her mouth, up her cheek, past her eye, and onto the carpeted floor. The saliva was specked red, like the glass pendant he had bought her for their last anniversary, and her tongue sat limp against her teeth, pushing slightly against her open lips. Allen had called 911 and rushed around the house, turning off the oven and fanning smoke from the alarm, trying to pin down how long ago it had happened, if he could’ve been home to catch her, how far she had fallen and if it caused any extra injuries, if lying upside down on the stairs like that for long enough could cause brain damage or encourage blood clots. She had been in the hospital ever since on doctor’s orders, despite Allen’s arguments, despite his adamant claims that monitoring Elaine was his job.

Allen blinked against the suddenly harsh light of their bedroom, turned his head from the dust motes settling on Elaine’s quilt, and coughed roughly as he straightened up. He didn’t know how long he’d been standing in the doorway, staring at the bed as if waiting for movement, for Elaine to pop out from under the impossibly flat quilt, smile at him with her twisted grin and apologize for taking the joke so far. Allen scratched the side of his head and decided to go out for a smoke, thinking of what Elaine had said on Monday as she laid between those pale hospital sheets: “We can’t blame ourselves, Al. Some things just happen.” She had smiled at him after she’d said it, rubbed the back of his hand with her soft palm. He’d told her he had to go, had errands to run and a few things to do around the house. “Okay, baby,” she’d said, reaching out for a hug. “Be safe.”

Now, on their front porch, Allen snorted out smoke and crushed his cigarette on the wooden railing, leaving a tiny smoldering pile of black tobacco on the clean white surface. He walked back into the house, past her coats hanging by the front door, the slippers she left in the living room the week before, the pan in the sink filled with crispy, blackened chicken and burnt cheese, before stopping by the answering machine and its blinking red light. He lifted the old cordless phone from the kitchen wall and scrolled through the missed calls—four over the past two days from the auto shop’s main number and three missed today straight from his boss’ private line. Allen reached out and held down the delete button before setting the phone back in its cradle, listening absently to the shrill pealing tone even after all the unheard messages had gone, and then padded back down the hall toward their bedroom doorway.

“Predatory Behavior”

Published by Open Road Review (November 2013).

Predatory Behavior

The open-top khaki-colored Jeep jostles down a sage-lined dirt road amid the chirp and rattle of insects in Africa’s bush, and from the back row of seats I silently name each of the students under my care—turning my eyes to the back of one head, then another, then another. Checking the last one from my mental list, I scratch my stubbled cheek as my waking moments creep back into my consciousness: when my hand, reaching for Richard’s in the bed beside me, met the edge of the mattress and the gauze veil of a mosquito net barely showing white in a still-dark morning. I sat up, careful not to break the thick silence though unsure why, orienting myself as I became more awake: the smells of wild sage and cool open air; the trip with the local university I was chaperoning while Richard stayed in Idaho because his boss—who lingers on the phone after teleconferences and coyly asks “I know Richard’s told me, but what do you do again?” at every plus-one business event—needed him for “a last-minute trip,” despite—as I pointed out—Richard having confirmed the time off three months ago; and the lips—each like a fresh, wet slice of plum—of Zayd, the native guide, as he told us a few days prior in his thick, smooth Botswanan accent, “Remember, you must now be more careful, more alert. Never make yourself apart from the group; don’t let yourself be vulnerable.”

The Jeep turns toward a shallow river, into a small clearing that’s part of a plain filled with dry, leafless bushes the size of small cars. About halfway in, Zayd taps the driver’s shoulder and motions off into the bushes as the Jeep slows down. “Watch,” he says, “for a lioness and her cubs.”

I see nothing for five minutes as the Jeep rumbles slowly forward, and just as I assume they have moved on, a dull gold shines between two bushes—and then two cubs bumbling behind, young enough that they still have faint, leopard-like spots on their legs.

“She is on a morning hunt,” Zayd says. “Probably curious about what we are doing. They look to be heading at the water up ahead.”

As the students hop onto the sandy river soil of the clearing, I shield my eyes from the sunlight glaring off the water and look around from within the Jeep, picturing the lioness watching us through the bushes’ thin branches—god, that attack on a wildebeest we saw yesterday: the lions’ speed, decisive lunges, snouts daubed with blood—and her cubs close behind her, watching how to approach prey so that it never sees you coming, never recognizes that a threat is present. Richard’s light brown eyes and smooth jawline pop into my head, bringing back glimpses of last night’s nightmare: a huge maze of a house I recognized but didn’t know my way through; him walking away, through door after door, his back always to me as I reached out for him, called his name; and then him disappearing around a final corner—one last pitying smirk back at me—his hand in someone else’s, someone who had vanished with him by the time I caught up. My feet make contact with the sandy ground, a lump forming in my throat as I think of Richard’s face from the dream, the cool expanse of the cotton sheet against my hand when I woke up.

I step toward the students—thinking of how seven days on the other side of the world can stretch to eternity when you imagine the ten still ahead, the long-distance fees the school won’t pay for, the argument Richard and I had the night before I left about him sharing a hotel room with his boss in my absence—then turn to my right and slip behind the nearest bare bush as I start to cry, my mind echoing with the image of Richard’s back moving always faster away. I bring my hands to my face and sob as quietly as I can, thinking embarrassedly of the students reacting to my tear-streaked face, telling myself that this has to be part of the nightmare, that I’ll soon wake up in Idaho to a warm indent in the bed beside me from when Richard got up moments before.

A timid, “Uh, mister Dowing?” from Zayd startles away my tears as I turn to him. “This is lion territory, and you must be careful. Come back where it is safe.” He glances nervously around, puts his hand on my shoulder, and looks into my eyes. “You must protect yourself. Lions might sit nearby; that is a threat you cannot ignore.”

I swallow hard and nod, remembering the moment of attack yesterday—the taut muscles in the lions’ shoulders, the blood streaming down the wildebeest’s side, the fear and pain in those wide, dark eyes. “Okay. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

He pats my shoulder. “It is all-right. Sometimes we all drop our guard—but we must know when to have it up.”

As Zayd turns and I step with him toward the group, I smear the remaining moisture across my cheeks and picture the lioness crouched in the dirt behind a nearby bush, my head snapping toward her as she bolts forward, her claws extended, gold eyes blazing and focused on me, her mouth twisted into the same smirk Richard wore.

“How to Take It Like A Man”

Published by The Santa Fe Writer’s Project Journal (December 2013).

How to Take It Like A Man

Jason steps back, across the off-white kitchen tiles, his mouth slightly open and his eyes darting to the floor and the cabinets around him. “Naw, man,” he mumbles, then takes a swig of his Pabst and walks out of the room. I blink as my vision suddenly becomes crisp and my mind sobers, look around the dirty frat house kitchen and raise my beer to my lips despite the weight that’s churning in my stomach. Stupid, that’s what I am, fucking stupid. The edge of the counter feels sharper than before, like it’s digging into my back and pressing against the bones of my spine, so I shift forward, standing rigid and alone in Jason’s kitchen.

I drop my shoulders—how long have I been hunching them up like that?—as my left hand tugs at the hem of my baggy t-shirt. Just fucking stupid. I turn around to the sink and pour my beer on top of his crusty stacked dishes. Laughter and music from the party bounce into the kitchen from the living room and I set the Pabst can softly beside the sink as I keep still, trying to listen for any footsteps coming my way.

I close my eyes and breathe out hard from my nose, run a hand through my hair and roll my shoulders. Why won’t this fucking tension go away? My eyes pop open as Jason’s dopey, forced laugh joins the din of conversations and music coming from the party. Fuck this, fuck Alana Turner, and if Katie isn’t here now, she isn’t coming, so fuck her too.

I give a quick glance down the short hallway to the living room before turning to the back door, placing a hand on the cold glass knob and shoving my weight against the solid wood. The summer air billows inside, brushing against my face and bare arms as I step out onto the wooden stoop and take my first steps toward home.

***

Richard lights a cigarette and leans a shoulder on the bathroom wall, his hip jutting out. He blows smoke out his nose and says, “You know, Andy, for such a dumpy place, Empire has really nice bathrooms.”

I look around the simple, narrow bathroom. Richard is right: there’s not even dust in the white corners or smudges on the mirrors, but out in the club, the floor is sticky and all the vinyl barstools are duct-taped. I look back at Richard. “Isn’t this place no smoking?”

“Yes, Andy,” he huffs, rolling his eyes, “it’s no smoking, but what the hell are they gonna do? Ask me to put it out? Fine.” He nods his head toward the urinal facing us. “I’ll just flick it in there and that’ll be that.” Smoke trickles upward from his lips and curls in front of his face. “We’re here to pick up guys, not follow the goddamn rules.”

I smile at him as genuinely as I can manage and twist my head to pop my neck, which doesn’t work.

“That’s gross, I don’t know why you do it,” Richard says, his lips curling out.

“Because it feels good.” I straighten my back and put my hands on my hips. The door opens, letting in the pump of bass and the treble of gossips’ shrieks. A tall guy with a slim face, long legs and gelled hair—he kind of reminds me of Jason—walks in and glances at Richard before slipping past us and into the stall in the corner.

“He must be pee-shy,” Richard giggles. He taps his cigarette and the ash falls to the floor; he takes another long drag.

I fold my arms in front of me, my palms on the bare skin of my forearms. I want to go home already and we’ve only had one drink; I hate it when Richard drags me here. I tilt my head and cock one hip as the sound of pissing starts in the stall. “So are we going to Jason’s later? Katie said she would be there.”

Richard looks at me, pure dramatic shock on his face. “Why, Andy, would we want to go there? Frat boys suck. Besides,” he inhales through his cigarette, the tip burning orange, “you’re the only gay guy they like over there. It’s probably because you dress just as sloppy as they do.” He blows out smoke. “Besides, Katie’s a slut. She fucks every straight man I want.” The whoosh of a toilet flushing fills the small room and the man steps out from the stall and over to the sinks.

I watch the guy in the mirror, letting my arms drop and hang at my sides, twisting my hips toward him, and dropping my head a little bit, my eyes trained on the reflection of his lowered face. He waves his wet hands, water flying back into the sink, and wipes them on his jeans as he goes back out the door into the loud, humid club. Not even a fucking glance. I fold my arms again and look at Richard. “Are you done yet?”

Richard sucks down the last of his cigarette and flicks it across the white room and squarely into the urinal. It hisses for a second as the cherry turns black. He wiggles his head side to side and rolls his eyes at me. “Andy, you’re such a queen sometimes.”

I shake my head as Richard’s hips sway side to side on the way to the door.

***

I park my ’93 Nissan in my parents’ driveway. I’ll just walk to Jason’s, it’s only like five or six blocks; and that way I can get hammered and not have to drive back. I take my keys from the beeping ignition and step out of the car onto the pavement.

I shove my hands into my pockets and look up at the side of my parents’ dark house—it seems larger than usual, and the side windows sit as lowlights of inky black—and start to picture an oil pastel of the house from this angle—Mom might like the sweeping lines of ivy and extreme slant of the roof. As I walk down the driveway to the sidewalk, I take wide, careless steps and concentrate on hunching my shoulders to appear unconcerned with my appearance. When on the street, especially at night, the best thing that could happen is for someone to not recognize me—blending is the main objective.

I stare down at the uneven slabs of sidewalk as I walk, my fingers rubbing on the sharp edge of my apartment key. Richard is so negative sometimes. I hope the guy he wakes up with is way less attractive in the daylight. After a quick glance both ways, I cross Maple Avenue, my eyes still on the ground. At least it’s a warm night.

The light from Jason’s house leaks out onto the sidewalk and I see the glow before I can hear the music. It’s so weird that a frat has a house in this little residential area; the Greek letters above the porch look so out of place among the thick oak trees and manicured gardens. I cut across the yard, pull my hands from my pockets and straighten my back as I jog up the steps and to the front door. Since Katie said she’d be here, I just walk in.

The TV is playing some new music video and a group of six girls are on the Wal-Mart rug in the center of the living room, doing the dance from the video and laughing at each other’s mistakes. I look around at the frat guys watching the girls and smoking cigarettes, at the girls in their heavy make-up, and remember to slouch a little bit; blending is still the name of the game, especially since I don’t see Katie. Across the room, Jason looks up and raises his beer like he’s toasting me. He’s so cute when his eyes droop from drinking so much so early. I wave and he points to the staircase that leads up to his bedroom.

I follow him up the stairs and into his room, where some guys and a few girls are sitting in a circle, passing around a colorful glass bong. “Want a beer?” he asks.

“Sure.” I stuff my hands into my back pockets and glance around the room, at the pictures of women—none of whom are really all that attractive—taped to the walls, the hot rod calendar and the glass tank that houses his pet iguana.

He pulls a Pabst Blue Ribbon from the mini-fridge by his bed and hands it to me.

One of the girls in the circle looks up at me, smirking lazily, as I pop open the can. “Hey Andy,” she says, one hand around the swirled glass of the bong, the other pushing her blonde hair behind her ear. I think we had Bio together forever ago, before I dropped out, but I have no idea what her name is.

“Hey, girl,” I say as I walk over to her, swinging my hips a little. If I know one of these girls then I’m safe, in this room at least. I lean down and give her a loose hug. “How are you?” I take a slow sip of Pabst and bat my eyes flirtatiously at her—girls love that shit.

“I’m good.” She grins wider. “Wanna hit?”

I shake my head. “Nah, but thanks.” I smile widely, showing all my teeth, and turn back to Jason, who is standing by his bed. The way he’s standing makes it look like he’s about to do something, like his body is about to go into motion, but he just stands there. I relax my right leg. “How’ve you been, Jason?”

He blinks and smiles. “I’ve been good, just hanging around here, drinking.”

I laugh. “That sounds fun.”

He kicks at the blue carpet with one of his sneakers. “Yeah, I guess.”

I nod toward the sleeping iguana. “How’s Rudolph doing?”

Jason spins to face the dry aquarium. “He’s been good, I guess. He’s been sleeping a lot, but he’s been eating more, too, so I guess he’s just in summer-mode.”

“Yeah.” We stand silent for a minute as the girl who spoke to me receives the bong again, takes a hit and sputters out smoke. “Well,” I say, looking straight into his dark brown eyes, “I’m going to go downstairs and mingle.” I take a step toward the door, still letting my waist rock loosely.

“Yeah,” Jason says, “I’m right behind you.”

***

Outside the bathroom, among the crowd of men dancing, making out and drinking, Richard and I pause to let two drag queens—one in shimmering green, the other in bright pink—get past us to the bar.

Richard leans back to me. “I’ve been thinking about doing that.”

“Doing what?”

“Drag, dummy,” he says, nodding toward the two who just passed us. We start walking behind them, single-file past the DJ stand to the bar, and I drop my arms so I can lean forward and hear him over the vintage Madonna and the screaming laughter of a cramped gay bar. “It seems fun,” he says. “I love to dance and performance is my forte.”

I make a show of rolling my eyes as I picture Richard’s many exes telling me, themselves still astounded, stories about theatrical arguments and sex acts.

“And besides, the whole ‘alternate persona’ thing would be fun,” he says. We stop just outside the mass of bodies at the tiny wooden bar, some shirtless, and Richard turns to me. I stick my ass out a little bit as I cock one hip. He raises one hand theatrically. “I think I would call myself Enya.”

I screw my face up to show him that the idea sucks. “Like the singer?”

His hand drops to his hip and he glares at me. “Yes, like the singer, but I wasn’t done.” Richard raises his hand again and leans back, his expression suddenly soft and angled toward the ceiling. “Enya. Enya Face!” As he says the last word, he bucks at me, pushing his shoulders and head dangerously close to mine. Then Richard bursts into giggles, covers his nose and mouth with his hands as the girls’ t-shirt he’s wearing rides up his waist and shaved stomach.

I laugh as he turns back to the bar and pushes past a rugged, hairy man in a leather chest harness. “Besides,” he calls over his shoulder, “have you seen the fucking tips those bitches make? Even the fat ones! I’d have no problem making mad money shaking my ass on stage. You want anything?” The man Richard pushed past looks down Richard’s slim hips and then looks out at the dancers, his expression completely neutral.

I put a hand on Richard’s upper back and lean in. “Get me a Cape Cod.”

Richard smiles sweetly at the bartender, whose blue eyes have that same sad, down-curving shape as Jason’s. I can barely hear him over the music, but I swear I hear Richard say, “I need a Heineken and a shot of Southern Comfort.” I straighten back, prop my hand against my right hip and raise an eyebrow at Richard, who leans back and shrugs. “Whatever,” he says, “it’s not like you don’t like it. And besides, you need to loosen up, Andy. You’ve been sucking lately.” He smiles at me like he did the bartender and bends over the bar to wait for the drinks.

The leather man gets up from his barstool, and as soon as he does, I jump past him onto the patched vinyl. I feel something bump against my back and when I look over my shoulder, the pink drag queen is glaring at me. Whatever, I got here first.

The bartender crosses in front of the wide mirrors and rows of liquor behind the bar and slides a shot of Southern Comfort in front of me. He pauses just long enough for me to order a Cape Cod. Richard smiles at me.

“Shut up,” I say. “You’re such an ass sometimes.”

“Andy,” Richard croons, his face drawn in mock-sadness, “I order your favorite shot and that makes me an ass? Fine,” he reaches for the shot, “then I’ll take it.”

I snatch up the So Co and laugh, rocking back on the stool. “Fuck you, it’s mine.”

Richard smiles at me and takes a sip from his green Heineken bottle. He tips his head down and scans the club crowd over his shoulder. “A lot of fuglies tonight.” He looks down the bar. “And they don’t even have the strobe lights going to mask it, just those multi-colored pieces of shit that every fifteen-year-old acid head has in their room.”

I down the shot and feel my face contort. It’s good, but it’s nasty. The bartender places a clear plastic cup filled with pink liquid in front of me. “Thanks,” I say, hunching my shoulders forward like all those classic pictures of Alana Turner. I imagine my skin immaculate, my lips full and round, and wink at the bartender. He turns to the drag queen beside me and listens intently as she orders. Well, then, fuck you too.

My pocket starts vibrating as I take a sip of my vodka and cranberry and I pull my cell phone out to read the text from Katie. I tap Richard’s shoulder, distracting him from the shirtless stud on the dance floor whose muscles are gleaming as he writhes to some random remix. “Katie said she’s about to head over to Jason’s. Do you want to come, or should I tell her it’ll just be me?”

Richard rolls his eyes. “Tell her it’ll just be you, Andy. I hate that place.” He looks back to the man on the dance floor.

I text her a quick reply—that I’ll be leaving in five and she should meet me at Jason’s. I take a gulp from the Cape Cod. So much smoother than So Co. I tap Richard again. He turns to me, his jaw jutting out. “I’m leaving in just a minute, as soon as I finish this. Do you need a ride, or are you good?”

“I’m fine, Andy.” He looks back over at the shirtless man, who’s panting and walking toward the bar as the song changes. “Besides, I think my ride is coming right now.” He smirks.

“You’re such a slut,” I laugh. I raise the Cape Cod to my mouth and swallow the rest, then pull a ten from my pocket and toss it on the bar. “Here,” I say into Richard’s ear, “give him my seat.” He nods and we hug each other quickly. “Bye.” I slide off the stool as the man walks up and grins at Richard.

“Bye,” he says, not even looking at me. Whatever, I’ll see him tomorrow after I finally get off from the glamorous world of Kinko’s. I shift aside so the sweaty man can sit and then I squeeze my way through the people crowding up to the small bar. When I finally find a space to walk to the door, I let my hips move loosely side to side with each step. My head is slightly down, my eyes open wide and flickering to each man’s face as I imagine Ms. Turner’s would.

As I reach the front door and push down on the metal bar, I glance back at the throngs of men staring at the guys who are staying at the bar and ignoring the one who’s leaving. Well. Fuck all of you, then. I press my weight against the door and slouch my shoulders as I take the first heavy steps out of the safe-zone of the club and into the sticky air of a summer night.

***

As I go back down the stairs to the party, Jason’s footsteps pad along behind me; he taps my shoulder about halfway down. “Hey,” he says, his lips closer to my ear than I realized, his breath moving humid and hot on my neck, “can I ask you about something?” His words are a little slurred, but he seems pretty coherent.

“Yeah,” I say, “can we go into the kitchen?” I look down to the opening of the stairs, where the hip-hop is inspiring a dry-hump party between three girls and two guys. “It’ll be quieter.”

“Yeah,” he says as we descend the last few steps.

I try to make sure my hips aren’t swinging as I lower my head again, glancing up at the boys as I pass, smiling at the girls I’ve met before. I always wonder why more straight guys don’t realize the amazing networking opportunities I could open up for them.

In the dingy kitchen, I lean my lower back against the metal edge of the counter in front of the sink and fold one arm over my chest as I look at Jason. “What’s up?”

“It’s that,” he says, his eyes moving across the nicotine-yellowed cabinets, “I mean….”

I move my head forward, trying to coax him further, but he just looks around the room and then takes a sip of his Pabst. I straighten my back, my eyes on his face. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” he takes a shaky step back and slowly moves his hands back and forth in front of him before gesturing toward me, “but there’s something I need to tell you, and you can’t tell anyone.”

No way. No way is Jason about to say what I think he is. I lean forward a little bit like Alana Turner would and square my feet on the faux tile floor. “Sure, I promise. What is it?” I take a sip of my beer. Oh please, oh please, oh please say what I think you’re going to say.

Jason glances back down the short hallway to the living room. “See, it’s…just that,” he looks back at me, those big sad brown eyes looking straight into mine, “I’m gay.”

Thank you God, thank you Jesus, thank you Buddha and Allah and anyone I forgot. Thank you. I promise to be at church this Sunday—early, even—and to pray to each of you before bed from now on. I drop my arm from across my chest.

“Really?” I ask, knowing full well that no heterosexual male in a Bible Belt town would ever confess to homosexuality unless he was sure.

Jason looks down at the floor. “Yeah. I haven’t ever told anyone. You’re the only person I’ve felt comfortable enough with who I thought would understand.”

A little quiver starts in my chest as I take another sip of beer, my eyes still on that lean, masculine face. “I’m glad you did, Jason. Thank you.” I reach forward and pat his shoulder.

He looks up at me and smiles shyly.

“Does it feel better to tell someone?”

“Yeah.” He grins.

I stand up straight, a few inches closer to him, close enough that I can smell the soft heat of his cologne. I glance down at my beer can. “Now can I tell you something?”

Jason’s face scrunches but he keeps smiling. “Sure. What is it?”

Well, can’t stop now. “Jason, I kind of…well.” I pause and then lean forward and kiss him. Like, straight up on the mouth kiss him. Every muscle is screaming with tension and I almost forget to hang onto my beer, but the quiver in my chest is suddenly still. I wonder for a second if it’s what a heart attack feels like.

I feel the pressure of his palm flat on my chest—he doesn’t press hard, but enough to move me—just before my back strikes against the metal rim of the kitchen counter top.