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Pulling Mussels

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The day after it was announced that the old Judson Pastures meat packing plant was being converted into luxury loft units, Craig Tucker called a real estate agent. He was 27 then and feeling lost, having just moved back from Denver after a nasty breakup with his college boyfriend, if by “college boyfriend" you meant “college advisor" and by “breakup" you meant that the illustrious Neville MacAllister St. John, the Dudley and Clarice Kimball-Foster Professor of Performance Studies, had walked in on Craig administering one of his satisfying and highly sought-after blow jobs to the guy from whom Craig bought wholesale lighting fixtures. Fortunately for Craig, the blow of his betrayal was softened by the fact that he could still inform DU that Professor St. John's academic conduct had not always been of the highest integrity, nor were his transgressions limited to fucking undergraduates. So, single but not heartbroken, Craig limped back to his parents' house with $250,000 palimony and the tattered remains of his interior design business.

The best thing about buying a new condo, Craig knew, was that he would be able to negotiate the customization of his unit. After paying in cash, he was able to upgrade to stainless steel appliances, go darker on the marble countertops, put subway tiles in the half-bath, paint the guest bedroom mauve at no extra charge, and remove that stupid dividing wall between the living and dining rooms. Nobody had separate rooms anymore; it was so passé. “You're buying a condo in South Park?" Neville asked, when Craig called to inform him of how his alimony would be spent. “My dear, isn't that passé?"

“It's a cool old building," said Craig. “We used to take field trips there in grade school. Plus, I can customize it. I can finally get one of those electronic Japanese toilets you wouldn't let me have."

“Those things are death traps just waiting to happen."

“Yeah? Well I'm not really a top."

“Not to be cruel, darling, but I could always tell."

Craig slammed down the phone and those were the final words they ever exchanged.

The glory of the condo was that Craig could easily run his design business out of it. With his bedroom in the actual loft he could meet with clients surrounded by the evidence of his coveted aesthetics. Not afraid to get his hands dirty, he built his own dining room table out of local pine and finished it with ebony Minwax. He bought garbage chairs from the Salvation Army and re-upholstered them in supple mustard leather. He sewed his own curtains, was his own electrician, and found a way to integrate barbed wire into the pendant light hanging over his foyer. “Slaughterhouse chic," his mother called the look, but she was an idiot. Craig thought of it as “midcentury bondage."

His business did not quite recover from the move, in the sense that he no longer had scores of clients. Yet his rarefied regulars were willing to pay more, and as their Cherry Creek McMansions garnered spreads in the local periodicals, Craig began to charge more. He had long ago mastered the art of living well at a discount. Someday soon his grandmother would die and he would inherit her grand piano. Craig had been dreaming about that piano since he was a boy. He couldn't play piano, of course, but he had visions of guests serving themselves canapés from the piano's surface at one of Craig's delightful and highly refined brunches. Also, he was very eager to hire a naked young gentleman to play the piano during one his meticulously planned orgies. Craig turned 28 and his grandma developed pancreatic cancer. It was a slow-growing variety, but Craig began to rearrange his hot house flowers to make room in the corner by the breakfast bar. It was a big year for Craig. He declined to go to his 10-year high school reunion, choosing instead to go to a yoga workshop at an ashram in the Catskills. He came back the same weight he had been the morning of his high school graduation. It pleased him. That was the one true downside to missing the reunion; he would never learn how fat all of his former classmates had gotten. He assumed they had all gotten very fat. Anyway, he had not seen any of them since then, and had done well enough avoiding people he knew in South Park altogether. Craig found that satisfying.

By the time he reached age 30 Craig's grandmother had given Craig's mother durable power of attorney and signed a DNR. Craig again rearranged his exotic flowers and began mentally planning his orgy. It would be invitation-only, of course, all of the guests wearing the finest Venetian masks. It was difficult to sink into this fantasy, though, when Craig had not had sex with anyone, or even so much as kissed a man, for three years now. He began thinking about putting the moves on some of his clients. It would be quite a risk, because that sort of thing had the potential to backfire exponentially. Still, he settled on a couple he knew, a pair of wealthy bears, both of whom were named Dave. Craig scheduled their next consultation at 8:30 p.m. He put a bottle of Billetcart-Samon on ice and set out chocolate-covered strawberries alongside a baguette from the best bakery in Denver and an ounce of foie gras.

"I hope you like smooth jazz," Craig said to the Daves, slinking over from the kitchen. He had foregone his usual work attire in favor of tight jeans and a black button-down. He had an industrial-sized bucket of lube in the master bathroom, just in case. Then he proceeded to very slowly light a series of candles. 

"Anyone need a refill?" Craig lifted the bottle from the ice bucket and stroked its neck with suggestive gusto.

"Where did you get that barbed wire installation in the foyer?" one of the Daves asked. This one was slightly fatter. Craig made a mental note.

"I didn't get it anywhere, I designed it."

"Wow, it's fabulous. Where did you get such an idea?"

"Well, I walked by a fence with some barbed wire on it." Craig topped off his champagne flute, aware that they were both staring at him, "and I thought, it's genius."

"Yes, genius!" cried the less fat Dave. This one had a voice like a breathy schoolgirl. "Is that pate?"

"It's foie gras."

"So divine!" fatter Dave exalted. 

They left Craig with a $10,000 contract to redesign the wet bar area in their fetish room, ostensibly with some kind of barbed wire motif. Somewhat richer but no less horny, Craig carefully washed out his ice bucket and champagne flutes, the remnants of the erection that almost was wilting in his pants. Craig ate the leftover foie gras with a fork. It was a shameful evening for him, so he washed it down with the end of the Billetcart-Salmon. Feeling pretty good about that decision, he scrubbed his face and climbed into bed.

In the dark of his apartment, with the pale moonlight filtering through the bare, 20-foot leaded glass windows, Craig stared into space. For the first time, Craig missed Neville. Maybe he missed being asked for his opinion on the manuscript for Neville's forthcoming study on Indonesian shadow puppets. Mostly Craig just missed having a slightly overweight man to snore loudly in bed with him. Well, what he really missed was the opportunity to hit a slightly overweight man to make him stop snoring. Craig sat in bed drinking the end of his leftover champagne and beating off to mental notes about the Daves. After he'd come he realized something: those Daves were totally not attractive, or even his types. Sure, they had money, were the joint CEOs of a local on-demand pizza-delivery service app or something. But surely they weren't into Craig, with his waspish figure and inauspiciously plucked brows. And wasn't that what Craig really wanted? To be adored by someone? “Wait a minute," he said to himself, aloud. “I'm drunk." Craig got up and put on his moisturizer, did his 50 sit-ups, and drunkenly spilled some mouthwash on his subway-tiled bathroom floor. He mopped it up with a rag and went to sleep.

In the morning Craig took two Advil gels with a large glass of water and used his leftover baguette to make pan con tomate. He served this to himself with a poached egg and a side of baby arugula from the Park Country farmers market. He smashed an orange into the reamer of his electric juicer and made himself a mimosa. He stood at the head of his black dining room table, the one he'd built himself, and looked down on the picture-perfection of his simple breakfast.

“Jesus Christ," he said, to no one. “I'm really lonely."

~

On Monday morning Craig got started with the fat Daves' barbed wire project. He sourced all of his barbed wire from Jimbo's Guns, a store that was not quite in the center of town, but a couple of blocks over from the main strip. It was down the street from the mall, where Craig steadfastly never shopped. They had crazy prices on barbed wire, of course. No one knew the value of anything out here in the sticks. Craig had not actually been in Jimbo's Guns since he'd decorated his own apartment, and considered whether he might not get the same order by phoning it in. He began grinding coffee to make himself breakfast, but stopped. Maybe he should go into town. Maybe he could get his coffee from … whenever there was to get coffee in South Park. His childhood friend's parents owned a coffee roastery, and there was a chain, a Harbucks or whatever. Maybe he should go over to Tweak Bros. and get some coffee there, then walk over to Jimbo's Guns and buy the barbed wire. Something about this idea felt very continental, like he lived in a remote part of France where he'd have to bike down a cobblestoned lane to visit the butcher, the bakery, the bookshop, and the green market. The people who lived in those villages were illiterate hicks anyway, he told himself. South Park, south of France, what was the difference? Craig went to go slip on his shoes.

There were no sidewalks in greater South Park, so Craig walked along the side of the road. The place was more suburban than it had been when he was growing up, the sprawl of Denver's outskirts bringing mini-malls and, of course, forcing the conversion of meat-packing plants into condos. Well, Craig figured, this was life. Gentrification. He would have liked to have seen the county put in some pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. It was irresponsible from a design standpoint. Also a financial standpoint, because if someone ran him over he would most certainly sue. Fortunately, no one ran him over, and he made it to Tweak Bros. alive and in one piece.

There was no line, though the shop had several people in it, mostly losers working on laptops, sipping from paper cups. Craig hunched over to stare into the pastry case for a moment, but the sight of grease soaking the doilies under the croissants reminded him that he was not hungry, and this place was essentially disgusting. Craig had frequented this shop in middle and high school, the beneficiary of numerous pre-punched buy-10 free-coffee cards offered by his friend Tweek. At the time, Craig supposed, this being the only real place in town to get a coffee, that he had in fact been burnishing his cachet by hanging out there.

He stepped up to the register: “I'll take a cortado. Cut it with soy."

“Oh, shit!" the man working the register cried. “Well, hello to you too!"

“Oh." Craig was too shaken to feel awkward, though it figured that Tweek would, in fact, still be working at his parents' shop if he was actually working anywhere. “Hey."

“Where did you even come from? I feel like I've seen a ghost!"

“I'm not a ghost," said Craig. “I just want a cortado. With soy milk."

“We don't have a cortado!"

“Okay."

“Or soy milk!"

“Wow." Now there was a line forming behind Craig. He sighed. “How are you?"

“I'm — oh, jesus! I'm fine!" He looked … yes, fine, Craig figured. For Tweek. His wild, staticky hair was close-cropped now, but he still had the sallow-cheeked look of his youth. He wore a green sweater that hung on him a bit wanly, and Craig couldn't see what kind of pants he was wearing. There on his chest was a nameplate that said “Tweek," which was needlessly redundant. Craig was likely the only person in this town who apparently did not know Tweek on sight.

“That's good to hear," said Craig. “You said you don't carry soy milk?"

“We have four percent creamline milk — you know, Denkins is into dairy now. It's really good! Very local!"

Craig stood there for a moment, waiting for Tweek to follow this up with — anything, really. “Well?" he asked finally.

“Well what?" Tweek asked. “I got customers, man! What do you want?"

“Oh." Craig stepped aside. He needed to think. “Come back to me," he said.

After the line had cleared away, Tweek turned back to Craig. “Now I have to make all these drinks!"

“It must be a lot of pressure," said Craig.

“It's my job!" There was still a kind of urgency to all of Tweek's utterances; Craig saw everything that came out of Tweek's mouth with an exclamation point at the end. Yet he groaned as he made up the orders, which weren't complicated, a drip coffee (“Tweek Bros. Mountain Town Blend") with room for cream and an iced caramel latte frappe. It had no fancy name, which Craig found charming, and he stood there for a moment while Tweek wiped off the countertop around the blender and called out, “Frappe! Caramel frappe for Juan! Juan! Juan! Wah — oh." And Tweek handed Juan the drink and said, “Take it easy, man!"

Bells on the door jangled as Juan left, and Tweek turned back to Craig. “Seriously, man! Where did you come from!"

“From my apartment," Craig replied. “They paved over Platte Vista but they didn't put in a sidewalk."

“Yeah," said Tweek. “No one here walks!"

“Well, how else was I supposed to get here? There's no bus."

“I mean where did you come from! I haven't seen you in 10 years!"

“It's 12," said Craig. “It's been 12 years. Since graduation."

“What are you doing back? Is your — oh jesus! Did your grandma die?"

“No." Craig sighed. “Not yet. I moved back. Do you seriously not make a cortado?"

“Man, I dunno what that is!"

“It's like a Spanish macchiato." Craig paused. He waited for Tweek to say anything, but Tweek merely boggled. “Espresso with milk."

“Oh!" Tweek began to rub his chin, like this was a daunting task and a big deal. “I can put milk in espresso!"

“That's okay," said Craig. “Just give me a black coffee."

The coffee was okay, which Craig chalked up to his horribly low expectations. It wasn't quite bilge, which surprised him.

Craig must have been making some kind of not-disgusted face, for Tweek leaned over the counter and said, “We should hang out sometime!"

“Uh." For a moment, the right words eluded Craig. A polite person would say “Sure, call me" or “I'd love to, but," and then follow it up with at least a half-assed excuse. Craig stumbled into a neutral, “Thanks for the coffee." Then he left.

Walking up the road to the gun shop, Craig realized he had forgotten to tip.

~

Working the counter at the gun shop was Jimbo himself, a paunchy older man in bulky hunting gear. With Jimbo came, for Craig, the awkward realization that throughout his childhood gay men had been hiding in plain sight all over town. They had a brief conversation that bordered on flirtatious, while Jimbo lounged on the counter and tried to sell Craig a gun. He luxuriated in the fabric of Jimbo's little tells: the extended wink, the tension in his hands, the way his shirt was opened to the third button, objectionable only in the sense that he wore a vest as well, for warmth surely as well as convenience, the pockets groaning with ammo. Pointless, but obvious to Craig. This was one of his old classmates' fathers? No, uncle. Stan Marsh's uncle. Kind of an eccentric figure around town. But, unfortunately, they all were.

Craig wondered if he could work his charms toward a small discount. “No gun for me, thanks," he said, “just the barbed wire."

“You securing your property against home invaders?"

“No," said Craig, almost disappointed that he wanted to. “I'm making artwork. Kind of. … I have a condo." He finished the end of his coffee and searched the plain-wood floor for a trash can, finding nothing. “Could you take this for me?"

“There's a dumpster out back." Jimbo pulled off his hat and dug into a drawer for an order form. “We don't take cards," he said, the sigh of disillusionment in his words. “Cash or money order."

“I've paid with a check before."

“Check's fine," Jimbo agreed, writing out the order. Barbed wire was priced per yard, a relative steal, even without a discount. Craig imagined himself seducing this weird older man, begging for his dick out back beside the dumpster, coffee cup tipped over on the counter near the order form. A signet ring flashed on Jimbo's right hand, on the ring finger; how pathetically gay was that? Feeling nauseated with uncomfortable possibility, Craig walked home along the side of Platte Vista thirsty for a cortado, which he promised he'd make himself. He drank it on his balcony, much bothered by the way a “for sale" placard slammed in the wind against the railing of the apartment next door. Craig wondered if someone lived there, or if it hadn't sold yet.

He missed Denver, and worried fitfully for a week that he would end up like everyone else in this town, a gun-peddling eccentric.

~

All of Craig's feelings of impending doom bore out in due time, in the form of a phone call from his high school best friend. When thinking this to himself Craig labored to put the “best friend" part in quote marks, pausing before and after the phrase. He hadn't seen or spoken to Clyde Donovan in 10 years, but as soon as he answered the call and heard the nasal “Craig!" on the other end of the line, he knew this was Tweek's fault. Tweek, the weak link of his childhood, a wraith haunting the social interactions he endured with the rest of their small graduating class.

“He said you're back in town," Clyde moaned, like Craig's presence or absence was a personal fault of Clyde's own. “But that's insane because you wouldn't come back to town three years ago and never call me."

“Why would I call you?" Craig asked. “I haven't spoken to you since I was 18."

“That's not true! You sent me a Facebook message. For my birthday, sophomore year of college."

“I don't mean to be a dick but that doesn't sound like something I'd do."

“Well, I messaged you first," said Clyde, “to tell you you forgot my birthday."

Craig slumped on the couch. How to rid himself of this? “You're right, that does sound like — something that happened."

“So when are we getting together?"

“Um." Craig stared across the apartment at his nest of barbed wire.

“There's a bar, Skeeter's."

“I know."

“Well, you should come get a drink!"

“Why, Clyde? Why should I do that?"

“Why shouldn't you?"

All Craig could think of in answer was, “I don't want to," but that seemed too cruel. It had been a while, but certain things about Clyde were unlikely to have changed. He was emotionally volatile from a young age, predating the death of his mother when he was 9. It seemed to Craig that in some ways, continuing to feel bad for Clyde because he lost his mother 20 years ago or more was foolish; Craig himself was a man who moved past pain, beyond it, toward the next thing all the time.

Clyde's voice was heavy with grief even when he was just trying to make casual plans.

“Okay," said Craig. “I suppose that's fine."

His first question, as Clyde hugged him in from of Skeeter's miserable bar, was, “How did you get my number?"

“I asked your mother."

“Ah." It was cool out, and yet Clyde's body was warm. Perhaps this was because he was very large. Chubby in middle and high school, now he was just fat; that was really the only word for it. Craig had always found him cute, but then, his tastes in high school ran to “curated," and the lack of planning in any of Clyde's decisions was something of a turn-off. They'd lived next door growing up, and Clyde was always there; in fact, Craig had probably spent more time with him than anyone until they went to college. The other thing about Clyde was that he was just as into guys as Craig was, though he sometimes (perhaps by virtue of his role on the high school hockey team, as a goalie) dated girls. “Just to make sure," he said. He claimed to have never slept with them. As high school went on Craig started to suspect that their association lingered because of this commonality, rather than in spite of it. The only other openly gay kids in their year were in a weirdly public relationship and also Craig couldn't stand either of them. They happened to live next door to each other as well, and while the similarities between Craig and Clyde and Stan and Kyle ended there, the circumstances were too close for comfort. No wonder Craig had stopped talking to Clyde after graduation.

While they waited for the beers they'd ordered from the balding bartender, Clyde gushed about how he'd finished at Park County Community College and then gone to Wyoming for two years, to graduate.

“What a grim place to be in school," Craig said. He hadn't realized Clyde had paid, and was fruitlessly holding his wallet in one hand and the beer in the other. “I mean, even if you're not gay."

“What do you mean?" Clyde still had the cuteness of his youth in his soft face; his father was a kind of doughy recluse, his late mother genuinely pretty. Clyde himself had been voted the cutest boy in their third-grade class. Fourth grade? Craig grinned at the memory of Kyle Broflovski having been voted the ugliest. “Why are you smiling?"

“I don't know."

“Well, I'm happy to see you, too."

They sat down in a booth, and Clyde launched into an overly self-conscious elevator speech about the fact that he worked at — ran, owned, managed — his father's old shoe store, in the mall. “It's such a stereotypical thing to do," he said, “I find it somewhat shameful."

“Well, guess what? I'm an interior designer."

Without leaning over to offer the following information in a conspiratorial whisper, Clyde folded his hands together and said, “I'm in the closet."

“Oh," said Craig. “That's too bad."

“Yeah, it's nothing I'm proud of."

“Do you think women don't want to buy shoes from a gay man? Because if so I have good news for you."

“Nah — no, nothing like that," said Clyde. “It's just not something I ever felt like doing. Telling people, I mean."

“Well, Clyde, it's obvious to me. I don't know what else to tell you. Sorry." Craig took a sip of his beer. He swallowed. “The beer at this bar is terrible."

“I'm not pretending. I don't date girls. Not since high school." Clyde was doing this thing with his mouth where he screwed it up and wiggled his lower lip. It was self-conscious and, Craig figured, probably subconscious. Clyde sipped from his disgusting beer with the kind of trepidation that characterized one's teenage drinking. It was almost as if Clyde were drinking his first beer, though it was obvious from his bulk that he had been drinking too much for a while, the past decade. Beer and spit lingered on his plump bottom lip after he swallowed, and he wiped at it with his stubby fingers, scowling. “I was never trying to hide it. Not from you or from anyone. And I honestly wasn't thinking about there being other guys who were like that."

“Well, there were, you know. You knew I was. And Stan and Kyle?"

“They were on another level, or something. And you didn't count. There just never seemed to be, like, an opening for it. I just didn't know what to do."

“You could stop putting the energy you're putting into being closeted into something else, like exercise."

This comment clearly hit a nerve, as Clyde wrapped his coat around his middle and slumped.

“I mean—" Now Craig felt a little bit. Clyde was like a wound oozing pus, a giant throbbing infected appendage. He didn't want to hurt Clyde, but jesus, how was he going to deal with this guy if he didn't touch him a little? Metaphorically, anyway. “You look good. To me."

He brightened for a moment, saying, “Oh?" Then he slumped again, sighing, “Nah."

“You think I'm kidding but I'm not," said Craig. He didn't bother to lower his voice: “I like fat guys."

“What! Oh gosh, wow." Quickly, almost spilling, Clyde swallowed down the rest of his drink. He got up, with haste, saying, “I need another one, do you?"

“Sure." Craig got up, pulling down the hem on his sweater and putting a hand to the base of Clyde's neck. “I'll get it. You just sit down."

At the bar, Craig ordered another frothy-headed Guinness for Clyde and a gin-and-tonic for himself. Then he said, “No, cancel that," and changed his order to a vodka and diet Coke. That would make it easier to consume a few of these things, if they tasted light and insignificant, not like something he'd have to worry about later.

At the table Clyde was tapping nervously at his cell phone. Craig set the Guinness down in front of Clyde and said, “Stop that, this is a social occasion."

“There's nothing going on anyway, just some stupid updates. Stan and Kyle are buying a house?"

“Great."

“My dad is going on a date with some woman in his community?"

“Your dad lives in an assisted-living community?"

“No," said Clyde, “he lives in a gated community, in Phoenix. Well, Scottsdale. He has a little two-bedroom apartment there. It's nice."

Craig could not imagine Scottsdale being nice at all.

~

Surely the low point of this experience, Craig supposed, was that Clyde's two dogs were waiting by the front door, and began to bark in excess upon the sight of their inebriated master. “Hey," said Clyde, getting down to the floor. “Hey, puppies. Who's my big boys?" He began to kiss them, or whatever, on the mouth. It was hard for Craig to tell exactly what Clyde was doing, as he was trapped there in the doorway, his ass exposed to the wind outside and his face blasted by warmth from the house, which he could only attribute to the panting, whining dogs. But there was Clyde on this hands and knees, clutching at the dogs and saying, “Babies, babies," and kissing them. Or something. Again, it was difficult to tell.

“Hello," said Craig. “I'm still here."

“Oh, shush!" It took Craig a moment to realize this was not directed toward him, but toward the dogs. “I know. I know. Daddy's home. Shhh." This display of affection did not cease for a few minutes.

Craig stood there rolling his eyes, sighing, checking the time on his phone. Finally one dog ran off and began to roll, back-to-the-carpet, on the living room floor. The other circled Clyde's legs as Clyde stood. His fleece was matted with dog hair. “So this is my place," he said.

“I know this is your place," said Craig, “I grew up next door. My parents still live there."

“Yeah!" said Clyde. “I know. Do you want to come in?"

Craig brushed into the house, asking, “Can you put those things in a kennel or something?" Craig's dick was hard in anticipation of whatever he was here to do, painfully leaking into his black briefs. He had not had sex in some time, and even a few years ago the sight of these white-furred, drooling monsters guarding the path toward a potential hook-up would have been cause for Craig to turn tail and head out the door.

But then there was Clyde with his lopsided hopeful smile, arms hanging limply at his sides. This man needed to be kissed, Craig knew, he just needed it, and because Craig was drunk he felt that it was somehow his responsibility to do this for Clyde, and also, it was too difficult to walk home from here right now. Not so long as there were no sidewalks on Platte Vista and it was well after nightfall and Craig was in a state of drunkenness and wouldn't be much good scraping along the side of the road. He reached for Clyde and ended up with his hand grazing the side of Clyde's belly, which was both hot and sick, owing to the dog hair.

“Hey." Clyde grasped the zipper on Craig's jacket. It seemed as though he was about to tug it open, but the door was still open and Clyde heaved and said, “I have to take the dogs out."

Immediately Craig dropped his hand from Clyde's side. “Are you serious right now?" It did not come out much like a question.

“Well, they've been alone all night. You know, I have to walk them. “

Craig did not know, as he did not have a dog, but his erection was persistent enough that he couldn't help but let out a whine. “Oh, no. No. Can't you just put them in the yard, or something?"

“Um, they're big dogs," said Clyde. “They need exercise."

“My dick needs exercise," said Craig. “Point of fact."

“Yeah." Clyde breathed heavily in between his words. “Mine, too."

“Then just put the stupid dogs in the yard—"

“Hey, they're not stupid—"

“Put the stupid dogs in the yard and let's do this. It's been years," said Craig. “I haven't had sex since I was 27."

“Really? What — wow. What happened?"

“I'll tell you later."

“Oh." Then, almost as if it was funny, Clyde shrugged and said, “I'm a virgin?"

“Are you asking me if you're a virgin?"

“No, I'm admitting it."

“Wow, well, I can't say I'm shocked." Not shocked, maybe, but seriously into it. The idea that Clyde had never actually been with a man, maybe not even a person, was too perfect. “Walk your damn dogs if you must."

“It's okay," said Clyde. Finally he bothered to shut the front door and snap on the light. “I'll just put them in the yard. They'll be okay there. Just this once!"

“Sure." Craig did not lie about caring whether the dogs spent too much time in the yard. He needed to get his hands on this man. That, and he wanted another beer. “Just this once."

Much had changed in the Donovan household. There were new, cheap wooden floors, laid with mass-market slats from the Home Depot. All the walls had been painted the same beige and mauve tones that oppressed Craig in the halls of his own building. There was offensive wall art, the kind designed and constructed by committee to look like found two-by-fours shellacked and trimmed with glinting hardware, hung on the wall fresh out of the box from Target. It was dispiriting and tasteless, but at the same time it was markedly a gay man's home; who else would arrange fruit-shaped faux-Mexican tin-rimmed mirrors around the stairway artfully? Who else would put a large, smiling picture of his mother in a place of honor at the top of the stairs, her middle-aged face flanked by tall, forever-unlit tapers in fake-crystal stems? It sort of broke Craig's heart, but he could not be touched for long. The carpet was discolored, maybe in some dog-related fashion. Craig didn't know and he didn't want to know. He wanted only to get into Clyde's bedroom.

Perhaps Craig should not have been surprised to learn that Clyde had moved into his father's room. What was in Clyde's old bedroom? Who knew; Craig didn't ask. In the master bedroom the mattress was mammoth, a California king that took up most of the space. This place looked like Clyde had picked it out of the Horchow Collection catalogue and installed it as shown. The sheets were brown with tan and cream details, an abstract pattern that did not fully work. At least it was less offensive than the striped, ruffled, mismatching bed skirt. “Oh Jesus," Craig finally remarked, as Clyde sank down onto the mattress, his ass depressing it. “I'll help you do something about this."

“About what?" Clyde was removing his fleece, folding it over unzipped once it was off.

“The décor," said Craig. “Try not to feel too bad about it."

“Why would I feel bad about it?"

“Never mind." Craig sat down on the bed, too. His jacket had come off downstairs, and now he removed his black sweater. He made a point to fold it, neatly and exacting, so it looked floor-ready. The bed was large enough that Craig was able to reach behind him and place it on the opposite edge, several feet away. It would be undisturbed there. He had not expected the bed to be made, let alone neatly so, but it made sense in context. There had probably been dogs in these sheets, maybe as recently as earlier in the day. Perhaps they lounged on the bed, whining, while Clyde was at the store. Did the dogs miss him? Did they roll around in this bed to cover themselves in his scent, and to leave theirs for Clyde to revel in when he crawled under the covers at the end of the day? In his childhood Craig had maintained a predilection for guinea pigs, but that was nothing much like owning a dog. The idea of those two big white things having wills of their own was intimidating, much as the size and expanse of Clyde's bed was. It took Craig a moment that his drunkenness was affecting him.

Hands folded neatly in his lap, Clyde said, “I've got such a boner."

“Me too." Craig leaned over to take Clyde's face in his hands, and then Craig kissed him. Clyde tasted like beer, a bit sour, his fat lips wet but pliable. Clyde wasn't much of a kisser but Craig decided not to care. Clyde sat mostly still, his hands still folded, allowing himself to be kissed. Then he reached for the collar of Craig's T-shirt, and Craig thrust his hard dick into Clyde's gut. “See?"

There was a marked pause in the make-out where Clyde said, “I want to get my clothes off," and Craig consented to this. He removed his own, too, shedding his jeans and his briefs to reveal the pale, narrow truth of his body. It wasn't a bad body, he figured, as it was naturally inclined to slimness and functioned well in just about all capacities. But there was nothing great about it, either, and something about this lack of distinction made Craig cautious for a moment. He overcame that feeling by studying Clyde's physical presentation with great interest. The defining feature of it was a great big stomach that spilled formlessly into Clyde's lap. It was topped with soft little tits that were mostly nipple, sparse hairs lighter than Craig would have figured. Where Craig was pale with yellow-greenish undertones to his skin, Clyde seemed flush.

This was a relief for Craig, for whom a more pronounced difference between himself and his partner was always preferable. It was as if a great feast had been set before Craig, for he had not been so attracted to a man for many years. He had liked Neville and his puppets well enough, and the flattery of being molested by one's important mentor had bridged the gap between Craig's attraction to Neville (somewhat attracted, initially) and how Craig felt being adored, which was powerful and aroused. Then there had been that lighting guy, and that had been boredom and madness. Then, the Daves, though that hadn't been reciprocated. Now here was Clyde and the mess that was his swollen, graceless, untested body. Clyde had a colostomy pouch that hung from the side of his gut, thick medical-grade plastic locked into his flesh. Craig was unsure of whether this was a thing to be repelled by, but the actual sack was characterless and vague, with no hints about Clyde's viscera or their contents.

But Clyde had clearly caught Craig staring, and he flinched, asking, “Is this okay?"

“Well, you need it to live, right?" Craig tried to shrug, but his heart wasn't in it.

“For something, yeah. I—"

“Don't tell me," said Craig. “It's fine."

“Do you want to fuck me?"

“No. I'm not into that. I like getting fucked."

“Oh." Clyde was sweating, his face red. “I don't know if I have a preference."

“We don't have to fuck." Craig grabbed for Clyde's right thigh and squeezed, trying to smile in a reassuring manner. It seemed to have worked at least somewhat, for Clyde widened his legs and leaned back, sighing. “We can do a bunch of things."

“Will you be disappointed if we don't fuck?"

“Not really," Craig said, though the truth was, he would be, just a bit. Now that Clyde had leaned back and spread his legs Craig had gotten a better look at Clyde's cock. It was something to behold, or at least Craig found it to be notable. The problem was that Clyde's gut consumed it to a certain extent, as if it were hibernating from the cold. But it was large, objectively; thick and veiny; choked with blood and red like a stoplight. The foreskin which Craig assumed blanketed this cock in its flaccid state appeared ample enough to cling tightly to the wet head, even at this state of arousal. Were Clyde thinner it might have appeared longer, but it made up for that in character. It wasn't pornographic or ideal, just huge, and that was well enough for Craig. He grabbed it, slicking his thumb across the head. This caused Clyde to jump, yelp, and fall backward onto the mattress. “Very well," said Craig, and he got down on the carpet, to his knees.

“What's wrong?' Clyde asked.

“Nothing. I'm going to take care of you."

“That sounds dirty." Clyde's voice had a tremor to it.

“Yes, that's the idea." Craig stroked the insides of Clyde's thighs, kissing from Clyde's knee all the way up to the hairy juncture where Clyde's dick and his fleshy torso converged. He considered fingering Clyde's ass, then thought better of it. He could have asked, but no matter; here was Clyde's dick, and his two mismatched balls, one noticeably larger than the other. “I'm going to suck your dick."

With a whine, Clyde shifted his weight and said, “Then shut up and just do it, okay." This struck Craig as an incredibly toppy thing to say, and it made his dick throb. He pulled it away from his body and jerked it as he took Clyde's into his mouth, drunk enough that the taste of it and the smell of Clyde's crotch didn't much bother him. It was a sour, intense sort of taste; Craig had never sucked an uncut dick before, but he easily concluded that Clyde must not clean his, exactly. Objectively it tasted bad, but on top of a few drinks it didn't bother Craig much at all. His mouth strained to get all of it in.

It was a mostly silent performance, save for the small noises that accompanied the quick movements of Craig's hand on his cock, or Clyde's occasional grunt. It took Craig a moment to get the hang of Clyde's dick; it was large, and Clyde was not conscientious of its presence, and he began jerking his hips forward in a way that almost no decent lover Craig had ever had would have dared. "Stop it," Craig had to say at one point, taking Clyde's dick out of his mouth. "Don't thrust. Just be still."

"Okay," Clyde agreed. He tried to sit up somewhat, but fell back against the mattress as if sitting were too much with which to bother. "I won't, I promise." But as soon as Craig took Clyde's dick back into his mouth, Clyde began thrusting again. He clearly couldn't help it. Craig stopped stroking himself and just pinched the insides of Clyde's thighs until they were trembling, and he knew Clyde was going to come. With one hand he pinched Clyde off and with the other, he pulled down on Clyde's balls.

"Come in my mouth," Craig said. 

"Is that okay?"

"I'm telling you to do it, so, yeah."

"Just, can I—?"

Maybe Craig shouldn't have tolerated this, but he wanted to know what Clyde's come tasted like. Soon he found out: not that great. But the idea of swallowing it all down appealed to him, his own dick growing harder and he made sure he got all of it, licking the final lazy spurts from the folds of Clyde's body. Now Craig felt bad, because it was over, and he was still hard. He climbed up onto the bed where Clyde's eyes were shut. "Are you asleep?" Craig asked.

"No." Now Clyde did sit up, with some difficulty, pulling his legs up on the bed and looking at Craig's dick. "Should I go down on you, too?"

"Do you want to?" Craig asked.

"Shouldn't I?"

"A lot of guys aren't into sucking dick," Craig said, matter-of-factly. "Especially sometimes closeted guys. Have you sucked one before?"

"No."

"So, do you want to try?"

"Could I just touch it?" Clyde asked.

Craig stifled a laugh. "Be my guest," he said. He was quite a bit drunk still, and turned on enough that it took no more than a few tugs to get him past the point of no return. Clyde's hands were large and warm, unusually soft for a man's hands in Craig's experience. He fumbled with Craig's dick as if it were a desk toy, no more than a curio meant to keep him busy. It was nothing special: yellowish and pale, like the rest of him; slightly bent in a way that gave it a modicum of character; narrower than most. Though it was long and thick enough to have always felt good in Craig's hand, after Craig had come and was resting his forehead against Clyde's shoulder, Clyde whispered, “Your dick. It looks so naked."

“So you've never seen one without a foreskin?"

“No," Clyde croaked. “Only in porn." When he said this there was a slight tremble to his voice. He then sniffed, wiped his eye with the back of his wrist, and began openly crying.

Craig felt immediately uncomfortable, and on top of that he had just come, which made him very tired. “Hey," he said, pressing his lips to Clyde's ear. “That was really hot." They made out a little more, the taste of come still on Craig's tongue as it mingled with salty teardrops, and summarily passed out. Craig slept with his front to Clyde's back, arm draped over Clyde's flank, open palm resting on Clyde's belly. It had been so long since he'd slept with another person.

~

The least graceful follow-up to that night came the next morning, as Craig staggered home from Clyde's fast-asleep side, hoping he hadn't left anything and praying the only thing he had taken with him was everything he'd come with. By the time he was sloughing up Platte Vista again he had become conscious of all the micro-thin white dog hairs plastered to his clothing and, god forbid, his skin. They seemed only to be soft on the surface of Craig's shirt, and yet when he picked at them they proved incredibly difficult to lift and remove. He was grateful to have a lint roller at home, and failing that, a good drycleaner in the city. By the time he walked through the building's side door and into the concrete stairwell that he considered his own personal lobby, things were looking up. He would use the lint-roller on his shirt, take a shower, read the newest issue of Dwell magazine, seething in jealousy and radiating superiority at alternative spreads. This feeling of compensation and relief lasted only until he reached his front door.

For there, standing at the entrance to Craig's apartment, were two more old classmates, Kyle Broflovski and Stanley Marsh. Initially Craig did not recognize Stanley, but this had to be him, for here was Kyle, and Kyle was unmistakable: chubbier than the last time Craig had seen him, and almost certainly wearing a women's cardigan, but that hair and that goofy self-conscious posture belonged to no one else. Who else would be in Kyle's company but Stan? They stuck to each other like pieces of rice, a figure of speech that left Craig queasy as he visualized it. It was probably Clyde's semen roiling around in his stomach. That and this off-chance encounter with Stan and Kyle. He hadn't even seen them in years. It was as if they knew.

They were with a woman with a coiffed up-do that stunk of hairspray; that did not help Craig's sudden nausea. As it was he looked atrocious, and in just a few short seconds he had suddenly begun to feel worse. “Wow," he said, hoping he had his keys accessible. “What are you guys doing here?"

“None of your business!" Kyle snapped. He had the same persnickety tone Craig remembered tuning out over four years of high school Latin. “What are you doing here, Craig?"

“I live here." As soon as Craig had spoken these words he knew it would be difficult to prove, for in his state of general unease it had come to his attention that his keys were not only inaccessible, they were not on his person at all.

“Well, it's great to meet a resident," said that blonde woman. Her hair was definitely fake. “Do you love living here?"

“It's okay for South Park." He dropped his hands to his sides and said, “Yeah."

“You live there?" Stan asked. He pointed at Craig's door. He had the most generic general look known to man: black T-shirt, jeans, Adidas; shaggy dark hair; no discernible expression of any kind.

“Yes, for a few years now."

“Wow," said Kyle. “Well, that's — okay."

“Well, it seems you already know some of your new neighbors!" said the blonde woman. It was obvious now that she was a real estate agent. She had a clipboard and everything.

“We're about to go put in a bid on this apartment," Kyle said. He had at least managed to fix his hair at some point since age 18, as it no longer erupted from his head like a shockingly bad clown wig. “Literally right now."

“Excuse me," said Craig. “I think I am literally going to be sick."

“Oh my," said the woman. “You poor thing!"

“Well, how do you like that?" said Kyle. “Are you sure you want to live here?"

“It's the best place in South Park, dude," Stan replied, in an even and measured way.

“Not because of you," said Craig. “Just — late night." He staggered away.

Back down the stairs, and Craig got down to puke on the side of the building. There was a fleeting second in which he considered looking for evidence of semen in the mix, but that was too gross by any measure, and he had to stand back up anyway, as Stan and Kyle were rushing over.

“Dude," said Stan, “are you okay?"

“I was drinking a lot." Craig wiped his mouth with his wrist.

“Ah," said Kyle, like this explained things to his satisfaction. “You seriously live here?"

“I do, but I think I've forgotten my house key, so I'll have to go back and get it."

“Go back where?" asked Stan.

Craig glared at him. “Does it matter?"

“We're headed to the broker's office, so, yes, we could give you a ride."

Craig thought about it. “Can you drop me off at the corner of Bonanza and Fluhmann?"

"There's nothing at the corner of Bonanza and Fluhmann," said Kyle.

"Look. You said you'd give me a ride."

"I didn't say that," said Kyle, "Stan said that."

"Look, dude, we seriously don't care, but we're happy to give you a ride. We're getting back in the car anyway."

Considering whether his plan of being dropped off a few blocks away was even worth it, and considering he'd still have to walk through his old neighborhood, he sighed and said, "Yes, please. But, I'd like to be dropped off closer to town. At Bonanza and Brahler."

"So," Kyle said, as they were walking to the car, "you're going over to your parents'?"

"No."

"Seems like you'd have to be, since that's where you live."

"Broflovski," said Craig. "It's really none of your business." Then of course it occurred to Craig that South Park was very small, and Clyde did regrettably live right next door to Craig's parents. "I'm going over to Clyde's house."

"Oh." Kyle turned around to stare at Craig. "How's Clyde?"

"Well, he's—" Craig was really not sure how to describe Clyde. "He's in the closet? He's super fat? He's got awful taste in everything? His dogs are enormous."

"They're so cute," said Stan. He was driving, badly. He drove over literally every pothole in the road, and there were considerable potholes on every road in South Park, with the exception of Platte Vista.

"Huge dogs," said Craig. "I don't get it."

"What's to get?" Kyle asked.

"Well, you have these two very large dogs. They shed everywhere. They slobber. You have to feed them, pick up after them. Seems like a hassle."

"They're just really nice dogs," Stan repeated. "Really cute."

"We thought about getting a dog," said Kyle.

"So why didn't you?"

"Other plans."

"Such as what?" Craig asked. Kyle opened his mouth, as if about to reply, but this was where they arrived in front of Clyde's house. "Never mind. Thank you for the ride."

"No problem," said Stan.

"We might be seeing you a lot," said Kyle.

"Perhaps," said Craig. "I lived in this town for two or three years without seeing anyone. Then, suddenly, everyone."

"We're just moving back now," said Kyle.

"That's great." Craig unbuckled his seatbelt. "Thank you." He got out of the car. He staggered up the pathway to Clyde's front door. He heard the engine idling behind him, though it faded as he got closer to the house and farther from the sidewalk. He tread carefully, staring at the path, lest he somehow come into contact with dog poop. He hadn't noticed last night, but the yard seemed nice. Manicured, even. Until Craig rang the doorbell and he heard Stan and Kyle drive away, he thought about whether Clyde did the landscaping himself, or if he hired someone. 

“Welcome back," said Clyde. He was in pajama pants, his fat stomach hanging out. As if he had only just internalized the situation in which he found himself at present, he quickly put his hands over his chest, protectively, like a maiden bathing in a pool. “You kinda ran off."

“Well, you were sleeping," said Craig. “That was always the most awkward thing as a kid, when you woke up at a slumber party before everyone else and you had to just sit there, quietly, wondering when they would wake up."

“So you left?" Clyde asked.

“When you're a kid you don't have the option to leave. You just have to sit there in your sleeping bag until everyone else gets up."

“Okay." Clyde looked down for a moment, absently scratching at his arm hair. “Is this about your keys?"

“Yes."

“Well," said Clyde. “You should come back in."

The house was quiet for a Sunday, with the exception of the television, which was tuned at a low volume to an infomercial about some kind of juice press. “I'm not going to buy that," said Clyde. He fumbled for the remote and then turned the TV off, though the cable box stayed on. “Um." He kept pressing buttons, the television flickering on and off, until he finally said, “Oh, fuh-yeah," and switched everything off manually. “What can I do for you?"

“My keys," said Craig. “Maybe a cup of water."

“Coffee?" Clyde asked.

“Please no," said Craig. “Just the water. And my keys. … And maybe some of whatever you have sitting there."

“That? Oh." Clyde sheepishly picked up a cereal bowl of pinkish liquid. “This was Lucky Charms? I mean, off-brand Lucky Charms. Fruitful Gems?"

“Whatever," said Craig. “Keys? Water?" He followed Clyde into the kitchen, where a second television was on, though this was muted. It was playing the same infomercial.

“I just really like infomercials," Clyde said as he filled a glass with water from the tap. “They're soothing." Outside on the concrete patio the two dogs were sunning themselves. One of their backs was butted up against the plate glass, the fur an oddly splayed pattern against the sliding door.

“Uh huh." Craig took a sip. “Keys?"

“Have you seen the one with the—"

“I do not own a television."

“Oh." Clyde began to scratch as his naked stomach. “Because they're pretty cool."

“Look. I doubt it. Keys?"

A strange thing happened to Clyde at this moment, which was that he began to look uncomfortable. Not in the sense that he usually did, ill-at-ease in his own skin. This was more like a man caught between two big choices, struggling with the weight of his decision. He began to pull at his own fingers, squishing his mouth together oddly.

“What's wrong?" Craig asked.

“I am not going to give you your keys back until you agree to something."

“Okay." Craig emptied his glass of water.

“We have to go out again."

“Excuse me? Clyde, we never went out."

“Okay, well, we ought to."

“We ought to? Clyde, I vomited in the fucking bushes on the side of my house this morning."

“Because the thought of being intimate with me sickens you?"

“What? No, that's stupid. Because I drank too much last night. So I'm a little hungover right now, and Stan and Kyle saw me. Puking, I mean. On my building. So I guess what I'm really trying to say is, I've been having a rough morning. Please give me back my keys so I can go back home and get in bed."

Clyde did not flinch. “No."

“What is this backbone you have suddenly?"

“I don't want my first time with a man to be a meaningless fluke. I want it to mean something!"

“You came, right? What additional meaning would you like in your blow jobs?"

“I just don't want it hanging over me like a mistake."

“How would it — ugh. Okay, Clyde. Fine. If you want to go out to dinner or something, we can do that. But you have to pay, and I'm only saying yes because I need my keys back. And I also need a ride home."

They agreed to go out on Thursday, to a bistro in the city where Craig was certain he would not know anyone. Clyde said he would have preferred Friday or Saturday, because he did not work weekends, but Craig dismissed it: “Friday and Saturday evenings are for basic bitches. I don't deal with basic bitches. Thursday is for sophisticates." He was explaining this in the car, where Clyde was shirtless, his belly pressed to the steering wheel even as he leaned back in his seat. For a moment Craig was tempted to blow him again here, but then a disturbing thought occurred to him: What if Stan and Kyle came back? Another wave of nausea hit Craig. “Look, thanks for the ride. Pick me up at 7 on Thursday."

“Isn't that late to drive into the city?"

“No one serious dines before 8:30."

“Can't we compromise with 6:30? I'm driving."

“You can have 6:45 but don't push it or I'm canceling."

“But you promised we'd go out if I gave you your keys and I gave you a ride home!"

“Well, Clyde, look. Here we are at my house." Craig lingered for a moment. He was compelled to lean over and kiss Clyde farewell. Then he shook it off, saying, “Ugh," and got out of the car.

“Don't forget!" Clyde called, from the driver's seat. “Thank you! Good bye!"

Craig had never been so glad to be home in his life.

~

Instantly Craig knew he should not have taken Clyde to Jesuis. The complaining began before they had arrived at the restaurant: “Why is city traffic so bad on Thursday night?" “I don't want to pay $15 for valet." “I don't know how to parallel park." “I hope my dogs are okay. I wonder if they miss me?" “So now we have to walk to the restaurant?"

“Clyde." Craig looked him up and down. Yes, he would have a problem with that, wouldn't he? “You've been gone for 90 minutes. Your dogs don't miss you. This space is gigantic. Your parking job was fine. The restaurant is only three blocks away."

“But I hate walking. What if I trip?"

“This is barely the distance from your house to Tweek's coffee place. At least there's a sidewalk. On what would you trip?"

“I don't know, sidewalk cracks."

“Watch where you're going. You'll be fine."

“What if I get a ticket?"

“You won't."

“What if—"

Craig halted in the middle of the quiet street, crossing his arms. “I thought you wanted to go out?"

“Well, I did, but. I meant somewhere more like, in South Park. Like, Red Robin."

Craig merely scoffed. “This place is much better. Come on." He resisted the impulse to grab Clyde's arm and drag him, physically, into the restaurant.

When they were seated, Clyde touched everything in front of him: his silverware, the plate, the menu, and his glass of water. He took a sip from it and asked, “Did you not want to go to Red Robin because you didn't want to be seen with me?"

“I didn't want to go to Red Robin because the food is garbage. And it's in the mall. That's not fitting."

“Not fitting of what? I work at the mall."

“Something I would put in my body." When Clyde seemed hurt by this, Craig sighed. He said, “Look. This menu is very nice. You'll like a lot of things on it. They have steak frites. They have French onion soup. It's very good. It's made from ox bones."

“Ox bones are in the soup?"

“The broth is made from ox bones. And a big hunk of bread, and it's covered with cheese. It doesn't taste like onions at all. You'll love it. Then you can get a steak with french fries. It's just like the food at Red Robin, only better."

“What are you going to have?"

“I'm going to have the special."

“What's the special?"

“Well, I don't know, we haven't heard about it yet. The waiter will tell us. Whenever I go out to eat I order the special. It's usually more interesting. Or in-season. This place specializes in seared meats and off-cuts. They use a lot of seasonal vegetables and locally ranched beef. It's not the most interesting restaurant in America, but it's better than Red Robin, and you'll like it."

Clyde sank into his chair, pouting. “All right," he sniffed. “That's fair."

The special was a bronzino on risotto, and Craig did not order it because “no restaurant makes a proper risotto." Instead he had a fava bean salad with young lettuces and a stew of sweetbreads en papillote , the papillote in this case referring to a kind of thin pastry envelope which Craig broke open, steam rising off the stew inside. “Close enough," he said, digging in.

There had been little conversation, Craig mostly content to let Clyde eat bread and stare across the table. Craig was still working on his entrée, though, when Clyde wiped the last of the maître'd butter from his lips. “So," he said, regarding his empty plate with a kind of wistful look. “How's it going?"

Craig shrugged. “This thing is just okay. Why are there so many carrots?"

“I don't know."

“I wasn't asking you."

“Oh." Clyde looked to the bread basket, which he had already emptied, and slouched in his chair like a bored child. “How was your week?"

“It was the same as my other weeks. I met with some clients, I made some supplier phone calls. I designed a floor plan for someone's nursery. That bitch screamed my ear off because I put the crib next to the door, which is apparently bad luck in some mystical religion. How was I supposed to know that?"

“You weren't." Clyde sat up now, seeming excited. “I get people like that, too. They get pissed at me if their shoes don't fit, as if I designed the shoes. But not every shoe fits everyone's foot, I mean — you can go up or down a size, but if that doesn't work and the show isn't comfortable, you shouldn't buy that show. And, I don't know, people get very pissy with me about it. Pissy with me and my staff, you know. I mean, I say ‘people' but it's mostly women. Men just leave the shoes on the floor and walk out."

“People don't understand that you didn't design the shoe."

“Well, yes, they think there is some secret additional shoe size that will work for them, or some trick to get it to fit. But it's like that Cinderella story."

“When you find the perfect fit, you just know," said Craig.

“I meant more like, if a shoe really doesn't fit you, your only option is the start cutting your toes off."

“Oh." This gave Craig pause. “Well, that's dark."

“Yes."

Craig shrugged and went back to his dinner.

“Have you been hanging out with Stan and Kyle?" Clyde asked.

“What? God, no."

“You said they saw you barfing."

“Oh. Well, they did. I happened to run into them. Checking out the unit next to mine. I didn't purposely interact with them. Apparently they're putting in an offer on that unit. They want to buy it."

“That'd be really great."

“It would be horrifying," said Craig. “Can you imagine, living next-door to people you grew up with?"

“I live next-door to your parents."

“Well, yes, but I no longer live there. And anyway, isn't it weird, living where you grew up? In that house?"

“It's my house," said Clyde. “Well, maybe they'll get outbid. Then you won't have to deal with Stan and Kyle."

“Yes. Maybe." Craig fidgeted in his chair.

“But they're nice people. Maybe it will be fun, living next-door to them."

“Clyde. I moved back to this stupid town for some reason, and I'm stagnating. Not this stupid town. But, South Park. I don't want to deal with them and the whole pile of crazy shit they'll move in with. I don't want to feel like I'm reliving third grade."

“What would be so third-grade about them moving in? They weren't a gay couple in third grade. You weren't an asshole in third grade."

“Of course I was," said Craig.

Clyde seemed hurt. Then he perked up and said, “What's for dessert?"

“Whatever you want. You're paying."

Then Clyde became sullen again, and ordered profiteroles.

The drive home was mostly silent, Craig too sober for his liking. For the first time since he had moved back home several years ago, he did not feel regret upon leaving the city. Instead, he felt relief. Craig attributed this to his desire to get out of Clyde's car as soon as possible. This date felt like it would never end.

Parked in front of his building, Clyde slid the car into park and asked, “Can I come up?"

“Usually people wait to be invited." Craig wondered if maybe he should ask Clyde upstairs, and then have sex with him. He had a bottle of middle-priced cava he could open, and he was not meeting with his client the next day until 2 p.m. Craig hesitated, though, while Clyde sat there gripping the steering wheel, the soft features of his face muted in the dark. “Thank you for dinner."

“You're welcome." Clyde turned toward Craig, and the look on his face was heartbreaking. “I was a virgin, you know."

“Yeah. I got that." Now Craig felt awful. Just, not awful enough. “Look. You're just figuring out this whole gay thing. You're not even out. … Maybe that sounds harsh but I don't really know what the point of going out again would be. I don't want to have to deal with whatever drama goes along with that. I like a very quiet life."

“What drama?" Clyde asked. “My dad's not around. He doesn't have to know?"

“So you'd sleep with me and then your dad would ask you if you were seeing anyone and you would just say ‘no.' I would be this little secret. Does your dad keep in touch with anyone from South Park?"

Clyde opened his mouth, as if to say something, and then he shut it again.

“Yeah. So. I think it would just create an awkward situation if we were to keep going out."

“Good night, Clyde. Thanks for dinner." Craig leaned over and pecked Clyde on the cheek. “It was fun."

"No it wasn't," said Clyde. His voice was raspy. "If you'd had fun you'd invite me upstairs and then we'd go out again."

"All right. Maybe it wasn't fun. I'm going upstairs and going to bed now." Craig glanced at the clock and saw that it was barely 10. "Good night." He got out of the car and went upstairs, deeply suspecting that Clyde was still sitting in his car, possibly crying.

"You can't be responsible for Clyde's feelings," Craig said to himself, taking off his shoes at the front door. "He'll be fine." Craig didn't really believe this, but he did at least make an effort to wash his face, brush his teeth, and get in bed. He was hardly tired, but something compelled him to at least follow through on what he'd said about going to bed. That way if it ever came up, he wouldn't have to lie. Unfortunately he wasn't tired, being that it was so early. So he sat up in bed for a time, reading. Slowly his thoughts drifted from the page, and he began to feel pangs of sexual longing. He thought of Clyde's cock and what it might be like were he to ride it through a long, intense orgasm, his come splashing up into Clyde's face. At the exact moment Craig was getting off to this thought it was a pure delight, but as soon as he had come and was lying in bed alone, he began to feel bad. Now it was midnight and he really was tired. He shut off the light and over the next hour, gradually fell asleep.