The way the cabbie said, "Oh, all the way out there," made me think I'd be dropped off in some seedy-yet-trendy warehouse district, but we drove out of the city, toward the coast, along roads lit only at intersections, and then zig-zagged down a switchback to a unpaved road. We passed six small faux-Usonian cottages—each discreetly separated from its neighbor, each clinging to the cliffside like a barnacle with a view of the water—before the one with his address.
I thought my friend would be surprised to see me—we hadn't been in the same time zone for years, but we'd kept in touch—but what I got when he opened the door was, "You look a mess! Have you been sleeping in dumpsters?"
"It's great to see you too," I said. "I'm wearing my 'A drunk who sat on a plane for an entire day' costume. It needs work."
"How many tiny bottles did it take?"
"More than I could afford," I said. "As I said, the costume needs work."
"Bring me anything?" he joked as he took my duffel bag. He still looked like a college student in an ad for cologne or blue jeans or white shirts or something, which was fucking unfair, because we were the same age. Why did scruffy two-day beard look better on him than anything I ever saw in my mirror?
"My presence isn't enough?" I asked. "Now, if I were gay I'd give you a wad of Whitman's before holding you tenderly or giving you a blowjob or something, but I'm not gay, so I intend to cheer you up by drinking and mockery."
He grinned and clapped me on the shoulder. "Glad to see you haven't changed a bit."
"Certain famous people never appear in public unless they look perfect," I was saying half a bottle of whiskey later. Between the couch he sat on and the couch I sat on was a glass-topped coffee table, almost invisible in the subdued light. A little less gently than I intended, I put my whiskey glass down on it to remind myself that it was there.
"Certain famous people my ass," he laughed. "Can't bring yourself to name those names anymore, can you? Not like high school; you were obsessed."
"I was not obsessed, I was curious," I said, "And I know what you're going to say, so just stop right there and let me finish."
He spread his hands like the Pope giving benediction.
"Photos showing they're schlubby eyesores like the rest of us would blow the illusion that they float in a cloud of eternal élan. It would puncture their panache. It would harsh their je ne sais quoi."
He shook his head. "Most people get slurry when they drink. You vomit the dictionary."
"Oh fuck you." I took a sip from my glass and managed to set it down quietly this time. "I've just never figured out how they manage it. Like, when they get a call in the middle of the night saying, 'Everything would be alright if I could just see you,' what do they do to make sure no paparazzo catches them stumbling through a terminal with sixteen hours of blear on their face?"
He looked less happy all of a sudden, almost pissed. "Hey, I know calling you was… Look, I was upset. I didn't think you'd go chick-flick on me."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Flying a third of the way around the world? Grand romantic gesture. Total cliché." He moved his empty glass from the floor to the coffee table, then fished the whiskey bottle from where he'd tucked it in a corner of the couch and refilled our glasses.
"Get over yourself. Then fuck yourself." I took a long swallow. I knew I should savor it, because it was good whiskey, expensive, but I needed to make a grand non-romantic gesture.
"So much fucking," he said. "Well, if you're horny, we could play 'If I Were Gay.' "
"You wish." The whiskey had buoyed me up for a while, but it was starting to get light outside, and I could feel the crash coming. He hadn't yet told me why he'd asked me to fly twelve thousand miles. Not that I needed him to; this cozy glossy cottage, with its wrap-around windows and its view of the water, was built for two, but he was alone here. No sign of whoever he'd been with last. I was mildly curious if it had been a woman or man… Well, it was probably best if I stopped trying to guess. Better not to know details, because as long as they remained untold I wouldn't get any mental pictures, and nothing between us would change, and this moment, the good times and fun we were having together, would never slip away.
"Fading?" he asked.
"Sure." As he stood and went to the kitchenette, I asked, "Hey, is that why they call it a coffee table?"
He laughed as he took things from cabinets and ran water. "Only you. Only you would make a connection like that."
The coffee brought me to that phase of sobering up between buzz and hangover, the umbra where everything in the universe is off by just enough to make it weird and new, just enough to make stupid questions seem reasonable, but it hadn't been enough for me to resist the temptation of being horizontal. I was lounging propped on one elbow, Roman emperor style. "When was the first time we played that? At that frat house when we went as Roxy? The Three Dollar Game?"
"Earlier. Don't you remember May Callan's tenth birthday party?"
"Was that the party you put candy down your pants and told the girls to eat you?"
"I had no choice. I don't remember what kind it was, only that ceramic tile would have been more edible."
"Probably Laffy Taffy or Bit-O-Honey. One of those."
"I don't remember being at all embarrassed," he said, half-smiling. "At the time it must have seemed entirely reasonable."
"Or nine-year-old you was already a degenerate."
"It's not surprising, though. You understood intuitively that, to the lizard brain, candy is indistinguishable from sex."
He snorted. "Want to explain that?"
I could tell by his expression that he was humoring me. "Primal pleasures. Peel away the wrapper to get to the sweetness," I pantomimed while humming a few bars of stripper music. "And once you get your hands on your objective…"
"Yeah," he said slowly, "I never really thought about it, but you're right. We lick, and bite, and suck candy."
"People talk about shoving candy in their mouths. Might as well just say wet hole." This was making more and more sense to me. "Half the candy slogans are sexual innuendo. Melt in your mouth. Liquid centers that squirt? Couldn't be more blatant."
"Taste the rainbow?" he said, grinning.
"Exactly. Even the names. Jawbreakers. Mounds. Big Hunk. Skor. Oh Henry! Salted Nut Roll, for fuck's sake!"
"And a thousand varieties of hard candy." He sipped his coffee. "The only flaw in your analogy is that most candy gets softer as it warms up. You might have to go with baked goods."
"Fair point." It was coming back to me now, that party. Birthday decorations recycled from Easter decorations, baskets and rabbits; May lived with her dad, and they were even more broke than my friend's foster parents. "You looked so sad when no one wanted to eat your soggy treats. I dimly recall that I put some in my pants, too."
"Candy crotch solidarity. The sign of a true friend."
"At least it wasn't chocolate. We never would have lived that down. As it was, Martin Doofusheimer kept saying we were gay."
"His name wasn't Doofusheimer," he said. "No one's name is Doofusheimer."
"Then what was his real name? Don't even pretend to know, you don't remember it either. Anyhow, I was like, 'No, if we were gay we'd be doing stuff like this' and I made kissy noises and tried to hug you."
"Told you," he said quietly. "That's the first time you played it."
Senior year of high school, my advisor recommended that I branch out a little. "Take something fun," he said. "Maybe a film class? Last period, Mr. Bilberry. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Won't interfere with your track meets."
I talked my friend into taking the class with me. The first film we saw was called Wings. I'd never heard of it. The teacher went on and on about how great it was, realistic aerial dogfights, won the first Academy Award before they were called the Oscars, depictions of World War I trench warfare, blah blah blah. Sensing he was losing us, he mentioned that it was also the first widely released film to have nudity in it. "Clara Bow's breasts," he said, as if we'd know who that was.
"Tits," someone at the back of the room said. "Cool."
The movie was black and white, no talking. One of the main guys had a little toy bear he carried for luck; they made such a big deal of it that you knew he'd die by the end of the movie. Some girl liked a guy who liked a different girl who liked the guy with the bear. Some guy had a tattoo of a flag on his bicep; when he flexed, it waved. Some other guy—or maybe it was the tattoo guy—took his pants off in the recruitment office; you could see his ass.
The boring parts went on and on, until not even the possibility of school-sanctioned T&A could keep me from doing that slow nod that you don't notice until it snaps you awake. The first time it happened I looked around with embarassment, but I needn't have worried. Nearly everyone else had given up watching the movie. Most had their heads pillowed on their arms; a few were snoring.
"Those flames were hand-painted," Mr. Bilberry pointed out during one of the dogfight scenes. He sounded comically dejected.
I forced myself to keep watching. The guy with the bear got shot down in the big battle, but managed to steal a Fokker. As he was flying back to the Allied lines, his friend, thinking he was a German, shot him down. A big deathbed farewell scene followed, complete with mournful closeups and hair-stroking and a long kiss.
"Gah-hey!" someone said, and made a fart noise.
My friend, who apparently had been watching even though he had his head down, said tonelessly, "Shut the hell up."
After class we headed toward the locker room to get ready for track practice. "That shot of the propeller slowing down with the graves in the background was symbolic, right?" I asked. "Like, death?"
"I guess," he said.
And then someone from the principal's office tapped my friend on the arm, and did a really shitty job of telling him, right there in the middle of the hallway, that his foster mom had been in an accident. And right there, in the middle of the hallway, with the bell still ringing and lockers slamming and people in a hurry banging into us, he lost it.
I could barely look at him, could hardly speak, but still I stood there with him while I glared at everyone that passed. "Things'll be better," I said at last, "once we both get anywhere away from here."
My girlfriend Summer, who was wearing a Tinkerbell costume, had no idea who I was dressed as. She'd eyed the black and purple zebra-striped suit, platform shoes, my black pompadour, and the dusting of glitter on my face and asked, "Elvis? A really weird, faggy Elvis?"
I scoffed. "You'll get it as soon as you see him."
She shrugged. "Is he bringing someone?"
"He said his girlfriend's meeting us at the party." He'd sounded odd on the phone; I hoped he hadn't backed out of going in costume, because if he had I was going to look ridiculous.
I shouldn't have worried: after all, he'd been growing his hair long for half the year just for this. Dyed blond, it was brushed back off his forehead, the ends of a few strands lightly streaked with red, blue, green, or purple. Thin smudges of black outlined his eyes, but even without that he had nailed the look, an exotic feline contemplating the pounce that would pin his prey to the floor. Razor claws in velvet paws. The silky leopard-print shirt and tight gold lamé pants were almost overkill.
"Are you in costume, or is that what your floor of freshman dorm wears these days?" Summer asked.
"Shame on you," he said, using the English accent he'd been practicing. "Your art-rock references are woefully lacking."
"So you're some glam rocker?" Summer asked as I pointed to a jacket-like assemblage of feathers hanging on a hook by the door.
He stepped past us and shook his keys impatiently. "Let's just go."
"You forgot your feathers."
"Don't need them," he snapped, locking the door then grumbling, "Shit! I have no place to put my keys."
"We're supposed to be the Two Bs of Roxy Music," I told Summer, "Brian and Bryan." I took the keys from him and put them in my jacket pocket. "Should we get beer on the way?"
The party, at one of the campus' larger frat houses, was sure to be packed. I was worried we wouldn't be able to find his girlfriend in the crush, but as we hurried across the street someone in a peaked hat and an artistically tattered and extremely short black dress waved to us from the curb.
"Oh," she said when she saw him. "Fuck me, you look hot! I'm going to make you dress up as Eno for me every day from now on."
The main floor and basement of the house were packed, but Witch—I'm sure she introduced herself, but once we got inside who could hear over the deafening music?—led us to the foot of the stairs, where a zombie nodded and then lifted the caution tape. We ran up the stairs, and turned into a relatively quiet hallway.
Most of the doorknobs in the hallway were draped with socks or t-shirts. Witch went to one that was not, hanging what looked like a jockstrap on the knob before motioning us into the room.
A small room. Two bureaus, two desks, two beds. Summer and I sat on one, he and Witch sat on the other.
Witch smiled as she set a kitchen timer to fifty minutes. "Wanna play a game?"
"Okay." She took her hat off, revealing an impossibly vivid green mullet. "It's called Three Dollar Bill. "
"What are the rules?"
"Teams are boys versus girls. We take turns. When it's your turn you either have to pay three dollars, or say, 'lf I were gay I'd do this' and then say what you're going to do to your team-mate. And then you have to do it. When the timer goes off we split the money."
"I didn't bring my wallet," he said, staring at the floor.
"Three dollars," I said. "That's an oddly specific amount."
"Well?" Witch asked, licking her lips. "Are you two man enough?"
Summer bumped me. "C'mon, it'll be fun."
It was, all things considered, a brilliant variation on Truth or Dare—and ironically, a lot like real life. An audience expected entertainment, performers willing to please could make a profit, and if you were rich you could buy yourself out of things you didn't want to do.
It started off tame—touching faces, grandma-style kisses on the cheek—but when Summer and Witch stepped it up of course it became a competition. Anything the girls did, we did, even though I was pretty sure they were playing us. By the time Witch's oven timer dinged, necks had been nuzzled, mouths had been Frenched, and various body parts had been cupped, fondled, rubbed, and bitten through clothing, and I had started thinking of things I didn't want to articulate. It wasn't just that I didn't want to say or do those things in front of Witch and Summer; it was more that, in the tug-of-war between being eager and feeling a little sick, eager was winning, and I was getting to the point where I wanted to say that I'd unzip his pants and touch his dick, and that scared the shit out of me. "I guess we should go," I said.
"Aw, I want to play a little longer." Summer said. Her Tinkerbell wings and wand had already made their way to the shelf above the bed, and she and Witch were clearly eager to shed more of their costumes.
"We came in your car," I told her. "If you're gonna stay the night here give me your keys so that I can go home." I wasn't keen on taking public transportation, and I didn't think my friend was either: his tight gold pants would have every pervert in a ten-block radius following him. Plus, I wanted, needed, Summer to leave with me. It wouldn't be good if it was just him and me when I drove him back to his dorm, not with his roommate gone, but if Summer was with me, I could drop him off and then she and I could fuck in the back seat of her car, or on a park bench, or in a bathroom somewhere. Hard and fast and dirty, something we'd both remember. Something that would overwrite the images in my head.
"Twenty minutes," she said as Witch set the timer. "I'll meet you by the car. Don't leave without me."
"It's not like I can if you don't give me your keys."
The night air was chill, and cleared my head. He shivered as we hurried across the street.
"You should have worn that feather thing."
"I should have worn underwear."
We leaned against the car. I tried to stand where I'd block the wind a bit and asked him, "So, you and Witch. Serious?"
"Not really. It's something to do. She's…she's soft, and adventurous. We have a lot of laughs." He crossed his arms and looked up and away from me. "I just feel like… I feel like someone's out there waiting for me to arrive, but I'm slow. I worry that they won't know to keep waiting."
"They'll probably be waiting," I said. "How long you plan to search?"
"All my life, if I have to. Until I find them."
"Is that when you knew?" I asked him.
"No." He looked inside the coffee carafe, picked up the empty whiskey bottle, then stood and took them both into the kitchenette. He put the empty bottle on the counter in the kitchenette—and then just stood there, his back to me. He wasn't really making any noise, but I got the idea that he was crying, or at least upset.
"You okay over there?"
He opened an overhead cabinet, took out a plastic grocery bag, and then came back to the couch.
"Happy Fucking Two Days After Valentine's Day," he said, dropping the bag with a clunk on the coffee table. "No need to put it in our pants; it's not stale."
Inside was a huge heart-shaped box of chocolates. "Who was this for?" I asked.
"Does it matter?" He sat on his couch and put his head in his hands.
"Not really," I said.
The problem was, what had stayed with me about that night wasn't the sight of my girlfriend kissing another woman's breasts, or the memory of trying to fuck her under the flickering flourescent lights of an unheated gas station bathroom, it was the recurring thoughts of stumbling into his dark dorm room… and what might have happened after that. I had jerked off to images of grinding him against the wall, of peeling off those gold pants, of sucking him off, more times than a straight guy should.
"I have a confession to make," I blurted out. "I always meant to tell you that… I've known you were queer ever since I helped you move from that apartment on Blackthorn Street. There was a box of stuff—I didn't mean to look inside, but it fell open."
He was eyeing me with The Raised Eyebrow of Disbelief. "You're claiming that you didn't know until you saw my collection of vintage 70s magazines?"
"Vintage magazines on fisting!"
"Uh-huh. Let me make sure I understand this. This 'confession' you just forced yourself to make was to admit that you knew about my sexuality?"
"Uh, I… yeah." Shit. What had I done? What was the point, what was the fucking point, of mentioning something so stupid?
"Is that why you wouldn't move in with me? Because you're a Kinsey zero and I'm not?"
"No, that's not why. Of course that's not why. There were… I had things going on, you know that. That mess with… that girl from the accountant's office? And I would have had to move out anyhow when I got the job offer, so it all worked out anyhow. You didn't get stuck with rent you couldn't afford."
"Garçon? I'd like an order of excuses, with a side of rationalization and some lame sauce." He scoffed. "Why did you come out here? Really?"
"Because you called me at fucking two in the morning," I said. "You said that everything would be alright if you could just see me. And because I'm your friend, I didn't ask what that meant, but to be honest I get enough evasive bullshit from everyone else that I don't need it from you. So what is it? Are you in legal trouble or something? Do you have two weeks to live? Is there a dead body somewhere? Just tell me what's going on!"
He folded his arms over his stomach and looked away from me, out of the window at the grey sky and the distant smear of the sea, and I flashed back to him leaning against Summer's car.
"I'm a shit," he said. "I didn't want to drag you out here to drown with me, but…I'm treading water." He paused. "I can barely keep the waves from slapping my nose." He tightened his arms, as if holding himself together, and made a weird sound, a sharp intake of breath.
It chilled me to see him like this because he had always been the unsinkable one. The uninhibited one who put candy in his pants and got me to dress like Bryan Ferry, who bugged me into watching almost every movie we saw, every book or comic we read, and then dissected everything with me endlessly until I understood every possible layer of meaning and came to love even the stuff that I was sure would bore me. He always opened all the doors in places where I hardly ever wanted to open even one. If he was going under, what hope was there for me?
And then I finally, finally got it.
Sure, I could blame the jetlag, but truth was that I was, had always been, a hypocritical coward with a habit of pretending that what I wished I didn't know didn't exist… but I couldn't let myself off the hook, not this time, because whether I liked it or not I knew damn well that the reason my best friend was drowning, ten feet under and upside down, was because for years I had blackmailed him with an unspoken threat: the loss of my friendship unless he hid his feelings the way I'd strangled mine.
And he'd done it, which totally proved that he deserved to be with a much better person than me.
It also proved that I had excellent taste in men.
"I'm a complete tool," I said. "A stubborn, clueless, pile of shit." Now that I knew, and accepted that I knew, how the fuck was I going to undo all the years I'd wasted? All the guilt and shame and bullshit I'd put him through? I couldn't just come out and say that I'd always wanted him, always loved him, without sounding like an asshole.
"Yup," was all he managed.
"Hey," I said, "but now I'm here with a boat. Climb on." When he half-laughed, I said again, "Actually I'm the boat. So c'mon—climb on. Climb on me." Saying this gave me the exact same sensation of weightlessness you get when you rise off the seat during a roller-coaster ride and your stomach does flip-flops.
He looked at me. "You're not seriously trying to play 'If I Were Gay' with me again, are you? Because at the moment that would be beyond dickish, even for you."
"I don't have three dollars," I said, "so if you don't let me make an attempt to eat the hell out of your candy, I'll… I'll have to think of something drastic."
"Drastic?" he said. He looked doubtful, but there was a spark of dawning comprehension that almost made me cheer. "My candy? Literal or metaphorical?"
"You decide," I said. "But whichever it's going to be, come over here. Let's sample every piece."
Note: Sorry for the revisions, but the last line of the story was shy.
first post 6 June 2015; rev 18 October 2017