Valentine McKee is not gay.
Earl knows this. Earl has known this since they first started fucking. Earl knows this because Val told it to him on their very first date.
All Earl could think during that date was, Could it really be this easy? It was Val, not Earl, who suggested they go get drinks and then after the drinks it was Val who pushed Earl up against the side of Earl’s truck, still warm from the Nevada sun, and kissed him. Could it really be this easy? As Earl, buzzed after three beers, slid his hands down to grab Val’s ass, and Val moaned into his mouth, he thought, Yeah, maybe it could.
Then Val pulled away and said, “Earl, there’s something I gotta say.”
The thing Val had to say was that he had no problem with homosexuals. His uncle was a homosexual. He just wasn’t a homosexual.
“Um. Okay?” Earl said. He wondered if he should take his hands off Val’s ass.
Val looked embarrassed. “I just don’t want you to get the wrong idea,” he said. “I’ve had guys... get the wrong idea. This one guy, he thought I was a homosexual and said he was in love with me and got mad when I said I wasn’t. A homosexual, I mean.”
“Someone thought you were gay?” Earl asked, widening his eyes all shocked-like. He was being sarcastic, of course, but Val nodded like he thought Earl was being sincere. Earl squeezed Val’s ass, as an experiment. Val moaned and ground his hips into Earl’s hips.
“So you swing both ways,” Earl said.
Val shook his head. “No. I like girls. Only girls. I just haven’t found the Right Girl yet. I’m just...” He furrows his brow, searching for the right word; then his face brightens. “Hanging out with guys until I find her.”
Earl stared up at Val, who was looking down at him with a worried expression on his face, like he thought now that he told this to Earl Earl wouldn’t want to make out with him anymore.
“So you’re...” Earl said. The only thing he understood about this situation was that he wanted to keep making out with Val and, from the way Val kept grinding his hips into Earl’s hips, it sure seemed like Val wanted to keep making out with him, too.
“Not a homosexual,” Val said.
“Okay,” Earl said. “Not a homosexual. Got it,” and Val grinned this huge relieved grin and pushed Earl up into the side of his truck and started making out with him again.
Earl learns later that Val wasn’t lying that night. He really does think the guys he messes around with are stand-ins for the Right Girl. He also thinks that all guys mess around with other guys while they’re waiting to find the Right Girl. Earl thinks Val is lucky he hasn’t said as much around the wrong people and gotten his head kicked in. He could set Val straight (so to speak), and the responsible part of him thinks he should, but what if Earl tells Val that messing around with him isn’t a very straight thing to do and Val stops messing around with him?
So every time Val brings up the Right Girl thing, Earl just smiles and nods.
And it’s kind of charming, in the beginning—the “I’m not a homosexual” thing. It lets Earl fantasize that he turned a straight man gay, which has always been a turn-on for him. But it gets old after a very short while. Val keeps saying things like “When is the right girl gonna come along, do you think?” in this kind of plaintive, puppy-dog tone, and Earl says any day now, Val, any day now, now turn over, I wanna fuck you in the ass and Val says “Come on, Earl, you know I only like to do that when I’m drunk, can we just do that thing where I rub myself against you again” and Earl says “Aw really, that again?” but Val gives him this half-plaintive, half-hungry look and sort of writhes his hips a little and Earl is like goddamn it, okay, Val, okay fine and he has to admit it is pretty hot, Val’s cheeks flushed and his eyes closed and his head falling softly back, exposing the long strong lines of his throat and the soft little hollow at the base of it, which Val practically whimpers when Earl licks, which in turn makes Earl come in his jeans before Val’s even touched him, and when Val reaches for him and realizes what happened he pouts and says “Aw man, Earl, why didn’t you wait for me?”
And then Rhonda comes along.
Earl takes this opportunity to give Val an angry lecture about this stupid “right girl” thing (trying, against his better judgment, to make Val admit there is no “right girl” and never will be) and Val listens thoughtfully, his head on one side, and when Earl’s finished says you know what... maybe I’ve been going about this “right girl” thing all wrong and Earl looks up hopefully (in spite of the fact that he told himself long ago to stop hoping and be grateful for what he’s got) and Val’s like “maybe I should go for a girl like Rhonda” and Earl goes back to splitting wood, swinging his axe with unnecessary violence and nearly chopping his own foot off, because what did he expect anyway, it’s himself he should be mad at, not Val, he knows that, Val’s been honest with him from day one, but he sometimes he can’t help wanting to punch Val right square in his stupid “straight” face.
Earl tries to get between Rhonda and Val. He knows it’s childish and unfair and wrong but he can’t help himself. He does this by staring at Rhonda and Val whenever they’re together, which is supposed to make Val feel uncomfortable. Val, being Val, thinks Earl’s trying to encourage him, and goes and makes out with Rhonda in the middle of the road when the whole graboid thing is over like it’s the end of a goddamn movie or something. When they come up for air, Val gives Earl this weirdly tentative look, like he’s asking for Earl’s approval, and Earl slams the hood of his truck down really hard and someone screams “Ahhhhh! It’s another one! I felt the ground shaking!” and by the time everyone stops freaking out, Val’s stuff is in a neat pile by the side of the road and Earl and his truck are a puff of dust in the distance.
Earl is half a mile down the road when he realizes he forgot to put Val’s favorite pair of boots in the pile. He grabs one, chucks it out the window, and guns it out of Perfection.
Bixby isn’t much better than Perfection, but it does have a gay bar that, run-down rinky-dink shithole that it is, is strung all over with colorful Christmas lights that actually make the place feel kinda festive. Earl goes there every night and drinks and feels like shit. He shouldn’t feel like shit, he tells himself. It’s not like he was in love with Val or something dumb like that. He knew Val wasn’t gay. He knew Val was only “hanging out” with him until the “right girl” came along. Maybe he just misses Perfection.
As comforting thoughts go, though, that one isn’t very comforting at all.
Earl goes on a hookup spree consisting of the three (3) gay men in Bixby and one (1) of the straight ones and still feels like shit at the end of it. It’s Bixby, he decides. The next town to the south will be much better than this.
Val moves in with Rhonda.
This is it, he decides. This is the Right Girl. If you asked him whether he was happy, he’d shrug his shoulders and grin and say “Sure I am,” and he’d probably believe it, too. But inside, he’d be sort of baffled. Inside, he’d be thinking, Is this what all the fuss is about?
Val gets annoyed about things and he doesn’t always understand why. Like his cowboy boot. Earl threw one of them out the window of his truck but didn’t throw the other, so now Val can’t wear either of them, and they were his favorite pair. “We can buy you new ones,” Rhonda suggests when he mentions this to her, but this just annoys him even more. He can’t just go out and buy new ones. That’s like saying “We can go out and buy you a new heart,” or something. Some things are irreplaceable, and that’s just the way it is.
“Nobody gets this upset about a boot,” Rhonda says, after several days of Val moping around. “This has to be about something else, Val,” and Val racks his brains but he can’t figure out what that something else is.
Maybe he just misses Perfection. That isn’t a very comforting thought.
“You know, Val,” Rhonda says kind of sadly, some time later, “I like you, but sometimes I don’t understand you at all.”
Nothing goes horribly wrong; there’s no big blowout or screaming fight, just this sort of slow, helpless slide into the moment when Rhonda’s standing in front of Val holding a coffee mug shaped like a graboid and saying “Do you want to take this with you?” and Val blinks and says “Take it with me where?”
The coffee cup is really very poorly designed, he thinks to himself, taking it out of her hands. It’s impossible to drink out of; you have to sort of wedge your lips between two of its jaw-things, and coffee inevitably spills out around them and onto your shirt.
Rhonda frowns, looking a little concerned, and says, “Well, I didn’t think you’d want to stay here, after, you know, last night, and I got like three responses to my ad for a new roommate already this morning and one of them’s coming over to look at the place in like an hour and I didn’t think you’d want—”
“What happened last night?” Val asks. He’s confused, but this isn’t unusual; he’s used to being a step (or three) behind Rhonda at all times.
Rhonda looks really concerned now. “The breakup,” she says carefully, like Val’s a high-strung horse she doesn’t want to spook. “You know, when I said I was sorry, but I didn’t really think this was—I thought it would be better for us both if—”
“You were breaking up with me?” Val asks.
Rhonda opens her mouth, then closes again, and looks at him, a little sad.
“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, I was.”
“Well why didn’t you tell me!” Val cries.
He waves his arms around and yells a little, because that seems like the right thing to do at a time like this, but his heart’s not in it. Then he packs his stuff, which takes all of two minutes, and leaves. He takes the graboid mug with him.
Val spends all afternoon in the phone booth around the corner from Rhonda’s apartment, trying to find Earl. Someone in Bixby says he went to the next town south of Bixby, and someone in the next town south of Bixby says he went to the next town south of that, and so on. Finally, he gets Earl on the phone.
“I want my boot back,” he says, without preamble. “I think the Right Girl and I just broke up over it, so the least you can do is give it back to me.”
“Come and get it, then,” Earl says.
His voice is kind of dull. Maybe he misses Perfection too?
“I’m not coming all the way down there,” Val says. “Gas went up two cents a gallon this week. You come up here.”
It’s kind of hard, it turns out, to do rock paper scissors over the phone; you can’t be sure the other person’s telling the truth. Finally, they agree to meet at the exact geographical midpoint between their two locations, which they painstakingly calculate on a map.
Of course, it isn’t quite that simple. They both overshoot the mark (or only one of them does; which one depends on who you ask) and drive around in circles in the desert for about an hour looking for each other. Then they have an argument about exactly which of them overshot the mark. Val yells and waves his arms around, but again, his heart’s not in it. In fact, he’s happier than he’s been in weeks.
“What’s that?” Earl asks.
Val looks down and realizing he’s holding Rhonda’s mug in his hand.
“It’s a coffee cup shaped like a graboid,” he says. “Still think ‘suckoid’ would’ve been a better name.”
“That looks really hard to drink out of,” Earl says.
“Yeah,” says Val, looking down at it, running his thumb over the hook of one of his jaws. “Yeah, it is.”
He stares out at the horizon for a moment.
“Earl, what’s wrong with us?” he asks.
Earl doesn’t reply.
“Do you think...” Val hesitates. Earl, in spite of himself, gets his stupid hopes up.
“Do you think we miss Perfection?!” Val says.
“No,” he says, a little sadly. “No, Val, I don’t think we do.”
He hands Valentine his boot.
“You know,” Val says, “it would be easier if you just told me what’s wrong.”
“It’s not something I can tell you, Val,” Earl says. “It’s something you have to figure out for yourself.”
Val makes a frowny face, like he’s trying to figure it out. There is a brief silence.
“Well, I’d better be getting back,” Earl says.
“Wait,” Val says, slowly, and Earl’s heart, in spite of himself, pricks its ears like a hopeful puppy. “I just had an idea.”
So they go back to Perfection, because that’s what this whole thing is about, right, them missing Perfection? If they go back to Perfection, everything will be okay again?
In some ways, Perfection isn’t the same as they remember. It’s a tourist attraction now. There’s a Graboid Tour that stops at all the major landmarks. There’s a graboid statue next to the general store that people get their pictures taken with. There’s a whole shelf in the general store full of overpriced graboid mugs like the one Val took from Rhonda’s.
Other than that, though, Perfection is pretty much the same. Val and Earl drive around saying hi to everyone. They hang out by the graboid statue for a while, so people can take pictures with them. Then they have a Coke at the general store and finally Earl says what they’re both thinking: that Val was wrong, that neither of them misses Perfection one bit.
And all of a sudden, there’s nothing more to say.
“Well, guess I’d better be getting back,” Earl says, and Val says “Yeah, guess so” and watches as he walks out the door and this is like when Rhonda broke up with him but like a billion times worse and maybe this is just how it’s going to be from now on, Val thinks to himself, maybe he just needs to resign himself to feeling this way forever, but then when Earl’s halfway across the parking lot to his car Val yells “WAIT. I HAVE AN IDEA.”
Earl turns around. He is not letting himself hope, not this time, not even when Val crosses the parking lot in three strides and gathers Earl up in his arms and kisses him long and slow and deep and pulls back and grins and then kisses Earl again.
“That’s what I was missing,” he says. “It wasn’t Perfection. It was you. I was missing you all along. Can you believe it?” and tries to kiss Earl again and Earl pulls back and says “Why Valentine McKee, does this mean you’re a homosexual?” and Val grins and says “I don’t know what I am, but I do know I love you, Earl Bassett,” and Earl, pulling him down for another kiss, figures that’ll do for now. That’ll do just fine.