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In Babylon

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The place is hard to find unless you’re looking for it, just a dark, unassuming door in the middle of the block, no sign overhead to advertise its presence. It’s hard to find unless it’s after dark and the door has been thrown wide to spill thumping bass and drunken cheering out onto the sidewalk. Unless you nearly trip over the sandwich board advertising two-for-one lap dances after 10 p.m. and three-buck well drinks on Sunday nights. Zach doesn’t even know if it has a name, this place. Even after he’s gone every Friday night for two months, he still doesn’t know.

He doesn’t even remember what made him come in that first night. It probably wasn’t the music. Definitely wasn’t the shrieking. If he wanted booze, there would have been quieter, cleaner places to get it. Maybe he saw the gaping door, the purplish-blue glow of the lights beyond, and thought it was the kind of place that could swallow him up. Maybe he was too tired to fight with his own curiosity. Maybe he was desperate for something, anything, to break up the monotony of his life.

Whatever the case, he hasn’t regretted it for one second. The first thing he saw when he emerged in the dark club was a guy on stage in a g-string, his back to the audience, his hips gyrating to the obscene bass beat—and even though heat bloomed in Zach’s cheeks and his gut and sweat broke out on the back of his neck, he didn’t turn back.

———

Chris is, first and foremost, a great connoisseur of tacos. He informs Zach of this with great solemnity the first time they go out. “I can tell you every taco place in the city that’s still open at—” He looks at his watch. “At three a.m.”

“Oh yeah?” Zach tugs his tie free of his collar and stuffs it in the pocket of his jacket. If they’re going to get tacos, he can casual himself up a little bit. “Prove it.”

And Chris starts listing them. Zach wouldn’t know whether any of the places he lists are really open, or if they serve tacos, or if they’re real restaurants at all, but by the time Chris is ten names in, he has dissolved into punch-drunk giggles, mirthful tears leaking from the corners of his eyes. He has to clutch Chris’s elbow to stay upright, and Chris grins like he’s proud of himself and puts a hand over Zach’s as if to anchor him there. Zach feels wild with hysteria for a moment. He’s a stripper, he thinks. A fucking honest-to-God stripper. And they are going to get tacos together. This is Zach’s life, somehow.

The place Chris takes him to is just a window attached to a bar. Chris orders for both of them and insists on paying, and they lean against the wall in the alley while they eat. Above them, a canopy of fairy lights gleams in the dark. A man and a woman stand at the counter near the window, close enough for their shoes to touch, trading bites of their tacos and laughing at the mess they’re both making.

“This is good,” Zach says, gesturing at Chris with his taco. It suddenly seems important to validate his choice. “Really good. Better than I would expect from food served out of a window.”

“I’ll take food served out of a window over one of those fancy-shmancy Michelin-starred joints any night of the week.”

Zach watches Chris suck salsa off his thumb and thinks maybe he has a point there. At any rate, Zach can’t complain about the company. They haven’t been talking much—Chris eats with an avidity that discourages conversation—but just standing together in the semi-dark feels comfortable somehow, as if this is their fiftieth time doing this instead of their first. When Chris lets himself slump against the wall, his shoulder presses into Zach’s, and Zach doesn’t lean away.

After they’re done eating, they walk in the same direction for a while. Chris lives not far from Zach, it turns out—and that probably shouldn’t be so surprising. Judging by the wads of cash that Chris walks off stage with every night, he’s doing okay for himself, so why shouldn’t he be able to afford to live in the same part of town as the financial analysts of the world?

Chris digs a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, but before he can shake one out, Zach grasps his wrist and shakes his head. “I’m trying to quit,” he says. Then, because he can’t avoid sticking his foot in his mouth if given the opportunity, he adds, “It’s really awful for you, you know.”

The look Chris gives him is like a parody of incredulity, but he only holds it for a second before he melts into an eye-crinkling grin. “Everything good in life is awful for you,” he says, but he puts the cigarettes away.

“That’s a morbid philosophy, isn’t it?”

Chris shrugs. “It’s stripper philosophy.” He knocks his elbow against Zach’s. “They give us all a little book when we start. A manifesto, of sorts.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Of course I’m kidding.” He bumps into Zach again. Each time they touch, Zach’s blood burns hotter. It surprises him that Chris is so tactile, and it surprises him that it surprises him. Chris’s personal space bubble must have been eroded by night after night of getting groped by strangers, but then Zach thinks if it were him, he’d keep his distance when it was up to him, just to get some of the control back.

Zach really wishes he could stop looking at Chris and seeing stripper as clearly as if it were tattooed on his forehead.

They reach the corner where they’ll have to go their separate ways and stop by unspoken agreement. Zach wonders if they make an odd-looking pair, him in a suit and tie, Chris in a track suit and baseball cap. He wonders this for no more than a couple seconds, because then Chris is shuffling closer, hands shoved deep in his pockets, and giving him this open, guileless look from under the brim of his hat. “So, see you next Friday then?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Zach agrees. His mouth is suddenly dry, so it comes out sounding like a croak.

“Great.” He grins, the streetlight catching on the white of his teeth. “Sweet dreams, Zachary.”

And then he turns to leave, leaving Zach to stare after him, wondering if, any second now, he’s going to wake up and find that he whole night was a dream.

———

The first time Zach sees him dance, it’s clear right away that he’s special. All of the dancers that come before him have cliche gimmicks—a cowboy in assless chaps, a cop who slaps fuzzy pink handcuffs on a girl sitting by the stage before shaking his junk in her face—but Chris comes out in a three-piece suit and a 40s-style fedora. His music is Frank Sinatra and his moves are Gene Kelly—if Gene Kelly was in the habit of undressing while he dances—and as far as Zach is concerned, if he stopped before taking his shirt off, it’d still be the hottest act he’s seen all night. The hottest thing he’s seen ever, probably.

But, of course, Chris does take it all off. After he’s done away with his tie and jacket and shirt, he turns away from the audience when he shimmies his slacks down off his hips, then peeks over his shoulder coyly, and Zach decides that’s his cue to leave, because if he waits until the end, he may just keel over on the spot.

Except he comes back the next week. And the next.

As the weeks go on, Zach learns that Chris seems to enjoy keeping people on their toes. He never does the same thing twice. One night he comes out in a threadbare t-shirt and sweatpants and gyrates his way around the stage, smiling and winking until the women in the front row are nearly hysterical. Another night he comes out with a guitar held carefully over his junk and fucking sings, a la Jenny in Forrest Gump. He recycles the Gene Kelly aesthetic a few times, but always to a different song, with a different dance routine or some added flourish carefully orchestrated to send the crowd into a frenzy. A bit of fancy footwork he probably practiced for hours. Roping a woman in with his tie. Tossing his hat into the audience.

Zach makes rules for himself, to justify his being there. For one, he always sits at the bar, which is about as far away from the stage as a person can get. He doesn’t think he’s the type to try to shove bills in someone’s g-string, but he wants to avoid the temptation nevertheless. Secondly, he always, always leaves before the end of Chris’s number, before the rest of the dancers come back onstage and then go out into the audience to give lap dances. It isn’t that he’s ashamed, he tells himself—but that’s obviously a lie. No matter how poetic, how beautiful Chris makes the art of stripping seem, Zach ends up feeling guilty watching him, like he’s peeking in through someone’s windows at night, seeing things he’s not meant to see. So even though Zach aches to get closer, to have a chance of putting his hands on Chris, to look him in the eye, he always hangs back. Always leaves early. Always ends up lying awake in bed that night thinking maybe next week he won’t go at all. Maybe next week he’ll go straight home after work, watch TV, and then drop off to sleep with no trouble, without some stripper’s smile imprinted on the insides of this eyelids.

———

After several weeks of sharing meals in the wee hours, Chris invites him over for dinner on a weeknight, a normal night. His apartment is small but nice, a modern studio with a good-sized kitchen and lots of natural light. Zach watches the sun slip behind the building across the way while Chris chops cucumbers and talks about everything and nothing. The dog he saw in the park earlier. The ridiculous 80s action movie he caught on TV a couple nights ago. The rude man on the subway who was listening to his music without headphones in. He could start narrating the act of julienning carrots and Zach would still hang on every word—not because he has a crush, but because that’s the kind of person Chris is. He pulls you in. Even when he’s not on stage, he pulls you in.

The food Chris made is simple but satisfying—steak, baked potatoes, salad—and Zach goes through another glass of wine while they eat. His head is buzzing by the time Chris takes the plates to the sink, which is probably why he isn’t sure how to react when, upon returning, Chris pulls Zach’s chair away from the table and climbs into his lap.

“Can I dance for you?” he asks, his hands absently rubbing Zach’s chest. “I’ve wanted to, but since you always hide in the back...”

Why? Zach’s brain screams. Why would you want to? He can’t make the words come out of his mouth though, and he can’t bring himself to nod either. Chris’s thighs feel strong and solid alongside Zach’s own, and Zach wants to put his hands on them so badly, but he’s frozen, his eyes wide and fixed on Chris’s face. Zach wonders if Chris knows that there’s no further seduction needed here, that Zach is already eating out of the palm of his hand.

“Zach?” Chris prompts. The rubbing stops, and he’s starting to look concerned. “If you’re uncomfortable that’s—”

“No.” Zach finds his voice at last. He finds his ability to move too and brings his hands up to grip Chris’s hips. “I mean…I mean, yes. If you want. But only if you want. You really don’t need to…I already…”

Chris grins, Zach’s babbling obviously lost on him, and slips out of Zach’s grip to go to the record player. He obviously prepared for this. The record he wants is already in the player; all he has to do is turn it on and move the needle over.

It’s Nina Simone’s “Do I Move You?”, and from the first bluesy bars, the first sandpaper-rasp of Nina’s voice, Zach knows he’s a dead man. He has seen Chris dance dozens of times by now, but this is something altogether different. This is Chris in casual clothes, in his own apartment, his bed in Zach’s line of sight. This is just the two of them, no one else for Chris to smile at or wink at or fix his attention on. Chris rolls his head on his neck like he’s warming up, then lets that motion ripple through the rest of his body, his t-shirt pulling taut across his shoulders before he turns around in one smooth motion and locks eyes with Zach, and he doesn’t look away as he closes the distance between them, swaying to the syncopated beat. He doesn’t look away, and Zach can’t look away either, not even when Chris is right up in his personal space again and his heart is pounding so hard he can feel it in his throat. Not even when Chris touches him again, putting his hands on his shoulders and then running them down his arms until he’s lacing their fingers together.

“You can touch me,” Chris says, his voice rough, and then he demonstrates by tugging Zach’s hands up under the hem of his shirt and presses them flat to his stomach where Zach can feel the muscles shift with each roll of Chris’s hips. Chris pushes Zach’s hands up and up until together they’re revealing most of his stomach, then his chest, nothing Zach hasn’t seen before but it’s different seeing it up close like this. When Chris lets go of him and reaches back to pull his shirt off over his head by the collar, Zach drops his hands instinctively, certain that if he keeps touching he may never stop.

Chris climbs into his lap again then, and Zach notices too late that he’s grown hard in his jeans. It’s normal, he thinks, for a man to have a reaction when he has a lapful of shirtless hunk, but still the blood rushes to his face, and he looks away from Chris for the first time since the song began. He bites hard on his bottom lip, trying to get a hold of himself, but Chris’s gentle fingers find his chin and encourage him to look up again, to meet his eyes. Zach sees smugness there, but not the malicious kind. Not at his expense. It’s the satisfaction of a man who’s getting the reaction he wants, the reaction he maybe wasn’t sure he’d get until just now.

“Look at you,” Chris breathes, as if he isn’t the one undulating in Zach’s lap, his thighs sliding along Zach’s, his pelvis coming closer and closer to brushing Zach’s stomach with each pass. “You’ve been holding out on me.”

He snatches up one of Zach’s hands again and brings it to his chest, and Zach can’t help but slide his thumb over to rub across one of Chris’s nipples. When Chris’s eyelashes flutter, it feels like a victory. “Or,” Zach croaks, his mouth desert-dry, “or I just didn’t want anyone else to see this. Us.” The thought of a whole club full of people watching Chris dance for him—for him—makes him want to rip something apart with his teeth. He uses that feeling to make himself bolder and curls both arms around Chris’s neck, tugging him in until their foreheads almost touch.

When I touch you, do you quiver? Nina sings, and Chris finally, finally pushes their hips snug together, so Zach can feel that he’s hard too. Zach does quiver then, his head falling back as he tries to gulp more air into his lungs. His hands fall to Chris’s waist, but he’s not sure whether he wants to put more space between them or pull Chris closer. In the meantime, Chris keeps moving, rubbing against Zach to the beat, rolling his upper body in so his breath gusts hot against Zach’s neck, his ear.

“You can have something none of them get,” he whispers, making Zach shudder again.

“What’s that?” he asks. The song is coming to an end, and he’s afraid what will happen then, what Chris might suggest next.

Chris pulls away and cups the side of Zach’s face, then waits patiently for him to open his eyes. When Zach does, Chris slides his fingers up into his hair and tugs. “You can kiss me.” Zach doesn’t move immediately, doesn’t breathe or blink, until Chris makes the invitation more explicit. “Kiss me, Zach.”

Their lips meet during the song’s final crescendo.They kiss and they kiss, Chris’s fingers twisting in Zach’s hair, until long after the music fades to vinyl-crackle.

———

Someone touches Zach on the shoulder, and when Zach turns and sees who it is that’s standing there, he startles, hitting his glass with his elbow, sloshing beer on the sleeve of his jacket.

“Shit, sorry.” Chris leans over the bar and grabs a stack of cocktail napkins, then starts patting Zach’s sleeve, his brow furrowing. “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”

This is the part where Zach should tell him it’s okay, it isn’t his fault, but he can’t speak, can’t move, isn’t sure that either would help because this has to be a dream. It’s Chris. Chris. The guy Zach has seen on stage once a week for—he doesn’t even want to think about how long. He’s real, flesh and blood, and he’s pawing at Zach’s arm with one hand and gripping him by the shoulder with the other.

“I just wanted to say hi,” Chris continues, the words coming in a breathy rush as if he has something to be embarrassed about. “I’ve seen you come in a lot, and we try to take care of our regulars, but since you always sit back here, I didn’t know if…” He clears his throat and throws down the soiled napkin in his hand, picks up another one. Zach’s sleeve is probably as dry as it’s going to get, but he isn’t about to stop him. “Anyway, I keep thinking I’ll come find you after I do my thing, but you’re always gone by then. So I thought I’d catch you before I go onstage tonight to see if there’s anything I can do to make sure you’re having a good time.”

His manager probably made him come over, Zach thinks. Butter up the guy who always sits in the back, see if you can convince him to spend a little extra money. Zach always pays his cover and buys exactly two beers and that’s it, and he figures it must be bothering whoever runs this place that he isn’t waving bills in the strippers’ faces every chance he gets. When Chris says, I want to make sure you’re having a good time, what he really means is, What can I do to get you to shove a twenty in my underwear every now and then?

Zach knows all this, and yet he thinks Chris could talk him into doing just about anything when he’s this close, when he’s touching him. “I’m having a good time,” he says. His voice comes out rough, like he hasn’t used it in a while, and he swallows hard before going on. “I mean, that’s nice of you, but…but I’m fine. Really. Just…”

Chris looks up at him then, his hand stilling as he searches Zach’s face. “Shy?” he asks, then breaks into a grin like he already knows it’s true. “That’s fine. I get that.”

Does he get that? He gets up in front of a room full of people and bares his ass several times a week. What would he know about shyness? And honestly, Zach doesn’t know if ‘shy’ is the right descriptor. ‘Raised Catholic’ might work better. Or ‘frighteningly repressed’. Chris is a stripper though, not his therapist, so Zach shrugs it off and shoots him a tense grin. “Thanks anyway,” he says. “For checking up on me.”

That should be the end of it. Chris should let go of him and slip away to change before his act begins, leaving Zach to wonder if any of this really happened at all. Instead, he slides his hand from Zach’s shoulder to his bicep and gives it a squeeze, and his smile grows soft.

“Stay tonight,” he says. “Stay until I’m finished. Let me take you out.”

Zach tenses, suspicion prickling like sweat in the space between his shoulder blades. “Really, it’s fine. You don’t have to—”

“I want to.”

“You ask customers out often?” Zach asks. He’s surprised to find that he’s getting angry. The only way this makes sense is if Chris is mocking him, or if he thinks going for one late night drink will change Zach’s spending habits. He refuses to take the invite at face value.

Chris runs his fingers under Zach’s lapel. “Only the tall, dark, and mysterious ones.” Finally the grin slides off his face, and he takes a step back, giving Zach room to breathe. “Just think about it, okay? I’ll meet you back here after I’m off, if you stay.”

He turns to go, and Zach’s gaze follows him as he weaves his way through the people and tables and disappears backstage. Zach reaches absently for his own elbow, brushes his fingers across the damp patch he finds there. He must smell like beer now, he thinks. He should leave; he should go home and shower and put on clean pajamas and sleep.

Hours later, when the dancing is over and the place is starting to clear out, he’s still sitting there, waiting, tearing one of the cocktail napkins into tinier and tinier squares. That’s where Chris finds him when he reappears. If he notices Zach’s nervousness, he doesn’t say anything about it, just takes him by the wrist and tugs him off his stool and says, “How do you feel about tacos?”

———

“You never asked me, you know,” Chris says, stroking his fingers through Zach’s hair.

“Asked you what?”

When Chris heaves a sigh, Zach hears it loud as a gust of wind where his ear is pressed to Chris’s chest. “You never asked me why I do it.”

“Hmm.” Zach senses there is a right and a wrong thing to say here, but in his post-coital languor, he figures it’s best not to try at all. Instead, he presses a kiss to Chris’s chest and waits.

“You’re the only person I’ve dated who hasn’t asked.”

Zach kisses him again, over his heart this time, and then slides his thumb across the spot like he can rub the kiss into Chris’s skin. “No one’s ever asked me why I’m in finance,” he says.

That makes Chris laugh, thank God. “Why are you in finance?”

“The money.” Zach waits a beat. “No pun intended.”

Chris laughs again. Zach has never considered himself a funny person, but he thinks he could learn to be, if this is the reward he’ll get for it.

“Well, do you want to know?” Chris asks, when his mirth has died away again.

Zach shrugs one shoulder. “I guess I’ve been waiting for you to bring it up. I didn’t want to ask, in case it was a sore subject, and I figured you’d tell me if and when you’re ready.”

The sun has dropped low enough to shine in through the window at them, and soon Chris will gently push Zach off of him and get up to take a shower. It’s Saturday, and he has to be at the club by five o’clock. Zach is sorry they can’t lay in bed all evening, talking and making love like the rest of the world doesn’t exist, but it’s a distant kind of sorry, something he knows he can live with as long as they’ll be back here soon.

“What if I told you I enjoy it?” Chris asks. His fingers migrate to the back of Zach’s neck, where he kneads the muscles absently. “I like the feeling of performing. When I step out on stage, it’s like I leave behind all the parts of myself that I don’t like. You know, when I was little, I used to get up on the coffee table and beg my parents to watch me dance or sing.” Zach can hear the smile in his voice. “Yeah, I fell into this the same way most people do: I needed to make rent. But I stuck with it because it’s fun. It may not be Broadway, but so what?”

Zach gets it. He does. What kid doesn’t dream of being a star, of having an endless supply of adoration? Maybe this is the gritty, realistic version of that; only a handful of people can be loved by millions, but if you lower your standards, you can be loved by hundreds, in dribs and drabs. He has seen the way Chris comes alive under the gaze of a roomful of people. He has seen the way he glows after a particularly good performance. It may not be aspirational, but hey, neither is what Zach does. And plenty of people would argue that Zach’s job is skeevier.

“I’m not judging you, Chris,” he says quietly. “It makes no difference to me.”

This time when Chris laughs, it sounds like relief. He surges up off the bed and rolls Zach under him and kisses him hard, grabs his wrists to pin them up over his head. “Stay here,” he says. “Be here waiting for me when I get home tonight.”

Whatever Chris says. Whatever he wants. Zach doesn’t want to be anywhere else.

———

Chris loves to surprise. He’ll get people used to this classier routines, weeks in a row of the languid removal of a three-piece suit accompanied by a crooning ballad, and then he’ll go all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum. Leather pants. Black tank top. A rock anthem. When he really gets going, it’s hard to look directly at him, and Zach wonders if that’s the real reason for the slowed-down Sinatra acts, if it’s Chris’s way of giving people time to breathe.

Three months after they start dating, Zach is rarely going to the club anymore, but Chris still finds ways to surprise him. He insists on cooking for Zach on a regular basis. He starts trying to quit smoking at Zach’s behest. He shows Zach a few pages from the book he’s been writing in his spare time, and it’s fucking fantastic. “Gotta have a plan for once I get too old for stripping, right?” he says, blushing, after Zach gives him glowing feedback.

And when Zach makes plans to go home to Pittsburgh over a long weekend and asks Chris if he wants to come, Chris agrees readily, then proceeds to completely charm Zach’s mother.

“I’m always a hit with moms,” he insists when Zach tries to praise him for it, after they’ve gone up to bed their first night there. Zach doesn’t buy into his humility for one second. He knows exactly how special Chris is, even if Chris won’t acknowledge it himself. Maybe because Chris won’t acknowledge it himself.

“If you told her I was a stripper though,” Chris says, ”she might feel differently.”

Zach grins. “I told her weeks ago.” He has a few surprises up his sleeve too.

“She didn’t say anything!” Chris says, his eyes widening.

“Because she’s a polite woman and didn’t want to embarrass you. But she—”

He doesn’t get to finish his sentence, because Chris grabs a fistful of his shirt and reels him in for a kiss. “Anyone else would have been ashamed,” he says against Zach’s lips.

Zach doesn’t have it in him to admit that he was ashamed at first. He almost chickened out and didn’t tell his mother at all, and he still hasn’t told his brother. In the time since Chris first asked him out, he has struggled with shame and jealousy and plenty of other things he shouldn’t feel. But Chris makes him want to conquer all of those feelings, because at the end of the day, he’s happy, happier than he’s been in his life. It may not always be easy, but what relationship is?

And anyway, it breaks his heart to see Chris so happy about being treated with basic human decency. What Chris does—it doesn’t hurt anyone. In fact, Zach has seen the way women smile when Chris pays them some attention, and he knows in that moment those women feel like the most beautiful women on earth. He knows this, because sometimes Chris looks at him that way, when they’re behind closed doors and no one else is around to see. Chris is good. His heart is good, his intentions are good. He shouldn’t feel like he has to hide bits and pieces of himself to make himself presentable for Zach or for anyone else.

He deserves so much better, and Zach is going to do his best to give it to him.

———

They have been dating for six weeks—six weeks—when they sleep together for the first time, and still Zach isn’t prepared for it. Before they even finish undressing, he’s out of breath and his hands are shaking and he twists his head away from Chris’s mouth so he can calm down. The lights are out, and he’s glad for it, but he shuts his eyes anyway, trying to forget—just for a little while—who he’s with. He can’t forget though. He can still see Chris, even with his eyes shut. He can see him shirtless, on stage, smiling a come-hither smile.

“Zach,” Chris says quietly, framing Zach’s face with his hands. “Zach, look at me.”

Zach opens his eyes, and for a terrifying moment he’s sure Chris is going to call it off. He must feel the way Zach trembles under his hands, the way he’s struggling to breathe evenly. If he doesn’t want to sleep with a guy who can’t pull himself together, Zach won’t blame him.

But Chris smooths his thumbs over Zach’s cheekbones and smiles at him—not the come-hither smile, but a soft one, an honest one. “It’s just me,” he says. “It’s just us.”

“It’s been a while for me,” Zach admits. Up until recently, his life was full of spreadsheets, of coffee drunk by the pot, of hours wasted staring at gray cubicle walls. If he managed to land a date, it was always with someone from work who’d want to discuss numbers or gossip about colleagues, someone who didn’t offer Zach any escape from the tedium. Now here’s Chris, offering all the escape Zach could ever want, and he doesn’t know if he’s brave enough to take it.

“We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” Chris says. “You can set the pace, alright?”

They fall down onto the mattress together, and Chris gathers him close, kissing him in an unhurried way that has him melting against Chris’s chest. He lets himself get lost in it, thinking that if all they do is kiss, he’ll be satisfied. But as the rush of blood in his ears subsides, he starts to hear the quiet way Chris groans when Zach brushes his fingers over his skin, the soft hush of the sheets sliding against their bodies, the sound it makes when they breathe in tandem. He feels Chris hard against his stomach, feels the slick slide of him when Chris’s hips roll involuntarily. He opens his eyes and sees the way Chris’s eyelashes fan across his cheeks and the way his shoulders bunch when he rolls onto his back, pulling Zach on top of him—and suddenly just kissing isn’t enough after all. Suddenly all his anxiety is forgotten in the face of an urgent need to get as close to Chris as possible.

“Chris,” he gasps. “I want—”

Chris reaches over to the nightstand and rustles around, and when he comes back he presses plastic and foil into Zach’s hand. “Will you?”

Zach didn’t think it would be this way. When he imagined them together, he thought about the way Chris performed, his confidence and the suggestive circling of his hips. He never pictured Chris beneath him, his head thrown back against the pillow, his mouth falling open as Zach presses into him with one finger, two, three. He couldn’t have known that Chris would clutch at his shoulders and kiss him desperately and beg him, please, please, Zach.

Chris isn’t performing now, no. Not with his legs wrapped around Zach’s waist, his arms around Zach’s neck, his eyes squeezed shut. And Zach, who couldn’t look at him minutes ago, doesn’t look away now. He doesn’t look away once. He can’t look away. He can’t.

———

“Why did you really approach me that first night?” Zach asks. This is their fourth date. Midnight pizza. Before that it was midnight burgers, and before that, midnight breakfast. Zach is going to have to join a gym if he’s going to make a habit of adding an extra meal to his day once a week. “Why did you ask me out?”

Chris looks at him like he knows what Zach is really getting at. “I told you. Tall, dark, and mysterious, remember? I needed to solve the mystery.”

“And you haven’t solved it yet?”

“Hmm, not quite.” Chris cocks his head to the side and looks Zach up and down. “But I’m not here for the mystery anymore. I like you.”

Zach looks down at his plate, picks at a corner of his crust. “It’s just hard for me to believe, if I’m being honest.”

This could be a turning point, Zach thinks. For the past few weeks, he’s been waiting for the punchline in all of this, the moment Chris tells him none of this is real. What Chris says next could make or break them.

“Okay, you really want to know what’s different about you?” Chris asks. He rubs his hands together to free them of crumbs, then leans heavily against the table and looks up at Zack. “It’s hard for me to see into the audience when I’m on stage, but there were times, when the lights went lower, when I got a good look at you. And at the way you were looking at me.” He reaches out and traces a finger around the bones in Zach’s wrist, raising goosebumps along his arm. “I’m not saying you’re the first person who doesn’t look at me like a piece of meat, but it’s what made me notice you. It’s what made me feel safe to approach you. Then, after we went out the first time, you didn’t try to sleep with me. Didn’t even try to kiss me. You still haven’t.”

Zach blushes at that. Four dates and he hasn’t even kissed the guy. Doesn’t that make him pathetic? “I don’t want you to think that I…that I just said yes to you because…”

“You did though, didn’t you? You said yes because you think I’m hot.” Chris raises his eyebrows, daring Zach to disagree. “I asked you out because you never wolf whistled at me, and you said yes because you know what I look like under this”—he gestures down the length of his body—”but here we are, weeks later. There’s more to it now, right?”

Of course there is. Before, all he knew was that Chris stood out when placed among the other tawdry male dancers, but since then he’s learned that he stands out in dozens of other ways. He listens generously and takes great interest in the boring details of Zach’s life. He has a tendency to talk like a California frat bro, and yet he can use the word zeitgeist in sentence without sounding like a douche. He’s kind, smart, unapologetic about who he is. There are a million reasons for Zach to be smitten with him, and few of them have anything to do with the fact that he nearly sets Zach on fire once a week with the motion of his hips or the way the muscles in his back ripple when he strips off his shirt.

“Yeah,” Zach says. “Yes. There’s more to it on my end, at least.”

“Zach,” Chris sighs, sounding exasperated and fond. But rather than put up any arguments, he reaches across the table, grabs him by the tie, and pulls him in. Pulls him in and kisses him softly, sweetly, on the cheek. It feels so innocent, and yet it floods Zach’s veins with heat. “I like you,” Chris repeats, his breath almost cool in contrast to Zach’s superheated skin. “I like you a lot, okay?”

Zach struggles to meet Chris’s eyes as he pulls away. The sincerity he sees there is almost too much. “Okay,” he says. He’ll make himself believe it, somehow. He’ll lay in bed and run through these few minutes over and over in his mind, until it sounds like the truth and not some unreachable fantasy.

“Okay,” Chris echoes, grinning. “Now let me walk you home.”

Outside the pizza parlor, the sidewalk is dark and quiet. Most people are smart enough to be home in bed at his hour, and it makes Zach feel like the whole world belongs to him and Chris, at least for now. Chris reaches for Zach’s hand and threads their fingers together. Zach ducks his head and smiles bashfully. He doesn’t want to have to wait a week to see Chris again, and before they get to his building, he’ll tell him as much, but for now, he revels in this feeling. Two two of them alone on a dark street, Chris’s palm warm against his own, the ghost of Chris’s kiss still touching his cheek.