Something in the Air
“Dear God,” the words escaped her lips the second her New Balance sneakers stepped onto her front porch and she plopped down on the concrete to work in a five minute stretch before embarking on her pre-dawn run. Taking another full, diaphragm-expanding two lungs of the putrid stench permeating the early morning air, she promptly exhaled: “Something is rotten in the city of Shreveport.”
Of that notion, Susan Elizabeth Dupree was absolutely certain, but it was not just the nearly unbearable scent of raw sewage that, like many other mornings, greeted her first moments of consciousness and reached a greater level when she stumbled through the front door of the modest South Highlands home for her daily journey. This certain sense of rot was something more insidious than the smell and much more foreboding than its most likely source.
Susan had always been an early riser, and the practice had served her well over the days of summer, as she found herself on the other side of the C25K endeavor that she’d completed just before the onslaught of the miserable heat of late August in Shreveport. The stolen moments, in the hours when most of her neighbors were hitting the snooze button for the first time, allowed her a time to center her thoughts and to collect her bearings for the day, a period to plan for the coming twenty-four hours and to muse over the events of the day before. It was a time in which she was often able to satisfy her soul by delving into the innate gift of prescience that she believed herself to possess.
Susan did not tell many people about the feelings she got – only very close friends and the occasional, well-chosen lover – for fear that she might be regarded as a strange sort, but she did take some measure of pride in finding that some of the foreknowledge she encountered often came to fruition in the days and weeks that followed its inception, especially when it was something that she’d shared with someone else. There were times when her extrasensory perceptions warned her of decidedly ominous events to come (while away at college, she had suddenly known that the long marriage of her apparently happy parents would soon come to an abrupt conclusion when her father’s affair – another piece of the visionary pie – came to light; there was the night in late October of 2009 when her normally uneventful sleep was interrupted by vivid nightmares of some approaching, cataclysmic weather event – the following evening, the entire area in and around Shreveport was swept by an outbreak of thunder, lightning, rain, and tornadoes; and the knowledge that something was amiss out on the river – it hit her the morning of the sandbar tragedy); however, the majority of these feelings and visions were of a far more pleasant variety.
During one morning jog in late May, as she struggled through the first wave of her running commitment, her feet diverged from their normal path and carried her away from a third cycle around the Fern Avenue bayou trail and onto one of the side streets that extended from the Gilbert side of the coulee toward Line Avenue. That was the morning that presented her with the just-on-the-market property that would soon become her home. Before the moment that her eyes saw the realty sign, Susan had not only never considered looking for a new place; she had not even considered the idea of buying a house. Something had simply guided her to that specific location that morning, and she had instantly known that it was meant to be.
There were countless other instances wherein she found herself in good fortune to gain some awareness that found itself her way. She considered herself lucky to have ascertained that the C-word her father had left her mother for was now cheating on him. Just as he had broken her mother’s heart and sent the family into a downward spiral, Susan took a perverse sense of pleasure in believing that he would soon feel the indignity of crumbling pride when he discovered that the universe was providing a karmic whiplash of what she considered poetic justice. And then, there was the feeling (like any other time: sudden, complete, and absolute; it had hit her only last week), overwhelming and definitive, that her closest friend and strictest confidante, Trystan Van Meyer, was not only finally getting some discrete and regular sex, but also on the verge of telling Susan and others in his tight circle of friends that he believed he had finally met the one. That, she thought, was very good news to come.
Susan rose from the pavement, lifted her right leg to the porch railing and stretched forward before swapping it out for her left, hopping liberally in place, then racing down the steps and out towards the poorly paved street. The smell of rot remained, but it was less intense, albeit still detectable, as her nasal passages had become accustomed to its presence; however, the rotten feeling of foreboding that she had since first waking was more pronounced than before. Just as quickly as her thoughts often ran, a realization occurred as her feet carried her down Monrovia toward the Ockley Drive Bridge: this overwhelming notion of some as-yet-indeterminate consequence had something to do with the same caring, gentle and deserving friend for whom she wanted nothing but the greatest things in life. For Trystan, she wanted only happiness, but something in her frame of mind was telling her that he would soon have something else.
As she continued her run, she fought to push the worried thoughts from her brain and to focus on the way the first hints of sunlight were beginning to freshen the dark, cloudless sky with the promise of another full day. She tried to occupy her mind with the various things she had to do after she completed four miles: shower, reply to some emails, throw her lunch together, and head into the office to check out flight schedules – she was due in Houston for another work training session that weekend and she’d forgotten to book her flight before leaving yesterday.
Susan turned at the intersection on the other side of the bridge and increased her pace in an effort to keep focus. She was unsuccessful.
Trystan popped into her brain again; this time, at the forefront, and she abruptly halted in the midst of her course as the sickly dense and rancid smell of sewage rapidly refilled her sinuses and turned the contents of her stomach (half a cup of black coffee and two triangles of lightly buttered wheat toast) into a maelstrom of rippling queasiness.
A vision, just as real to her as the dew on the mounds of grass just over the fence at the Querbes Golf Course and the logo in front of Marilynn’s Place, overcame her with steadfast determination, and she felt her belly gurgle in protest of stability.
What she saw was awful; what it might mean – if it were true – was far worse. Oh, Trystan, she thought, as her lower jaw trembled and the first, sweet taste of her morning coffee and toast rose to meet her lips.
Something was rotten in the city of Shreveport.
Susan stumbled into the grass, leaned forward, and retched.
Walker Waking Up
As consciousness rose to help him meet another day, Walker Stevens contemplated the contrasting states of elation and bewilderment in which he presently found himself. If anyone had told him only three months ago that by the end of the summer he would be seeing someone significant, he would have shaken his head in disbelief. Yet there he was: already thinking about commitment, about the future, and about the way everyone in his life would react when they found out. For the interim, he and the other half of his pairing had come to a mutual agreement that neither of them would tell a soul, not even the people they were each closest to in their lives. Not yet.
Though Walker knew less than anyone about the rules and regulations that worked to make a relationship successful, he could not shake the feeling that starting things off in cloak and dagger secrecy probably wasn’t the best move, but he had to. Despite feeling so strongly that he was leaning toward believing in the as-yet unspoken L-word, he just wasn’t ready to be totally open about it to others, but he knew he could be happy. He wanted desperately to be truthful, but there he was: stuck in something of a conundrum, a paradox. Though he had promised to remain both honest and faithful (who the hell would he cheat with anyway; was that really even an option?), he was already keeping secrets from the very person with whom he shared the biggest and best secret of his life.
Like any other morning, Walker woke up – in spirit, mind, and, most conspicuously, in body – ready for absolutely anything that the day ahead could possibly throw in his direction. It was that very resolute determination that helped him continue with childlike abandon to justify that, no matter what, everything would have a way of working out if it was truly meant to be.
Seeing the first, soft glow of light from the soon-to-be-rising sun spilling through the gaping slats of his Venetian blinds and reflecting its way upward from the shiny hard wood of his bedroom floor, he jumped from beneath his sheets hoping that he hadn’t already missed the first opportunity of the day to catch a glimpse of his secret obsession. Nubile and naked, skin taut from the cold air blasting from the ceiling vents, he felt himself already growing in anticipation; he’d performed the same activity daily — with Pavlovian regularity — for several months, in spite of the incredible misgivings he had towards continuing. He looked forward to doing it and found that it inspired a more pronounced erection than he’d had since first discovering the wonders of masturbation in early adolescence. In fact, it had all become so ritualistic that just the sight of his telescope made the skin between his legs begin to tingle, and he instantly knew that today was not the day that he would stop this compulsive behavior.
Although he regularly planned to end the routine, he literally could not prevent himself from putting his eye against the cold metal ring of his telescope and looking through to the scene on which it was fixed just a short distance away. The rush was too great, a strange combination of simultaneous arousal and guilt, but arousal was always victorious, and there he was. Spying.
It was intrusive.
It was dishonest.
It was wrong.
And he planned to stop doing it.
The only real justification he used to manipulate his thoughts into believing that behavior such as this was mostly negligible (for the moment, at least) was the history of not only how it had started, but also the series of purely coincidental events that surrounded everything that followed with a sense of kismet, as if it was all fated to happen just the way it had.
It had been pure luck. Discovering that the view from his telescope (a Christmas present from his grandmother while he was still in high school and toying with the idea of astronomy as a future career), when adjusted downward from its gaze at the night sky, offered more heaven on Earth than all the stars in the galaxy above, he became transfixed. Mere chance (or perhaps destiny) led to the subsequent face-to-face meeting with the very man he’d spent so many days and nights repeatedly watching through the lens while he feverishly tugged himself. At that point, he had been watching daily, since his lens first found the open window across the backyards that separated their abodes, unable to control his actions and never ceasing to wonder just exactly who he was and why he spent so many lonely nights on his laptop, sweating through solitary workouts, reading countless books (he appeared to prefer the horror genre, but there were others, both novels and non-fiction), and playing with his faithful little terrier. The day they met instilled in Walker the idea that fate was suddenly playing a wonderfully ironic role in the events of his life.
A Saturday morning decision to attend an event he’d been hearing about brought him downtown on a last minute whim. Through the maze of vendors marketing their various creative wares, he spotted a classmate and proceeded toward her to say hello. She’d given him a hug, and then spun him around to see the face of the guy with whom she’d been laughing just before Walker arrived. He was taken aback to see that he was facing the man upon whom he had been gazing for so many months. It was the object of his secret, voyeuristic obsession, and he suddenly realized just how wrong what he’d been doing up to that point had been (not that knowing right from wrong would force anyone to immediately stop some deviant behavior).
Since that casual introduction between Walker and Trystan, when their mutual friend urged them to shake hands (“I feel like you two should know each other,” she’d said that afternoon at the Texas Avenue Maker’s Fair), the two had been as inseparable as their mutually busy schedules would allow.
What Trystan failed to realize – and Walker was absolutely terrified he would soon have to admit – was that Walker had already seen (and continued to see) much more of the first man he’d ever actually considered calling his boyfriend long before they’d been formally introduced. Trystan had all the qualities that Walker might have set to paper had he ever actually made a list of everything that he would want in a partner, but he’d never even thought of making such a list because he’d never given any prolonged thought to seriously dating anyone.
In his senior year at Centenary, an English major set to finish up early, he was mostly filled with the one-day-at-a-time mentality of a guy who still has no idea of what the hell he wants to be when he grows up. His plans were to finish exams before Christmas and to enroll in the engineering program at Louisiana Tech, and to obtain a second degree in something more useful and lucrative than the passion he felt toward the arts. Despite the intense secrecy he maintained regarding his burgeoning sexuality – he’d known he was gay from a very early age, and though some suspected, he hadn’t yet confirmed it to anyone except Trystan, of course – he felt that the relationship in which he found himself might be the very fire that he’d longed for to help him open up with the truth about himself. There were a handful of friends to whom he’d considered coming out throughout the past year (his family was another story – that would be his biggest hurdle, they were his reason for wishing to maintain absolute silence), but the time had never seemed appropriate, and there were always those little pieces of fear.
Fear of rejection.
Fear of losing face.
Fear of being banished from the world of acceptance.
Fear of judgment.
Fear of the certain retribution he’d receive from his hyper-religious parents.
Besides, before Trystan, Walker had never seen himself as being ready to get seriously involved with anyone at any point in the near (or even distant) future. He figured he’d get his bearings, learn what it meant to be an out, card-carrying member of the gay community (far away from home), spend some time experimenting with what worked and what didn’t, find out what felt absolutely amazing sexually and what he disliked, and continue working toward a prudent professional life. A relationship could wait.
And then he’d shaken hands with the guy who would soon change his life.
And everything he’d ever not considered had suddenly become tangible, possible, and even hopeful. Part of Trystan’s mystique – other than the fact that Walker had been spying on him through the lens of his telescope for several months (holding entire conversations with him, and smiling at the possibilities if such interludes were to happen in reality, while holding the warm flesh of his turgid junk in total and complete anticipatory angst, wondering what it would be like to actually bend a guy like that over the side of his bed and experience the actual physical manifestation of real sexual contact with another man) — was that he was older, established, self-assured, and almost faultily honest about even the most unfavorable aspects of his life. What he saw was what he was, and Walker felt that Trystan gave himself fully in every interaction they shared. He seemed to know who he was, what he wanted, and what direction he planned to pursue in all aspects of his life. Best of all, Trystan didn’t seem to be hiding anything, and Walker finally felt safe.
The connection between the two of them had been, at once, mutual and electric. It had felt destined, somehow pre-ordained, necessary, and essential. Shaking Trystan’s hand, Walker remembered that his mouth had gone dry, his tongue and lips stuck together when he tried to form his name and he realized that his breath was literally gone. Positively tongue-tied, he simply could not make words. Those reactions, he’d felt, were not only chemically enhanced by the power of the Serotonin blasting through the synapses in his brain, but just as profoundly physiological. His body responded completely. In fact, he remembered wondering if the boner he was sprouting was visible through the jeans he was wearing. There was simply no other word for it – that chance encounter was wholly comprised of one thing: magic; the kind he’d rolled his eyes over when reading its description in books. He remembered his knees had trembled as nervous energy shot through his circulatory system, and an entire colony of hyperactive Monarch butterflies seemed to have migrated into the toasty confines of his suddenly jittery torso. It had been a profound and instantaneous connection.
That had been several weeks ago — though it still felt like only yesterday — and Walker had made a conscious decision to stop doing what he’d been doing so regularly that he’d actually watched Trystan having coffee in bed the morning before their meeting; however, the compulsion was too great, and only heightened by the intimacy the two had come to share as they stole moments away from their separate lives to spend time actually getting to know one another.
As Walker squeezed one eye shut and fixed the other against the lens, he realized that it was likely high time that he admitted to Trystan that he was ready to tell people about their relationship. It wasn’t fair to continue asking him to keep something so great hidden from the various people in his life. Once they got honest with the people in their worlds, he knew that only one other challenge would await him: how to tell the man he had spent so much time with (and, possibly, falling in love with) that he’d actually “met” him long before that afternoon at the Maker’s Fair, and that the “meeting” had only been in a sort of theoretical sense — only in the skewed reality that he’d achieved through his perverted penchant for voyeuristic intrusion into a world he’d never actually been invited. How could he tell him that he’d spent every night since meeting him, laying in bed after telling him good-night, vowing that he’d move the telescope and that he’d stop watching, but that every morning, the temptation was suddenly back and he was again looking through the windows, across the backyards that separated them (“You’re kidding,” Trystan had exclaimed during the getting-to-know-you walk they’d taken at the Maker’s Fair. “I live RIGHT behind you!”)? How would Trystan react if he were to tell him that while he watched, he smiled and beat off with fervid and unrelenting energy? Could he really tell someone something so private, so disturbing as that? And would it be appropriate, or better left unstated? He knew he’d eventually have to have the conversation — or some form of it — but he wasn’t ready for that yet. First things first. One step at a time.
Walker focused on the eyepiece, looked through the lens, and saw that something was wrong. At first, he thought he’d somehow knocked the telescope off the cued course on which he’d set it. He lifted his head, looked out the window, and squinted in the fresh light of morning, thinking that a minor adjustment of his view was all that was needed. But even with his naked eyes, he saw something he’d never seen before. Walker bent forward and re-adjusted the aperture and looked through again, as if the blinds would somehow be open this time. Instead of the normal scene of Trystan up and doing everything he did to get ready for his day — talking on the phone, checking email, sipping coffee while his eyes were fixed on the news — Walker saw only the bright white wall of the back of his closed blinds.
Odd, Walker thought, and wondered what could possibly inspire Trystan to block out the world after all these months. Not the brightest, harshest blaze of the summer sun or the fullest, most illuminating moon had ever seen those windows shut. Neither of them even bothered to close them when they were both up in Trystan’s room, in various stages of undress, playfully rolling around on his bed or kissing each other passionately for what seemed like hours on end.
Genuinely hoping that everything was okay in the top corner room at the house across the yards, Walker picked up his phone to send Trystan a text.
He saw that he had a message and figured that it must have come through at some point in the night, and he hadn’t heard it. He reached for his glasses while he slid his thumb to open and read the text.
He frowned after reading it, then immediately hit the button to direct a call to the non-programmed number with a 903 area code. He was suddenly angry and confused and temporarily forgot the reason he’d picked up his cell in the first place.
An automated, computerized voice told him that the cellular customer had not yet set up their voice mailbox.
He stared at his phone, re-reading the words, blinking his eyes with the hope that he’d somehow read the them wrong, but he hadn’t.
“What would Mommy and Daddy say if they knew they’d raised their son to be a dirty, peeping, fudge-packing pansy? Don’t worry, I won’t tell them. And I won’t tell your boyfriend either. But if you want me to stay quiet, meet me on Sunday afternoon at 3:00 on the third floor of the downtown library. You’ll know who I am when you get there.”
Tears of absolute fury welled up in Walker’s eyes and threatened to spill down his cheeks. His lower lip trembled. Not sad, he felt a curious mixture of ire and fear. He immediately scrolled through his call list to contact the only person he could think of to talk to about this, the person he’d been about to contact before reading the offensive words that were burned into the darkest recesses of his brain.
His mind was reeling as he counted the rings, one after the other, and Trystan didn’t answer. He sat down on the edge of his bed. Still totally naked, his erection was fading and a sick, sad feeling settled into the bottom of his stomach.
Instead of the phone connecting him to the dude he wanted so desperately to speak with, he got the recording. “Hey, this is Trystan. I can’t get to my phone right now, so leave a message and I’ll call you back.” The sound of his voice, though mechanized, instantly made Walker feel a little better, but only momentarily.
His first instinct was to ask Trystan to call him back as soon as possible, but he thought better of it and decided to maintain silence. For now. He needed time to think, and he wasn’t sure that he wanted to worry Trystan right when he was getting ready for work. Besides, he wasn’t even sure of what he would be worrying Trystan about. What was he most angry about? The pejorative language or the allusion to what he’d been doing with his telescope? He needed a little time to figure it out.
The recording beep sounded and he began to speak. “Hey buddy,” Walker was conscious that his voice was quivering, so he cleared his throat and started again: “Just got up a little early and thought I’d call to see how you slept. I’m about to jump in the shower and get ready for class. Hope you have a good day. Shoot me a text when you can.”
Walker stopped himself from ending the call the way he’d really wanted to, the words had almost just slipped off his tongue… I love you… Snapping his thumb down on the button to end the call, he realized that, if he had said it, he would have meant it. Too many things, too many things, he thought as he inhaled deeply, closed his eyes, and leaned his head back to exhale.
His brain was ticking with voracious intensity and he knew that he needed to get his head together if he was going to find out who the asshole was that had sent that message. And why.
Walker looked back down at his phone to read the text one last time. The downtown library. Third floor. Sunday. At three o’clock. He was tempted to try to call again, tempted to send a heated and hateful reply, but he thought better of it. Instead, his thumb quickly punched out “BE THERE” before he hit the send button and deleted all evidence of the communication. He didn’t want to have the opportunity to have another look at it again.
He rose from the edge of his bed, connected his phone to its charger, and walked grudgingly toward the shower.
Reliance (Not Dependence)
Kate Dupree stepped out from under the drip of the faucet and wrapped herself in one of the plush, white Egyptian cotton towels hanging from the golden rod attached to the wall dripping with steamed condensation. The entire bathroom filled with the fog pouring through the gilded shower door. The sun had not yet risen and Thursday was barely ready to be claimed as having begun, but she was already well on her way to the blissful, opioid haze that encapsulated her moments of consciousness and helped her to get through another day as one half of a couple locked inside a sham of a marriage.
Kate’s reliance on chemical enhancement — particularly that of the narcotic analgesic variety — had been neither intentional nor instantaneous. Always much more of a teetotaler than a three-mimosa-brunch girl like some of the ladies with whom she lunched, Kate had usually shunned any illicit drug use.
In high school, she was always the first to leave whenever the first joint was lit, and she’d adhered to the strict, self-imposed limit of a two drink maximum all the way through her twenties and thirties, rarely even finishing a second glass of Cabernet or Sauvignon Blanc (if she’d even ordered one in the first place). On the handful of times a powder-flecked mirror had been pushed in her direction, she couldn’t figure out the most tasteful protocol for politely refusing. And she’d never forgotten the shopping trip to Dallas with her favorite overspending accomplice, Mignonne Blackthorne. After donning a pair of jeans that made her ass look positively adolescent, Kate had barged into her girlfriend’s dressing room to find Mignonne with a small glass stem perched between her lips and discovered how her partner-in-crime not only stayed so fantastically thin, but also managed to zestfully perform all the duties expected of the perfect wife, mother, and society maven. When Kate shook her head, wide-eyed and totally breathless at Mignonne’s offer of a taste, she’d instantly decided that would be their last trip to Dallas together.
No, hard drugs were not for her.
But a little frosting from the prescriptive side of things was perfectly acceptable.
In fact, it had become compulsory of late.
It had all started out legitimately. She’d torn her meniscus while playing tennis in early spring and the surgical repair had only allotted enough refills to last a couple of months; however, by the time her knee was beyond totally healed, she’d learned that the medication was her saving grace for getting through the days and nights of a life that bored her. Towards the end of July, she’d forgotten what it was like to be without the pills and she no longer cared to remember. When her doctor cut her off and her wimp of a husband refused to breach the medical oath he’d taken so selfishly serious by writing her refills, Kate felt fate smile upon her in the form of the remembrance of one of her stepdaughter’s ex-boyfriends.
The young man was one Susan had taken along for one of the “family” dinners she so obviously grudgingly attended, and when her husband left the table to take a phone call and Susan excused herself to the bathroom, the two were left alone for a full ten minutes, allowing them to exchange numbers and to plot to meet in her pool house the following week. It hadn’t been her first affair, nor had it been her last, but it definitely proved to be one of the most mutually gratifying. When the summer had been in full force and Kate reached the last five pills in her possession, she remembered Susan remarking that she’d ended that relationship due to his incessant drug use. One quick phone call was all it took, and Kate had an instant, steady supplier.
They’d tried to rekindle the sexual fire that had existed before, when he was still dating Susan, but the chemistry was no longer there and the myriad substances he was pumping into his body prevented him from reaching a starting point for performance. Fortunately, that no longer mattered. Kate’s regularly increasing demand and his never-ending supply helped boost his income to feed his own habit, and he didn’t care that she had replaced him with the veritable stud that kept coming back to satisfy her sexually. One that really couldn’t get enough. The very one she’d met in the pool house the night before.
After wringing excess water from her hair, Kate lifted the dryer from the counter and began running an over-sized brush through her limp tresses, trying to add some volume while playing with the train wreck of memories dancing between her ears. Despite the dryer being on its lowest setting, its buzz still muffled the sound of the bathroom door opening. A full thirty seconds passed before she was aware that the moist heat from the shower had swept from the room and was being replaced by the chill of central air rushing in behind the male figure standing in the door frame.
“Penny for your thoughts,” her husband’s genuinely caring words jostled her from the pleasant reverie, instantly filling her with irritation. His obviously kind and considerate tone only angered her more.
“You’re letting the cold air in,” she replied icily, her eyes never leaving her reflection in the mirror despite the fact that the sudden announcement of his presence made her jump. In blind obedience, he closed the door behind him, remaining in the room with her. Maintaining her self-absorbed gaze, she could see in her peripheral vision that he had his usual, stupidly expectant look thrown in her direction. The affection she’d once felt toward this man had died shortly after their relationship was formally recognized via church and State. Although she maintained a public cordiality and manipulated him just enough to believe that she still loved him (although she never really had), she only did so because he was worth five times as much as their nearly million dollar home. Kate knew how to keep her bread buttered, and she had no intention of ever departing with the necessary spread — at least, not without a divorce that would cost him everything.
Perturbed that he continued to hover, she finally, dramatically breathed, “…yessss…?”
Clearly dejected, he managed: “You’re up early.” It was as much a question as it was an observation.
“Spin class at seven,” she spoke flatly, hoping that the distance in her voice and her demeanor would excuse him from her presence quickly.
“Ah,” his tone was equally flat, uncertain of what it was that he had done to elicit the cold attitude she’d been giving him in recent days. Not that he wasn’t becoming accustomed to such unwarranted whims. His wife was a tough one. Temperamental. Volatile. Prone to sudden, long-lasting periods of unwarranted and unjustified anger. The separate bedroom idea had been hers. She’d blamed his incessant snoring, but he’d been happy to oblige. Anything to make her happy.
After a moment, he realized he still hadn’t moved, nor had he spoken, and he felt that he must look like the silly buffoon that he often envisioned himself to emulate when in her presence. In spite of her moodiness and oft-times cruel attitude, Dr. Nathaniel Dupree was still very much in love with this woman. After all, he’d sacrificed everything for which he’d worked — including family and reputation — just to be with her.
“My cuff links,” he finally said.
“Hmmm…?” Her vocal inflection was ambivalent as she continued to brush the last of the moisture from her hair. She raised the level of heat (and noise) from the dryer in a veiled effort to show him just how little interest she had in continuing the conversation.
“The silver cuff links,” he replied, moving toward the counter drawers, opening them 0ne-at-a-time to quickly riffle inside. “The ones you bought me last month at Pope’s. I can’t find them.”
Suddenly furious at the intrusion (and more than a little worried that he’d open the drawer that held the nearly empty pill bottle she’d carried from its hiding spot in the recesses of her closet earlier), Kate slammed the hair dryer to the marble counter top and moved in front of him, preventing him from continuing his search. “Well, they’re not in here.” For the first time in days, her eyes met his and fixed there with thinly disguised hatred.
Uncertain of just how to read this look, and sensing that she was in a particularly foul mood, he relented. His eyes lowered to the towel wrapped around her body and he smiled. “Well, I guess you need to get ready for class.”
Kate was silent, her arms crossed firmly across her breasts. The look on her face stony and unflinching.
“I’m going to be late anyway,” he leaned forward to kiss her, but she averted contact; looking away from him, her only thoughts were on her secret stash and the anger she felt at his having interrupted her solitary time . He had already totally wrecked the comfortable buzz that had only really started to settle in when she was getting out of the shower. She’d been hoping to ride it a little longer, but she knew that she’d need another pill to get the droll wave back once he was gone — which wasn’t happening quickly enough.
He backed away from her, pressed his lips together, and felt his stomach sink. What the hell have I done now, he thought as he turned to leave the room.
“I love you,” be barely managed the words as he left the bathroom and headed back to his own quarters to find another pair of cuff links.
Once she was certain he was gone, Kate opened the middle, top drawer, shook out a pill, then slugged it down while bending over to drink straight from the faucet. Working back toward contentment, she returned to her routine, dressed, and got ready to leave for the day.
Before dumping two more of the painkillers in her palm and stuffing them in her pocket (the entire bottle would be too much of a risk to carry along), she sent a quick text message (it was far too early to call).
“Almost out,” she wrote. “Meet me around noon?” She watched the message send, pressed the top button of her phone to lock the screen, and then headed out for the gym.
Parker’s Got a Problem
Parker Matheson had gotten the idea this past spring — at the Texas Avenue Maker’s Fair of all places — when she suddenly had the opportunity to introduce two of her favorite gays (one confirmed, the other suspected) to each other and wondered how gay male sexual compatibility really worked. There were a handful of openly gay men she’d gotten to know well enough to confidently ask questions about their histories of coming out, their interests, their tastes, and their varied sexual proclivities, but it was all information that had come up during their casual conversations. She wondered how it worked when two men were just meeting. How did they know whether or not they’d both be coming from separate, but equally matched ends of the top-bottom perspectives that she was always hearing about? Parker was an expert on how it all worked between two women, but she was fascinated by the jigsaw pieces of the puzzle and how they all would fit between two men.
The Saturday morning of the fair, Parker bumped into Trystan Van Meyer, who was loading himself down with bags of Zombee Candles and headed in the direction of Kern Courtney’s coffee. They’d spent a solid ten minutes in line for the locally grown jolt of caffeine before heading to the booths that skirted the outside of the pavilion while they discussed the recent dissolution of Parker’s relationship — the relationship that had occupied her days and nights for the past two years — as well as the myriad plans which she was toying with making after she graduated next year.
It was in the midst of this particular topic — the topic of Parker’s plans for the coming year and the time that would follow — that Walker Stevens had shown up.
Parker and Walker had braved a lower level philosophy class together the previous fall, and she’d been very fond of his dry delivery, his quick wit, and his fondness for the older music that most of their contemporaries would never acknowledge, let alone quote on a regular basis. She wasn’t certain that Walker was gay, but based on the assumption that he was (and certain that Trystan would be attracted to his quirky, nerdy persona), she made their introduction and quickly excused herself to allow the duo to talk. Upon her return, the guys were exchanging numbers. After a few minutes of further conversation, Walker hugged her good-bye and shook Trystan’s hand. Parker was pleased to note that his eye contact lingered just a moment longer than normal before he departed.
“Are you sure that guy’s gay?” Trystan asked as they walked along an outer aisle of the fair.
“I think so,” she admitted. “I’m not exactly one hundred percent certain, but, yeah, I think so.”
“He’s awfully young,” Trystan was always the cynic. Parker loved him, but she wasn’t fond of the fact that he had so many rules for dating. So many criteria. A long list of should’s and should-not’s. Of must’s and must-not’s. Trystan insisted that these rules and regulations were totally normal, par for the course in the heated and hateful and ultra difficult world of gay romance.
“He’s about to graduate,” Parker pressed. “Besides, you always say that age isn’t your number one factorial for dating a guy.”
“It’s not, but a closet case—”
Parker cut him off. “He’s not a closet case.”
“You don’t even know if he’s a ‘mo, Park.”
Parker smiled. “He could be completely and totally out for all I know. It’s just not a subject that’s ever come up.” The two continued walking, briefly in silence. “He’s very smart. I do know that. And he’s a really nice guy. A little younger, yeah—”
“A lot younger,” Trystan interjected.
“Okay. True. But he’s one of those dudes with an old soul.” She wasn’t entirely sure why playing matchmaker between the two was suddenly so important, but she continued anyway. There was something about the endeavor that felt right. “What if he’s the gay unicorn you’re always talking about?”
Trystan laughed. “An intelligent top who’s hung like a donkey?” Parker smiled and reached out for Trystan’s hand. “That’s a trifecta that I just don’t believe exists, Park, but maybe so. I guess we’ll see.”
And it was at that moment that Parker suddenly knew what she wanted to research for the final paper that she’d been contemplating since she first heard about it as a requirement for he last sociology class she would be taking the following spring.
Parker was a girl who liked to be prepared, and although the class and the paper were both a year away, she began outlining the project that very afternoon. She had subsequently presented the idea to an instructor for review and had gotten the go-ahead to begin research.
Upon reading Parker’s list of potential interview questions, her professor had given a few suggestions, made a few edits, and warned her that she may have some degree of difficulty in finding men in the immediate area who would open up about their behaviors to the extent that her intentions demanded. Naturally, Trystan was the first of her subjects, a test interview really, and even he admitted surprise at the end of the interview at the amount of information with which he had been forthcoming — all about his early sexual experimentation and the way he came out to friends and family, his first relationships, his various illicit exploits throughout his teens and twenties, his interests and fantasies, porn, and the many other things that he would never normally talk about, even though he’d done them with a list of several other men. He was shocked that he’d been as open and honest as he had, and he wished her good luck in finding anyone else to tell her as much as he had, even if the interviews were completely anonymous and off-the-record for anything other than Parker’s pursuit of truth in the name of scientific research.
“You don’t think you could help me get at least one other guy to talk to me?” Parker’s question was double-sided and intentionally manipulative. She really did need several other subjects, but she was also hoping that this would be the perfect time for Trystan to suggest Walker Stevens.
She was certain that the two had been seeing each other since she’d introduced them, but Trystan had become incredibly private regarding the here-and-now of his romantic life. He admitted that he had been spending time with someone, but he refused to divulge any additional details. “Out of respect, Parker,” he’d told her. “I really like this guy, and I don’t want to screw it up. You’ll know when it’s the right time for you to know. Soon.”
“Well, if you don’t know any guys who you could get to help me with this, do you have any suggestions for how I could find some?”
“Try Craigslist,” Trystan told her. “It’s like the bathhouse of the twenty-first century. Post an ad and see if you get any hits.”
And so she had.
Trystan had helped her write something, carefully showing her how to place the ad in just the right spot, where he promised her she’d get just the right kind of guys to respond.
And respond they had.
Parker had been flooded with far more interest than she’d anticipated, and she’d spent the remainder of the spring and the duration of the summer recording anonymous interviews with men of all sorts of self-labelled qualifications.
There were perfect Kinsey-six-gays, and bi dudes that fell somewhere in the middle of the scale. Married men on the down-low and swingers whose wives and girlfriends were fully aware of their partners’ activities. Some identified as strict tops or versatile tops and some were versatile bottoms or total subs. There were men who preferred performing oral sex and those who considered themselves totally heterosexual even though they liked having guys go down on them. There were male-to-female trans responders and men who liked wearing bras and lacy panties. Parker talked to three interesting couples, all of them mentioning periods of their relationships that they called “the threesome stage,” and she talked to two other couples who came forward to talk about their twenty-plus years of totally committed monogamy.
By the time the hottest part of the summer was coming to a head, Parker was convinced that she had everything she needed for the backbone of her research study, and she knew more about several people than she was really comfortable with having learned. In fact, some of the people she’d wound up interviewing had totally shocked her in their descriptions of their exploits, but she was incredibly proud of the wealth of information that she had gleaned.
And that’s when it happened.
Like she always did just before the onset of another semester, Parker had gone away with her family for the last few days leading up to that final weekend before classes began. And, like always, she knew that she needed a real break from her everyday life and agreed to leave any and all of her work behind. It wasn’t until her drive back from her family’s cabin in Arkansas that she found herself unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong, but she could not put her finger on exactly what it was. Chalking it up to nerves building up from dwelling on the impending last year of her university life, she managed to brush away the negative thoughts as she pulled up to her apartment late Wednesday night.
And then she’d gone inside.
At first she wasn’t certain that anything was missing. There was no sign of the door having been jimmied. No broken glass on the floor. No drawers turned out. And her electronics were all present.
Except her laptop.
It was conspicuously missing from the spot it usually occupied on the desk by her window. Parker let her bags drop to the floor and she began walking around the three rooms of her sacred domain, looking behind the couch and in the kitchen, even checking the counter in the bathroom to see if she had left it in some odd place as she’d hurriedly prepared to leave five days before.
What the hell, she thought. Why would somebody just take her laptop? And how the hell did they get in?
Parker began tearing behind curtains, looking to see if any windows had been broken. Her brain was reeling and she retraced her steps from the time she had walked out the door to head to the cabin, trying to remember if she’d moved the device that held all of her hard work, countless hours from the past several months of her life.
Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.
Parker reached in her jeans pocket to produce a pack of cigarettes and then lit one as she thought to open her desk drawer. She rifled with the papers inside, then moved to the drawer below, searching.
Her digital voice recorder was missing as well.
She moved to the bed, sat down, and inhaled deeply from her cigarette, holding the smoke deep within her lungs as her mind raced. She’d spent the remainder of Wednesday night in a fitful state of pseudo-sleep, and she woke very early Thursday morning with a start.
The gravity of the situation hit her as the morning light filtered through the tousled curtains she’d searched behind the night before.
Parker Matheson was in trouble; however, she wasn’t sure what aspect of the situation was worse: having lost every shred of the research she’d spent the better part of the year gathering, or the possibility that all that personal information had wound up in the wrong hands. She’d sure as shit have a lot of people to answer to if any of that stuff ever got out.
As she rocked on the edge of her mattress, she found herself wondering just who had taken everything. And why?
And more importantly… how long had it all been gone?
The Gentleman’s Way Out
Some secrets are better kept.
Once a secret is shared—its nature jotted down in the pages of a journal or its contents spilled into the labyrinthine contents of a trusted friend’s ear—it becomes something else… a contract. A revelation. A promise. A catalyst.
At its worst: ammunition.
The razor was one of the old-fashioned variety—cold, hard, shiny, and straight, with a well-worn wooden handle—the kind that Brandie always whipped out at the end of his haircut. After she’d slathered the back of his neck with the thick, foamy lather of warm shaving cream, she would use the tool to finish the job; the same way his father had his done (and his grandfather before that), the way men had been getting their hair cut for the last hundred years or more.
The over-sized vanity bulbs lining the top of the mirror rising above the pedestal sink threw harsh light down to sparkle against the blade as he held the uppermost corner against the pale blue-green line that began at the base of his palm. He had decided to cut his right wrist first—vertically, he knew what he was doing—because he had rationalized that it would be the stronger of the two after being sliced. Although ambidextrous, his left hand was less dominant.
He realized that he was shaking uncontrollably, standing barefoot at the sink, steam billowing from the shower where he was running the water at full heat. The plan was for three cuts to the right followed by three cuts to the left, then three steps backward along the tiled floor to climb into the standing shower stall where he would lay back against the wall while he waited to bleed out. He’d read somewhere that it was one of the more painless means of offing oneself, and though pain is one of life’s greatest motivators, he’d had enough.
He realized that this scene he was creating would lead to a rather gruesome sight for whomever had the unpleasant task of finding him there, and he knew that he would be letting so many people down, but he saw no other way out. Spending the night sleepless, evaluating his past, weighing the pros and cons and the best course of action, he had developed a sort of tunnel vision. He had decided that his current plan was the only viable option.
Before coming to the bathroom, he had left three sealed envelopes on the table at the top of the stairs. They would be seen by anyone venturing to the landing, just outside his bedroom door. One of the envelopes was addressed to his mother. One bore the name of his closest friend and confidante, Susan. The third was much thicker than the others. Written on its exterior was “Parker.” In addition to containing a set of explicit instructions, it also held yet another sealed envelope—bearing only the letter “W.” Parker would do with it what he’d asked her. Of that, he was certain.
He looked up from his wrists to stare at his red, puffy face reflected through his blurry, tear-filled eyes, now bluer than they’d ever seemed before.
Well, he thought. It’s now or never.
He looked back at the razor, forcefully sniffed to clear the snot threatening to run through his nostrils, and pressed down deliberately as he swiftly dragged the blade in three very rapid, very sudden motions from the base of his palm to the beginning of his forearm.
The blood was greater (and quicker) than he thought it would be, and the pain more intense than he anticipated.
And then gone.
In fact, he felt almost as if the Pandora’s Box of emotion bottled up so tightly inside was bubbling through the slashes, erupting in a shade so red it was nearly purple. As he switched the razor to his right hand, he could barely grip the handle. Trembling with a combination of intense fright and adrenaline, he had to steady his fingers as the handle almost slipped in the warm flush of fluid.
But there was no longer any pain.
His ears were suddenly full of a sound like the waves of the ocean washing over his body in an afternoon surf. It reminded him of one of the few times (too few) that he’d actually been to the beach. As he dropped the razor to the white porcelain sink, now splattered with spurts of crimson creating an odd pattern that looked more like something out of a horror film than real life, he was vaguely aware of the sound of his phone ringing through the open door leading into his adjacent bedroom. He was equally vaguely aware of his small dog watching and waiting, both expectantly and confused, on the mat beside the toilet. As the blood began to wash across the floor in thick waves, she ran toward it to sniff at it and then backed away, whining and worried.
This is the right thing to do, right? The most selfless of actions for the greater good? For all parties involved? It had to be. It was the only way to protect what remained of his dignity and to preserve the many secrets he’d been keeping from everyone in his life.
His legs were wobbly, and he nearly collapsed as he pivoted around to step into the shower and pull the door closed behind him.
In the shower stall, he suddenly slipped in the combination of hot water and slimy rivers of blood growing in a whirlpool at his feet. Falling backward against the blue tile of the wall and sliding all the way to the floor, he could no longer wonder whether or not it was the right thing or the wrong thing.
It was the only thing.
It was too late.
With his head resting at the groove of grout where the wall met the floor, he didn’t move to keep the hot shower water from blasting his face. After all, it wasn’t entirely unpleasant. At least he was feeling something other than shame. Something that wasn’t guilt.
Trystan closed his eyes against the spray.
And waited for it all to end.
Bryan’s Bright, Shiny Morning
Dawn broke in full force shortly after six on Thursday morning, and within one hour of the sun wrapping its soft glow around the east and west banks of the fiery Red River, the city of Shreveport was coming to life over first cups of coffee and early morning jogs, impeccably and deliberately timed to beat the heat destined to humidify and oppress. The calendar read that summer would soon be coming to an end, but the only signs of the supposed impending change in season were the competing seven-day forecasts on KTBS and KSLA, where Joe Haynes and Ron Young promised cooler air by the end of the weekend and the likelihood of strong thunderstorms to usher it into the region. Although the hot weather that had been so incredibly devastating the past two years had arrived much later than usual, the Ark-La-Tex was already clearly more than willing to forsake tank tops and wind shorts for the possibility of actually enjoying the elusive season that was known as autumn in other parts of the country, but was known in Shreveport as a mere two weeks of perfect climate before the harsh grip of bitter cold and rain kept the community on a months-long, self-imposed curfew.
Bryan Blackthorne hit snooze for a total of twenty minutes before resigning himself to the fact that facing the day was inevitable. Throwing the sheet off his naked body and swiveling over to sit upright on the side of his bed, he collected his thoughts (mostly nothing, although he was vaguely aware of the semi-erection that was just turgid enough to require either total attention or absolutely none at all before he could urinate — he could feel the urgent pressure in his bladder coming into his consciousness) as the reality of another day came into focus.
The urgency of nature overcame the brief notion of wanking out a quick one, and he decided against masturbating as he brought his fingers up to wipe the crust of sleep from his eyelids and rose to his feet to head in the direction of the kitchenette (soon to be a full-sized, state-of-the-art kitchen that his mother had been in the process of remodeling and expanding since the year before when it became clear that Bryan’s stay in the pool house was becoming something of indeterminate length). Standing at the side of his bed, he stretched his arms toward the ceiling and exhaled a long, loud yawn, followed by a quick, barely audible “shit.” He scratched his stomach as he walked toward the kitchen area, his boner still present and of substantial enough proportions that he was glad that the need to pee had diminished somewhat. He wouldn’t be able to take a leak until it had withered away a bit more.
Stopping his journey at his bedroom’s exit, Bryan reached for the handles of the pull-up bar affixed above the frame, and lifted his calves just enough to hang there momentarily. Taking a deep breath, he lifted himself upwards, feeling the pleasant, slow burn of his upper body contracting and flexing and squeezing itself together. Such was his usual routine. Bryan’s athleticism had become so ingrained and commonplace that he could barely pass a piece of equipment without stopping to put it to use (such behavior was surpassed only by his inability to prevent himself from checking out and admiring his reflection in any given mirror).
He felt a certain degree of dejection when anyone noticed and offered a snarky remark on what they called his vanity. Bryan didn’t consider the attention that he paid to enhancing his body and the admiration he felt toward the perceptible results of his labors even close to narcissistic. He worked diligently toward ever-improving results.
He felt it was a sort of deserved and well-earned pride, attained through hard work, careful planning, and consistent awareness that this was the one and only body that he’d ever have, and he wanted it to be in top form at all times. Even the colorful mosaic tattoo that covered the skin from his right wrist all the way to his upper shoulder and back (designed in great detail as a veritable work of Impressionistic art surrounding a mythical Phoenix morphing into a Dark Ages-style dragon) had been planned-for at great length. His close friend, a graphic artist named Shannon Palmer, had spent weeks on the preliminary sketch he had asked her to complete, and the duo spent even longer bantering over changes and the need to make the work absolutely perfect before the first needle ever encountered his flesh.
Bryan worked out daily. He didn’t smoke, rarely drank, had never even tried a single illicit substance, and planned every morsel of nourishment that was to pass beyond his lips. He was also aware of the fact that his mother and father, two well-bred and good-looking people in their own right, had combined their DNA to create something that would have been very easy on the eyes regardless of the amount of time and effort he supplanted into his aesthetics. He’d been a resolutely fat kid, chubby all the way into early adolescence. During his junior year at Magnet, he’d lost a tremendous amount of weight, began studying anatomy and physiology and subsequently majored in kinesiology at Louisiana Tech in Ruston (one of his many majors at one of the many institutions for higher learning throughout the entire state of Louisiana that he had attended from 1997 until late 2011, when he’d suddenly just decided to stop everything and work). At thirty-four, his physical condition was at its prime, and he planned to prolong that state for as long as possible.
After pulling his body toward the ceiling enough times to feel the tight burn in his chest, shoulders, upper arms, and back, he allowed himself to drop, his feet landing on the cool floor with a resounding smack. Continuing for the kitchen, he opened a cabinet and removed a mug which he placed below the spout of the single-cup coffee maker, readied one of the small carafes and then opened the cabinet where he kept his coffee. He blinked hazily at the space where the coffee might have been. The shelf thatshould have contained a bag of his much-needed morning jolt was bare. He gripped the counter, let his chin drop to his chest and uttered a mild expletive as he remembered that he’d forgotten to remind himself to stop by theGucci Brookshire’s the day before. Bryan didn’t relish the idea of going out into the world sans caffeine, but he decided to settle for a tall glass of ice water, which would have similar results, though it wouldn’t support the last bastion of an addiction that kept him in its clutches. The water wasn’t a replacement for a strong cup of java, but as he gulped down the frigid liquid, he immediately felt it doing an adequate job.
Bryan slapped the fully drained glass against the counter top beside the sink with enough effort to make the ice cubes that remained produce a sparkling sound as they clanged together and against the sides of his mother’s Waterford Crystal tea glass (expensive and a bit out of context in his life, but such were the ways of his mother). Turning back toward his bedroom, he stopped again at the pull-up bar for another series of reps, but barely hit a full set before his phone began beeping at him — he hadn’t dismissed the second alarm he always set as a backup against potentially oversleeping.
Dropping back to the floor, Bryan scooped his phone from the nightstand as he passed towards the bathroom. His erection had long since gone the way of the past and he felt the quick pang of urgency hit the walls of his bladder as it so often did when his body was ready to rid itself of the vast fluid reserve built from a long sleep.
Walking toward the bathroom, he dismissed the alarm, reset it for the same time tomorrow morning, and placed his cell on the counter as he lifted the toilet lid to relieve himself.
He was simultaneously aware of two drastically different, yet soon-to-be-equally-important, things. First, as his phone returned to its home screen, he saw that he had a rather large number of text messages that had come through while he slept. He hadn’t noticed that they were there when he opened his phone to turn off the alarm, but the notification screen didn’t always seem to work the same way.
The second, and more pressing matter at hand (literally), was that the sense of calming relief expected from urinating was far from forthcoming.
Instead, it was replaced by a slight tingle that quickly raised to a veritable firestorm, beginning from somewhere buried deeply beneath his balls and extending, with increasingly intensifying heat, to the tip of his member. The pain was both well pronounced and uncannily profound, and — as it reached a near blazing crescendo — he dropped himself from aiming into the bowl and had to catch his entire body against the wall behind the toilet, hunched forward in shock and bewilderment.
The stream of urine erratically launched in every possible direction and landed everywhere other than where he intended.
The pain was excruciating, like his urine was filled with a thousand tiny razor blades, all slicing and blistering every millimeter of his insides. He wanted it to stop, needed it to end, but he couldn’t stop the flow, and just as quickly as it had begun, his bladder was empty and he was left with only a steady trickling drip that fell against his thighs as he sank down to the floor of the bathroom. His body was in a nearly spasmodic shock as he felt the cold tile send shivers where it connected with the exposed skin of his legs, feet, and buttocks.
Pulling his knees up to either side of his head to ward off the nauseous feeling of impending collapse, Bryan felt the panting in his lungs dissipate into a state that allowed for more even and collected breath.
What the hell, he thought. What in the hell was that shit?
His first instinct was to check himself. He lifted his flaccid penis and pulled back the foreskin to check for a cut, unsure of where or how it could have happened. Seeing nothing, he looked inside the toilet and at the drops and splashes of urine that had hit the tile and the wall, checking for blood or some other sign that would explain what had just happened to him. Perplexed, he reached for a towel and began mopping up the mess he had created. He lifted his body from the floor in spite of the uncertain, wobbly feeling in his knees, and began racing through the possibilities of what the cause might have been.
Burning sensation upon urination, he thought with an impending fear that was unlike any he had encountered in quite some time.
First, the medical possibilities swam through his brain.
Kidney stone? Bladder cancer (Bryan was often prone to panic)? Prostate inflammation? Could those cause something like this?
He’d once seen an episode of a cable television series that described a type of fish in Africa or South America or some equally still-intact and deeply naturalistic continent that could swim straight up the tip of your dick and lodge itself in your bladder. Although it was far from a possibility, Bryan’s thoughts were all over the place.
Then, it hit him.
There were the other possibilities.
Those things that no sexually active guy ever wants to think about when plagued by sudden, inexplicable symptoms such as that which he’d just endured. He fought to remember which caused what.
There was HPV, but that was something only girls could get, right? Or was it asymptomatic in girls and pronounced in men? Or was it the other way around? Which of these was the one that guys could get from chicks who carried the virus, but the girls had no idea they carried?
Which of the infections, he wondered, were those that caused visible symptoms in men and which were totally silent and eventually led to great illness?
Penicillin! It hit him like a ton of bricks. That was the thing that cured anything in one quick shot, right? He needed to get to a doctor. Of that, he was certain, but then something else occurred to him. If he had contracted something transmitted through sexual contact, he’d have to tell…
His heart sank.
What if that was where he’d gotten it?
Even worse, what if Bryan had been the one to pass it on instead of the other way around?
He stopped and reoriented himself to person, place, time, and situation. What did Atticus Finch always say in To Kill a Mockingbird? It’s not time to worry yet?
Reality set in and he allowed himself to think beyond the point of the immediate and to get a little realistic in his ideology. Truth is, he thought, you have no idea what the hell that was. Maybe it’s an STD, maybe it’s something totally benign. He reasoned that he hadn’t had any other strange occurrences to associate with this morning’s events. The pain had been the first of its kind. He hadn’t felt sick. There were no rashes. No fever. He had no discharge, and he was pretty sure that most possibilities in the long list of potential venereal diseases carried with them the promise of something oozing out other than the fluids he normally expected.
Bryan wanted to get checked out, and he wanted to do it as soon as possible, but he didn’t want to go to his family doctor who treated every one of the Blackthornes (and many of the friends of their family). He picked up his phone to look at the time. He was due at work in less than an hour, and he had yet to take a shower. He’d have to take quick action.
His first move was to call the boss, who feigned concern for his well-being, but still managed to sound as if it was a personal favor to allow Bryan to go see a doctor before coming in (the symptoms Bryan had given were non-specific but threatening enough to sound as if they needed to be addressed before he exposed anyone at work to any potential contagion). His plan was to hit the emergency room and play whatever waiting game necessary to see a doctor and get screened. The condition wasn’t exactly what most would consider emergent, but he knew that if he had anything that couldn’t just be simply washed off with a quick and powerful antibiotic injection, there was a conversation that he was going to need to have as soon as possible.
And that someone was going to have a lot of explaining to do.
Or was going to be due a long explanation.
Now that he had a little more time to think, he said a silent prayer that the burning sensation had been caused by something less intense and less contagious. Actually praying that he had a kidney stone that was breaking up or stuck in his ureter (or was it his urethra — that was definitely where the pain was originating) was something he’d never do under normal circumstances, but this circumstance was anything other than normal.
Bryan left the bathroom — phone in one hand and his junk cradled fearfully in the other — and walked back into his bedroom. Sitting on the edge of his bed, he felt a droplet of sweat roll down his temple and he lifted his shoulder to wipe it away.
Finally deciding to just take his mind off of the series of cataclysmic possibilities ping-ponging between his ears, he opened his text screen to read the messages that had come through; reading them in the order that they appeared in the list — the opposite order from which they’d been received.
The first was a “Good morning” from his mother which also noted that she had seen him getting in rather late last night and reminded him that he needed to get more sleep. His fingers were still trembling slightly as his thumb stamped out a response: “Well, you were up to see me, so apparently, so do you, Mom. I love you. Have a good day.”
He hit Send and opened the next.
It was from someone unexpected, someone he hadn’t talked to in over a month, ever since their relationship had suddenly gone to a level that neither had anticipated or planned. It had been a definite mistake, would never be repeated, and had created a sort of rift in what had previously been a very solid, albeit stormy, friendship. The text read that she wanted to speak with him soon, before she left to go out of town, which she said was happening sooner than he realistically had time to allot for their meeting.
Contemplating when he might tell her that they could get together, his thoughts were suddenly halted.
How long ago had that been? What if she had been the one? What if she had given him…
Rationalizing that his morning’s personal catastrophe could be directly related to her text (“I’m getting ready to go out of town for a few days for work. Planning to leave tomorrow, and I’d really like to get together and talk before I leave“), and with a slight pang of anger toward her as she could very well be the cause of what he was already assuming to be a potential STD, he thumbed out a response: “I bet,” he wrote. “How about coffee at Rhino after work?” He sent the text, remembered that he still hadn’t had his morning coffee, and reasoned that he needed to get going if he was going to stop for a cup (though he didn’t relish the possibility of having to pee it out before he sought treatment for whatever it was that ailed him) on his way to the hospital.
Before opening the remaining text messages to dole out responses, Bryan thought better of the angry intent behind setting up a meeting with Susan so quickly and with such a malicious tone.
Reconsidering the possibility that she just wanted to talk and that their encounter had nothing to do with his morning, he re-opened her text box and added, “Everything ok?”
He hit Send and continued.
There was a message from his sister, Claudia, reminding him that she would be in town tomorrow afternoon for the wedding of a close friend of their family (the wedding! in the midst of the morning’s events, he’d forgotten that it was this weekend — oh, well, worry with that later), and she wanted to be sure that he had the pool house “cleaned, pristine, and ready” for her arrival. He was very close to Claudia, and he knew that she’d sent the message in total, whimsical, sisterly jest, but he was feeling generally irritable and not ready for a long, sparring text conversation with her. Instead of responding, he moved on to the next.
It was from a number that he didn’t have programmed. It read, simply: “I know.”
Bryan started to reply “Know what?” but decided the message had most likely been sent by someone who had gotten the wrong person.
Instead of responding, he deleted the text from the number with a 903 area code, plugged his cell in to charge, and then headed to the bathroom to take a shower.
The Interview (Part One)
The following is the first part of the extensive interview Parker Matheson conducted with Trystan Van Meyer. It was transcribed and saved to Parker’s laptop prior to its theft…
Interview Number: 001 — Subject: Trystan Van Meyer — Date: Saturday, May 11, 2013 — Part One
Parker: Okay, I’m recording, and I have your permission to do that, right?
Trystan: Of course
Parker: Okay, it’s Saturday, May the 11th, 2013, and this is my first interview. Will you state your full name?
Trystan: Trystan Alexander Van Meyer.
Parker: And how old are you?
Parker: And how do you identify yourself? Your sexual identity?
Parker: A gay male?
Trystan: (slight snicker) Yes.
Parker: It’s for the sake of continuity. Sex is the biology you’re born with. Gender is the way you identify. They’re not necessarily the same, and I’m hoping I’ll get to interview some trans guys. I should’ve asked that before I asked your sexual identity, but you’re my first, so I can mess this up.
Trystan: I’m the test tube.
Parker: So to speak.
Trystan: Well, I was born male. I identify as male.
Parker: What does it mean to you to be male?
Trystan: To be male? (pause) I guess it means that I have a penis. Male genitalia. All the rest of my identifying factors are probably the result of what I see in the media. It’s like there are some societal expectations placed on it.
Parker: What do you mean by that?
Trystan: Just that everything that I think of when I think of what makes a guy a guy is what I’ve seen on tv. In commercials. Movies. Magazines. All that stuff. The physique, the body. Being male means that I’m supposed to work out and keep my body as close to physical perfection as possible. I am supposed to be strong. Both physically and emotionally. I’m never supposed to cry or express hurt or be in touch with my emotional side. I should be logical, rational, and be the leader in a group. It’s like mainstream society says that I’m supposed to look a certain way, keep myself a certain way, walk a certain way, talk a certain way. I’m supposed to wear a specific kind of clothes and I’m supposed to be into male things like sports and fitness. And in this area, hunting and shooting and fishing. It’s like if I fall outside the parameters that I see on tv or in the movies, then I’m almost less of a man.
Trystan: For sure.
Parker: That answers the next question already.
Trystan: Well, I aim to please.
Parker: How do you think you learned to be a man?
Trystan: My father (a pause). Yeah, first and foremost my male role models. And then, of course, tv, music, movies, commercials. Things like that.
Parker: Can you give me some other, more specific, examples?
Trystan: My father was really into John Wayne movies. And war movies. He read all the Louis L’amour books, the westerns. Watched a lot of football and baseball and basketball. So, it was all Saints and Tigers. All that really ultra-domineering and ultra-assertive alpha male stuff. I guess I learned that real men had a sort of swagger and carried themselves like John Wayne. They asserted themselves by knocking each other out and getting into fights over who had the bigger penis.
(Brief, shared laughter)
Parker: Are there any situations when you feel more pressure to act out or fulfill those stereotypes?
Trystan: Every day. Unless I’m around you guys, ya know? I mean, even if I’m around other gay dudes, I feel that pressure, but when I’m around girls, I feel comfortable and confident as myself. But any time I interact with other people, in person or on the phone, I feel a kind of necessity to butch it up.
Parker: What do you think puts that pressure on you?
Trystan: Probably nothing. Nobody. It’s self-imposed, ya know?
Parker: Do you feel like you measure up?
Trystan: Nope. Not at all.
Parker: Why is that?
Trystan: Look around you, Parker. We’re flooded with images and ideas and all these things that tell us who and what we’re supposed to be. Nobody can live up to that stuff. Not all the time. And I think that… being gay… I feel like I measure up even less. I’ll never achieve that perfect spot.
Parker: Do you think that the region we live in has anything to do with that?
Trystan: The assholes around here? (Pause. It may be inferred that Parker nodded in agreement.) Well, they certainly don’t help matters. Never have. But things are getting better. They’re a hell of a lot better than they were in high school. Culturally. Ya know? Things are a little more accepted, but… no, I think that this thought process is so ingrained into who I am that I’d feel the same way no matter where I was living.
(A long pause in conversation. Papers can be heard shuffling.)
Parker: Okay, now a little change in the trajectory of all this. I’m going to get a little more personal.
Parker: You’re thirty-four…?
Parker: And…you identify as male…?
Parker: And you’re gay?
Trystan: And I’m gay… real gay.
Parker: Real gay?
Trystan: Queer as a three dollar bill.
Parker: Do you think you were born that way?
Trystan: I know I was. I mean, It’s not a choice or a decision that I made somewhere down the line. Not for me anyway. I spent a lot of time getting to a point of acceptance with it all.
Parker: Acceptance that you were born gay?
Trystan: Just acceptance that I was gay at all.
Parker: And how old were you?
Trystan: When I knew, or when I accepted it?
Parker: Both. Start with when you first realized it.
Trystan: Hmmm… (A long pause. The sound of both lighting cigarettes is heart. Trystan audibly exhales before he answers.) My mom says that she always knew. She said that even when I was a little baby, she knew I was gonna be… different. So, I think my family had a lot longer to get used to it than I did. And I spent so long denying it. I wasn’t the most masculine kid, not like the other boys. I didn’t like to play sports, or get dirty, or any of that. Couldn’t catch a baseball to save my life. Got laughed into tears when I tried to throw one. And they started calling me names early on. For as long as I can remember. Faggot. Queer. Sissy. Girl. And I denied it. I had to fight, ya know? I mean, this was way before puberty. Before I even had any concept of what sex was or what people did or really even what most of those words meant, but I knew that being a faggot was a bad thing, so I denied it. And I cried a lot. And read a lot. And I started writing a lot of poetry and I wrote short stories. And I got really into music and movies and tv. I remember when I was in rehab and they had that big poster on the wall for the family session, and we all had to say what role we played in our family dynamics. I was the lost child. I preferred fantasy and make-believe. Fiction was always a lot better than reality.
Parker: So the other kids perceived you to be gay early on?
Trystan: They perceived me to be different, and I was. So they called me the worst thing they knew to call me, and I didn’t want to be the worst thing even though I was different. So I denied it.
Parker: And when did you realize that it was true?
Trystan: Puberty. Right around the first time I jacked off. Do you want me to talk about that?
Trystan: This is totally anonymous, right?
Parker: Of course.
Trystan: But I stated my full name at the beginning.
Parker: Just to substantiate your consent for the interview. I’m gonna give everybody alternate names. Nobody is gonna know that this is you.
Trystan: I guess it really doesn’t matter. It’s all true. I just really wouldn’t want everybody knowing all these fine, intimate details. I mean, it’s one thing to talk to you about these things. Or talk to Susan. Or talk to Wal— (Trystan’s speech cuts off abruptly and a lengthy pause occurs).
Parker: You okay?
Trystan: Yeah. I’m okay. I just… thinking.
Parker: You seem nervous. Is something wrong?
Trystan: No, nothing’s wrong at all. I just… Parker, you know I’ve got a boy—, I mean I’ve got a buddy, right? Well, kinda.
Parker: I figured.
Trystan: I just don’t want to talk about that. We kinda have an understanding about things, and we’re not ready to be open.
Parker: I understand. This interview is all about you, Tryst. You don’t have to talk about anything you’re not comfortable with.
Trystan: It’s just… I have a feeling that I’m going to tell you a lot of things that I wouldn’t really want him to know about. Not yet anyway. I want to talk about what things were like, what happened, and what things are like now. Kinda like I’m purging myself of all this stuff from my past. And I’m really hoping that he’s part of my future.
Parker: Fair enough. You’re safe.
Trystan: Okay… (another pause)… what were we talking about again?
Parker: The first time that you masturbated and knew you were gay.
Trystan: (a chuckle) Right! Okay, so I think it was the summer after seventh grade, which was a particularly bad year for me. I remember that up until that point, I’d seen pornography. Ya know, movies that friends had and magazines and all that, and it was always with other dudes and I was always a little uncomfortable with it. Looking back, I think it was a subconscious thing. Like I had the whole gay thing so repressed that I was afraid of exploring it. Sexuality in any form. Like it would be some sort of puzzle box that could be solved and then everything would just come spilling out and people would know who I really was. So, I was laying in bed one night and I was watching this movie that I’d picked out on HBO or Cinemax or one of the other pay movie channels. And I’d picked it out because of the ratings notifications that it had. Back in those days, the movie guide would tell you if a movie had nudity or strong sexual content, and I’d always go for those because my brother always went for those, and I wanted to do the normal things that other guys did. And this was a movie called Some Girls, I think. Something like that. Anyway, it had Patrick Dempsey in it. From right around the time of Loverboy and Can’t Buy Me Love. Ya know, the Patrick Dempsey from way before Grey’s Anatomy.
Parker: I remember.
Trystan: Riiigghht? Well, there’s a scene in the movie when he gets up. Off a bed or a couch or something. And he pulled his pants down. And there it was. Right there in front of God and everybody. I saw Patrick Dempsey’s junk.
Trystan: And I got a boner. A real boner. Like not the kind that I’d woken up with before that. It was a… sexual one. Seeing him naked got me hard. And I got hold of myself and I wondered what it would be like to beat my meat. The way I’d heard about and read about. So I did it. And it didn’t take long. And it was awesome. Amazing. And I came. And I was just so completely and totally overwhelmed. It was like I suddenly had access to this big secret that everybody else knew about and was always talking about and I’d just found out about it. And then I realized what had happened, and I got really freaked out.
Trystan: Because… I realized what had just turned me on and got me to have what was, at that time, my first sexual experience. I’d gotten turned on by looking at another dude. Another naked dude. And I knew that this thing that I’d been called and been denying for as long as I could remember… I realized it was true. I was gay.
Parker: And then what happened?
Trystan: I froze. It was fear, ya know? I mean, this was way before Ellen or Will & Grace. Way before it became acceptable and even compulsory to have openly gay friends. I mean, even My So-Called Life was a ways off, and this was not something that was discussed. I sort of retreated even further. And I ate a lot. And I hid from the world. It was better to be unlikable and unapproachable rather than risking anyone finding out that I was this horrible thing that everyone thought I was anyway. So, yeah, I was scared. Afraid. Geez… I was terrified. I mean, in those days, gay meant AIDS and AIDS meant death. I had all these misconceptions about that, too. I remember when I was even younger, seeing all the media coverage of the strange new disease in New York and California that was killing off the gay community, and I remember seeing all the patients on the news with what I thought were bruises all over their arms and legs and faces and nobody knew how you could get it. Well, there was once this news story that said something about it being blood-borne and the possibility of it being passed on by mosquito bites. And there was this one summer when I was taking a bath and I was covered in mosquito bites and I had bruises on my legs — all from being outside and playing and rolling around in the grass — and I was terrified that I’d been bitten by an infected mosquito. It’s funny the ideas that we have when we’re kids… but, yeah… at that time, being gay meant being sick and diseased and wrong and dying. And then there was the whole religious thing, but that didn’t really set in until high school.
Parker: Tell me about that.
Trystan: High school?
Parker: Yeah, that and this whole religious thing you’re talking about.
Trystan: Well, I remember laying in bed at night, crying, shaking, not being able to sleep. And I remember praying to God every night, at the end of my prayers, that he make me straight. That he make me normal. This went on for a while, and then something happened. I fell in love… real love… my first real love… and I came to the realization that if love could be involved then everything was okay. I mean, people were always quoting scripture and telling me that I was going to hell and that I was sinful and perverse and that the Bible said so. But I also knew something else and that was that God is love. And I knew that I believed in God and I had faith in God and if God is love then how can love be wrong? And if I can love a man the way I love God, then how could that be wrong? So if I was gonna lay down with another men, as an act of love, then how could doing that be wrong? (Long pause) But then we’re getting into my first real sexual experience with all that… do you want me to keep talking?
Parker: You’re basically answering all the questions I have to ask you. Cool. Keep going.
Trystan: Okay. Well, I went to Magnet because my brother and sister had both gone, and I knew that if I was going to go to any school where I could maybe be myself, that was it. I was wrong. I mean, I was probably in a much better spot than if I’d been at any other school in Shreveport, but people were still mean. It’s called bullying now, but at the time, it was just, like, something I had to accept. And it was awful. I had teachers and students who openly picked on me, called me names, laughed at me, made it okay for me to be singled out, and —
Parker: At Magnet?!
Trystan: At Magnet. It was horrible. I had one or two really close friends, girls, and they ended up being the first people I told that I was gay, but I swore them to secrecy.
Parker: How old were you?
Parker: Was it hard?
Trystan: At first, yeah, of course it was, but it got a little easier. Ya know, every time I told someone else, the interaction got a little easier. And nobody shunned me or disowned me. None of my friends, at least. And then this really cool thing happened. There was a girl that I gave rides to school. See, my birthday happened at that point during the year that made me turn one year older than everybody else a little sooner than everybody else, so I got my license before everyone else. And I got a car. And then I got really popular. Well, one of the girls who rode with me had this boyfriend, and he was a freakin’ teenager’s wet dream. He had the Jordan Catalano hair and perfect features and a cute body. And he played guitar and he was in a band. And when she told him that I’d told her that I was gay, he told her that he thought he might be bisexual. And he became my first.
Parker: The first guy you ever had sex with?
Trystan: No, well… first of all, I still consider myself a sort of a virgin.
Trystan: I’ve never had anal sex.
Trystan: Well, I’ve never been successfully penetrated, and I kinda consider that the absolute and definitive definition of gay sex. I’ve tried being a top with dudes, but don’t really like it. And I’m pretty sure that I’m a bottom, but I have no actual proof to say so for sure.
Parker: So what do you consider sex?
Trystan: Well, just so we’re clear, I think there’s a whole lot less anal sex that takes place in the gay community than people know. I think everybody just assumes that we’re all bending over for each other left and right and banging the night away, but that’s not the case. At least not in my experience.
Parker: So what is your experience?
Trystan: A lot of oral. Like… a LOT of oral. Making out naked. Jacking each other off. Jacking off with other dudes. On top of each other. Trying to time it all right so you both get there at the same time.
Trystan: Not really. I mean, it only makes sense to me. Ya know? I’ve waited a long time to actually do the deed all the way through. I’ve tried a time or two, but I kinda envision my first time to be with somebody that I really know and really like and somebody that’ll be the one to keep doing it for a while. Ya know?
Parker: (long pause) So you were telling me about this Jordan Catalano.
Trystan: Oh, yeah. Well, he wasn’t really the first experience. That honor was reserved for this dude who was a cheerleader and everybody thought was gay and kinda pushed me toward because I was so boy crazy and sexually frustrated and always on the hunt for somebody, anybody, who just might be a little like me. And this guy, Craig, was receptive, and we kind of got to be friends. At least close enough to spend the night at each other’s houses. And I ended up giving him a blowjob.
Parker: What was that like?
Trystan: Scary at first. But it was fun. And he was into it, so I got into it, and we messed around like that three times, and then stopped hanging out.
Trystan: Well, I think he was embarrassed. And scared. I think he was worried about guilt by association.
Parker: What do you mean?
Trystan: Well, by that time, I was totally out. I’d come out to family. Most of my friends knew. Oh, and I was in a gay role in a production at school, and I played thegay character, and then everyone knew.
Parker: Did it make things easier?
Trystan: Only in that I stopped caring so much. The words stopped hurting. Plus, I kinda started to blossom at that time.
Parker: Blossom how?
Trystan: Physically. I was a fat kid. I’d eaten my feelings and fears away and it was like the more I came to accept myself and get honest with myself, the happier I was and the less I felt the need to hide anything. I lost weight, and I guess I just got better looking.
Parker: (laughing) Hard to imagine you were ever not good looking.
Trystan: Pick up a yearbook from the mid nineties. You’ll see for yourself. Plus, that was at the time that… well, the one came around.
Parker: The one?
Trystan: Yeah, he was my friend’s boyfriend. The one who said he thought he was bisexual. After that, it wasn’t long before he and I started hanging out regularly, without her. And we got closer and closer. And we eventually started messing around with each other all the time. And I started falling in love with him, but it was a bad deal.
Parker: Falling in love with him?
Trystan: Yeah, sort of. I mean, he was my first love, ya know? It started around my sophomore year, really took off my junior year, and it continued all the way through my first semester in college, but it was always secretive, behind closed doors. He didn’t want anyone to know the truth. And he was still dating girls. But everyone just kind of figured. All my close friends knew that there was something more to our relationship. It wasn’t ever really talked about. My best friend hated him, and she treated him like shit because she thought it was crap that he made me keep everything secret…. We’re still in contact, he and I…
Parker: You okay?
Trystan: Just lost in thought. You never forget your first love, ya know? It kinda scarred me in a way. I feel like my relationship with him set up a sort of pattern for all the relationships that were to come after that.
Parker: What do you mean?
Trystan: Secretive. Closeted. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I was at a party with everybody getting drunk and we’d eventually come to the point where I was alone with one of the dudes who’d tell me something like, ‘I’m not gay, but—’ and we’d end up messing around. For the majority of my life, most of my relationships have been kept secret. The dudes were straight, rarely single, always wanted to keep me right where I would be safely tucked away for use when they were ready and never to come around when they weren’t. And I liked it for some reason. I liked having secrets. I liked helping to keep their secrets. For some reason, it just made me feel very special.
Parker: Special how?
Trystan: Well, I felt like I had this special sexual power, and I could keep them interested and coming back. No matter what, they always came back.
Parker: Married guys too?
Trystan: Married guys, too. Guys with girlfriends. Guys with families…
Parker: Would you… consider yourself… promiscuous?
Trystan: Promiscuous? (a long pause) I’m pretty sure that this is the part of the interview that I really don’t want people to know about….