by Amai Tonken (甘い とんけん)
illustrated by Amai Tonken (甘い とんけん)
Jonny Connolly was wearing a long black trench coat, an xkcd T-shirt, a pair of black Vibram FiveFingers, rectangular rimless glasses, and an overgrown ginger neckbeard. But Jonny seemed like a nice guy, if incurably dorky, so Ken averted his eyes and tried not to take any further notice of his… outfit.
Ken uncrossed his legs and shuffled the slipcovered cards again. The deck was ready to go, but Anjali was still in the kitchen helping Tink with the cookies. Bored, he tried out a fancy shuffling move he’d read about; one card flew out of his hands and landed near the Vibram-clad toes he’d been ignoring.
The owner of the Vibram-clad toes cleared his throat. “Hey, Ken, um, I, um–”
Ken turned his head and stared over at the kitchen, studiously pretending not to have heard. Jonny was an amalgam of everything he found irritating about nerd culture, but he didn’t mind so long as he didn’t have to talk to him. That was key.
After a moment: “I believe you dropped this.” Jonny’s hand slid the card back in the deck. The nails were bitten into ragged moons. As a matter of fact, he’d had been giving Ken nervous smiles whenever they made accidental eye contact all night.
“By the way, I-I have been meaning to ask a certain favor of you–” Jonny stammered. Oh god, what?
Just then, cutting off what would no doubt have been an awkward conversation with the most awkward guy in the room, a voice like a chorus of savior angels–“The cookies are ready!” Tink sang from the kitchen. “But are you ready for the cookies? Ta-da!” She sashayed out with a plate. Tink was wearing rainbow-striped tights, a “Come to the dark side. We have cookies…” apron and a pewter dragon pendant today–and she was a nice girl, for Christ’s sake, regardless of her outfit, so stop it, stop it.
Anjali trotted out with a veggie-and-dip platter and plunked herself down beside Ken. “Hey, toots. Want a carrot? Hey, Jonny.”
“Everyone, everyone!” Tink clapped her hands for attention, already motherly at the tender age of 26. “Any volunteers to help me mix and serve drinks?”
Ken dealt the cards. Anjali was in; Jonny ostentatiously rose to help Tink. He bowed. “Milady,” Ken heard him say, all grandiloquence. Ken rolled his eyes so hard they almost fell out of his head.
“Stop making that face,” Anjali said, and smacked his shoulder. It was Anjali who’d introduced her sadsack coworker Jonny to the Thursday gaming group a few months ago; she adored Jonny for reasons unknown.
Ken had met Anjali (sheer chiffon shirt, brightly-colored platform espadrille sneakers–quite chic) at an Anamanaguchi concert over a year ago. “I love your shoes!” he’d yelled over the terrible opening band. It was 2009, and she was squeezed into a memorably be-zippered military jacket over a lacy pink dress, and tottering around in a passable imitation of THE Nicholas Kirkwood shoes.
“Thanks! These Kirkwood knock-offs are killing my fucking feet, and for what! Nobody even cares,” she yelled back. And so they became BFFs.
Tink was her housemate, and the rest he knew through occasional attendance at Thursday gaming, which was always held at Tink and Anjali’s house: Calvin (long hair, utility kilt) and Jerome (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic pin on his backpack) were huddled with a couple of new members over an indiscernible board game, and Bodzin (oversized T-shirt that hung off his skinny shoulders) was on the Wii by himself, throwing overhand without a strap. Yeah, he was like that.
Tink ducked back into the kitchen, then wound her way around to the center of the room with her arms full of brightly-colored boxes. “So, everyone, I finally got the Pandemic: On The Brink expansion. I know some of you have been wanting this, so consider it my donation to the group.”
“Oooooh… shiny,” Jonny marveled from the doorway of the kitchen. Ken found himself wondering if eyerolling this much was bad for his vision.
Anjali caught his motion and turned to him, grinning. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “So, Jonny just came out at work. He’s actually a great guy, y’know.”
“Look, I know you mean well, but just because we’re gay doesn’t mean we have anything in common.” He avoided her eyes and focused on his hand. It didn’t look good for him. His strategy was focused on militarization, but Anjali had a full set of constructs.
Anjali defeated a monster and forced him to discard his only construct. Ow. “I’m not saying you have to marry him, y’know, I just…” She fingered a card. “Well, y’know–I thought you guys might get along, and he’s nothing at all like Douchenozzle, y’know. Besides, Douchenozzle was a real asshole, but you dated him for like two years, y’know–”
The frequency of Anjali’s “y’knows” increased in direct proportion to how much she was trying to persuade you to do something she knew would be an utterly humiliating exercise in futility for everyone involved. A three-y’know speech was on the level of sitting in a county fair dunk tank in a chipmunk costume.
Jonny caught his eye from across the room; he started to wave. The trench coat really was atrocious. Ken ducked his head and stared at his cards.
“I’m just saying,” Anjali tried, “give Jonny a chance, okay?”
“Uh-huh,” he said, and defeated a Sea Tyrant. It was a killer move–nine of her constructs had to go. Anjali howled in outrage and hit him with her vintage ditsy-print bag.
Ken jumped, but it was just Jonny, running down the apartment staircase, footsteps a series of quiet slap-slap-slaps in his rubbery Vibrams. He kept walking, head down, but Jonny caught up with him quickly enough.
“That favor I wanted to ask of you,” Jonny said breathlessly. “I, um–I, well, I have not really been–well, uh,” and then he licked his lips nervously. He seemed to be thinking out his next words.
Ken shoved his hands in his pockets and kept his face averted, walking fast, but Jonny didn’t get the hint. “So, uh,” he continued, “there is an office Christmas party coming up, and I believe I will be tragically underdressed for it, and I would, uh, humbly beg your assistance.”
“Uh-huh. Why are you asking me?” The BART station was in sight.
“You always look–” Jonny flailed awkwardly at him. “Uh. I could buy you drinks as a sort of, well, traditional recompense. Or–I have Blanton’s Single-Barrel bourbon at home, if you prefer.”
Ew, was Jonny hitting on him? He looked Jonny over out of the corner of his eye. To tell the truth, Ken had guiltily given him the secret nickname of “Doughy-Face Neville” inside his head. Those half-formed cheeks, that nose like a lump of cookie batter smack dab in the middle of his face–and he was 5’8″ and painfully awkward to boot. Jonny really wasn’t his type, his eyes bulged when he got excited, and he talked in that godawful faux-Shakespearean accent.
But maybe Jonny was serious. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do tonight, and his part-time gig at the amusement park didn’t start again until Monday.
And sure, he was curious, he’ll admit it.
“Okay. Okay, sure, why not. Where do you live?”
“Throw it away. Throw it aaallll away,” he said, giddy, arm slung over his face. “Burn it!” The room was tilting and spinning around its axis, which was him, sprawled on the couch. Jonny laughed, snorted, and laughed again.
After pulling out every over-large shirt in Jonny’s closet and trying to figure out what was salvageable (answer: one tie, which had been a present from Anjali at last year’s Secret Santa gift exchange at work), it was 11 PM. There was a teetering stack of too-large polyester shirts and pants in the center of Jonny’s living room headed for Goodwill in the morning.
They’d been drinking Jonny’s best bourbon out of one mug that read, “No, I will not fix your computer,” and another that was shaped like a TARDIS. Yes, Jonny’s apartment was a veritable Thinkgeek catalog. He also had, as it turned out, two adolescent cats–named River and Simon, no joke.
“Throw it all away?” Jonny grinned at him. “You’d rather I throw it all away than donate it?”
“Nobody deserves to have this inflicted upon them.” Ken wagged his finger, then loosened his tie with one drink-heavy hand. It was hot in the living room. His shearling jacket was already piled up in a heap across the room where he’d shucked it. He was starting to feel like he should lie down and let himself dissolve like heavy syrup into the couch. It was simply unfair that Jonny–not just white but Irish, heavier, taller–didn’t appear to be drunk at all.
“It’s like, what is the neckbeard hiding? The masses want to know,” he found himself saying. “You’d probably look good without a beard.”
“Do you truly think so?” Jonny puffed up a little, oblivious to all barbs. “I have some pictures from high school, from when I went beardless by necessity.”
They were blurry photos, plastic-covered and jammed in decaying photo albums, of a younger Jonny–almost unrecognizable, he looked so different–with his arms around various punky girls. River climbed into Ken’s lap, meowing. He stroked her back as he flipped through the pages.
“They only ever wanted to be friends. Not that it matters anyway, now,” Jonny said, hovering over his shoulder. His shadow fell over the album, blotting out the details.
There were pages after pages of Jonny as a fiercely redheaded kid in the giant redwood forests, a teenager caught half-aware at graduation, a toddler in the arms of his parents on a second birthday. A few more pictures of him in high school cropped up, but it was hard to make the connection between how he looked then and how he looked now.
His ex, the one Anjali had so kindly dubbed “Douchenozzle,” had looked the same in his high school photos as he had when geeky, awkward Ken-with-the-unfortunate-underbite was trailing after him in college, and the same thereafter. Douchenozzle’d always had a handsome face and a good build; he’d never had to work to dress it up.
He came to a photo of teenage Jonny reading Asimov on a couch, knees drawn up to his chest. Jonny had been pretty cute, all green eyes and curly mop of hair. Come to think of it, gawky teenage Ken-with-the-unfortunate-underbite might’ve had a hopeless crush on teenage Jonny, but teenage Ken was dead and gone, thank god. He flinched just thinking about it. Ugh.
Startled, River hopped off his lap and padded away, reproach in the lash of her tail. Jonny had disappeared, but it wasn’t hard to guess where he was. The bathroom door was wide open, cutting a neat rectangle of light into the carpet.
He got up and knocked on the wall. “Jonny?” No answer. He peeked around the door.
Jonny was braced on the sink, wielding an electric razor. A classic double-edge safety razor, a nice badger brush, and a pot of shaving cream teetered on the rim of the bathtub.
“Oh my god.” Ken staggered. He was going to do it? He was seriously going to drunkenly shave off the neckbeard? “This is historic. This is amazing.”
“Well, you see, I haven’t been completely clean-shaven since college, freshman year,” Jonny said. He gingerly buzzed away at his jaw with the long hair trimmer. The stretch of his stubbled jaw looked different than Ken’d been expecting; he had a nice chin after all, and a long, pale throat.
The safety razor caught Ken’s attention when Jonny leaned forward to squint at the mirror. “That’s a swanky wet-shaving set. When’d you get that?”
Jonny paused in his buzzing, with a sheepish glance at Ken. “Yesterday. I had, er, decided that since I was going to try, er–so I studied up on GQ’s list of men’s essentials.” He tipped his head back to get at the throat. “Well–I decided if I’m going to learn this stuff, I should do it well.”
Trust a nerd to study fashion like it was a science, but it was maybe the tiniest bit charming that he was so gung-ho about it. Ken felt a rush of fuzzy warmth fill him.
“Awww,” he said, struck with the most brilliant idea. He was a genius! “Hey, we should go shopping tomorrow. I’ll pick out some nice clothes for you.”
Jonny flicked his eyes at Ken but stayed silent as he swept the reddish fur from the sides of the sink into one cupped hand. Finally: “I could call in sick at the office tomorrow if you would, uh, grace me with your presence.”
They shook on it. Jonny’s clean-shaven face looked pale and tender–maybe a little lopsided, but endearingly so. He would’ve guessed that a beardless Jonny would’ve looked even more like a lump of half-baked dough, but the strong line of his jaw was a pleasant surprise.
They retired to the couch. Conversation lulled, but in a comfortable, thoroughly sloshed way. River peered around the couch cushion and butted her fuzzy black head into his hand. He obliged, and she settled into his lap.
“She’s sweet now, but she might turn on you in a moment,” Jonny said. He was drumming his fingers on the couch, brum-brum-brum.
Ken turned and smiled at Jonny. Really, it was just so great that he shaved that godawful neckbeard off, and he was just about to tell him so, but Jonny was leaning towards him all of a sudden, and–
“So, uh, I would like to–extend my thanks?” Jonny said, and his eyes flickered for one moment to Ken’s mouth, and he–sort of–licked his lips–?
The moment hung like Oblivion on a netbook. Glancing at the sagging bookshelf out of the corner of his eye, Ken felt a vague, muddy horror seize him. The World of Warcraft expansion discs, the TARDIS mug, the complete Buffy omnibus–and his cats were named after Firefly characters! Not to mention the way he talked, especially when he was nervous. Jonny’s face moved in closer, as if in slow motion, eyelids fluttering horrifyingly shut.
“It’s no problem! I just have to, er, get home before BART closes–you know–I, uh,” Ken gurgled, and backed away quickly. “I’m sorry, I, you’re just not my type, it’s just, the nerd thing is like, a huge turn-off, I mean–er–” He heard himself babbling, winced, and tried to get up.
River, about to tumble off his lap, dug her claws abruptly into his thigh and yanked a thread of denim right out of true. “Shit! Damn it!”
Jonny’s eyes had snapped open, and he looked a bit stunned, like he’d taken a blow. His lips were still shiny where he’d licked them. “Uh, well, it’s… midnight already and you missed the last train. You could stay on the futon,” he said. His cheeks turned a blotchy, mortified red.
“Uh-huh,” Ken said, paralyzed where he had risen halfway from the couch. “Oh, er, thanks.”
Jonny went over and fussed with the futon until it sprang down half-way and got stuck. “Are we still in, uh, agreement about, uh, our quest for new garments?” he said in a weird fake-jovial voice, ducking his reddening face behind the frame.
“Wear the checked shirt tomorrow with your black jeans,” Ken said. “I’m just–gonna–” Back into the bathroom to splash water on his face, or something, anything to get away.
“There’s an extra toothbrush under the sink!” Jonny’s voice echoed down the hallway.
He splashed his face and drank some water from the tap. His gut roiled from alcohol and embarrassment. But, upon reflection, that was probably one of the worst come-ons he’d ever been subjected to. Extending his thanks by hitting on Ken? As if.
When he returned to the living room, Jonny had disappeared, and so had the cats. There was a blanket with a green-eyed tiger on it thrown over the futon. He shucked his jeans and climbed under the blanket, wondering where River and Simon had gone–probably sleeping on Jonny’s bed. But the bedroom door was closed, with a certain finality.
He lay on the futon, blanket soon tossed aside, for nearly half an hour before giving up on sleep. The living room was too hot, suffocatingly so. He turned irritably, knocking the blanket to the ground, then got up and tried the big-framed windows. Jammed, probably from disuse. Ugh. Figured.
The bourbon had turned to vinegar in his stomach. He stood at the window for another moment, watching a few tiny figures moving on the street: a petite girl in a black dress that he couldn’t make out from here, her boyfriend in an ill-fitting shirt; two guys in skintight tees and painted-on jeans, one leaning on the other, laughing.
Ken lay down on the futon, uneasy, expecting something–what? He wasn’t sure what. The night slanted into the window, casting headlights into moving orange shapes on the ceiling. Presently he fell asleep.
Jonny cooked up a couple of omelets in the morning, which banished any lingering awkwardness and most of his hangover. They were really fucking good, and Ken raised his eyebrows, trying to communicate, like, What the hell, guy? How’d you learn how to cook like this? with his mouth full of egg and avocado.
Jonny’s only reply was, “The internet is full of recipes. With pictures.” And if there was a trace of smirky self-satisfaction in his answer, well–he deserved to feel self-satisfied.
First order of the day, a stop at Ken’s apartment. He put on: turquoise AA briefs, fitted khakis (he turned up the cuffs neatly), a loose white V-neck shirt, navy socks, and tobacco-brown leather derby style shoes that he’d pulled the laces out of. All thrifted finds–except the briefs, ew.
After some consideration in the mirror, he switched out the T-shirt for a button-down with a grandpa collar and rolled up the sleeves.
The front door creaked open. “‘Sup, man,” he heard Felipe saying in the living room.
“Felipe! Don’t park your bike on the carpet,” Ken yelled. No response for a moment, then Felipe’s door slamming shut. Aw, whatever. “Sorry,” he muttered through the door. “That’s Felipe, my roommate. He’s a total slob but the lease is in his name. Did he park the bike on the carpet?”
“Yes, he did. Why don’t you just move out and find a new roommate?” Jonny’s voice floated through the door.
“What, are you kidding? I pay $575 a month to live in San Francisco. Come on.” He tried on a heavy gold-plated watch. Yep.
“Hmm, cheap. The most cheap.”
Ken made a face in the mirror. But more importantly: neckerchief? He knotted a red scrap of bandanna around his neck. No, not with this outfit.
“Ooh, what’s this? Is this your brother?” Jonny called from the living room. What was he talking about now? Ken didn’t have a brother. “In this photo–Colorado Springs anime club?”
He felt a hot shock of irritation that Jonny was snooping around his apartment, and looking at those photos besides. He knew exactly what picture it was too: him in an old-school Neon Genesis Evangelion NERV T-shirt, holding up bootlegged DVDs of Gurren Lagann, marked up with a Sharpie. He was grinning, utterly oblivious to his out-of-control dorkiness.
He opened the door on a surprised Jonny. “I don’t have a brother. Give me that,” he snapped, and snatched the photo out of his hand, smacking it onto his desk face-down.
“Oh. You look so different in the photo,” Jonny said, dubiously. “I thought it might be your little brother.”
“Whatever, let’s go.” Felipe had in fact parked the bike on the carpet, a track of mud leading from the door. He gave it a swift kick, and it fell onto the couch, smearing the armrest with dirt. Oops.
“Your shoes don’t have any laces,” Jonny pointed out.
“Uh-huh,” Ken said, and opened the door.
The razor burn was obvious in the daylight. Ken winced in sympathy, but that’s what Jonny got for drinking and shaving. At least he didn’t have a straight razor to drunkenly cut his throat with–advanced wet shaving was fucking terrifying.
He flipped through the racks. “No, no, no, ew, no,” to, respectively: raggedy-looking houndstooth, way too small, too many pockets (seven!), aquamarine felt, ugly lapels. “Maybe,” to a natty $30 Harris Tweed sport coat with reddish flecks of thread, from the 70’s.
Jonny butted his nose in. “And you made sure it’s in my size, 44R? Most excellent. But, um,” and he hesitated, “well, I don’t know about this particular jacket–”
“See, you trusted me, and it looks great,” Ken said later, in the cramped fitting room, adjusting the sport coat around Jonny’s stocky shoulders. He looked at the neat lines of Jonny’s reflection in the mirror–nice, very nice. The sport coat narrowed around the waist, emphasizing the triangle of his shoulders.
Ken smoothed down the lapels. “It’s a little loose around the chest–the lapels don’t sit right.” He tucked a couple fingers into the gap to demonstrate. Jonny flinched, startled. “But it fits you around the shoulders and waist beautifully.”
“Well,” Jonny said, raising his arms to test the fit. With Jonny looking down at the sport coat, it was apparent that he had long, pale eyelashes that were nearly invisible from other angles. “I did some research on the subject of fashion on men’s fashion forums, and this isn’t the ideal height for the armholes. A little higher would be better.”
“All right, all right. You’re the only person you have to answer to in the end, anyway.” Ken shrugged. He was right about the armholes, anyway–it had taken Ken years to get that one.
Jonny nudged him. “But would I be able to wear it in case of the zombie apocalypse? Eh? Eh?” Back to his usual self, ugh. And they were doing so well.
“Yeah, whatever,” Ken replied snidely, and checked his watch.
Jonny turned and looked at himself in the mirror. He patted down the misbehaving lapels and turned around. “It does, however, have a dashingly low button point,” he said, considering. “I believe I shall purchase this after all.”
“Oh. My. God! You look so gooood!” Tink jumped up and hugged Jonny. “Wow! Look at you! Did Ken help you with this? You are adorable!” Jonny suffered her attentions with a grin. The sport coat really did look good on him: buttoned around the waist, it emphasized the clean, broad shape of his shoulders and chest. “I’ll bet he didn’t want to try anything nice. Ken, you are a miracle-worker,” Tink continued.
Aw, he couldn’t help it. He preened a bit.
While Tink chattered away at Jonny, Anjali swanned over, Android phone in hand. “Ken! You know those Maison Martin Marghiela sunglasses everyone really liked from several seasons ago? L’Incognito?” She let the moment hang dramatically. “Well, I found a pair on eBay, but they’re still $300.” She handed him her phone with the eBay page pulled up. “You could still get them if you want.”
“Can’t afford it,” Ken sighed out, disappointed. “At least I can dream, right?”
Bodzin had followed Anjali over, and now he sneered over her shoulder at the screen. “Are you kidding? Who’d spend $300 on a pair of sunglasses? And if you’re lucky, these might last a few months before you got tired of them–”
“You wouldn’t blink at someone blowing $300 on a pitch perfect Geordi La Forge costume that’d fall apart after three days at a con,” Anjali replied, with a scowl. She scooted away noticeably from Bodzin.
Calvin jumped in. “Well, a Geordi costume is–it’s creative, unlike people who just buy stuff.”
“Working as a stylist isn’t creative? Besides, these sunglasses are actually nice and well-made,” Ken said. “A Geordi costume is just–tacky.”
“No, you’re missing the point,” Anjali said, suddenly turning on him. Ugh, he was done with this conversation. He got up and went into the kitchen. “It’s a legit form of creative expression!” he heard Anjali yelling from the living room–whether about the sunglasses or cosplay he didn’t know, and he didn’t care.
Jonny was at the sink, washing dishes for Tink. “So how’d it go at the office Christmas party?” he asked Jonny’s back.
Jonny turned and smiled, drying his hands on the dish towel. “Surprising! Everyone complimented me on the outfit, thanks to you. I think I’ll pick up some more clothes to fill out my winter wardrobe, if you have the time to accompany me?” His voice ended on an uncertain note.
He felt like he was Dr. Frankenstein, zapping life into a suave and well-dressed fashion monster. So proud, so proud! He leaned on the counter next to Jonny and bestowed a winning smile on him. “Of course, yeah. So tell me more–who said nice things?”
Jonny huffed a laugh and give him a sideways glance. “The creative director mentioned that it was an admirably well put together outfit, and he’s impeccable to the last detail. And he’s never paid any attention to me before.”
“Oh? Is this creative director cute? Did you make out?” He bumped Jonny’s shoulder with his, grinning.
“Lies, all lies,” Jonny said complacently.
Tink caught him as he was about to pick up his rucksack and leave, hugging him hard. “Ken! You are just the sweetest for helping Jonny out.” She kissed him on the cheek with an emphatic “mwah!” sound. “Bodzin’s been asking for you. Could you help him out too?”
Ken strained a little, but Tink’s arms held him fast. “I don’t think we’d get along,” he tried. “Come on, Tink, you know that.”
For reference: Bodzin was a pompous blowhard with 90’s-boy-band hair who thought Twitter was the end of all scholarly conversation and “conversate” was poisoning the purity of the English language. He insisted on being called by his last name but wouldn’t do the same for anyone else. (He called Tink “Madeline,” which nobody else did.) No joke–every time Ken spent more than fifteen minutes around Bodzin, he kinda wanted to vomit out his guts.
Tink stuck out her lower lip in an exaggerated pout, apparently determined not to exclude anyone from anything, ever, period. “Please? You did it for Jonny.”
Okay–okay, true, he thought. It hadn’t been so bad.
Ken was at the Men’s Wearhouse. To understand how this happened, one had to understand that he’d tried very hard to avoid this outcome.
The Men’s Wearhouse wasn’t his first choice, nor his tenth, nor even his fiftieth. “You can get higher-quality stuff for cheaper at a vintage store,” Ken pleaded.
“I don’t want to look like I’m from the fifties,” Bodzin said, eyeing Ken’s neon orange suspenders–which weren’t remotely fifties, anyhow! In any sense of the word! Ken’s mouth flapped for a moment, unable to articulate just how–how unbelievable this pronouncement was.
“You’re not–what–I don’t even–what,” he sputtered, caught off guard.
Bodzin smiled smugly and leaned in for the kill. “And just between you and me, you see–I think Anjali will notice me if I dress up a bit. Show myself in a new light, you know?”
First of all, Anjali wouldn’t fuck him if he were the last man on earth. Secondly, Anjali wouldn’t fuck him if he were the last man on earth. Thirdly, Anjali wouldn’t–etc, etc.
In any case, when Bodzin had leaned in, Ken nearly passed out from the overpowering smell of Axe body spray, which was the only explanation for why he’d hadn’t physically dragged Bodzin to a better store.
So now, Ken was in the fitting rooms at the Men’s Wearhouse with Bodzin’s fobby girlfriend.
“I really value your fashion opinion,” Bodzin said earnestly, turning around in front of the mirror.
“That shirt is too big for you,” Ken said. It hung a couple inches off his shoulders, and the seam listed sadly downward. “And it’s the exact same as the shirt you wore into the store, just greyer.”
Bodzin plucked at his sleeve. “Well, I think it’s fine.”
“I think he looks very handsome,” Bodzin’s girlfriend piped up, and clung to his arm.
Okay, moving on. “What about this tie? It’s gorgeous and it’s on sale for $13.” Ken held up a pale green silk tie he’d found, skinny and so high-shine it glowed. The green was of such a faint hue that it seemed otherworldly, ghostly–radioactive, somehow. It was completely out of place here.
“It’s so random!” Bodzin’s girlfriend said, turning her cow eyes from Bodzin to Ken.
“Uhh,” Bodzin said. “Less… random, if you please.”
“Okay,” Ken replied, grinding his teeth.
Eventually Bodzin bought the oversized bluish-grayish shirt, a tie that belonged on a middle-aged office drone about to hit mid-life crisis, and a pair of bluish-grayish clown pants (because pants that fit were too gay for him). Ugh, why was Ken even here? Bodzin didn’t want an actual opinion–he just wanted someone he fancied an expert to affirm his sense of having absolutely impeccable taste.
At the checkout counter, Bodzin leaned over to Ken and pointed out someone walking by the window. “Hey, look at that guy,” Bodzin whispered, with all the immense wisdom of his newfound understanding of fashion. “Isn’t that hilarious?”
“That guy” walking by the window was Asian, 5’4″ maybe, but boosted up by black patent leather boots with four-inch cone heels. He was in a red silk jumpsuit that ended mid-thigh, a brown loosely knitted cardigan thrown over that, and a leather and canvas rucksack hung from his arm like a purse.
Ken wouldn’t have dared to go out in that outfit himself, but it was so fierce it was ferocious. Thumbs up, “that guy.”
“Oh my god!” Bodzin’s girlfriend laughed. “It’s like he’s wearing pajamas!”
Ugh. He glanced over Bodzin’s outfit. Like Bodzin wasn’t?
Whatever, there was no point in engaging. Ken looked at the radioactive tie still cradled in his hand. There was already a similar dove-gray tie in his closet, better suited to his complexion, but the thought of allowing it to languish at the Men’s Wearhouse–well. And for $13! He was well over budget on clothes, but–surely–
“See you Thursday,” Bodzin said. He rubbed his hands and gave–ugh–a maniacal cackle before he turned on his heel and left. Gag, eyeroll, vomit. Maybe he’d hit a pothole driving home and go careening off a cliff.
Felipe was playing Halo: Reach on the Xbox when he got home. The bike was on the carpet again, with a trail of dried mud leading to the door.
“Hey,” Felipe said absently. “There was something important I was supposed to tell you but I can’t–shit! Shit! Fuck!” His teammate had lobbed a grenade right at him. “Fuck you, moron!”
“Uh-huh,” Ken said, and closed the door to his room.
Nobody–least of all Anjali–noticed that Bodzin had “changed his style” at the next Thursday gaming.
“Fashion is a waste of time,” Bodzin concluded, miffed.
Felipe’s girlfriend–whose favorite activity was hotboxing the apartment and eating a whole week’s worth of groceries out of their fridge–had started coming over all the time. When Jonny called asking for another round of the shops in return for treating him to tapas, Ken was only too relieved to remove himself from the pot smoke permanently suspended in the center of the living room.
“So I have a lead on a wooden watch,” Jonny said without preamble. He tucked into his tiny bowl of ceviche with one hand; with the other, he flicked open the photo album on his iPhone. Said watch was a pale, unstained maple wood, a classic shape with sharp black lettering, and available at a tiny store in the Mission.
“Wait–wait, hang on, first things first, I have something for you.” Ken fumbled in his rucksack for the box he’d wrapped in butcher paper and twine; the radioactive tie was nestled inside, curled up snugly in tissue paper. It might’ve been overkill for a $13 tie, but Ken believed in doing things impeccably, fyi.
Jonny unwrapped gifts with teeth-grinding slowness, like he was going to save and reuse the plain brown butcher paper, but then he raised his eyebrows with an appreciative “oh” when he saw what was inside. “It’s beautiful. That particular shade of green–” he paused and licked his lower lip. “Thanks muchly. I’ll have to get a pocket square to suit this.”
The tie matched Jonny’s eyes, Ken noticed with a start. Perfect, then. He ducked his head and picked at his yuca fritters. “De nada. So how about that wooden watch?”
“Look at the clerk,” Ken murmured.
“You don’t like what he’s wearing?” Jonny said this in a normal (loud) voice, apparently incapable of being discreet.
Ken winced and shushed him. “No, I love it. I couldn’t pull it off myself, though.” Aforementioned clerk was in a slim navy suit with tasselled white slippers, silver chains dangling from his jacket, and a bowtie made entirely out of pheasant feathers. Most noticeably, a red chambray turban was perched on his head (note: he was white). “The cut of his jacket is magnificent,” he whispered. “But the buttons are standard plastic. You can tell he’s doing everything on the cheap, and I mean that in the best way possible.”
“Hmm. How do you figure?” Jonny picked up the wooden watch from where it lay on the polished black counter.
“A feather bowtie like that is almost impossible to track down, even though feathers are a raging trend on the womenswear side. Lanvin did something like it a few years ago for their menswear line, so maybe he got it from an upscale boutique selling accessories hot off the runway–which is unlikely since he’s working here and probably not getting paid that much for it–or he made it himself. The turban is probably DIYed too. The chains are too bright for the careless look he’s going for, though. He should’ve antiqued them.”
Jonny paused in trying (and failing) to undo the clasp of the watch and craned his head for a closer look. “Huh.”
The clerk noticed them looking in his direction and smiled distantly at them. “Let me know if you need any help.”
“Not only is he right on trend, but he’s picking up on womenswear trends,” Ken whispered, “which move a lot faster than menswear trends, so he either has to DIY or buy and throw out an assload of accessories every week.”
“Hmm,” Jonny said. Most of his attention was on the watch, which–honestly, it was probably more trouble than it was worth. The wooden strap kept sliding off Jonny’s wrist as he tried to do the clasp up. “You could be a clothes detective like, like Sherlock Holmes, except picking up on clues from people’s clothes,” he added, smiling faintly.
“You can tell a lot from people’s clothes,” Ken said, warming up to the subject. “Whether they live out in the suburbs or in the city, whether they’re second-generation Asian-American or fresh off the boat, what subcultures they belong to, how old they think they are on the inside, general socioeconomic status, whether they bus or drive.” For example, the clerk probably wasn’t trying a hard sell because their clothes had told him that they couldn’t afford most of the items in the store.
“So, actually you’re a sort of Clothes Whisperer, or somesuch,” Jonny said. He poked at the clasp with his thumb.
“I suppose. Think of it this way,” Ken explained. “We can’t choose what bodies we’re born with, or I wouldn’t have picked this underbite for myself,” he patted his chin self-consciously, “but we can choose how to present it. Fashion is all about figuring out how to project your inner self to the world, you know?” Admittedly, most people just wanted to project that they were rich and/or desirable, but there was room for artistry too.
Jonny blew out a loud sigh and dropped the watch on the counter. The clerk peered at them, but he made no move to help. On a whim, Ken said, “Here, let me,” and clasped the watch carefully around Jonny’s broad wrist, tucking the strap around the underside of his wrist. Jonny’s pulse fluttered under the soft white skin there.
“You should figure out how to do it yourself too–I’m not going to have to help you put it on every morning, am I?” Ken said as he opened one end of the clasp. Jonny stared at the ground. His eyelashes lay on his cheeks, so long and pale that they fringed his eyes like a halo.
As soon as the clasp closed, Jonny yanked his hand away. “Please don’t do that,” he muttered in a low voice. “Stop flirting with me if you don’t mean it.”
It was said with all the studied drama of the Whedon-watching nerd. Ken wanted to laugh, but he let go of Jonny’s wrist.
Ken’s part-time gig as an amusement park operator turned into a full-time job once the sun started setting later. He flirted–and then hooked up–with Dylan the hot cotton candy machine operator, but then Dylan started avoiding his eyes at work. Which was fine, because he turned out to be a libertarian who thought global warming had been thoroughly and scientifically debunked by the cold snap they’d had this spring.
The only thing that made Ken feel better about the whole mess was research into dry denim and untanned leather, which he could finally (just barely) afford now on his new salary. As for his old jeans, he ripped into them until they were thoroughly shredded. Jonny’s eyebrows had gone up, up, up when he saw them, but he didn’t say a word. Which was good–the mood he was in, Ken would’ve ripped him a new one.
They hit up Seedstore this time. “How about this tie for spring?” Ken suggested, and held up a gnarled mass of pale silk floss, shot through with orange, gold, and blue. “With those shoes?” He pointed at a pair of bright yellow boat shoes with a bit of a platform. Hot. And not too spendy, either.
Jonny’s new haircut was a little too short to be fashionable, all bristly-soft in the back, but his face seemed somehow less smooth and unformed. Less… Doughy-Face Neville. Ken wasn’t sure why. Was it the framing effect of the checkered scarf? Was it, perhaps, how he’d tucked his pants into his boots? That one was a nice touch, and an idea he must’ve gotten from reading street style blogs.
“I’m starting to think I should pay you,” Jonny said. He took off his boots (which had been acquired at Ken’s suggestion) and picked up the pair Ken had pointed out. “Why don’t you work as a stylist?”
Ken shrugged. “This is fun. I get to wear more clothes through you than my budget allows. And besides–” He rubbed his neck, uncertain of whether to even bring it up. “My parents would flip if they heard about it or saw me. I’m pretty obvious.”
“Why might they, ah, flip?” Jonny worked his feet into the yellow boat shoes.
“Well,” he said, feeling heat rising up to his ears. “I’m not actually out to my family. You know, filial guilt and traditional Asian parents. And they want me to move back to Colorado Springs, and you know how desolate the gay scene is–”
“Closeted married Republicans?”
He really didn’t want to talk about that particular subject. The epic drama of Ken and Douchenozzle was still raw for him. “Something like that.”
At Thursday gaming, Jonny brought his latest purchase: a trench coat, on sale, for next winter. To which, Ken could only say–seriously? Seriously? After all he’d done for Jonny? It was a betrayal.
“Don’t you already have a trench coat?” Ken said snidely, examining his fingernails.
Jonny shot him a quelling look. “You’re thinking of my black duster, which is ankle-length. And no, it turns out the duster doesn’t fit terribly well.”
“Just–don’t get a fedora, please?” That would tragically complete the 2007 nerd uniform. Oh–but maybe they’d all moved on to steampunk now. “Or a top hat,” he added hastily.
Jonny frowned. “Come on, I can hear what you’re implying.”
“Oh!” Tink said. “You mean Rorschach, right? He could be Rorschach if he had a fedora and an ink blot mask.” Ken never could tell if Tink was very, very dense or very, very crafty.
“Maybe the movie version of Rorschach,” Jerome said, with barely-concealed contempt. “The Moore-Gibbons version has him in a much lighter trench coat.”
“I thought that was just the lighting.” That was Calvin. “Gibbons’ colors changed depending on what light Rorschach was in.”
While the general conversation quickly derailed into a comic vs. movie adaptation slapfight, Ken refused to be distracted. “Try it on,” he demanded. “I want to see how it looks. Oh–hang on a mo–”
His phone was blaring ‘Bad Romance’. I want your ugly, I want your disease, I want your everything– He checked the number. Not one he recognized. Eh. “Ignoring it. Go on, go on.”
Jonny shrugged it on and struck a smarmy pose. And… it looked pretty good over the neat olive V-neck sweater and striped tie. The bottom hem ended right under his ass and it fell in a way that didn’t shorten him, which he couldn’t afford. It helped that it was caramel-colored waxed cotton rather than black. Mostly, it helped that it wasn’t an ankle-length black Matrix-y duster.
“It looks nice, but won’t it be too hot for that in a couple weeks?” Tink, with a dubious look.
“You’re right. Curse you, sun!” Jonny proclaimed, and shook his fist at the heavens.
Ken’s ‘Bad Romance’ ringtone went off again. Whoever it was, they were persistent. “Hey, I should take this,” Ken said, and stepped out onto Tink’s balcony.
The phone stopped ringing as soon as he was about to flip it open. 415 area code, and the number looked vaguely familiar. He dialed his voicemail. Ring, ring. The night whipped around him, an unseasonably cold spring wind. He wasn’t dressed warmly enough, but il faut souffrir pour être beau, etc.
“Hey babe,” a familiar voice began. Some off-key singing in the background of the call. Ken cursed and fumbled with the phone. “Guess what? I’m moving back to San Francisco!” Laughter. “Just–just to let you know, I asked Felipe if I could crash on you guys’s couch. Just long enough to find an apartment and I’ll be out of your hair. All right? All right. Catch you later, babe.”
He was going to kill Felipe.
“Hey.” Bling! went Douchenozzle’s even white smile.
Douchenozzle was wearing a timid blue polyblend shirt, untucked, and relaxed-fit jeans in an indeterminate medium blue. A pair of nondescript dress shoes that couldn’t make up their minds on whether to be square-toed or almond lay on the ground next to him.
He was sprawled out on the couch like he owned it, white-socked feet up on the coffee table, smile curling on his face. The TV was blaring ESPN. Felipe’s bike was, for once, off the carpet; instead it rested against a rolling suitcase (though Ken couldn’t help noticing the suitcase itself had tracked mud all over the carpet). A cloud of stale pot and cigarette smoke floated in the air.
“Hey,” Ken said warily, and dropped his rucksack as far from Greg as humanly possible. “Where’s Felipe?”
Douchenozzle scratched his neck. “Dunno.”
“What happened to your girlfriend in Colorado Springs?”
“Well, it’s been great talking to you,” Ken said, and fled into his room.
But later, when Ken found himself slammed up against the fridge, breathing in the alcoholic fumes from Douchenozzle’s mouth, yanking his hair, biting the curve of his ear, Douchenozzle’s lean thigh pressed between his legs–well, he wasn’t terribly surprised.
See, the awful truth was that Douchenozzle–he should probably go back to calling him Greg again if they were going to hook up–was 6’4″ and straight-backed, like a pale birch, with fine blond flyaway hair, a cut jaw, sharp cheekbones. He had the kind of handsomeness that tricked the world into thinking his dull clothes were “effortless” and “casual”. It seemed unfair, sometimes, when Ken had to trick the world’s eye into looking at his clothes instead of his underbite.
Greg was knee-weakeningly, spine-meltingly hot, which would probably explain why Ken had no spine around him. It would definitely explain why, with the pressure of Greg’s hand on his shoulder, he ended up on his knees on the dirty linoleum with his lips around Greg’s cock.
Greg groaned and thrust forward, grabbing a double handful of Ken’s hair. “Quit yanking,” Ken tried to say around his mouthful, but it came out as, “Hwih anhih!”
“What?” Greg stared dazedly down at him, then muttered, “Oh shit–I’m–”
Ugh–asshole. Ken swallowed, wiped his mouth and straightened. If he was going to come, he should’ve let go of his fucking hair. Not everyone wanted to be face-fucked, for fuck’s sake.
Greg grinned and ran his fingers down into Ken’s waistband. Okay, forgiven, forgotten–or he would be soon, at any rate. “This’ll be easier on the bed,” Greg murmured. They staggered to the bedroom. Then, with a loud whoosh of a sigh, he flopped down on his belly.
“Hey, Greg,” Ken whispered, after a moment. He nudged his shoulder. “Hey!”
“Hey, asshole!” Ken gave him a good hard shake, but it was no use. Greg was out cold. “Are you seriously going to leave me hanging?” Had he always been like this? Had Ken somehow not noticed, desperate as he’d been for any scrap of Greg’s attention? He made up a new nickname on the spot–Asshole Motherfucking Shithead–and rolled over, disgusted.
He was still half-hard, so he started jerking himself in quick, short strokes. But when he glanced over at Asshole Motherfucking Shithead’s finely muscled gym body, with flaccid pink dick, for inspiration, the sight churned his stomach.
So, that didn’t work out. He rifled through his mental folder of fantasies, always handy in a pinch. He brought up untidy memories of hooking up with Dylan, the libertarian cotton candy machine operator–unfortunately tainted by the knowledge that he’d been vocally opposed to the very existence of public libraries. Ehh. He flicked over to a weird, long-standing fantasy about Hedi Slimane and an obscene photography session.
And if Hedi’s hand was square and warm, and Hedi’s pink tongue occasionally swept out over his lower lip, and Hedi’s forearms were lightly freckled–well, that was between him and his own mind, thank you very much.
So, fine, he and Asshole Motherfucking Shithead sort of hooked up in a haze of alcohol and hormones. Ugh. Ugh! The transcript from his Gchat log the next night went like this:
WHYYY ARE YOU SO STUPID DUMBASS!!!
i don’t know
come on he’s really hot
well, really hot naked
all his clothes are ugly
Anjali: IKR, so what are you doing??
douchenozzle needs to DIAFF
“die in a fucking fire” I just made that up
seriously, what about the orgy??? the fucking orgy!!!!
Yeah, the orgy. As the tired old story goes, Greg fucked men and claimed that it didn’t count, that he was straight, etc, etc. Ken had been his roommate/drunk-hookup-buddy for nearly two years, etc, etc. The whole affair was a recipe for self-loathing, serves two.
But the orgy! Greg had been trawling for casual encounters on Craigslist behind his back, and then he invited one of the guys he’d slept with to be the third roommate in their apartment (as humiliating as one might imagine), and then he set up an orgy with that guy and another couple that he’d expected Ken to join.
When Ken had told Jonny the orgy story–meaning for him to laugh, because the drama was hilarious in hindsight even if it was heartwrenching at the time–Jonny just went theatrically hard-eyed and quiet. “Did you get tested after that?” he said, voice clearly striving to be gallantly concerned (though it came out a bit constipated).
Still–Ken had, in fact, been terrified when he went to the clinic alone after their screaming fight. So terrified he broke out in huge red zits the night before and thought he was dying of, like, Kaposi’s sarcoma. He was 22 and inexplicably in love with a douchenozzle, so his mistake was entirely understandable.
The worst part was that they hadn’t even broken up then. Several months later, Greg had sent a text message to Ken telling him he was moving back to Colorado Springs to be with the girlfriend he’d promised to marry.
‘What girlfriend?’ one might ask. Who. Fucking. Knew?
And now he was back.
Ken missed a couple nights of Thursday gaming going out drinking with Greg and Felipe (and, by extension, coming home and having drunken sex with Greg). Greg got along with Felipe like a house burning down to the ground. Somehow the living room acquired a divider overnight, and somehow the apartment acquired a third roommate.
Greg couldn’t stay on the couch forever, though. “You guys can clear out the spare room,” Felipe said vaguely. He blasted a few more aliens. “Aw, yeeeeah! Score!” Apparently he’d found a plasma launcher.
The “spare room” was the large walk-in closet Ken kept all his clothes in. Besides, the wall was bare insulation on one side, there were no outlets or windows, and there was no light source besides the bare bulb. He chewed his lip, standing in the dim closet, Greg silent behind him. “Fine. Greg, you can sleep in my room.”
That weekend, Jonny called him up at an obscene hour of the morning. Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ blared from his rickety bedside table–stop calling, stop calling, I don’t wanna think anymore, I left my head and my heart on the dance floor. Greg grunted and rolled over. “Hey Jonny,” Ken mumbled into the phone.
“Would you like to make a round of the shops today? We could start with Unionmade. Or do you have work, perhaps?”
“No, no work today,” Ken said. “Yeah, that’d be good.” Beside him, Greg opened one eye.
Jonny gave him the directions; it was weird hearing his voice lying in bed next to Greg. His fakey grandiose accent sounded better these days, filled out as it was with new confidence. “Okay, see you at ten,” Ken said, and fumbled for the hang-up button.
“Who was that?” Greg’s voice was casual.
“Nobody, just someone I’m meeting up with later today.” Ken shrugged.
After a shower and leftovers for breakfast, he buttoned up a crisp white tuxedo shirt and wrapped a yellow neckerchief around the collar. He threw on a navy blazer and robin’s egg blue pants, and then he was ready to go. Greg was waiting for him by the door in a white polo, cargo shorts, and a pair of douchey sunglasses propped up on his head. “You headed out?” he said. “I gotta go to a thing anyway.” Uh. Okay.
Greg wasn’t much of a talker, which had always been the case; what hadn’t always been the case was Ken’s low-level irritation with him. By the time they got to the Castro district, they’d hit a record for time spent in each other’s company where neither was drunk, horny and doing something about it, or asleep (since Greg came back from Colorado Springs, at any rate) and Greg still hadn’t said a word to him.
“So,” Ken tried. “What’s the deal with the girlfriend, anyway?”
Greg shrugged. He was following him in silence, hands in his pockets, which kinda weirded Ken out.
“How was Colorado Springs?” he tried again.
Grunt. It went on like this for several miles. Worse, it was blisteringly hot outside on the way to Unionmade. The heat dampened Ken’s collar with sweat. Maybe the blazer was a bit much.
Unionmade was on the corner of Sanchez and 18th, an unassuming storefront with gilt letters spelling out “UNIONMADE: FINEST QUALITY DRY GOODS” in the window. Jonny waved when he saw them. “Ken,” he called out, with a smile that turned a little stunned when he saw Greg. Great. If Jonny asked to be set up with Greg, that would be the biggest clusterfuck ever, right?
Greg sneered, turning to Ken. “Ohh, so that’s your little boyfriend?” He sounded smug.
“That’s Jonny.” He took a quick inventory of Jonny’s outfit: popped lapels on a light spring jacket in chambray, navy twill shorts, and the radioactive tie, which complemented the jacket perfectly. A touch of red in the pocket square. No patterns or strong textures to speak of, but that’s what they were here for.
“W00t, you’re wearing the aqua pants after all,” Jonny said, and flashed him a thumbs-up. “And here you said you couldn’t pull it off.”
“Um, Greg, this is Jonny,” Ken said awkwardly. “Jonny, Greg.”
Greg had lost all interest. “Well, see you later.” He sauntered down the street towards the bus stop, hands in his pockets. What was Greg’s problem? Greg’s many, many problems could fill a book.
Whatever. He banged into the store. Jonny trailed after him. “Who was that? He’s, uh. Really good looking?”
“Um,” said Ken, eloquently. Was this going to be awkward? Was this going to be a thing? “That’s the famous Douchenozzle, aka Greg. He’s staying with me.” He scanned the tie shelf until he found a gingham bowtie. And it wasn’t even a clip-on; it was the real deal. “Hey, try this on.”
“Oh?” Jonny stared down at the bowtie in his hands, a bewildered look on his face. Understandable–bowties were a bitch to tie.
After a minute, though, it seemed like Jonny was just spacing out. “Uh. Jonny?” Ken prompted.
Jonny fumbled in his pocket. “Right, sorry. I should check online for a diagram. Um.” He squinted at his iPhone. “Uhh. Hm.” This was going to take a while, it seemed.
“Here, let me tie it.” Ken reached out for him. “Your first time, you’ll take forever and you’ll screw it up anyway.”
Jonny flapped his hands at Ken. “Back, I say. Back!” He set his iPhone on the shelf and draped the gingham bowtie around his neck. His fingers stumblingly formed the knot for the first time. “So, kindly inform me, why are you letting the so-called Douchenozzle stay with you and Felipe?”
“He asked Felipe if he could stay on our couch, and Felipe didn’t bother to ask me, and uh.” His train of thought got derailed–the bowtie was already lopsided, and Jonny’s yanking on it didn’t help matters. “Here, let me–” he began.
“Leave it alone, I’ll get it right–” Jonny started to say, but then Ken’s outstretched fingers clashed with his. Jonny flailed at him and quickly undid the knot, with a pointed glare at Ken. “By the way,” Jonny said, and gestured at a spot on his own neck, “you’ve got some kind of–oh.”
“What?” Ken prodded the spot. Oh. It was probably a hickey.
Skeptical look. “You and Douchenozzle? Really?”
“Um. Maybe. Sorta. Yes.” And that was the end of the discussion, thank god.
They got stupidly drunk that night. Well–Ken got stupidly drunk. He couldn’t speak for Jonny, since Jonny had only matched him glass for glass.
“I don’ wanna go hooome,” he giggled into Jonny’s shoulder. Somehow this statement was much funnier than it had any right to be. “It smells like pot. I don’ feel like it–” On an impulse, he rubbed his hand over the back of Jonny’s head. It was soft.
“Stop that,” Jonny said, with a sour look, batting his hand away. “I let you get away with too much,” as he unlaced Ken’s boots, and a muttered, “Up you go,” as he lifted Ken onto the futon. Ken giggled some more, letting his bourbon-heavy head roll around his shoulders. The futon shifted and settled around him with a squeal. After a moment, he heard Jonny curse (“Curses!”) and bang the reluctant mechanism.
The futon smelled like cat. Where was River? “Where’s River? I like her better’n Simon.” Come to think of it, where was Jonny? Ken lifted his head. There was something stuck under his back that felt remarkably like a plastic action figure.
“She’s probably napping on my dresser,” Jonny called from somewhere. He came back into the room with the green-eyed tiger blanket and dumped it unceremoniously on Ken’s legs.
Ken grabbed his forearm. “Thanks for lettin’ me stay.” Jonny’s sleeve was rolled up, and his forearm was bare–broad and lightly freckled, furred with red-blond hairs. It was a nice forearm. It smelled good. He pulled it down, down, tucking Jonny’s arm against his chest.
After a pause, Jonny let him, dropping to one knee. This close up, he was doubled–two Jonnys overlapping. The glow of the streetlights outside caught the red in his hair in a weirdly pretty way.
“You know, you’re not my type at all,” Ken slurred. He meant to continue, but for some reason (a very good reason?) he let it hang, the words almost a visible weight in the air. After a moment, he forgot what the very good reason was, and then he forgot what he was going to say.
One Jonny smiling, one Jonny frowning. Nerd Jonny, fashion Jonny. With a yawn, he closed his eyes. Maybe the world would resolve into one image when he opened them again.
But all he saw was Jonny looking down at him, distant. His green eyes were hooded, and seemed paler than usual in the faint light from the streetlamps. To Ken’s tremendous surprise, the warm, square hand was no longer on his chest.
Then Jonny stood, cutting a neat silhouette out of the light from the streetlamps. His face disappeared from view. “You’re drunk,” Ken heard him saying, in a voice he didn’t recognize. “Get some sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Morning, Ken. Up, up, up.” A mug of coffee (printed with “The Cake Is A Lie” and a drawing of a Black Forest Cake) landed by his nose, on the bedside table. “Breakfast. Shall we?”
Jonny was wearing a long white oversized shirt with a straight hem, untucked, sleeves rolled up to his upper arms, and shorts. The proportions should’ve been all wrong, but somehow, it worked. Confidence looked good on him. Or maybe the student had surpassed the master. He probably didn’t need Ken’s advice at all, anymore.
“Whatever,” Ken said glumly. “Sure.”
Breakfast was a place right around the corner that served the most divine potato-salsa-cheddar mash. The smell alone could induce a heart attack. They sat there in vaguely hungover tension, crouched on cracked leather barstools, sipping milkshakes.
The burble of Ken’s phone broke the silence. ‘where r u? with that jimmy weirdo?’ Ugh, whatever. He stuck the phone back in his pocket. Greg was going to be on the couch watching TV when he got back anyway.
“Did you know–” Jonny studied him over his milkshake, then licked his lip distractedly. He paused, then said slowly, “I used to have kind of a crush on you, before all of this, but I don’t think you knew I existed,” he said.
“Oh,” Ken said. There was a queasy tremble in his stomach, from the hangover.
“Well, uh, you’d pretty much always blow me off. I don’t think you liked me very much.” Oh. So Jonny had noticed that, had he? Ken winced. “But I used to see you at Thursday gaming,” Jonny continued, fiddling with a fork, “and you seemed utterly fearless–you weren’t afraid to tell people you were gay, or try new things with your clothes, or stomp me at Dominion either. I really admired you. When, um, I came out at work, I was thinking of you, mostly–how you’d do it.”
“Really?” Really? Really? His pulse jumped a little.
Jonny huffed a laugh, his eyes fixed on his fork. His cheeks turned bright pink. “I had this vision of you fixed in my mind–What Would Ken Do? I imagined you coming out with both middle fingers up, flipping off the whole world.”
“Oh. That’s…” Kinda sweet, if bizarre. Ken sucked thoughtfully on his straw. The chocolate milkshake went down cold and sweet; Jonny had recommended getting it with mint, which was a great idea. “I don’t know where you got this impression.”
“Maybe you’re the Clothes Whisperer, but, well,” and Jonny ducked his head, “the rest of us observe what clothes say too. And your clothes, you see, told me you weren’t afraid of anything.”
“I can’t even kick my ex-whatever out of my apartment,” Ken said, and shrugged. “I can’t have, like, a normal long-term relationship with a gay man in this day and age because I can’t come out to my parents. I can’t quit my stupid job pushing buttons at an amusement park.”
Jonny hmmed. Then, “What do you think about printed suits? Too busy?”
“Hey, look who didn’t come back last night,” Greg said. Felipe’s girlfriend lounged on the couch beside him. The back of her hand brushed up against his arm occasionally. Oh, girl. She didn’t even know.
Ken rolled his eyes and went to his room. As he was unlacing his boots at his computer desk, Greg came in and sat on the bed.
“You got a problem?” He focused on pulling shoelaces through their eyelets.
“You look like you’re wearing a girl’s shirt,” Greg said, with a dissatisfied note in his voice.
Ken was in a trompe l’oeil shirt with beaded necklaces screenprinted around the neck that he’d bought at a boutique a few blocks down from Unionmade. It was probably too camp for Greg’s taste, but was he seriously going to sit there decked out in Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister and criticize Ken’s outfit, huh?
“You stayed at that weird guy’s place, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t fuck him. What’s it to you anyway?”
“Relax, I knew you wouldn’t fuck him,” Greg said, and stretched smugly. “I know your type.”
“So what’s my type?” Ken said, nettled. His skin prickled.
“It’s obvious he’s,” Greg made an incomprehensible gesture, “a huge dork. Like he wants to get nasty with Spock or Sailor Moon or something. Like that comic book nerd from the Simpsons or something. Makes me wanna puke.”
It was obvious? Maybe he’d stopped noticing Jonny’s voice, his dramatic pauses, his anachronistic phrasing–maybe his mannerisms had simply become invisible to Ken.
“I guess,” he said. “He’s a huge nerd, yeah. But–” The cowardly words ricocheted around his ribcage, rattling. He couldn’t get anything else out.
After Greg left for a pub crawl with Felipe and his girlfriend (obviously smitten with Greg), when it was dark and he could hear the pigeons cooing in their roosts outside, Ken put in the Marc Jacobs documentary with the logo that had burned indelibly into Felipe’s TV from how many times he’d watched it in a row, then sank back into the pot-scented couch, a hot stone of shame in his gut.
Then he knelt at the bookcase and pushed Felipe’s first person shooters and sports games to the side to reveal a hidden row of games he hadn’t played in years. He dug out his dusty copy of Final Fantasy X-2, the one he hadn’t touched for years, and popped it in the PS2. Tetsuya Nomura, the concept artist, had dress designs almost as glitzy as Roberto Cavalli’s, but it was too bad about the matchy-matchy styling. It made the dresses seem less wearable.
All the work Jonny had put into himself–all the work he’d put into himself–and for what? For what? To be misinterpreted anyway?
Jonny was wearing a soft heathered V-neck henley and a blue seersucker jacket, rolled up to the elbows for spring. Linen trousers. Against Ken’s advice, he’d had grown out his ginger beard again. It looked neater this time, though, well-trimmed and well-shaped. His hair was riotously curly and bright golden-red.
“Oh, Ken, your jacket,” Jonny said with a rueful twist of his lips. “Where did you find that?”
Ken had already been twenty minutes late, so he’d pulled a jacket from his closet, trusting that the selection in his wardrobe was solid enough that any would do. It was a double-breasted hooded red jacket that was longer in the back, like a fish-tail parka. On the street, a guy in a T-shirt and cargo shorts had given him a contemptuous look.
“I, uh, DIYed it,” Ken said, and hunched his shoulders, embarrassed. He’d attached the hood from a similar jacket and hacked away at the hemline for the fish-tail effect, and trailing out from underneath were the remains of a multicolor holey angora sweater, like a colorful fisherman’s net, that he’d attached as lining.
“I like it. I’m extraordinarily envious,” was all Jonny said.
“You weren’t there when Jerome told me I looked like a drunken homeless ringmaster,” Ken replied. That was before Jonny’s time. “Even Anjali agreed. I kinda liked it before that,” he admitted, “but then. You know.”
Jonny chewed his crab rangoon contemplatively. “Well, these days I get as many asshole comments about the way I dress from nerds as I ever did from other people,” he said, as if it was an explanation for anything.
“Don’t chew with your mouth open.” Ken scrubbed his face. “But you look amazing, and their clothes are so–I mean, their clothes are just so ugh,” he sputtered. It was infuriating.
“Well, I think you’re missing the point.” Jonny put down his crab rangoon, about to say something else, when Ken’s phone burbled again. A text from Greg. ‘hey’ it read, pointlessly.
“Was that Greg?” Jonny said to his plate of salad, if it could even be called that. There were three untouched beets doused in crème fraiche on it, and a sprig of parsley curled on top. He sipped his drink without looking up. “I’m sure you’re aware that Anjali hates him.”
“Yeahhh.” Not a surprise, no. “Why, what’d she say to you?”
Jonny fiddled with the parsley. “Let’s see. I believe her exact words were, ‘I fucking hate that Douchenozzle’s guts,’ and ‘Ken is a stupid motherfucking fuck sometimes.’ And then she made some… inappropriate and not entirely anatomically possible suggestions.” He stared into his plate as if he could divine the mysteries of life, the universe, and complicated relationships (both sexual and platonic), all in a pile of overpriced beets. A furrow grew between his eyebrows. “But from all the stories you’ve told me, I can’t figure it out–what do you even see in him?”
“He’s hot. So I’m shallow. Not like that’s a new thing. It’s not like you didn’t know that already,” Ken said flatly, and leaned back, irritation fizzing up in him. And Anjali! What did she think she was doing, talking trash behind his back?
“You’re not actually as shallow as you say you are.” Jonny’s pale green eyes flicked up and held his for one moment, electric, then dropped.
It sounded like a line from a shitty TV movie, which infuriated him for some reason. “Where do you get off saying that?” he snapped. “Wishful thinking on your part?” he added snidely.
It was a cheap blow to cash in on Jonny’s crush, whether he still held a torch for Ken or not. Jonny’s eyebrows lowered sharply, but he didn’t raise his eyes to Ken’s. “Wow, that was uncalled-for. Look,” and he rubbed the bridge of his nose, “you’re my friend, and I think you should give yourself more credit. That’s all.” He caught the eye of the server and said, “Check, please.”
He didn’t see Jonny for a couple months after that. He’d stopped going to Thursday gaming, spending the time he had off watching MTV’s Real Life and whatever crap on Youtube. He and Greg had sex that was kinda hot but mostly unpleasant (so, exactly like Greg). They weren’t boyfriends; sometimes Greg came home smelling like other men’s colognes, and Ken would probably insist on his right to do the same if he weren’t such a picky homebody.
He didn’t even like Greg anymore, and hadn’t since they broke up the first time. Greg was a closet case who mostly seemed to find Ken convenient, discreet, and unlikely to ask him to come out of the closet, so.
The summer sun crept in every morning through the east-facing windows, so hot it seemed like he spent every afternoon fanning himself on the couch, too overheated and soggy with sweat to move.
He was miserable.
His phone burbled every couple days–texts from Anjali, wanting to meet up. Tink started emailing him to keep him updated on the gaming group; she and Anjali had moved, and the time and location had changed to Mondays at their new house.
Towards the end of June, Anjali showed up at his door. “You are coming with me, buster,” she hissed, and dragged him out of the apartment by the sleeve.
“Wait!” he yelped. He was still in his pajama bottoms.
“No!” She put her hands on her hips. She was wearing spandex and nondescript trainers (not like he ever cared about trainers). Her eyes sharpened and focused on his clothes. “Get out your workout gear! What are you doing in your pajamas? It’s four in the afternoon! Wha–are you–depressed?” She peered at him. “Are you suffering from clinical depression? I’ve never seen you like this.”
“I’m fine,” he snapped. “What was it you wanted to tell me?”
“Okay, okay, don’t bite my head off.” Anjali still looked suspicious, but whatever. “I need a gym buddy, y’know. You don’t have to get sweaty or anything, y’know–you can just hang out on the rowing machine. And I wanna catch you up on all the gossip.” The two “y’knows” were quite telling.
“What’s your problem, Anjali?” He rubbed his forehead.
“Excuuuuse me? Are we frenemies now? What?” Anjali knocked his shoulder with a fist. Then she lowered her voice, genuinely concerned. “Are you still mad at me about trash-talking Greg? Sweetie, I’m never going to like him, but whatever, I haven’t seen you in ages and I miss you like crazy.”
The slightest tug of guilt, and she’d already hooked and reeled him in. Fine. Fine! So he went back inside and dug around in the back of the lowest dresser drawer. The Neon Genesis Evangelion T-shirt from his high school anime club was the only one that had survived his wardrobe purges three years ago; everything else was too nice to sweat up.
“So Bodzin dumped his girlfriend, which sucks, because she was the only decent thing about him. Now he’s trying to get it on with me because he has a motherfucking Asian fetish,” Anjali continued as she filled her water bottle.
Almost all the machines were taken, so they were standing around waiting for one to open up. Ken shivered and clutched his upper arms. The gym was fucking freezing, and him in a stupid Evangelion T-shirt, embarrassed as hell to be out in public. He should’ve taken those two “y’knows” more seriously.
“Can you believe he told me I had ‘such beautiful exotic features’? Can you believe that? I wanted to drill a hole right through his tiny little head.”
He squinted at the rows of equipment, scanning for the rowing machine. Huh. There was a guy with bright red hair doing smallish weights right next to it.
“I wish Tink would kick him the fuck out already, but she’s all like–”
The redheaded guy turned around.
“Shit, is that Jonny? Anjali, you fucking set me up.” He ducked behind an elliptical machine.
Anjali grinned and raised her hands. “Sorry, sweetie, we’re both regulars. Work got us a discount for a year-long membership.” She kicked his foot, and he yelped. “Go say hi. Go! I didn’t ask him here, y’know–it’s not a conspiracy, I swear.”
“But you knew he’d be here anyway, didn’t you?” Anjali just laughed. He crept over to the rowing machine behind Jonny and punched in the settings. Right, he was here for a completely legit reason.
Jonny was in a crew-neck T-shirt and gym shorts, sweaty curls sticking to his forehead. The back of his neck was burnt a bit redder than the meaty slope of his back, in the clear line of a shirt collar.
He wondered which shirt it was. “Jonny,” he said. His voice came out in a squawk.
Jonny didn’t respond for a moment, finishing his reps. “Ken,” he said warily, and turned halfway around. “Hey.”
Stupid, but Ken felt like ducking his head and scuffing his toe against the ground. This was even more awkward than he expected, and he was really, really embarrassingly underdressed. He tried to hide the crappy Evangelion screenprint on his shirt with one arm over his chest.
It was useless. “I quite like your shirt,” Jonny offered, apparently without a trace of irony. His voice was full of studied nonchalance. “Bodzin’s been on a rampage against fashion now since you’ve been gone.”
“Well, you haven’t called me either,” Ken said. He meant it to come out sharp, but he could hear the petulance in his voice. Behind him, his rowing machine bleeped sadly and shut down from lack of activity.
Jonny briefly looked guilty. “I, uh–sorry, you’re right. But I hoped you’d be at Thursday gaming more often. Well, now it’s Mondays, but anyways.” He squatted down next to Ken, nervously nonchalant, as if an idea had just occurred to him out of the blue. As if he hadn’t been coached on what to say by Tink and Anjali, those traitors. “Hey, I have an idea. Do you want to go to San Diego Comic-Con? I have an extra guest pass, and Tink is driving everyone down.”
“Tink’d love it if you could come.”
“She’d die of happiness, and then she’d kill you, lovingly,” Anjali said behind him. She swung the medicine ball haphazardly at his head. “You suck, toots. Come on! Ditch the Douchenozzle and come with us.”
“You ambushed me,” Ken said. Anjali knocked his shoulder with the ball. “Ow, you bully! Okay, okay, I’ll see if I can get the time off.” And maybe he missed everyone, just a little (except Bodzin).
He bent back to the rowing machine. As he was punching in the settings, though, two fingers ran down the nape of his neck, into his shirt.
“Your tag’s sticking out,” Jonny said, with an unreadable look when Ken glanced up at him.
He kept catching Jonny glancing away, the rest of the hour he and Anjali were at the gym. Whatever his problem was, it was none of Ken’s business.
“I’m going to San Diego Comic-Con,” Ken said, from the doorway. “See you in a week.”
Greg grunted and fragged an opponent. “Place probably smells like B.O.,” was his only pronouncement.
“Hey! Hey, are you from Cowboy Bebop? Spike, right? Can I take a photo of you?”
“No,” Ken said irritably, and pushed on.
San Diego Comic-Con was an enormous blur of color and shapes and vendors hawking action figures and sweaty people moving slow as molasses through the aisles. He couldn’t even fathom what he was looking at half the time.
They hadn’t made good time driving down from San Francisco to San Diego, since the roads were still clogged with weekday traffic. Tink had dropped them off at the hotel to check in and drop off their bags while she drove like a maniac down to the convention center to catch her first panel.
Anjali couldn’t get the time off work after all, so he was sharing a room with Tink, Bodzin (ugh), and Calvin. Their hotel was sort of on the Red Line express to the convention center, but it was a long and inconvenient walk away. Jonny–lucky duck–had flown down and gotten a room in the Marriott next door to the convention center since someone else was paying for him to be there.
“Great costume, Spike!” a girl called out as she passed him. He smiled weakly at her. What was he even doing here? The only person he knew here was Jonny, who was nowhere to be found, and his number went straight to voicemail. His iPhone was probably out of battery.
He went back to the hotel after a couple hours of Comic-Con, feeling like his nerve endings had been rubbed raw and unsure how he’d survive three more days of it. It was only one in the afternoon, too early for a nap, and he wasn’t five years old, but he was pretty tired.
Bodzin popped into the room just as Ken lay down on one of the invitingly be-pillowed beds. “Are you dressed as Spike Spiegel? It’s not Anime Expo, you know.” Dipshit.
“I’m not–just leave me alone,” he snapped, and flicked Bodzin off.
Bodzin dropped his Green Lantern swag bag on the other bed. “Well, I’m going to watch TV. You can do whatever you want.” He threw himself down on the other bed with a loud creak from the mattress. Flyers spilled out of his yawning bag and fluttered all over the floor.
The TV blared some infomercial about a treadmill for your abs, try it for 30 days today, while Bodzin snuffled and picked through his swag bag. Ken turned and shifted on the bed, restless. Ugh, the cardboard cutout of a con pizza he’d had for lunch was not agreeing with him. Bodzin opened a bag of Sun Chips and started munching his way through them.
The door swung open. “Hey,” Calvin called. “If you go to the Image booth right now, you can get original pages for $50.” He dumped his books on the table, along with a sheaf of plastic-covered original art.
“Whose pages? Some nobody’s, at that price,” Bodzin scoffed.
“Well, they’re not Jim Lee’s,” Calvin amended, “but they look okay. I dunno.” He flopped on the bed next to Bodzin. “What’d you get?”
Ken wasn’t going to get any sleep with Calvin and Bodzin here. And where was Jonny, anyway? He hadn’t seen him all day. He grabbed his phone off the nightstand and dialed Jonny’s iPhone again, but it went straight to voicemail, again.
The Special Event Red Line took him back to the convention center, but there was nothing for him there without Jonny or Tink or Anjali. He’d already texted Tink–she was attending four panels in the same room and wouldn’t be out anytime soon–and he’d tried Jonny’s iPhone a couple more times, even though he knew it was futile.
He walked the long way from Lobby A to Lobby G, pushing through crowds of preposterous Batmans, boys with stacks of comics in their arms, women in lamé bustiers, tired families in jeans and T-shirts sitting on the carpet with their bags spread all around them, mutiple men in T-shirts that read, “One does not simply Telnet into Mordor.” Then inside, through lines of young neckbeards for Alex Ross, on through the crowds gathered around various stages, on past the presenters in scanty costumes.
He knew finding Jonny was a huge and probably Sisyphean task. Suppose Jonny had walked back over to the other side while Ken was making his way across the exhibit hall. Suppose Ken made a second round of the hall and Jonny’d walked over to the other side, the two of them missing each other by no more than the length of an booth. Suppose–
A couple of laughing women with long hair and tiered peasant skirts charged down the narrow aisles between booths, nearly knocking him over. A moment later, he got stuck behind a slow-moving family with five wide-eyed kids in matching fanny packs. A woman dressed in Chell’s outfit from Portal 2 walked by on prosthetic legs.
A gaggle of sadsack men paused to take photos of a booth babe. Ken shoved through with a determined, “Excuse me,” and a couple of elbows to the conveniently-placed faces of guys crouching for an underboob shot. “Sorry,” he said, insincerely.
He nearly tripped over a little girl darting around with a plastic Wonder Woman tiara on her head before her dad caught her up around the middle and swung her into his arm. He was wearing a matching Wonder Woman tiara. A blonde woman ambled by on non-functional roller-skates, soon followed by someone who was clearly her mother.
The rows of T-shirts and comics and toys became dizzying smudges of color as he passed them over and over. His feet hurt too. Maybe Jonny was waiting in line for a panel, or maybe he was in Hall H squatting a seat for the day. Ken rubbed his face with both hands. The pizza he’d had for lunch roiled acidically in his stomach.
He leaned against a huge cement pillar. It was hopeless. He was in hell. It was karmic punishment for kicking a puppy in a past life. He didn’t even know what Jonny was wearing, so it wasn’t like he could pick him out of the crowd if he was in, say, an Optimus Prime costume.
Then–between two Stormtroopers arguing with a middle-aged woman, a flash of radioactive green silk.
He stood fixed to the spot, staring, his heartbeat rushing in his throat, double-time. Yeah, there he was–right there, at the edge of the Webcomics Pavilion, his bright head in the crowd. Jonny Connolly.
Jonny looked both utterly unique and right at home, a geek among geeks. In the gleaming radioactive green tie, a trompe l’oeil shirt, rolled red shorts, unbuckled monkstraps, and plaid blazer with a flower lapel pin, he could’ve modeled for a street style shoot, but he looked like he fit right in with this garish, noisy crowd–Jonny, who studied fashion with the same intensity as he studied episodes of Buffy; Jonny, who put together his outfits as carefully as he assembled his scale models of the USS Enterprise.
Jonny was too loud, too affected, too awkward, too enthusiastic, too tacky, too… too. And the worst part of it all was that Ken was apparently head over heels for him.
His gut chose that moment to rebel. He sprinted to the bathroom and threw up, but that was probably the con pizza, and not at all a reflection on Jonny.
Half an hour later, he staggered out of the bathroom greatly weakened but alive, and determined.
First order of business: he called Greg. “Hey,” Ken said into the phone. “Hey, look, I want to, um. I’m in love with someone else.” He cringed at the sound of his own voice. He was probably the worst at rejecting people in the entire world. “And I think I want to move out.”
There was a long, frosty silence. “Is it because of that loser? Jimmy or whatever? Are you serious?” Greg started to laugh, with a vicious bark. “Is he staying in your hotel room? Did he already fuck you?” Maybe two years ago he would’ve been thrilled at this display of primal jealousy, but it was just awkward now. “Does he know I make you scream when you come?” Uhh, what? Ken had never screamed when he came. He felt a distinct wave of hilarity.
Nervous giggles threatened to erupt; he could feel them bubbling under his diaphragm. “Greg, I’m sorry, this is a shitty way to tell you, but–”
“Like I care. Have fun fucking that loser,” Greg said coldly, and hung up.
It hurt more than he was expecting, especially considering how little he’d liked Greg towards the end. His phone immediately rang again, an insistent blare of ‘Born This Way’. My mama told me when I was young, we are all born superstars– “Oh, fuck you,” he said, but it was just Tink.
“Where are you?” she yelled into the phone. The crowd was a dull roar in the background. “Sorry, I’m in the middle of some big thing on the exhibit floor, but we need to meet up before the next panel so I can get the hotel key from you.”
“I’ll wait for you in Lobby C,” Ken said. “See you soon.”
He left the bathroom and picked his way through the crowd to Lobby C. Maybe he should quit his job too, while he was still completely out of his mind. Maybe he should call his parents up and announce cheerfully into the phone, “Hi, Ba Ba, I’m gay!” A giggle escaped him. He was losing it.
“Guess what, Ken! I finally got a copy of that board game, Small World!” Tink trilled, speed-walking across the lobby loaded with two huge swag bags full of merchandise, arms pumping. She stopped when she saw his face. “Sweetie, are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“I’m fine. No. I mean, I just broke up with my ex, again.” He bit his lip nervously. “Tink, uh, I know this is a huge favor, but can I crash on your couch for a few days when we get back, until I can find a new apartment?”
“Oh, sweetie, of course.” Tin clucked. “Anjali and I have a spare room, you know–um, that is, if you’re interested.” She smiled, dropped her bags, and held out her arms. “Well, uh, we can talk about that later! You wanna hug?”
He stepped into the circle of her arms and she gathered him in, regardless of the crowd flowing around them. Her pewter dragon pendant rested cool against his face. He closed his eyes. She smelled like that BPAL stuff she liked–patchouli, maybe myrrh. Something warm.
The remains of whatever it was he’d had with Greg–following around the best-looking guy in college, subsisting on whatever scraps of affection he’d throw his way–fell off him like an old, dry layer of skin. He didn’t know how he’d been carrying it around for so long, too scared to let go.
Now that he knew what Jonny was wearing, he could pick him out anywhere, even on the huge exhibit floor. It turned out that after a quick walk through the hall, Jonny was halfway through a hundred-person line running along the wall for some godforsaken ancient actor’s autograph.
Ken pushed his way through the molasses-slow crowd. He probably looked like shit. He felt like shit. His gut was queasy and trembling, and he felt like maybe he was going to puke again?
Jonny lifted his eyebrows in greeting when he saw Ken approaching from the head of the line. Then he did a double-take. “Are–you all right?”
“I uh, kinda threw up. Con pizza. Can I borrow your bathroom so I can wash up and brush my teeth?”
Jonny looked at his position in the line wistfully, then stepped out, putting a hand on Ken’s arm. “Let’s go.” The crowd swallowed up the gap he’d left.
Outside, Jonny set a quick pace towards the Marriott. “Thanks,” Ken panted, struggling to keep up. They crossed out into the street to avoid the tight press of the crowd outside the exhibit halls.
Jonny still looked a little annoyed, though mostly resigned. “My hotel just so happens to be right next door. You’re free to use my toothbrush, so long as you throw it out when you’re–whoa–” An SUV screeched to a halt in front of them. He lifted his arm to wave at the honking driver, and the gesture flashed the pale pink silk lining of the jacket, the neat line of his side.
Ken’s cock twitched. ‘Down, boy,’ he thought.
But then he let himself look, filling up his eyes with Jonny. He looked at the round backs of Jonny’s calves. He looked at the swing of Jonny’s freckled arms, and at the long broad shadow of his body against the pavement.
The hotel room was furnished with a couple of wide armchairs, a table, a TV, and a bed. The drapes were closed against the summer heat. Ken went immediately into the bathroom, where he brushed the sour taste out of his mouth until his teeth were thoroughly minty.
He spat in the sink. “Are you sure you’re all right?” Jonny’s voice came dubious through the door. “Maybe you should lie down. I could also take you back to your hotel room, if you prefer.”
Ken opened the door. “Bodzin’s there,” was all he had to say. Jonny nodded sagely.
“You can stay here,” he offered. The hotel room felt dark and intimate with just the two of them in it and the drapes drawn shut. There was only one bed.
“Thanks,” Ken said. He turned and faced Jonny. “You’re great.”
Jonny’s eyes tracked him. “It’s no problem.”
He crowded Jonny against the outer door, one hand pressed against his chest. Jonny gave him a hot, stunned look. “Thanks,” Ken said again, having apparently lost his mind. Against the palm of his hand, he could feel overheated skin under the thin, cool cotton of the shirt. He spread his fingers over the button placket.
Jonny’s mouth formed an “oh” but no sound came out. He looked away, face flushing a brilliant red visible even in the dark. Ken could feel him getting hard against his hip where they were pressed together.
Ken unbuttoned the first button of Jonny’s shirt. His fingers skirted the white skin of Jonny’s neck and mapped the quiver of his throat as he swallowed.
“Ken,” Jonny said weakly, and swallowed again. He cleared his throat.
“Hmm?” He kissed the revealed place between his shoulder and neck. Jonny made a breathy open-mouthed sound, hot into his hair, hips surging against him. His hands came up to Ken’s face, cupping his cheeks.
His hands were trembling. “I thought–” Jonny gasped out when Ken bit his earlobe. “I thought you and Greg–
“I broke up with Greg and I’m moving out.” Close-up, he could see the details of Jonny’s wide green eyes, phosphorescent, pupils so blown they nearly swallowed the iris. His lips were pink and wet. He’d grown so fond of Jonny’s face–the exact curvature of his nose, the particular shape of his cheeks and jaw, the beard he’d been so skeptical of.
Jonny’s mouth was tender and the beard was rough against his jaw when Ken kissed him, licking into his mouth. There was so much he wanted to touch; he reached down and palmed the generous swell of Jonny’s ass one moment, and rucked up the back of his shirt the next. Jonny made a choked sound in the back of his throat, and his hands hovered awkwardly on Ken’s back, as if they didn’t know where to settle.
Jonny turned his face away, breaking the kiss. “I thought you weren’t–you told me you weren’t interested,” he said, with a bewildered smile.
“Well, you’re not really my type,” Ken said unthinkingly. Then he could’ve smacked himself, but his mouth rabbited on before his brain had a chance to catch up–do not pass go, do not collect $200, shut up, Ken, shut up. “But you’ve been so–I mean–the blazer’s so clever, and the lapel pin’s such a nice touch–”
Jonny’s smile dimmed. “You just like me for my clothes,” he said, half-joking. “Now that I’m cleaned up and acceptable–”
“No, I’m just, that isn’t what I meant,” Ken said feebly. “I mean, I like–well–you’re not my usual type, but–”
The smile disappeared. Jonny was still half-hard against his hip, eyes blown and wide. “Get off me,” he said abruptly and pushed Ken off. He walked around him and sat down heavily on the bed, held so tense and quivering he looked like a mannequin. “Stop messing around with me. I have no interest in being anyone’s rebound, least of all yours.”
“You’re not–” Something convulsed in Ken’s chest. He fought for breath and crouched down, grabbing at Jonny’s shoulders. An insight came to him; it was desperate, last-ditch. “Okay, no–I do, I do like you for your clothes.” With a nervous little laugh, he said, “I-I’m the Clothes Whisperer, right? And your clothes talk to me, a-and they tell me things–they tell me–”
Jonny only said, “Oh.” He stared straight at the door, his eyebrows in an unforgiving line. His shoulders were tense and knotted under Ken’s hands.
Ken curled his fingers around the fabric of Jonny’s blazer, bunching it. “You don’t change with every little trend, so you’re reliable, and you have an eye for lasting wear, so you think in the long-term.” His voice cracked.
Jonny still hadn’t moved. He was silent. His eyes were fixed on some point beyond the door, the rise and fall of his chest the only indication he was even alive. So Ken continued, heart straining, “You’re as enthusiastic about fashion as you are about everything you love. You’re adventurous, and c-careful, creative, fearless–”
It was a theatrical monologue, the worst sort of TV movie moment, a part of him whispered, but he found himself leaning forward, urgently–kneeling, pressing his face into Jonny’s soft side, arms around Jonny’s knees. His eyes burned and his cheeks felt hot.
“You’re the bravest person I know,” he said in a small voice, nose buried in Jonny’s stomach. “There’s nobody like you in the whole world.”
He turned his head, resting his cheek on Jonny’s belly. “Tell me if you want me to stop.”
Then he slid down slowly, so slowly, cheek rubbing against the soft material of Jonny’s shirt, until he reached the bulge in Jonny’s shorts–he was still half-hard. He mouthed the fabric, traced the fly with his nose. Jonny jerked and a stifled little sound spilled out of him, but it wasn’t a “no.”
Ken unbuttoned the fly of the shorts and pushed down the briefs underneath, releasing Jonny’s cock, which was stiffening with the attention. He licked the tip consideringly.
Jonny made a wild noise. “Okay, yes,” he said breathlessly, struggling to pull his shorts down, but Ken, impatient, nosed at Jonny’s inner thigh and tongued at the intriguing crease between hip and thigh. The shorts were left tangled around his legs as Jonny clutched the bedspread.
Ken wrapped his hand around the flushed base and tested the weight against his mouth, licking up the underside of the head, then sucked in the tip and jerked him off in hard, quick strokes.
Jonny gasped, eyes squinched shut. He was whispering something to himself, with tiny open-mouthed puffs of breath. Ken realized, suddenly, that he was mouthing a list of the Doctors from Doctor Who, in order.
Oh. He was trying not to come too soon. Ken grinned helplessly on an upstroke.
Jonny broke off from his litany to gasp out, “I’m–I’m close–” and Ken ducked his head back down and tightened his lips around the shaft, jerking faster at the base with his hand. Jonny made a low whine under him and just barely bucked his hips, and oh, oh. Jonny’s mouth fell open, soft and wet. He groaned and shook and came.
They slid helplessly to the floor–Ken found himself giggling like a maniac–and Jonny laughed and pulled his jacket crazily askew, half off his shoulders, rucked up his shirt, yanked his pants down around his thighs, off his legs.
A hot thrill raced up Ken’s spine when he felt Jonny’s blunt fingers shaping around his cock, exploratory. “Oh, you’re uncircumcised,” Jonny murmured roughly. He grabbed a double handful of Ken’s ass, lifted him into his lap–christ, that was hot. Ken collapsed forward like he was drunk, Jonny’s breath gusting against his ear.
He brought Jonny’s hand up to his mouth and licked the palm with a broad sweep of tongue. He couldn’t hold out long–he was so close and hot all over and so turned on he felt like all the blood in his body was pooled in his dick; Jonny took him in an easy grip, and a minute later, Ken came, half-sobbing, just like that.
Reality fuzzed out for a moment. When it came back, he was half on the bed with his legs dangling at strange angles. Jonny stumbled over to the windows and threw them open. “Too hot in here.”
Ken raised his head, feeling like a wrung-out piece of kimchi cabbage. “Do you want to get a washcloth or do you want me to?”
“Give me a second,” Jonny mumbled, and flopped over onto his back. “I was…”–he paused with a familiar affected drama–“not expecting that.” He turned to Ken and gave him a dopey smile, theatrical as always but sincere.
Jonny’s chest rose and fell against his, creating a plane of sticky heat where they touched. Ken felt a low, sweet ache start to build in him, at first inseparable from his sense that the room was spinning and too-warm.
After a moment, Jonny got up and came back with a wet washcloth. It felt good in the heat, like a cold tongue on his belly. His hypersensitive dick tried to twitch a little when the cloth made a pass over it, but it wasn’t like he was fifteen. Give him half an hour or so.
“I’m going to quit my job and look for work as a stylist,” Ken found himself saying. Bone-liquefying orgasms, with the promise of more to follow, apparently destroyed his long-term planning skills.
“I love that red jacket of yours,” Jonny said, apropos of nothing. He gestured at his back. “The one that resembles a fishtail parka?”
“I threw it out. I forgot I even had it in my closet when I wore it out to see you,” Ken said. He stretched lazily. “Everyone kept telling me it was totally ridiculous, even Anjali.”
“I loved that jacket.” Jonny sat on the side of the bed. “It was so perfectly you–” he began.
“Okay, no. It was not perfectly me,” Ken cut him off, irritation going from zero to sixty. Jonny was killing the afterglow here, seriously. He rolled over to face the wall. “It was ugly and ridiculous. Is that what you think I am?”
“What’s the point? What is even the point of all of this if everyone just writes you off as a freak and a weirdo?” he burst out, and gestured savagely at the wall.
Jonny shifted on the bed. It creaked under his weight. “On Preview Night, I was talking to one of the publishers I’m acquainted with,” he said. What the hell was this? Ken crossed his arms, furious because–what the hell was Jonny talking about? “I guess he didn’t remember what I looked like six months ago, because he–well.
“We were talking about the newest lineup of books when we saw a girl walking by cosplaying as Mystique. I thought it was beautifully done, but then he turned and said to me, ‘What is with these nerds and freaks walking around? What’s wrong with them? Is there something broken in their heads?'”
“Really,” Ken croaked. The room swam before his eyes, mindless color. He turned his head the other way on the pillow to avoid Jonny’s eyes.
“It’s impossible to make the whole world see what you are,” Jonny said slowly, curling his fingers around Ken’s. “You and me and her, we’re–we wear ridiculous things because we are capable of seeing so much goddamn beauty where others can’t.”
Ken hiccuped a laugh. “Well, that’s great. So much for the afterglow, with you calling me a ridiculous freak.”
Jonny ducked his face into Ken’s neck, hot like a brand. “No, look–that utterly backfired, but I was trying to use that metaphor as part of my touching declaration about why I like you,” he said. “I just–you don’t have to answer to anyone in the whole world. You’re you–you are ineluctably you. And I adore you, I adore you–”
The windows were blowing in a faint, cool draft of San Diego air.
He became aware that something was digging into his arm, and he lifted his head to see what it was. Oh, a plastic Portal gun, kinda cool, though the prongs were sadly bent from their enthusiastic activities. And, upon further investigation, a TARDIS keychain. A Mameshiba plush toy. A bag of assorted stickers, comics, crumpled game demo CD sleeves, and invitations to afterparties. 3D glasses. A plastic fork from the food court? Actually, there was Comic-Con paraphernalia all over the bed, tossed there along with Jonny’s discarded jacket.
All of a sudden, he got it. Sprawled there, shirt sticking to his sweaty back, Jonny wrapped hot around him like a personal space heater in 100 degree weather, he was suffused with a weird, hysterical sort of love, bubbling up for the San Diego Comic-Con swag bags, the flyers, the tacky plastic Wonder Woman tiaras with the tacky flashing rubies.
Affection rose in his throat and filled him until he thought he might gag, or roll his eyes right out of his head. But still.
He loved it, all of it. He loved the tacky Wonder Woman tiara with the tacky ruby. He loved the rows of brightly-painted Munnies next to the USS Enterprise toys, the steampunk ladies traipsing up and down the aisles in their hoop skirts, the entire sweaty Magic: The Gathering room. He loved Jonny’s trompe l’oeil shirt, and his beard, his taste in watches, his theatrical face, his Firefly posters, his fearless heart, his eyelashes.
He loved Jonny’s red-furred arms and calves and soft stomach, the way Jonny talked, his overacted TV-movie expressions, how Jonny tried too hard at everything. He loved the crowds outside his window dotted with trenchcoats and Batmans and Wolverines and stormtroopers and the occasional catgirl. He loved Jonny.
How wild and weird and brave it all was. How tacky and how transcendent–like London Fashion Week, like Gaultier on the runway–a world full of such freaks.
“Hey, wait,” Jonny said, lifting his head. He peered at Ken’s asymmetrical blue jacket. “I just realized. Are you… Spike Spiegel?”
Ken shrugged. Then he laughed, suddenly at ease. “Well, Spike has a nice suit.”