by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by beili
Eli was just about to give up on the evening when the cops arrived.
A collective groan rose through the patronage as the lights in the bar snapped full up and a little joke of an air raid siren began to wail from over the bar. Eli glanced down at his watch before he remembered that he wasn’t wearing one tonight — or much of anything else, for that matter. He shifted his wig a little more securely into place, though he didn’t think it helped the illusion much, not at this hour, not after this many beers. Shit, why hadn’t he tried a little harder tonight? Maybe he could have passed as someone’s little sister, tagging along for a night on the town!
Yes, Eli thought, because homosexuals brought their little sisters along with them to the bars all the time. The place was practically overrun with them. No faggots here, officers, just a bunch of little sisters out past curfew. He wondered how many palms the owners would have to grease to make the cops believe that.
He didn’t run, though; he stayed in place, like pretty much everyone else around him. A few of the really young kids took off at the alarm, and Eli just shook his head, having learned the hard way that shit like that just made you look even more guilty. He shifted his weight on his feet, then noticed a half-empty bottle of beer next to him on a high table. Waste not, want not, he thought as he snatched it up and pounded it back in three solid gulps. Ugh, it had been out long enough to get a little warm and a little flat, and now he felt queasier than he had when he’d started. Tonight was just peachy, a real gold-star banger of an evening. He wobbled on his heels and tried not to puke.
When the cops did finally march in the front door, stamping their big manly boots, a patron next to Eli said something under his breath about how they should have come here on Leather Night instead, they would have fit right into place. The thought of all the big angry officers waving their hips and trying to get their tiny dicks sucked was abstractly funny to Eli, who had to bite back a giggle.
Unfortunately for him, one of the cops noticed and was right in his face. “You find something funny, faggot?” growled the pasty man, who looked a bit like what would have happened if a stale marshmallow had signed up at the local police academy.
“No sir, nothing funny, sir,” Eli said, even as he bit the inside of his cheek almost to bleeding. So much for being read as a girl.
Fortunately for Eli, the pile of spun sugar with a badge glared at him for only a moment more, then began walking away, staring down the other patrons each in turn. Eli hated this part, not because it was particularly terrible, but because it was boring, a step in a dance most of the partners didn’t want to be making anyway. It would go on as long as the cops felt it had to, until they declared the deviant patronage sufficiently menaced, and then they’d hand out a few tickets for illegal drinking and public indecency, and they’d fine any employees they could identify, and then everyone could just go home, or to whatever hole cops crawled back into when they weren’t rattling the homosexuals’ cages. It was a routine as familiar to Eli as the cha-cha, though a hundred times less exciting.
Well, he’d stupidly caught a cop’s attention, so there was no way he was getting out of this without taking one of those tickets; he’d resigned himself to that, at least. He even looked on it as a sort of benevolent gesture, his gift to the community — look, my fellow maricones, this time it is I who has offered himself up on your behalf, sacrificing my $25 to save the rest of yours! The fact that he couldn’t afford that $25 any more than they could was what made it so magnanimous of him. He was practically Philadelphia’s homo hometown hero.
Then some fucking idiot threw the first punch, and it was all downhill from there.
Eli had been looking the wrong direction to see just what had happened, but all of a sudden, there was a commotion over by the bar, the kind that made more cops come running. Of course, the room they were in was just a restaurant’s dank, cramped semi-converted basement, so nobody had to take more than ten big steps to get to the heart of the action. Everybody else sort of flattened against the walls, trying to blend into the concrete and disappear beneath the multicolored glow of the neon wall signs. Whatever the altercation was, maybe they’d just settle it down and go. That was all anyone wanted, really, just for this moment to be over, and the fact that it was now being dragged out by one of their own was just insult to injury. Didn’t anyone go around teaching the kids these days not to be stupid? At twenty-four, Eli was practically an old man at this scene, and he would have been glad to give lessons on shutting up and not getting your fool head bashed in.
A gloved hand clamped itself around his wrist with bruising force, and Eli looked up in horror to see the marshmallow cop again, his face now twisted into a rictus of smug fury. “You’re under arrest!” he bellowed triumphantly, jerking Eli toward the door.
Eli looked around to see that he was not the only subject of this wrath; the ten or so uniformed officers each seemed to have picked a target or two, gone to take their pound of flesh however they could get it. No surprise, they’d gone mostly for the queens like Eli, the little sissy guys who could be hauled around like sacks of onions. Eli staggered along behind the cop, desperate to keep his footing as he was dragged up the shaky wooden steps to the street level.
It was a blistering July night out there, and the fact that it had to be past midnight by now hadn’t scattered the day’s heat. It hung between the buildings, radiating off the pavement and scorching Eli’s bare legs. A crowd had started to gather, a flock of night owls keeping vigil as Friday turned into Saturday, all of them wanting a glimpse of the action. The cops shoved through the growing press of onlookers, dragging their quarries behind. Eli heard a sharp snap and looked down to see that the cop’s hand on his wrist had been replaced with the snug embrace of a handcuff.
He lifted his right arm a little, trying to accommodate the inevitable — only to feel his left arm jerked to the side as the cuff’s other half closed soundly around someone else’s wrist. Eli looked to see that his partner by attachment was a tall white man who looked like he might have walked straight out of a JC Penney catalog, except for his split lower lip and a trickle of blood down the front of his rumpled Oxford. He was even wearing a tie, like a librarian. Well, that solved the mystery of who’d been stupid enough to start this all.
A beer bottle shattered against the wall over Eli’s head, showering them all with little shards of green glass as the crowd exploded similarly into cheers and whoops. The cops’ heads jerked in unison to the far side of the street, where the thrower swayed drunkenly and laughed with his friends. Eli didn’t even think the man was a homosexual; he looked more like the kind of punk who’d take any opportunity to launch a projectile at The Man. If the faggots had pissed the cops off just by existing, though, an active assault on their righteous show of restoring public order sent them into a white blaze of rage. They charged, shoving bystanders and arrestees alike aside, and in that pure and perfect moment, Eli felt the officer’s grip on the cuffs let go.
“Come on,” Eli said to the man on the other end, jerking him by the wrist.
The man hesitated for a moment, and he swore to God, Eli was going to drag that idiot bodily away from there if he needed to. But by the grace of the Blessed Virgin, before Eli could even brace himself for the first tug, the man nodded and hunkered down low. Another group of onlookers pushed up behind them, giving Eli the chaos he needed to disappear, dragging his new ball and chain behind him.
Eli hadn’t grown up in this neighborhood, but he was a quick study, and he knew that there wasn’t an alley in the area that didn’t come out the other side. He dragged the man down the nearest by-street he could find, into the dark — but crucially, not deserted — gap between buildings. Other low-lifes like them were milling about, which was the cover they needed. His heart pounding, Eli willed himself to slow to a walk, emerging from the alley into the street on the other side with forced calm. He grabbed the man’s hand like they were lovers on a casual late-night stroll, praying that if they kept to the shadows, no one would notice their curious matching jewelry.
The man glanced back over his shoulder, and Eli squeezed his hand hard. “Straight ahead!” he hissed through clenched teeth. “Do not look back!”
“I think we lost them,” the man said. He had a surprisingly deep voice for how boyishly young his face looked.
“I know we lost them!” Eli whispered loudly. “We just need to not give them a reason to find us again! There’s a little courtyard right up there.” The commotion they’d left behind was still audible, which Eli hoped would keep the cops occupied for just that much longer. “We’re going to walk to the intersection, cross at the crosswalk, and duck in there, and then we can look back over our shoulders, you got it?”
“I got it,” the man agreed. He was so strait-laced and masculine that Eli had for a moment though he was straight, until he’d realized that no straight man, even to get away from the cops, would have agreed to holding a queen’s hand so long. Well, the man was a terrible dresser and a pugilist, but by God, he was also a queer. Thank the heavens for that.
Somewhere between being dragged up the stairs and making a run for it, the heel of Eli’s left shoe had been knocked loose, making his gait even more unsteady. He reached across himself and took the man’s right elbow with Eli’s own right hand, an awkward arrangement that at least kept him from falling over. He had really liked these shoes, too, and he’d actually bought them, fair and square and even brand-new. What a night it was turning out to be.
The squeak of the courtyard gate made all the hairs on Eli’s arms stand on end, but no one else around them even turned to look, so the pair disappeared into the tiny green area at the center of the apartment complex. The only light came from the few curtained windows in apartments where people were still awake, but the darkness was fine by Eli. He sank into a grateful slump on a decorative concrete bench.
The man sat there with him, though Eli supposed he didn’t have much of a choice, considering. He let go of Eli’s hand, but he stayed closer than the handcuffs made strictly necessary. “I’m Eli,” he said. “I’d shake your hand, but I think we’re beyond that.”
“I’d agree,” said the man with a smile. “I’m Buck.”
“Buck,” Eli echoed with a sigh. “Well, Buck, where’s the nearest leatherman you know?”
“The–” Buck’s blond eyebrows furrowed. “What now?”
“Because if you have a different way to get off our new matching jewelry,” Eli said, raising their joined hands, “sweetheart, I am all ears.”
Buck’s handsome face fell, showing off just how much he had not thought about this particular problem. He had not thought about their escape. He had not thought about what a dumbfuck move it was to punch a cop in a gay bar. Eli was starting to realize that thinking was going to be his job, which meant that they were both in a lot of trouble.
Eli felt a tugging at his scalp and reached up to find that his wig had given up the pretense of being his actual hair. “Hold on, can I–” Eli tugged at the cuffs enough to get Buck to raise his hand, which let Eli set about the business of unpinning the sassy black bouffant. It had been a cheap thing when it had first been bought, three owners ago; by now it was a rat’s nest that Eli kept coiffed mostly through sheer force of will. He sighed and shrugged it free, then ran his fingers through his own hair, the same color but barely an inch long. The world was still stinking hot, but it felt so much cooler now.
“Well,” said Buck after a moment, “where’s the nearest leather … person that you know?”
“Whitman,” Eli said. He scratched at his scalp, loosening curls that sweat had matted to his head.
“Whitman?” Buck snapped. “What, down by the bridge? That’s miles away!”
Eli nodded. “About three from here, I think. But our other option is waltzing into a police station and asking the nice officers if they wouldn’t be so kind as to unlock us, no, no faggots here, just two honest, heterosexual men who had a terrible, I don’t know, hunting accident.”
Buck smiled at that, then winced, bringing his fingers up to the side of his mouth. “Ow.”
“You still bleeding?”
“No, I–” Buck drew his hand away from his face, squinting at his fingertips in the darkness. Eli looked too, and they appeared no more or less grimy than they had been before he’d touched his injury. “No, I’m okay. Just sore.”
“Yeah, well, welcome to the wonderful world of being punched in the face.” Eli shook his head. “If you weren’t all messed up, maybe we could find a police station anyway and claim that you’re the fine, upstanding heterosexual who was attacked on the street by a mad pervert with handcuffs. Then at least they’d let one of us go.”
“I appreciate the thought, but I doubt it’d work as well as you’d think,” said Buck, who declined to elaborate. Instead, he pointed to Eli’s dress, then to his shoes. “Okay, I don’t mind a late-night walk halfway across South Philly, but the cops must have noticed we’re gone by now, and you’re not exactly inconspicuous.”
Eli couldn’t even pretend he didn’t know what Buck meant. The dress he’d chosen for the evening had been a thrift-store find indeed, a narrow, spaghetti-strapped tube made entirely of shiny silver sequins. He suspected it had once been pressed into service as some adolescent girl’s costume, maybe a piece for a talent show performance while she and two of her friends pretended to be Diana Ross and the Supremes. But that girl had to develop boobs and hips someday, while Eli’s body would never grow out of the dress — at least, as far as breasts went, though he wouldn’t vouch for what would happen to his stomach if he kept eating so much of his abuela‘s cooking. Between the sparkly dress and the broken heel, he stuck out even among the night city’s dwellers.
But it wasn’t as though he had anything else to wear, and he hoped that Buck was at least bright enough not to expect him to wander down the road barefoot and in his underpants. “You have a spare pair of shorts in your back pocket?” Eli asked, poking Buck’s grey wool trousers. “Or just a handkerchief?”
“Neither.” He reached around with his free hand and patted his back pockets, then let out a disgusted snort. “And my wallet’s in my jacket, which I left in Archie’s car, God damn it.”
“Archie?” Eli’s ears perked up. “Your boyfriend?” A boyfriend was someone who’d care if Buck were missing, who could be called and summoned to the rescue. A boyfriend could solve all of their problems, and not even just in the way Eli had always imagined.
Buck shook his head. “A friend’s boyfriend. He drove us all, and it was so hot in there, I asked him earlier for the keys so I could go stash it.”
Eli felt he deserved an award for not, at that very moment, launching into an entire tirade about who the hell came to the bars in July dressed like he was starting his day at the FBI instead of trying to get his dick sucked like a normal homosexual. “And I don’t even have pockets,” Eli said with a sigh. “So…”
“So…” Buck echoed. “Now what?”
“Now we have to get creative,” said Eli with a sigh. It was already shaping up to be a very long night.
Eli could have kissed his memory when he saw that the VW Bus was still parked where he’d last seen it, in a lot two streets away. The bottom half was already an obnoxious turquoise, but someone with frankly limited artistic ability had smeared giant flower-like shapes all over it. Despite the late hour, the side door was still wide open, and a radio inside played “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde” at a volume just low enough that no one would bother with a noise complaint. Buck hesitated when he saw where they were headed, but Eli kept straight on, walking right up to the door of the van and calling, “Hello?”
Three heads lifted from three prone bodies — two women and a man, all three scruffy and unwashed and clearly stoned into a near-stupor. Eli had gone counter-cultural in a different direction, but he respected hippies in a fellow-travellers sort of way. “Hi,” said one of the women, though she managed to drag out the word for several seconds more than it needed to go, and fell over a little bit while saying it.
“Hi,” said Eli again, giving a little wave. “We were wondering if you would be interested in a trade.”
“A trade, man?” asked the man, scratching at his ginger beard. “Like … what for what?”
Eli held out the shoes for inspection. “Looking to trade some clothes. Unless you’ve got a spare handcuff key or even a hacksaw just lying around, which…” The three of them shook their heads, and Eli sighed. “Clothes it is, then. This pair of shoes and my dress for … something that isn’t this.”
The second woman’s blue eyes widened. “That is … that’s a pretty dress,” she said, then looked up at Eli and giggled. “Hey, you’re not a girl!”
“But he’s so pretty,” said the first woman, clutching at her friend’s arm. “Look, he’s so pretty. I think he should get to be a girl if he wants to!”
“Oh, you’re so sweet,” said Eli, blowing them a kiss that made them giggle some more. “So, one girl to another, can we do a little swap? I bet you” –he pointed to the second woman– “would look amazing in this dress. What do you say, do we have a deal?”
The second woman reached behind her and rummaged around, then pulled out a floor-length maxi dress, complete with amazing bell sleeves. “Do you like it?” she asked hopefully.
“I love it, honey,” Eli said, “except there’s just one problem.” He lifted the wrist with the handcuffs on them, seeing their pupils slowly focus as they realized for the first time why he and Buck were walking so close together. “I can’t get anything over my arm. We’re already going to need to cut one of these straps free. How are you with things that don’t have sleeves?”
Making a knowing sound, the first woman nodded and shuffled ungracefully into the back of the van, rummaging around through the belongings piled against its thin metal sides. The man watched her go, then turned back to Buck and Eli, frowning at their joined hands. “Did the fuzz get you?” he asked.
Eli nodded. “But we got away. So if they show up asking if you’ve seen us, it’d be a real big help if you said no.”
That made the man and the second woman laugh. “We don’t talk to cops,” she promised, slurring her words in a way that made her statement even more believable.
“What’d you do,” asked the man, “rob a bank?”
“Bar raid,” Eli said.
The pair made disgusted noises at that, a bit of sympathetic solidarity from the heterosexual world that touched Eli’s heart, as the first woman emerged again. In one hand she held a pair of faded jeans whose flared bottoms would have given the Liberty Bell a run for its money; in the other, a bundle of fluorescent orange fabric that Eli recognized as a tube top. “This good?” she asked.
“Perfect.” Eli gave her a thumbs-up. “Now who has scissors, or a knife?”
A little exploration turned up a butterfly knife in a tool box between the front seats, and Eli trustingly turned his back as one of the women severed his left strap at the back where it met the body of the dress, about the easiest place to make a repair like that. Eli shrugged and did a little wiggle, and the dress fell right off him, down to where he could step out of it and pick it up, along with the broken pair of shoes.
It was at this moment Eli realized two things: first, that Buck had not said a single thing since their arrival, and second, that Buck’s gaze was on him now like a hundred-pound weight. Well, Eli thought with a little shake of his hips, why shouldn’t it be? His twink body was all but naked now, down to a pair of black underpants that looked like they’d come from the women’s side of the Salvation Army, even if they hadn’t. He was maybe a little on the scrawny side, but he had a nice firm bubble butt, which he turned pointedly toward Buck as he bent down to pick up his discarded clothing. There was nothing like making the best of a bad situation.
He stepped into the tube top and shimmied it all the way up his body, until the elastic holding it together snapped around his torso. It was a bit uncomfortable, but it was also relatively inconspicuous — to say nothing of how, given the tether on his wrist, it was about the only style he could get on his top half at the moment. The jeans were a tight fit in his ass region, but Eli sucked it all in and said a little prayer to La Santa Twiggy, patron saint of skinny bitches, and he managed to get four of the five buttons in the fly fastened. It was good enough by a mile. The second woman handed him a pair of rubber flip-flops, and Eli was as good to go as he was going to get.
The three van inhabitants gave thumbs-up and some hoots of approval as Eli twirled. He looked terrible, but most importantly, he looked far less like himself than he had before, and that had been the goal all along. “You have saved the day,” he told them all, blowing kisses.
All three, even the guy, looked pleased as hell at that, which Eli was willing to attribute partly to his undeniable cuteness and partly to the weed. Okay, maybe mostly to the weed. But one of the women frowned and pointed at Buck. “Are you … is that blood?” she asked.
Buck looked down at the stain on his shirt, which was by now long past the stage of being soaked in and had started to dry. “Shirt’s gotta go,” Eli declared, snapping his fingers as though he could magic it away.
“It’s Brooks Brothers!” Buck looked faint at the thought.
“Then this will be a lesson in getting all dolled up before you go punch a cop!”
“Wait,” said the first woman, “did you punch a cop?”
“Far out,” the second sighed.
“‘Cause you totally look like a narc,” the first woman added.
Buck’s jaw set in a tight lock, but at least he appeared to have the good sense not to say anything unkind toward their part-rescuers. “I’m not a narc. I’m in sales.”
The first woman frowned. “So did you like, just … walk up to him and … and pow?”
“He was harassing me unjustly, violating my Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, because I am a homosexual,” Buck said. Eli cringed to hear it, not because it wasn’t intensely obvious what they were, but because he didn’t believe it helped to belabor the point with the straights. “I told him that he had no grounds for suspecting me of illegal behavior, and that without probable cause this was unconstitutional and a violation of my rights as an American citizen regardless of sexual preference.”
“And then you hit him?” the man asked.
Buck’s shoulders slumped a little as he nodded. “And then I hit him.”
“Far out,” the second woman repeated.
“So can you–” Eli made his fingers into a snipping motion. “Because I tell you now, you can bleach that to forever, and the blood’s not coming out.”
The process of cutting the sleeve off Buck’s right arm eventually fell to Eli, because he was the only person among them who both wasn’t high and had full range of motion in his dominant hand. Using a pair of nail scissors, he carefully snipped up the fabric from wrist to collar, noticing as he did all the blond hairs that covered Buck’s pale, muscular arm. Well, if Eli slipped and something went wrong, he would declare it Buck’s fault for being too damn handsome.
At last, the shirt pulled free, leaving Buck in a tight white short-sleeved undershirt that did nothing to disguise how well-built he was. Eli had never been one for the gym rats before, but he was starting to see the appeal. They handed the now-destroyed shirt to the hippies, while Buck folded up his tie and shoved it down his back pocket. There they were, two totally different and unidentifiable people, so long as no one looked too hard at either reason why they were walking so close.
“Thank you all,” Eli said. “Truly, you have saved our night and possibly our lives.”
“Yes, thank you,” echoed Buck, who sounded a little less grateful than Eli to have been stripped of his attire. Still, he looked a bit more relaxed now, and at least he’d stopped making them both look suspicious by glancing back over his shoulder every thirty seconds. With any luck, the change would do them both good in more ways than one.
They all made their good-byes to one another, and Buck and Eli set out again, finding the nearest named street and turning south on it. The cuffs were prone to jingle as they walked, so without discussion, Buck and Eli took each other’s hands again, twining their fingers together and stilling the metal against their skin as best as they could. It would have been romantic as hell, walking like this in public, if this had been a date and not a run from the law.
“So,” Eli ventured, realizing how long a three-mile walk could be if they didn’t fill it with some sort of conversation, “what’s your Fourth Amendment?”
Buck frowned at him. “What?”
Eli jerked his thumb back over his shoulder in the direction of the van. “Your Fourth Amendment, you said to them. You said it means the cops can’t search you. How’d you get one?”
“No, I–” Buck pursed his lips for a moment, his frown deepening. “It’s not my Fourth Amendment. It’s everyone’s. To the Constitution.”
“Oh shit,” Eli said, wondering why he’d never heard about this before. “You mean the Constitution says the cops can’t search me?” For that matter, he wondered if the cops had ever heard of this before.
“They can’t search you unreasonably,” Buck said. “It says you, as an American, have the right not to be searched without a good reason to search you. That’s why they have to get a warrant first. Didn’t you grow up watching Dragnet?”
“Is that a TV show?” Eli asked, and when Buck nodded, Eli, who had grown up in a household that barely scraped by, shook his head. “No TV, papi.”
“Oh.” Buck shrugged. “Well, whether you did or you didn’t, you should have learned about this in school.”
Eli laughed at that. “I’m not really what you’d call a good student. If they teach it to you after you’re thirteen, I wasn’t there to learn it. And if they teach it to you before you’re thirteen, well, I probably wasn’t listening anyway.” Eli didn’t consider his lack of education any kind of badge of pride, but he wasn’t going to be ashamed of it either. His family had needed him to work in his grandparents’ restaurant, so he’d done what his family had needed him to do. That was as important as sitting in a desk and memorizing times tables and the names of presidents and whatever else they’d wanted him to know. “Can’t be such a big deal if the cops don’t pay attention to it anyway.”
Buck gave a long-suffering sigh at that. “They’re supposed to. But to them, being a homosexual is probable cause. There’s a hundred shitty little bars like that one in the city right now, running without licenses and all other sorts of violations. But they stop into that one because they’re going to rattle our cages, and they know we can’t say shit because we’re targets just by existing.”
“Yeah, which is why you don’t punch them.” Eli mimed a faint right hook. “What were you thinking? You were thinking this was somehow going to make it better? And not ruin everyone’s night?” Remembering to keep his voice down, he spat out the words in an angry hiss.
“Somebody’s got to stand up to them!”
“And when you do, you get everybody in trouble!” Eli jerked on the cuffs to make his point. “You can pay bail. I can’t.”
That, at least, shut Buck up for a minute, and he had the good graces to look sheepish. While Eli didn’t know anything for sure about Buck’s financial situation, his complaining about destroying a bloody shirt had told Eli everything he needed to know about Buck’s relationship to money. For him, buying a replacement shirt would be annoying but not impossible. Eli probably couldn’t even walk into the store without setting off twenty “poor person entering” alarms.
But being mad at Buck made Eli feel like he’d just yelled at a puppy, and as they crossed the next street against the light, Eli sighed. “Look, it’s not your fault. I mean, it is, yeah, kind of, but it’s just weird all over. The cops were spoiling for a fight already when they got there. They’re never friendly, but they were giving a lot of shit already. If you hadn’t made it explode, probably somebody else was gonna. And you were not the only one throwing punches by the end there.” Eli’s thoughts went back to the kid with the bottle, and Eli said a little prayer for him, whatever cell he was in at the moment. “So I don’t know what crawled up their asses and died.”
“The Annual Reminder, probably,” Buck said. “They really don’t like that.”
“The what?” asked Eli.
It was the wrong answer several times over, Eli knew, from the expression on Buck’s face — not anger, or even the didactic contempt of a government teacher, but deep disappointment that Eli could tell had several targets, Buck himself included. “Every year, on the Fourth of July, we–” Buck mimed holding something Eli realized after a moment was meant to be a picket sign. “We march around Independence Hall as an annual reminder — hence the name — that homosexuals are not afforded the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that Americans are so proud of. …Did you really not hear about it? It literally happened yesterday.”
Had he heard something about it? It didn’t sound familiar, but then again, Eli didn’t tend to listen to news about complete wastes of time. “Sure, I heard about it,” he lied, because Buck sounded so proud about it. “I mean, I didn’t hear what it was called, not the name, but I heard about it.”
“Yeah?” Buck raised an eyebrow. “Then why didn’t you come?”
Ugh, this had backfired spectacularly. “Because…” Eli exhaled through pursed lips. “Because I had to work.”
“On the Fourth of July?”
Eli shrugged mock-casually. “My family doesn’t celebrate the Fourth of July. We’re Puerto Rican.”
Buck shot him a look of unvarnished skepticism. “Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States. If you are Puerto Rican, you are a United States citizen.”
Damn it, how did this random white boy know so much about Puerto Rico? Eli supposed that was what happened when you didn’t drop out of school after seventh grade. “I was still busy,” he said, and then added, in a bid not to change the subject, but to redirect it from his obvious failings, “How did it go?”
“It went … like it always did, I guess,” Buck said, his tone suddenly much less cheery than it had been before. “We marched around and chanted some slogans, and the cops made sure we kept inside our designated area and didn’t outright spit on us, and then we all went home and woke up the next day and everything was still the same.”
Well, what did you expect? was what Eli absolutely did not say, not because he felt it was unjustified, but because it felt it would’ve been like pouring salt into Buck’s wounds. Deep inside, though, he felt that the man who knew about Eli’s citizenship status should also know the inherent futility in those kind of gestures. Of course everything was still the same. The world wasn’t suddenly going to change because a bunch of faggots with signs walked around in a circle demanding everyone be nice to them. Of course, he was pretty sure that the world wasn’t suddenly going to change because of punching cops, either.
All told, Eli mostly felt that the world didn’t change. It shifted and it shuddered, and occasionally it cracked or even broke, but it didn’t change, not at his eye level. He did not come from a family of revolutionaries, he came from a family of survivors, and he’d learned from the cradle that the best way to get by was just to get by. The world would do what it wanted, and you took your lumps, and that was how you lived to see the next day.
He tried not to voice this opinion to others, because he had heard it bring more than one upbeat conversation to a screeching halt, but deep inside he knew it to be true. He was by no means a pessimist; a pessimist would have manned up and married a nice girl and accepted his doing so as inevitable. He had tossed aside convention and he paid the tax every day for being what he was, and he figured that made him at worst a pragmatist. Maybe he was a maricón, but he was one who understood cause and effect.
Buck seemed so down about it, though, that Eli couldn’t help squeezing his hand. “Well, you do it every year, right?” Eli asked. “Maybe next year.”
“Maybe,” Buck agreed as they crossed on the other side of the street from the Pennsylvania Hospital. He looked across at the lights bleeding out from the doors of its emergency bay. “Hospitals have bolt cutters, don’t they?”
Eli shook his head. “Too risky.”
“Doesn’t have to be,” Buck said, shrugging. “We tell them we’re boyfriends, having a kinky night when, oops, I lost the handcuff key! Best-case scenario, we get a gay nurse and we’re out of there in ten minutes. Worst-case, we get some old battleaxe who wants to lecture us about Jesus and then get rid of us, twenty minutes.”
“Okay, we’ll try it,” Eli agreed. “But if something smells bad, we bolt. Deal?”
Buck agreed, and together the two of them walked toward the emergency room entrance, lurking in the shadows as long as there were shadows to lurk in. Soon, though, the darkness gave way to the hospital’s eternal fluorescent daylight, beaming through the plate-glass doors that showed the place’s sterile white interior. An ambulance was parked right up against that entrance, its own back doors still swinging wide. While Eli didn’t want to wish harm on anyone, he did secretly hope that whatever had happened, it had been bad enough to distract the attention of anyone on-premises with a badge and a gun.
When he stepped through the door into the light, he was hit with two contrasting emotions, one after the other. The first was absolute elation: There, standing by the front desk, in her short white uniform and ridiculous hat, was Malena. He hadn’t even known she was working here, much less this late shift, and he was about to call her name when she turned and saw them. That was when the second emotion hit, a wave of pure dread as the smile on her face fell. She cut off the conversation she was having with the other nurse and headed straight for Eli and Buck, shooing them back out the doors. Eli stumbled backward, but Buck caught him and helped him stay upright. At her silent urging, they scrambled back out and into darker area around the side of the building, and seconds later, she followed.
“That was you, Eliseo?” Malena spat in Spanish, without a moment of greeting. “Holy shit, the police gave us the description, but I thought, oh no, surely no one I know would be that dumb!”
“I will give you the whole story later, I swear,” Eli promised, not caring at the look of befuddlement on Buck’s face. Translations could wait too. “Right now, we need bolt cutters.”
“Yes, you do!” Malena agreed. “Problem is, I can’t get to the bolt cutters. Not without making everyone suspicious. There’s already a cop waiting inside. They’ve already got all the hospitals on alert about a pair of homosexuals handcuffed together, one with a black eye and broken jaw.”
Eli frowned, then turned to Buck and gestured that he should bend down a little. Buck did, and Malena reached for his face. She poked him forcefully several times on his jaw and cheek, but the only time he so much as winced was when she pressed on his split lip. “Ow,” Buck said, as though she might not have known that would hurt.
Malena rolled her eyes and let him go, wiping her hands on her uniform skirt. “You’re fine,” she told Buck in English before switching back into Spanish for Eli. “I can’t do anything for you. I’m sorry. They’re too pissed off tonight to let this go. I’ve got–” She rummaged around in one of her pockets and produced a handful of loose change, which she shoved into Eli’s hand. “You pay me back, you hear?”
“Every cent,” Eli promised, kissing at the air. She frowned even deeper at that, but Eli knew it was only to cover up a smile. With a shake of her head, she turned on her heel and marched right back inside, her ridiculous shoes clomping along with every step.
Eli tugged Buck’s hand, and though he could feel his reluctance to leave, Buck soon fell in line after. They walked, not ran, away, covering two more full blocks before Eli felt safe to stop. His feet were already starting to hurt from how little protection the thin soles of his traded shoes gave him. He clearly was not meant for a life of crime.
“In English?” asked Buck.
“Hospitals are out. Cops figure you’ll be coming there for treatment, since they think they broke your jaw.”
“My–” Buck reached up to his face with his free hand and gave it much the same treatment Malena had, minus the poke to the lip. “With that tap?”
Eli shrugged. “I guess they don’t know their own strength, but in reverse. Actually,” he said, thinking about it some more, “I bet you knocked out one of that guy’s teeth or something, and they don’t want to make like they didn’t give worse than they got.”
“Shit.” Buck looked down at his cuffed right hand, and Eli could see the small cuts on Buck’s knuckles. “Who was that, anyway?”
“She’s a–” How best to explain Malena? The most accurate description would involve drawing at least part of Eli’s family tree and explaining his grandfather’s illegitimate cousin that nobody had known about until after Tío Héctor’s first wife had died. “She’s a friend. And a lesbian. So she’s not going to tell on us. And she gave us some money.”
Buck tallied the coins Eli showed him. “$1.87,” he said. “Not enough for a cab, even if we could find one that would pick us up.”
“Enough for a sandwich, though,” Eli said. “You hungry?”
It was a little out of their way, strictly speaking, but Eli knew the Broad Street Diner had good, cheap food and didn’t ask too many questions. Eli seated them at a two-chair table up against the wall, where they could move the napkin holder and hide their joined hands from casual observers. The waitress, a dowdy Greek woman in her mid-sixties, looked at them like they weren’t even the most surprising thing she’d seen in the last ten minutes. Eli ordered for them both: a grilled cheese and tomato soup to share, and two cups of coffee.
Eli felt good that they weren’t even the only people in the place; night owls of all stripes filled booths and barstools, everyone paying attention to their own business and no one else’s. Buck even looked around with an approving smile. “I’ll want to come back when I’ve got an extra fifty cents for ice cream,” he said.
“Where do you live that you’ve never been here before?” asked Eli.
“Mount Airy,” Buck said.
“Mount Ai–” If Eli had been drinking, he would have done a spit-take. Most everyone he knew barely crossed the Schuylkill River if they didn’t have to, much less commuted all the way up to one of the city’s northernmost suburbs. “What are you doing down here, then?”
“Well, I came down yesterday,” said Buck, who then glanced at the clock over the counter, “or, uh, the day before, I guess, since it’s Saturday now. I stayed at my friends’ place in Fishtown last night, went to work yesterday, and then agreed to go out with them instead of going back home. Which means I have been wearing the same clothes for … about forty-three hours straight.”
Eli supposed that explained some of Buck’s curious impulses when it came to clubbing attire, though certainly not why the tie hadn’t gone the way of the jacket in the first place. “Well, at least you don’t look like you have. Or smell like you have,” Eli added. While there was no denying that Eli loved the smell of an unwashed man, there was a definite line between maybe needing a shower and just downright rank, and Buck landed firmly on the former side of that divide. “You wore a wool suit to a protest, though? In July?”
“That’s the idea.” Buck gave the waitress a charming smile as she put down their cups of coffee, and though she appeared unmoved, Eli appreciated it. “We want to show the straight world we’re just like them, and not just a bunch of … of…”
“Of freaks in dresses,” Eli finished the sentence as he poured milk into his coffee. He wanted sugar, but this didn’t seem the time to enlist Buck’s hand in that venture.
“No!” said Buck, who seemed content to take his coffee black. He took a sip, then paused and sighed. “I mean … yeah, kind of. The homosexual contains multitudes, a la Whitman. And if they only thing people see about gay men and women is what scares them, they’re going to keep supporting the laws that treat us like we’re scary. If we can show them that, you know, we’re the same men and women who go to school with you and work next to you and shop at the grocery store next to you, then they’ll have to realize how unfair it is to discriminate against us just based on that.”
“So it’s okay to discriminate against the freaks in dresses,” Eli said, his voice pleasant but flat. He wished this was the first time he’d ever heard this line of argument.
“No,” Buck said, punctuating the word by returning his coffee cup to the table. “It’s not okay. But you’ve got to admit, I’m an easier sell to your average heterosexual than you are.”
Eli took in a deep breath, and as he exhaled, he let his anger go with it. If he was going to style himself as a pragmatist, then he couldn’t get mad at Buck for doing the same. “Yeah, yeah.” He took a too-big drink of his too-hot coffee, letting the liquid burn the back of his throat. “I just don’t see why I should have to play normal to merit not getting my teeth kicked in every time I step outside the door.”
“You shouldn’t have to,” Buck agreed. “Nobody does. But … can I ask you a personal question?”
That made Eli laugh so much he nearly choked on his coffee. Once you’d been handcuffed to a man for several hours, personal questions seemed like the least of all possible impositions. “Go ahead.”
“Shouldn’t the point of being gay be that you’re a man who wants to be with other men? And not…” Buck gestured to Eli’s outfit, then frowned and shook his head. “I don’t mean what you’re wearing right now. But the dress and shoes, and wig you had on earlier. Is that really — and this is an honest question — the best way you can think to express your pride in yourself as a gay man?”
Eli was glad that the waitress took that moment to deliver their sandwich and soup, because he honestly didn’t have an answer for that, not put on the spot like that. Instead, he focused on the thick grilled cheese in front of them and the large cup of soup — and then, on a separate plate, a pile of french fries. “Oh, we didn’t–” Eli began, scrambling to remember how much the fries had been and trying add that to their total, praying all the while that the final number left them enough for a worthwhile gratuity.
“Somebody forgot these,” said the waitress, even though the crispy, steaming pile could not have come out of the fryer more than thirty seconds previous. Without comment, she turned on her heel and marched right back into the kitchen. Eli swore to return next time and tip her his entire paycheck.
Eating took up the next minute or so, as Eli hadn’t quite realized just how hungry he was. He inhaled his half of the sandwich, each bite soaked in creamy tomato soup, then started in on the fries before Buck even had three bites down. Buck would have starved to death at Eli’s family dinners with that attitude. He didn’t have the look to him of someone used to eating in front of other people, or someone used to being fed or fussed over. Buck was at once too awkward to have a man at home and too handsome not to.
“Okay,” Eli said after a minute, “you want to know why I wear dresses?”
Buck nodded, dipping a clutch of fries into the soup. “I do.”
“It’s because sometimes I like to wear dresses.”
“And what?” Eli shrugged, then smiled at the stone-faced waitress as she came to top up their coffee cups. “I am a gay man who likes being a gay man and sometimes I like to wear dresses. Some gay men like a skinny guy in a dress. A lot of gay men like lifting up my dress and sucking my cock. It’s not complicated.”
“But…” Buck scratched his jawline with his free hand. He’d still been pretty clean-shaven when they’d first been cuffed together, but now he was starting to get just the slightest hint of a stubble. Especially with him in that white t-shirt, it make him look a little rakish, a little James Dean, which was a good look on him. “Why would you take all the shit of being a gay man, only to not then be attracted to men?”
“Just for the record, nobody actually thinks I’m not a man,” Eli said. He looked at Buck’s plate, where the right-angled crusts of Buck’s sandwich half lay, their innards already consumed. “Are you going to eat those?”
Buck looked from Eli to the plate, then back to Eli. “Go ahead.”
“Thanks.” Eli snatched them up, dragged them through the soup, and popped them in his mouth. He could probably have eaten an dozen more of those and still had room left over for another plate of fries, but for the moment, he was satisfied. “I don’t dress like that in real life, you know. My closet looks a lot more like what you’re wearing right now than it does like the Fall Collection at Macy’s. Dressing like that is fun. It’s a game. It’s a way to let off steam, like … like you have to be one way all the time, and so when you don’t, and you get to be the way you want to be, you burst.”
“I’m the way I want to be all the time,” Buck said.
Eli shook his head. “Bullshit.”
“Swear to God. My work knows. My boss knows. My dad’s dead, but my mom knows.”
“And they’re just, what, okay with that?” Eli asked.
Buck nodded, though an accompanying little shrug of his shoulders took some of the confidence out of the first gesture. “They don’t make a big deal about it. They just know it. No one says anything about it, but they respect who I am.”
Eli furrowed his brow and looked at Buck over the coffee cup. “Well, good for you,” he said, letting more bitterness slip by than he’d meant to.
“It’s just that no one will ever respect us if they can’t see us,” Buck said.
“Sure, sure.” Eli nodded. “And I work for my family, so they see me? I get disowned and fired in a single day. But hey, respect, right?”
“Hey.” Buck reached for Eli’s cuffed hand with his own, and Eli was both annoyed and gratified that the tether meant he couldn’t pull away. “Okay. I’m sorry. That was a shitty thing for me to say. Everybody’s got a different situation, right?”
Eli held his prickly exterior for several seconds more, just to let Buck know that he really meant it, before turning his left hand over and taking Buck’s fingers in his own. Damn fate or God or whatever had decided to literally shackle him to an infuriating man Eli couldn’t manage to stay mad at. Eli chose to blame his weakness on the fact that, due to schedule conflicts and family gatherings and overtime at the restaurant and a couple just plain lousy nights at the bars, he hadn’t gotten laid in nearly a month. Otherwise, he told himself, he wouldn’t be nearly such a pushover for forgiveness. “I’m just trying to do what I need to do,” Eli said at last.
“And I’m just trying to do it too,” Buck said. “We’ve all got to be in this together if we’re going to change the world.”
Eli shook his head, taking another drink of coffee. “I’m glad you want to. I really am. And you should go out there and do it, good for you. But little people like me, we don’t change the world. We just get by in it.”
“Well, you know how many snowflakes it takes to make an avalanche?” Buck asked, chancing a smile.
“Puerto Rico is a tropical island,” Eli said, shaking a fry at Buck like it was one of his fingers.
“Yes, and you live in Philadelphia,” Buck said, snatching the fry from Eli’s fingers and popping it in his mouth. “So if you’ve managed to be here and not have to deal with snow, please, please come over the next time we get a blizzard, and I won’t have to dig out my car the next morning.”
Eli laughed, and as he did, he realized that Buck wasn’t pulling his hand away, and Eli wasn’t either. Sure, maybe it was barely after two in the morning, and maybe they had their joined hands hidden behind assorted condiments and tableware, but they were in public, and they were holding hands. “You know,” Eli said, staring down into his coffee, “this isn’t the worst first date I’ve ever been on.”
Buck’s eyes raised in surprise at that, but he chuckled and scratched self-consciously at the back of his neck. “To get a second, do I have to show up with matching straitjackets?”
“How about we start with leg shackles and see where the evening takes us?” said Eli with a wink, and they laughed some more at that, until everything even in the dead of night seemed a little brighter.
“So, what does a guy who works in sales even do?” asked Eli later as they crossed empty streets, still hand in hand, their pace unhurried despite their situation. Minus the handcuffs and the painfully late hour, they could have been any young couple out on a romantic stroll through the city.
“Sells things,” quipped Buck, which got him elbowed sharply in the side. “Actually, I don’t do much of the selling, at least in terms of convincing people to buy things. I work for a company that manufactures specialty medical equipment. The people who call us already need those things, and I’m the one who makes the arrangements to get them from our warehouse to whoever needs them. We ship all over the world.”
“Oh,” said Eli. “That sounds…”
“Boring?” Buck asked.
“Not boring,” Eli protested, though he couldn’t think of another way to finish the sentence. “Do you like it?”
“I actually do.” Buck shrugged. “I’m good at it, and it’s just complicated enough to keep me interested. Management pretty much doesn’t care about anyone’s personal life so long as you get the job done. And sure, okay, it’s a bit boring, but … I’m actually a pretty boring person.”
Eli narrowed his eyes. “The man who punched a cop is a boring person?”
“The man who punched a cop is a boring person,” Buck confirmed, chuckling. “Or … at least, a person who prefers a steady routine, which is what I’ve got working there.”
“So how’d your boss find out?”
Buck sucked his teeth. “I disclosed that I have a Section 8 discharge from the United States Navy, declaring me mentally unfit for service on account of being a Class III homosexual.”
“Oh, we have classes now?” Eli laughed. He figured he should have guessed some sort of military service in Buck’s past, either from the way his chest filled out an undershirt or his too-short, too-neat choice of haircut. “Class III, that sounds pretty advanced! Were you the head of your class, or did you just give your class head?”
Laughing, Buck nudged Eli’s shoulder playfully. “Little bit of both,” he said, and though he sounded tired, there was no shame in his tone as he spoke about the end of his military career. “Anyway, that was sort of how everyone found out, at least in my family. But we’re German, so we all quietly agreed never to speak about it or have any emotions about it at all, and that is working out very well for me.”
Still smiling, Eli shook his head. “I don’t think my family does anything but have emotions. All of them, sometimes all at once.”
“Yeah,” Eli agreed, thinking about family dinners, reunions, gatherings, weddings, funerals, and how they were a constant press of bodies and noise and laughter. They wore him out, but the second they were over, he found himself holding his breath for the next. The fear of being outed was the fear of losing all of that, all at once. “But at least, you know, I know they love me. Or … ninety percent of me. Which is still not bad.”
He expected Buck to chide him for that, to ask something about how didn’t he deserve to be loved by people who accepted a hundred percent of him, or something unrealistic like that. But Buck kept his mouth shut and just squeezed Eli’s hand instead, which Eli appreciated so much more. Ninety percent loved was a lot more than most people got, anyway.
After a moment, though, a thought struck Eli: “‘Buck’ is a German name?”
With an official air, Buck lifted their joined hands and pumped them like some strange side-by-side handshake. “John Dietmar Buckholtz, nice to meet you.”
Eli shook it back. “Eliseo Velázquez y Ramos, mucho gusto.”
They laughed at the ‘introduction’ at this late stage of knowing one another, and Eli had occasion to think again of how charming Buck’s smile was. He was a good-looking man, that much anyone with eyes could tell, and sure, that was nice, but nothing too special; Eli saw hundreds of men like him coming in and out of the bars, with their broad shoulders and their handsome faces. What stood out about Buck was his sheer steady presence. Eli was used to being looked through by other men, but when Buck saw him, Buck really saw him. Maybe Buck didn’t immediately understand everything about him, and maybe Eli didn’t completely understand Buck right back, but they could see one another, and that was something he hadn’t really had in his life before.
He’d been a little late to hit puberty, but once he’d gotten there, he’d had a lot of sex — sometimes with friends or dates, but mostly with men he’d picked up in bars and would likely never see again, or recognize if he did. He supposed that, like wearing dresses, this was a consequence of his having to live such a separated existence, that he spent that ninety percent of his life in the closet, so he had to make use of that ten percent when it was available. It wasn’t like he was sorry for it, or regretful about it, or anything like that. If he had it all to do over again, he probably would have done it all just about the same.
But it did get a little exhausting and repetitive, and it made the rest of Eli’s life ache by comparison. At first, he’d wanted to scoff at Buck’s assessment of himself as being out to his family and co-workers — sure, if you counted out as being where all the straight people agreed to ignore something about you and hope it went away before you ever brought it up again. Maybe, though, Buck was onto something. Sure, he wasn’t sucking dick in his mother’s living room, but he also wasn’t making up stories at the family dinner table about his comical failures at hitting on girls. As exhausting as the one-night-stand bar scene was, it was just as exhausting to fake being straight, to say nothing of the grey hairs he’d already grown over the fear of having his deception discovered. Was it worse to live in the mouth of that fear, or to bear up under the consequences of that discovery? Eli wasn’t sure, but that wasn’t the kind of thing he could test and then reverse. Right now, he was still living the choice that could be changed. Something come out of the closet could not be stuffed back in.
Eli started to formulate some question to Buck about what it was like to have tolerant co-workers, but his train of thought was stopped cold by the sound of a police siren, fired up from only a few blocks away. Buck looked toward the direction of the sound. “You think that’s for us?” he asked.
“Can’t be sure,” Eli said, glancing up and down the otherwise empty street. He thought it was unlikely that the cops would be shooting off sirens on their behalf without actually being able to see them, but at this point in the evening, he wasn’t willing to take chances. They were smack dab in the middle of a wide block, but they were next to an apartment building with a thick, shoulder-high hedge lining its side. Eli didn’t relish how all those little branches would feel against his bare skin, but if they had to take quick cover, that was probably their best choice.
Before he could articulate this plan, though, Eli heard the sound of shoes slapping against concrete. Seconds later, a young black man turned the corner, tearing at full speed and panting hard. It took Eli only a second to read the scene, and his heart began to thud in panic. The man was moving fast, but the cops wouldn’t be far behind, especially in a car. Could he and Buck hide fast enough? He didn’t like the odds.
Buck, however, had different plans. He whistled through his front teeth and waved the man over — and as the man sprinted closer, Eli realized that he wasn’t a man at all. He was as tall as Buck and twice as lanky, yet his baby face put him somewhere closer to twelve or thirteen. Buck looked to the bushes and shoved Eli toward them, then pointed the kid in the same direction. “Hide!” he hissed.
It was testimony to the kid’s panic that he didn’t even break stride, much less question the wisdom of this stranger’s plan. He plowed straight into the foliage, following the path Eli had cut, until they were both safely shrouded by the leaves.
Eli tugged on the handcuffs, but Buck resisted, and with his feet planted, Eli might as well have been trying to pull down an oak. “You got a cigarette?” Buck asked the kid.
The kid rummaged in his pockets and pulled out a crumpled one. “Yeah.”
“Light it and give it to me,” Buck said.
The kid did as instructed, and when Buck had it, he turned back to face the street again. He shoved his trapped right hand in his pocket, leaving Eli at something of an uncomfortable lean, though Eli supposed it couldn’t exactly be helped. He braced his elbow against one of the bigger branches, hoping it would hold. Just as he found a steady enough position to hold, he heard a car round the corner and knew exactly what was coming.
The vehicle did not accelerate after the turn, dashing Eli’s faint hopes that it might just cruise on by. The smell of tobacco began to fill the air as it rolled to a stop just in front of Buck. “Evening, officers,” said Buck, his voice calm and easy.
“Evening,” said the cop. “What’s your business out at this hour?”
“No business, sir,” Buck said. “Just got in a spat with the little woman, figured I’d come out here for a bit and take in the night air.”
“Know how that is,” the cop said, chuckling. “Looks like she clocked you a good one, too.”
Buck laughed right back, and though the whole situation was tense and unsettling, the most unnerving element was the change in Buck’s voice. He’d always sounded masculine, especially when compared to Eli and the other fairies, so Eli hadn’t even heard the queer in Buck’s speech until it was gone. Eli couldn’t even put his finger on the way it had changed, but in a split second, it had somehow grown harder, crueller, indefinably straighter. “Yeah, she’s a tiger!” Buck said, laughing. “Give her a little time, just enough to cool down and miss her daddy, and when I get back, she’ll be a tiger between the sheets too.”
They laughed together, just a couple friendly men who knew just how women were, how to make those pussycats masquerading as vicious tigresses purr. “Lucky man,” said a third voice, which Eli figured must have been another officer in the passenger seat. “Say, you didn’t see a colored boy come running this way, did you?”
“No sir,” said Buck, who then paused and made a thoughtful noise. “You know, just as I was coming down, I saw something over by the top of that fence the next block down. At the time I thought it was a cat. You think it might have been someone jumping it?”
The police officers muttered amongst themselves, as least as far as Eli could hear through the foliage. Branch brace or not, his arm was growing tired, and he wanted this to be over as soon as possible. “You should probably head home, sir,” said one of the officers, and Eli nearly died at the thought how that cop would react if he knew he’d just called a homosexual sir. “Some unsavory folk out tonight.”
“Yes, sir,” Buck said, lifting his cigarette. “Just as soon as I finish this. The wife’ll forgive me for some things, but not smoking indoors.” That won one more laugh from the cops as they drove off, and Eli held his breath as the sound of their car receded down the street. His heart was pounding in his chest so loud, he was surprised the people in adjacent buildings weren’t making noise complaints. Buck had seemed to have things under control, and as long as he’d been projecting that calm in his conversation with the police, Eli had been able to keep cool too. In the silence that followed, though, all Eli could think of was all the ways that could have gone wrong, and all the trouble they’d be in now if it had.
After what seemed like thirty minutes, but was probably closer to thirty seconds, Buck exhaled and relaxed. “Come on.”
Eli and the kid emerged from the branches, mussed and scratched up but none the worse for wear. “Shit, man,” said the kid, who still hadn’t quite caught all his breath back, “I owe you.”
“It’s all right,” said Buck, gesturing to the handcuffs. “We’re clearly not the cops’ favorites tonight either.”
The kid’s eyes went a little wide at that, though Eli couldn’t blame him for not having noticed those earlier. “Why were they chasing you?” Eli asked.
“Shit, I don’t know. I didn’t do nothing. I’m just standing there, and they come at me with their sirens, and I’m not staying around for what comes next.” The kid scratched his scalp through his small afro, then started picking out some of the leaves that had gotten caught in there. “You two queers?”
Eli stiffened reflexively, aware as ever of the constant threat straight men posed to his life, but Buck nodded. “Yeah,” he said, handing over the still-lit cigarette.
“Then you get how it be,” the kid said. He pinched the tip of the cigarette cold, then shuffled his feet, jamming his hands in his pockets. “My Uncle Joe’s .. you know, soft, like you. But he’s a good guy. Always helping out my mom. Does my sisters’ hair. Cops put him in the hospital once. So I know queers get it bad too.”
“So we have to look out for each other,” Buck said with a smile. He glanced back up the street, toward the direction the cop car had gone. “You going to be okay getting home?”
“Yeah, sure.” The kid nodded, then pointed to the cuffs. “What about you?”
“We’ll be fine,” Eli said, sounding more confident than he felt about their prospects. “Now go on, go. None of us wants to be here if they come back.”
With a grateful nod, the kid took off again, sprinting into the night with adolescent speed. Buck and Eli started off in the opposite direction, turning as soon as they could to get off that street entirely.
They made a further right as soon as one presented itself, then a corresponding left, and Eli was dismayed to find at the next intersection that the street signs didn’t match what he’d expected them to be. Where had they made a wrong turn? Or had they made a wrong turn at all? Maybe this was one of those little cross streets, the ones that were easy to forget. Were they still pointed in the right direction? He couldn’t tell without the numbered streets, the ones that ran north-south. These streets were all names, and names he didn’t recognize. Should they just keep walking that way, or would that just walk them right back in the cops’ path? What if there were more police cars lurking around the corners? What if they–
“Hey!” Buck said, grabbing Eli’s forearm with his free hand. He stepped in front of Eli, stopping him in his tracks. “Hey, you okay?”
Eli was panting now, his mind racing. He was an idiot, a complete idiot. Forget what Buck had been thinking — what had Eli himself been thinking? An arrest would have been bad, sure, but there was always still the chance that the cops had just been rattling everyone’s chains. Sometimes they did that, just locked someone up and drove them halfway across town, only to dump them out in front of a station without ever laying down a charge or shooting a single mugshot. It was shitty, but it was still better than another line on your record and another night in jail.
But running away from an arrest? Why had he decided that at that moment he was suddenly Eliseo el Babilloso? Eli wasn’t brave. He wasn’t civilly disobedient. He wasn’t the kind of maricón who invited trouble. He just lived his life and kept his head down, and didn’t do stupid things like fleeing from the law or hiding from the cops or pinning the idiot he’d been handcuffed to against the wall and kissing him.
Except that’s exactly what Eli was doing. He was shorter than Buck, so he was practically climbing him, one arm around the back of his neck, the other grabbing Buck’s cock through his jeans. The adrenaline rushing through his body had made him terrified, but it had also made him horny, and at least he could deal with one of those. He kissed Buck hard, feeling the place where his lip had split and kissing that as well.
Buck kissed right back, reaching around to grab Eli’s ass with his free hand in a forceful way that made Eli whimper. Eli leaned into the kiss, rubbing his cock against Buck’s thigh. Oh, these jeans had been too small to begin with, and now they were just plain ridiculous.
All the buildings along this road were brownstone houses, so Eli dragged Buck into the shadow of the nearest house’s front steps, out of sight of the main street. He wouldn’t have called himself an exhibitionist, but at the same time, he knew more than a little bit about sex in public places and how to get away with it. “I want to suck your cock,” he murmured against Buck’s mouth.
“Okay,” answered Buck, grinning into the kiss and squeezing Eli’s ass again.
And Eli definitely did want that, and had perhaps wanted it since the moment he’d realized what a handsome (if foolhardy) man he’d gotten himself attached to. Something in it didn’t feel right, though — not that he was uncomfortable with the idea or anything about it, but that it wasn’t exactly what he wanted. He pressed himself to Buck again and stood on his tiptoes to bite Buck’s earlobe. “I want you to make me suck your cock,” he purred.
The effect on Buck was electric, to the point where if Buck hadn’t been leaning against a wall, Eli wasn’t sure Buck would still be standing upright. Maybe Eli wasn’t absolutely sure what kind of sex Buck was into, but he felt confident that he’d guessed pretty right. Buck’s free hand traveled up Eli’s spine, to the back of his head where Buck carded his fingers through Eli’s short, wavy hair. “Like that?” he asked with the air of a man who didn’t quite know what he was doing, but was eager to give it a try.
Eli could have melted. “Tell me what to do, papi,” he moaned.
“Suck my cock,” Buck said, his hand tightening to a fist in Eli’s hair — and there it was, the first edge of the military man he’d once been, stern and commanding. He still had it. “And you’d better do a good job.”
“And then what?” Eli panted, rubbing his body against Buck’s.
“And then swallow my load,” Buck growled. He reached for the chain that connected their cuffs and yanked it hard toward his hip. “Every drop.”
Eli could hardly have refused instruction like that under the least sexy of circumstances; keyed up as he was now, just hearing the words alone nearly made him come in his pants. He slid down to his knees, undoing Buck’s trousers with both hands. He pressed his lips against the bulge Buck’s cock made in his underwear, feeling its dimensions with his mouth. It was every bit as thick as he’d hoped it would be, and he grinned as he pulled down the waistband of Buck’s briefs, letting its circumcised weight flop out.
Without hesitation, Eli took Buck’s cock into his mouth, swallowing him halfway down in a single motion. He knew how to put on a show, how to make this part last deliciously long, but he knew this was neither the time nor the place. Instead, he wrapped his left hand around the root of Buck’s cock and bobbed his head up and down, tasting the saltiness of skin and precome alike. When he ran his tongue up the sensitive underside, he felt Buck’s whole body shiver, so he did it again, grinning as much as he could while sucking dick.
Buck’s grip on Eli’s hair remained tight, holding him in position Eli wouldn’t have left if his life had depended on it. Buck didn’t do much more than hold Eli steady, though, nor did he issue any other commands, which made Eli suspect that this was the first time Buck had been called upon to really top someone. He had good instincts, though, and a fierce grip to boot, and that was an excellent starting point. Plus, the way he sounded when he took that commanding tone made Eli weak in the knees. He could definitely work with that.
With his free hand, Eli undid his own jeans and started jerking himself off. Next time, he would tell Buck to stop him, to make him suffer and wait until Buck was good and done. Which, of course, meant there was going to have to be a next time — and Eli wouldn’t let himself think about that right now, because if he did, he’d also have to confront the possibility that there might not be a next time, that this would be nothing more than a fluke of unreplicable circumstances that had brought together two people would never have interacted otherwise. So he didn’t think. Instead, he adjusted the angle of his neck and leaned forward, taking as much of Buck’s cock into his mouth as he could manage.
Buck whimpered, which was a beautiful sound. He was respectable and strait-laced enough that he’d probably never before been sucked off like this on the street, or bent over and fucked in the ass in a public park, or jacked off between trains in a subway station, or any other completely disrespectable and filthy hot things bad gay men like Eli got up to. And Eli had never run from the cops before, so they were both learning something about their deviant tendencies tonight. Buck could get this any time he wanted, though. All he’d have to do would be to snap his fingers, and Eli would be up for it anywhere, unable to resist falling to his knees. As soon as Buck learned this, it would be all over for Eli. But oh, what a hell of way to go.
The thoughts in his head and the situation he was in and his heart pounding in his chest grew too much, and Eli actually became the one of them to come first, shooting onto the ground between Buck’s feet. Any noises he might have made were muffled with the cock nearly down his throat, which he supposed had been clever of him. Well, now at least he wouldn’t have to worry about how he’d get those jeans fastened again.
Once he’d gotten off, he felt a little less urgency, and he closed his eyes and luxuriated in the feel of hard cock on his tongue, between his lips, filling his mouth. Buck may have been almost to the third day of wearing the same thing, but he still smelled good under it all, musky and clean. He smile as he bobbed his head up and down Buck’s shaft, teasing the sensitive skin with his tongue. Buck was delightfully easy to read like this, his reactions unguarded and honest.
As good as it was, it couldn’t last, and Eli’s only warning was the further tightening of Buck’s fist in his hair. He had just enough time to prepare himself, and then Buck was coming hard in his mouth, shaking and groaning as he spilled his seed right onto Eli’s tongue. As he’d been ordered, Eli swallowed Buck’s load — and if he spilled little out of the corner of his mouth, he suspected Buck might still be the forgiving type.
“Feel better?” asked Buck, his left hand now resting loosely at the back of Eli’s neck.
Eli stood again and grinned. “Yeah,” he said, petting Buck’s chest through his t-shirt. “I actually do.”
“Good.” Buck pulled Eli forward for a kiss. “Because that was really good.”
Laughing, Eli leaned forward and rested his forehead against Buck’s shoulder, holding him as tight as their shared bonds would allow. “That’s just one of my many talents,” he said with a playful poke at Buck’s side. “You should see what I can do with half a dozen eggs.” Buck’s chest jerked with a muffled laugh, and when Eli figured out why, he poked Buck again. “I mean I make omelets, dirty boy.”
“Sorry, sorry.” Buck kissed the top of Eli’s head. “So what do I have to do to get you to make me one of those?”
Eli thought of all the mornings-after he’d spent scrambling out of someone else’s apartment before dawn, rushing to the restaurant to start morning prep so no one noticed he hadn’t come home the night before. What would a lazy morning feel like, cooking breakfast for a lover instead of trying to get dressed and leave without waking him up? What would it be like to stay, to return, to stop sneaking around on everyone for a change?
“Find a boy a handcuff key, and we’ll talk,” Eli said.
By the time they reached the front door of the apartment building, the sky was just starting to lighten enough where Eli could tell the outlines of roofs from the heavens above. And here he’d once thought he might call it an early night.
He hadn’t realized how much the evening’s adventures had worn him down until he found himself standing in front of the ill-lit, grimy stairwell, knowing that Jacob lived on the fifth floor. He looked at Buck, Buck looked at him, and together they started their plodding ascent.
When they reached the door to Apartment 519, Eli lifted his hand, then hesitated. “Now I’m wishing we’d skipped the soup and called ahead.”
“Fingers crossed,” Buck said, lifting his free hand to show it was true.
Holding his breath, Eli rapped his knuckles five times against the door, trying to find the appropriate knock balance between ‘would wake the person in the apartment in question’ and ‘would not give anyone else in the building reason to shout for the police’. The sound reverberated regardless off the cheap wooden door, down the hallway, making them both wince. From beyond the door, though, there was only silence.
Eli felt like bashing his head against a wall. Of course this whole foolish trek had seemed like a good idea to him, because he had flan where his brains should be. He was a middle-school dropout with all the higher reasoning skills of a mismatched sock. Why on earth had he thought that this, of all solutions in the world, would work? Why hadn’t he done at least ten minutes’ more brainstorming before dragging his ass and Buck’s all the way south? Now what?
And then, as though by miraculous summoning, Eli heard the sound of footsteps.
A few seconds later, the locks to the apartment turned and the door opened, and Eli looked up — and up — to see the lumbering, half-awake form of a massive bearded man in a sleeveless undershirt and ratty boxers. “Eli?” asked Jacob, blinking hard, as though to make sure that he wasn’t still dreaming.
“Hi!” Eli said, giving a little wave. “Can we come in?”
It was a testament to Jacob’s genial nature that he needed no further explanation before waving them both inside. Eli turned just in time to catch the sight of Buck’s eyes going wide as he beheld first Jacob, then the inside of Jacob’s studio apartment. The first time Eli had seen it, he’d had the distinct thought that it looked like what might happen if a Jewish supply store and a sex dungeon were to share the same storage room. Items were everywhere — stacked on shelves, tucked in boxes piled on the floor, hung from every window shade and light fixture — and if you grabbed one at random, you’d be equally as likely to find yourself holding a ball gag as you would a menorah, or a prayer book as you would a flogger.
The only places in the room to sit were the Murphy bed itself and a small couch, so Jacob cleared off the latter for them, then took his own seat on the edge of the bed. He was a fearsome man in his vest and chaps, towering over all his boys with a daddy’s stern yet loving glare; reduced to his underwear and just pulled up from sleep, though, he looked almost cute and cuddly, like a giant teddy bear brought to life. Of course, Eli would never say that out loud, because he knew that given the right circumstances, Jacob would turn his ass black and blue for that remark. Not that Eli wouldn’t enjoy it, but that was beside the point.
“So,” Jacob asked once they’d all settled, “not to be a bad host, but what are you doing here? And at 4:30 in the morning?”
Eli was so grateful to be sitting down instead of walking, he almost couldn’t answer for a moment. He slipped his feet from the flip flops, feeling the ache of freedom between his first two toes. “Introductions first. Buck, this is Jacob; Jacob, Buck.”
“Pleased to meet you, friend,” Jacob said, leaning across the gap between them for a handshake. In response, however, Buck just lifted his own right hand, and with a jingle, their problem became apparent. Jacob froze mid-lean, then shifted his weight back on his haunches. “Eli, did you become someone’s boy? You really should have checked with me first.”
“I promise, no,” said Eli, who had never been into the leather scene for more than a few good, hard spanks and a collar last Halloween, the evening he’d met Jacob in the first place — and the thing about leather was, there was no being only partway into leather. “Cops raided a bar we were in and started arresting people. We got cuffed together but managed to get away. Problem is, you can see, we’re still cuffed together. And you’re the only person I know who’d have a handcuff key.” Jacob’s brows furrowed, and Eli’s heart plunged into his stomach. “Do not tell me you don’t have a handcuff key.”
Jacob shook his head. “I’ve got lots. But … you guys realize it’s the Sabbath, right?”
Frowning, Eli looked to Buck, who shook his head. “Sabbath?” Buck asked for them both.
“Jewish day of rest,” Jacob said. “And I don’t know if I can unlock handcuffs on the Sabbath.”
This was truly a wrinkle Eli had not anticipated. He’d only met Jacob the previous October, but mutual friends had told him that about two years ago, Jacob had gone on a vacation to Israel and experienced sort of a revival of his Jewish identity. After having grown up in a secular Jewish family entirely divorced from any trappings of Judaism, Jacob had decided to dig deep into what it truly meant for him to be Jewish. And in typical Jacob style, he’d done it with a great deal of enthusiasm and not a lot of planning.
“So, is there a way you can find out?” Eli asked. “An encyclopedia you can check, maybe?”
“Well, I can ask Rabbi Pasternack…” Jacob began.
Eli nodded. “Good, let’s do that.”
“But he’s still asleep.” Jacob pointed to the ceiling. “He lives right above me, and I haven’t heard him moving around yet. And I don’t want to wake him up, he’s a very old man. He usually gets up around this time, though, so it shouldn’t be too long to wait. Can I get you something to drink in the meantime? Glass of water, maybe?”
“A glass of water would be great,” Eli said.
“Yeah, water,” Buck agreed. “Thank you.”
Jacob hefted himself up from his bed and got two glasses from the cabinet, then filled them at the sink. The glasses were frosted on the sides, and in the white was printed a Star of David and some Hebrew writing that Eli hoped in his heart was some witty saying or clever pun, even if he couldn’t understand it. “I’d offer you some coffee or tea, but … well, can’t heat things up. If I had some already made, maybe, if you didn’t mind it cold.”
“This is perfect, thank you.” Eli took the glass and drank half of it almost in a single swallow. Journeying was thirsty work.
Jacob sat down again, resting his forearms on his knees, and smiled at the two of them. “So, Jacob,” Buck said, in the awkward tone of a man trying to fill even more awkward silence, “why do you own lots of handcuff keys?”
“My boys and I do scenes at the bars,” Jacob said, casual as though answering a question about where he worked or what his favorite sandwich was. “We’re flexible about partners, though, since…” Jacob made a sweeping gesture toward the apartment’s interior, indicating its size, or lack thereof. “I’m saving up for a place where maybe two or three of them can come live with me. But we have fun now like we are, one big happy family. Just not on Friday nights.”
“No sex on the Sabbath?” Buck guessed.
Jacob shook his head. “No, sex is fine. But I can’t pay the bar cover.”
Whatever either of them might have said to that was preempted by a creak from the ceiling, and Jacob raised a finger to shush them all. Eli held his breath against the silence that followed, which lasted so long that he was about to write off the initial noise as a fluke, or maybe some kind of collective hallucination. But then there was another, and another, the obvious signs of waking life above them.
Jacob stood and reached for a broom beside his bed. He used it to give his ceiling three sharp taps, sharp enough that Eli could see the marks they left — and a host of marks around them, indicating that this was not the first time this method of communication had been used. “Rabbi!” shouted Jacob.
“What?” came back the muffled response.
“Rabbi!” Jacob called again, his voice deep and commanding.
“What?” replied the aged voice through the ceiling, this time a bit louder.
“Can I unlock handcuffs on the Sabbath?” Jacob asked.
There was a long pause then, followed by the sound of a person who clearly had not expected this to be the first dilemma to greet him this morning: “Why do you tax an old man with this question?”
“Can I?” Jacob repeated.
“Yes,” said the rabbi, in a tone of voice that was somehow at once both exasperated and affectionate. “To lock and to unlock is not prohibited.”
Jacob’s face brightened into a grin. “Thank you, Rabbi!”
“You’re a good boy, Jacob,” said the rabbi, who then by the sound of it stomped off to another area of the apartment, out of range of further inquiries.
Jacob had been telling the truth about his handcuff key stash — he had an entire ring of them, some with one tooth, some with two, most of which looked no different from the ones beside them. He thumbed through his options, squinted at the cuffs, and chose one with a single tooth that curved back, like a hook that would catch no fish. With startlingly little fanfare, he placed the key in the lock and turned it, and the cuff clicked open and fell from Eli’s wrist. It had been, in the end, as easy as that.
Seconds later, Buck was unshackled as well. He rubbed his newly freed wrist from where the metal had chafed the skin. “Wow,” he said under his breath, and Eli knew what he meant. Every minute they’d been stuck together had become like a year, until the simple state of being untethered now felt like a wholly unfamiliar mode of being. While they’d been cuffed together, Eli had never been more sure that a man was not going to leave him, and now that they were freed, he’d never been less sure that man would stay.
Jacob chattered at them a minute more and loaned them ten dollars for trolley fare, which Eli swore up and down he’d pay back, especially given Jacob’s consideration at that early hour. But Jacob just smiled and gave Eli a hug, then shook Buck’s hand and told them both to come back any time if they ever got locked up again, or even if they didn’t. With that, they headed back out into the morning.
“So,” Buck said as they stepped from the building’s front stoop to the sidewalk.
“So,” Eli echoed. He pressed his lips together. “I should really go, and maybe I can get home before some in my family asks why I’m dressed this way.”
“They wouldn’t have asked that earlier?”
“They wouldn’t have seen me earlier,” Eli said. “I was striking out so bad, I was just going to give up and go home and jerk off by myself and maybe get some sleep before I had to open the restaurant for breakfast.” Buck looked a little concerned at that, and Eli shook his head. “This will not be the first shift I’ve ever run on zero sleep, and it probably won’t be the last, so don’t worry about it.”
Buck reached for Eli’s hand and took it freely now, absent any reason except, presumably, that he wanted to. “You can’t make me not worry about you,” he said, squeezing Eli’s fingers.
Eli rolled his eyes, but squeezed right back. “I’m fine,” he said, shrugging off concern. “I’m fine. I’m very good at being fine.”
“And I’m very good at worrying,” Buck said. “So can I call you?”
“No,” said Eli quickly. “Or … no, I take it back, go ahead. Abuela will answer the phone, but she doesn’t speak English anyway. Just say my name a few times, and if she hangs up on you, call back seven or eight more times before she gets fed up and hands the phone to someone else.”
Buck smiled. “If I give you my number, will you promise to call me?”
“Maybe.” Eli shrugged, looking up at Buck through the curtain of his eyelashes.
“Maybe ‘maybe’ isn’t good enough,” Buck said, pulling Eli a little closer. “I’ve gotten pretty … attached to you.”
“Oh my God,” Eli groaned, burying his face in his hands. “Oh my God, I can’t talk to you. Go to jail.” He paused and considered his words for a moment, then folded his arms across his chest. “Seriously, though, go to jail.”
Buck frowned. “What do you mean?”
Eli took a deep breath. All he wanted was to forget the whole inciting incident, to tell his real life to go to hell for a day and fall into this handsome man’s bed all the way out to the suburbs, and pretend, even for a little while, that they could manage a storybook ending just like that. But maybe he was bolder than he’d known at this time yesterday, and maybe that counted for something. There was more to a happily ever after, after all, than just the handsome prince. “Remember how I said earlier that you can pay bail and I can’t?” asked Eli, and Buck nodded. “Well, neither can most of the people who probably got taken away last night. You want the freaks to stand with you? Show us we don’t have to pay for the shit you start.”
Buck’s eyebrows rose as Eli spoke, and he pressed his lips together into a single thin line, but he didn’t argue, and when Eli finally finished, Buck stuck his hands in his pockets. “So,” he said, “you’re saying that if I want a second date, I don’t need a straitjacket or shackles, I just need to go bail out every homosexual in Philadelphia Central Booking?”
“Yeah,” said Eli, all but holding his breath. “Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.”
To his great surprise and delight, Buck didn’t even hesitate before nodding agreement. “Assuming I can go home and get a shower and my checkbook first,” he added with a wry smile. “And then I can call you?”
“Casa Rosa restaurant on Ogontz,” Eli said, trying to look cool and flirty, but unable to keep the corners of his mouth from lifting in an outright grin. “We’re in the phone book.”
“I’ve got one of those,” Buck said.
“Then you have no excuse.”
To be suave, Eli knew he should have walked off then, just waltzed off into the sunrise and left Buck with the image of Eli’s ass in jeans so tight they could have been painted on. He made it all of three steps down the street, even, before turning and running into Buck’s embrace, throwing his arms around Buck’s neck and kissing him hard. Buck kissed back and wrapped his arms so tight around Eli’s waist that he lifted Eli an inch or so off the ground, laughing into the kiss.
Mindful of their setting, though, Eli at last pulled back and gave Buck’s hands one last squeeze before letting go. “And if you don’t call me,” Eli said, taking a reluctant step away, “I’ll come find you next Fourth of July and ask why.”
“I won’t make you wait that long,” Buck said, drawing an X over the left side of his chest. “Cross my heart.”
Blowing one last kiss, Eli finally made good on his earlier desire for a dramatic exit and turned to go, using the same force he’d exerted earlier in the evening not turn one last time over his shoulder. But he didn’t need to look back; there was nothing to see there he wouldn’t see again. As big of a risk as he’d taken with his second-date conditions, he knew in his heart he hadn’t heard the last of Buck.
Eli had a long day and several strong cups of coffee in his immediate future, but he couldn’t have slept then if he’d wanted to. He knew for the next few days, he’d leap to his feet every time the restaurant phone rang, even if he knew that the odds of disappointment were incalculably high. And then, one day, hopefully not too many days from now, he’d hear a sweet, deep voice he recognized from the other end of the line, and the world would finally begin to change.