by T.F. Grognon
Officially, Mike is only supposed to volunteer two days a week at Nourishing Justice. Thursdays, when the crates are packed for subscribers, and Sundays, when he drives the Nom-Mobile, loaded with fresh produce, to a neighborhood plagued by food deserts.
He was here yesterday morning; he’s here again today, Thursday; and he expects he’ll come back in tomorrow, too.
He can’t help it, he loves this place, maddening as it is. They’re doing great work. Besides the organic crates and Nom-mobile, they conduct school programs in urban agriculture and nutrition and advocate for food equity at all levels of government.
“We have a produce problem,” Lori tells him as soon as he is within hearing range.
Mike brakes to a stop and drags his toes along the asphalt for good measure. He straddles the crossbar, leaning over, to ask, “What’s that?”
“Produce problem,” she says, holding the door open for him. “You won’t believe these kumquats.”
“So you could say it’s a kumquat conundrum.” He locks up his bike while Lori waits impatiently. She does not return his smile or acknowledge his joke. She’s a great person, indefatigable, this place would fall apart without her, all that and more, but capable of humor, she is not. “A fruit fervor, even. A citrus situation. Wait, are kumquats even citrus? Am I thinking of persimmons again?”
“Follow me,” Lori says gravely, so he has no choice but to do so.
They’re the first ones here, as usual. Even though Thursdays are their busiest days, things don’t really pick up for another hour or so when the bulk of the volunteers start arriving.
The city rents part of this disused high school to Nourishing Justice’s parent organization for a nominal fee. There’s always something slightly eerie about walking the empty halls: lockers rattle oddly, dark classrooms hunch behind their glass doors. Because this used to be a vocational school, the neat metal plates beside locked doors read “Matron”, “Carpentry”, “Bakery”. Mike wishes sometimes that he’d been able to go to one of these programs. He’d like to have a trade, something to master, a dependable set of useful skills. That would have saved him a hell of a lot of grief. He wasted too much time trusting the lie that college will get you somewhere (besides in debt).
NJ has the test kitchens, a small cafeteria, and offices in addition to the large warehouse.
It’s quiet in the warehouse as Lori pushes open the door, quiet and cold. She doesn’t bother to hit the lights, just strides over to one of the pallets loaded with cartons.
“What are we supposed to do with this?”
Mike works his hand back and forth through his hair. He hasn’t had enough coffee yet, his eyes have yet to adjust. He can smell the kumquats, however. The fragrance is somehow buxom and warm, edged with faint prickly notes.
“Yum,” he says, trying to think, his mouth watering. There are four pallets loaded with transparent clamshells, each with about half a pound of kumquats. “Why can’t we just include them in this week’s crates?”
He has learned to ask what feel like obvious questions. Just in case, because everyone here thinks a little differently and sometimes what’s obvious to him is revelatory to others.
“Must have arrived last night after I left,” Lori says, as if he hadn’t spoken. “Desiree probably accepted the delivery, knowing that we’d have to deal with it.”
“So this week is kumquats!” Mike passes one container from hand to hand. The small orange fruit rattle against the plastic. “That’s cool, lots of Vitamin C, probably. I would imagine. Most likely.”
“Look closer,” she says, and shakes another container. “Half of them are rotten.”
She’s right. Some of the fruit is blotched black and there’s sticky residue on the plastic. Now that his eyes are adjusting to the dimness in here, he can see some fruit flies gamboling in the air above the pallets. “Oh, shit.”
It’s one of the first rules of donation management: the food coming in has to be ready, within reason, to go right back out and land on people’s plates. They can’t do much with rotten produce — as Mike likes to say, the compost system is only so big: “Worms are hungry, but even they need a break.”
(That joke’s funnier if you’re on staff, he swears.)
“Okay, so here’s what we’re going to do: We go through the containers, separate out the good ones from the rotten ones, and there you go,” he tells Lori a little later. He’s had two cups of terrible office coffee, gotten everything ready to welcome the various volunteer groups, and even done two loads of dishes in the kitchen.
“You and what army?”
“An army of lovers, Lori! We cannot fail. It’s a whole saying!”
She snorts and goes back to stacking the plastic bins they use for packing the Justice Crates.
“No, it’s great, there’s a group of ladies coming back from the phone company. They’re not great at packing the crates but sorting kumquats might be just their style.”
Lori might nod, but he doesn’t have a chance to check before the sanitation head is calling him over to check the temperature on the big dishwasher. Right behind her is the first volunteer group of the day. NJ runs on a small core of regulars like Mike and Lori, and a much larger roster of occasional volunteers, corporate groups and high schoolers looking for community-service hours and retirees trying to stay busy.
Today, he’s welcoming a raucous group from Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
“Hey, thanks for coming out. I’m Mike Nieves, assistant volunteer coordinator here at Nourishing Justice.” He tells them, as concisely and not-boringly as possible, that NJ is about justice, not amelioration; cooperation, not charity; empowerment, not patronage.
It’s the same speech he gives everyone, but since they’re kids, and from some of the same neighborhoods that NJ serves, he tries to keep the emphasis on what they deserve — fresh healthy food. Rich people love local food, but what gets to count as “local” seems to vary widely. With the phone-company ladies and retirees, by contrast, he’d focus on bridging communities and enlarging their sense of citizenship.
“Everyone needs to eat,” he continues, “but some of us have a much harder time getting what we need than others. Can anyone guess why?”
The kids laugh, but he isn’t asking rhetorically.
“We’d die if we starved, of course,” he tries instead, “but what are some other positive aspects of eating together?”
This is the point where he talks a little about home cooking and connecting with family — however you define family! — but the kids don’t seem to be in any mood to play along.
“Okay,” he says. “There’s so many emotional associations we put on food, I thought it’d be interesting to share those. Anyone?” He looks around expectantly. This is not one of his more successful welcomes. “For instance, my stepdad used to make my mom give me bologna sandwiches in my lunch, instead of güirila, which was my favorite.”
“The hell’s güirila?” a short kid at the front asks.
“Man,” Mike says and grins, “you are missing out. It’s a corn tortilla, kind of sweet, and my mom always gave me extra cheese. But –”
“My granny makes brown stew chicken,” the kid next to shorty says, “and salt fish, but everyone says the fish smells, which is doesn’t.”
“People are rude,” Mike agrees. “There’s so many hang-ups about what’s acceptable, what’s okay to eat in public. My stepdad was afraid people would pick on me for being Nicaraguan, but that wasn’t going to change just because I had to eat his gross sandwiches, right?”
He might have saved this speech. He’s not sure. At least some of them talked.
He finishes up the spiel and looks around. Most of the kids are politely staring off into space, not quite wanting to seem bored, but hardly excited, either.
“Yeah!” One kid in a long Knicks jersey raises his hand. “How much do you get paid?”
“Nothing,” Mike says. “I’m a volunteer, just like you.”
“So what’s your real job?” The kid narrows his eyes, like he’s well more than halfway convinced Mike is lying to them.
“Geographer, or at least it used to be.” He claps his hands. “Let’s get back on topic. Any other questions?”
“Like rocks and shit?”
A taller guy, snug maroon t-shirt, shakes the kid by the shoulder and tells him to shut up.
“It’s cool,” Mike says. “That’s a geologist or a physical geographer. I studied human geography, specifically urban patterns of consumption–” He’s veering wildly off-topic. “Anyway! Anything else? No? Okay, let’s get you all assigned to stations.”
As he’s dividing up the group to the crate lines, the taller guy in the maroon shirt catches him by the elbow. “Sorry about that, Keith can be kind of an asshole.”
“No problem,” Mike says. This guy must be, he realizes, not one of the kids but one of the mentors. Barely, however, he’s got to be in his early twenties, a good ten years younger than Mike. He wears a ring in the center of his lower lip that glints and hugs the swell, accentuating it, underlining just how voluptuous his mouth is.
Christ, he’s gorgeous. Beautiful mouth, big brown eyes, soft spiky twists in his short hair. Shirt that hugs broad shoulders and nicely muscled arms, then puddles around his narrow waist.
Mike needs to focus. “What about you, feel like hefting cabbages?”
“Sure,” the guy says, “whatever you need.”
“Awesome–” Mike looks around, then leads Handsome Dude over to the pallet of cabbages. “That’s going to be great.”
“You probably don’t remember,” the guy starts to say, but just then Lori appears on Mike’s other side, gripping her cane tightly, frowning severely.
“Sorry, give me a sec–” Mike tells him and turns to Lori. “What’s up?”
“What are you doing Friday night?” she asks, thrusting a small postcard at him.
“Watching sitcoms from the 70s and having thirds on pizza,” he mutters, turning the card over. It’s glossy red and reads in dripping death-metal font RED IN TOOTH. There’s no other text, just a phone number and email address ( [email protected] ). “What is this?”
“Board needs someone to go, make nice with a big donor,” Lori says. “Apparently I’m too contentious.”
“You?” he asks, grinning. “But you’re such a sweet, mild-mannered…”
“You’re good with people,” she says, cutting him off. “And you look good dressed up.”
He’s not that good with people, he doesn’t think. Being better than Lori isn’t much of an achievement. “You’ve never seen me dressed up.”
She switches the cane to her other hand. “I have a vivid imagination.”
“Creepy.” He lifts an eyebrow. “I never knew you cared, Lori.”
She rolls her eyes. “Take that sugar daddy of yours.”
“He’s not…” Mike’s internal clock is ticking; Crate Day is so busy, he can only spend about two minutes on any one problem.
Just like that, right on time, one side of a giant box of apples gives way. The apples flow like magma across the floor. One of the kumquat ladies shrieks.
Crate Day is always chaos, sometimes controlled, other times pure and wild. The best he can hope for each week is “survivable”, and he hasn’t been disappointed yet.
Today comes close, however. Before lunch, one of the kitchen volunteers cuts himself chopping squash and two of the Big Brother kids vanish, only to be found at the other end of the building smoking weed and daring each other to jump into the piles of wrestling mats. After lunch, when the crate count is still woefully behind, one of the phone-company ladies gets her arm caught in the big plastic-wrap machine and she’s burned up to her elbow. She passes out, Lori panics and tries to call an ambulance, but instead cops come. By the time the lady is on the way to the ER and the cops have poked around in order to assure themselves that “everything’s in order”, it’s well past their usual closing time.
Mike finishes the crates with three of the hardcore regulars, the guys who come in every week to earn their big crates of food. He’s due to pick up his friend/landlord/boss at the airport in half an hour, so he leaves his bike in the office and takes a cab home to pick up the car and head to the airport.
He’s exhausted, but it’s not as if he has any good reason. Just racing around putting out fires and not getting paid for it.
The first thing Clinton says when he gets to Mike at the luggage claim is, “And what’s going on here?” He strokes his own jaw.
“What, my beard?” Mike started growing it a couple weeks ago, just after Clinton left on this latest business trip. He was washing his face one morning, getting ready to shave, when he realized that his jawline was disappearing under soft, pudgy skin. He’s half-hoping the beard will hide that distressing fact.
“You going bluegrass on me? Converting to Mennonitology? Did you lose a bet? What is this?”
Mike shrugs and takes the biggest bag from Clinton. “I like it.”
“Well, that’s good.” Clinton gives him an incredibly pitying smile. “Believe in yourself, who cares what other people think when they see the disheveled mountain man lumbering toward them?”
He’s far from mountain-man status, but all the same, Mike scowls. “Jackass.”
“You know it.” Clinton hugs him with one arm and kisses the top of his head. He’s not so much taller than Mike that this is an easy maneuver, but over the years, Mike has learned to duck to facilitate it. “Now. Let’s get me home.”
In the car, Mike asks, “so how was Sedona?”
Clinton is reclining in the passenger seat, eyes closed. He opens one. “You mean Scottsdale?”
“Arizona place starting with S,” Mike replies. “Whatever.”
Clinton clucks his tongue. “Crabby, crabby.”
“Yeah, sorry, long day.”
“Keep telling you, stop trying to save the world, you’ll actually sleep better at night.”
“Interesting logic,” Mike says, easing off the highway.
Clinton folds one arm behind his head and wriggles. He’s acting like they have hours left on the drive, rather than mere minutes. Comfort, however short-lived, is, however, his primary objective at all times. “Impeccable logic, thank you.”
“Oh, you’re welcome.”
Mike drives in silence. He’s so tired it’s taking what little energy he has left to focus on the road.
“Plans for the weekend?” Clinton asks when they turn onto their street. He laughs. It’s funny, because Mike rarely, if ever, has plans more complicated than “mow the lawn” or “read a book”.
“Have to go to some weird restaurant that’s not a restaurant tomorrow,” Mike tells him as he pulls into the drive and parks. When he’s opening the trunk, he adds, “That’s the extent of it.”
“What, pray tell, is a restaurant that’s not?” Clinton looks over the top of the car. “Is that Zen?”
“No, it’s….” Mike tries to remember the info Lori gave him. “Some kind of supper club, I don’t know.”
“Mikey, Mikey, Mikey.”
“In the Maw?” Mike tries. “On the Hoof? Can’t remember.”
Clinton slams the door, so hard that Mike nearly drops the bags. “Red in Tooth?”
“That’s it, yeah. Why?”
Clinton grabs his shoulders with both hands and won’t let him move forward. “You’re taking me.”
“You want to go?”
“Hell, yes, and I’ll even risk being seen in public with you. That’s how much.”
“Great,” Mike says as flatly as he can. “So selfless.”
Clinton bites his ear as he wraps his arms around Mike’s waist and squeezes tightly. “You love me.”
Busying himself with the door, Mike doesn’t answer.
“You love me so much,” Clinton continues, nuzzling Mike’s neck now. “Can’t believe you’re getting me into Red in Tooth. I knew I kept you around for a reason.”
“Shut up,” Mike says.
Clinton sweeps his palms up and down Mike’s chest. “I’m a fucking genius.”
If Clinton’s psyched for this place, that means it’s a very different sort of thing than Mike is usually comfortable with. The next afternoon, when he’s back from pitching in at NJ’s seed bank, he spends entirely too much time figuring out what to wear.
His regular plaid shirt and jeans no longer seem like a good idea. But his dressier stuff, what there is of it, he hasn’t worn in a while. The chinos need to be ironed, which is fine, but he’s put on enough weight that when he goes to button up his best shirt, he loses two buttons.
Maybe the shirt shrank.
Sure, while folded in the back of his closet, it went and shrank on its own initiative. Probably happens all the time! An invisible scourge is sweeping the nation’s business-casual wear.
It’s a nice shirt, though; he’d forgotten how subtle the red stripes were. He puts on a cardigan to hide the gapping in the button band.
“First it’s the beard, now you’re doing, what, chubby Grandpa with the sweaters? Fat Mr. Rogers?” Clinton asks when he joins Mike in the living room. He looks fantastic, of course; his suit is cut sharp as a blade and hugs his long, lean frame. “Are you having some kind of personal image crisis you need a hand with?”
Mike flips him off. “I was thinking more Cobain on Unplugged.”
Clinton blinks cartoonishly. “I don’t get the reference.”
“Yes, you do.” Clinton’s like a Method actor; he’s so dedicated to pretending he’s several years younger than he is that he has to keep up the pretense at all times. Even with someone, like Mike, who has known him since sophomore year of college. A year, Mike recalls vividly, when Clinton had shoulder-length hair and was obsessed with grunge.
“Agree to disagree,” Clinton says, not looking up from his phone.
“Disagree, period,” Mike replies. He tugs the sweater cuffs over his hands, then releases them. Maybe the sweater was a bad idea. “So what happens at this place, anyway?”
“It’s very simple,” Clinton tells him. “They make food, see, and give it to us, we eat it, it’s amazing.”
“Funny. I mean….” Mike scratches the side of his neck. “So what’s the big deal?”
He’s eaten at fine restaurants, usually in the course of fundraising, trying to get owners on-board with donating their leftovers. He knows how to behave, he’s fine with which fork to use when. He just can’t parse the hype around this place. It can’t be the private nature of the enterprise, he doesn’t think. When he was growing up, a couple people in the neighborhood were busted for running lunch counters out of their kitchens, on both zoning-code violations and health charges. It’s happened a couple times recently in some of the communities NJ works with, actually.
Clinton looks at him with his favorite expression, the one that says, oh, Mikey, how much I have to teach you. “It’s private–”
Clinton raises his voice. “Private, and incredibly exclusive, and Tyler pushes the envelope! He shreds the envelope, macerates it in sour cherry broth, then serves it back to as a glaze over sweetbreads!”
Mike rolls his eyes. “So it’s literally dinner theater. Like Benihana.”
“You fucking asshole,” Clinton says, calmly, deadly serious.
Mike grins at him. “Sorry.”
“You aren’t,” Clinton says and jabs his finger at Mike’s chest. “Don’t embarrass me, all right?”
Mike raises his hands, palms out. “Moi?”
“I know you don’t live in a cave, dude. Why are you like this?”
“Like this! All fake-naive and ‘so what’s it like?’ Wah-wah sad trombone.”
“I don’t know!” Why’s he getting defensive? Clinton’s just doing his usual schtick of criticizing Mike for not being half the hip yuppie he is. “I’m not acting fake-naive, I’m asking a real question.”
“Sure you are.”
“Fine,” Mike says. So many conversations with Clinton end up like this, at a dead end, petering out to nothing.
As he arms the alarm system and heads for the car, Clinton says, “you’re not planning on pulling one of your idealistic crusades, are you? I’m not going to be an accessory.”
“How do you ‘pull’ a crusade?”
“Hell if I know,” Clinton says airily. “That’s beside the point. Answer the question.”
Clinton likes to act as if Mike is always about to descend into full Weather Underground-mode, like it’s only Clinton’s generous and determined pragmatism that keeps Mike in line. That keeps Mike safe. Or the world safe from Mike. It’s not always all that clear.
“I’m not going to — whatever it is you’re worried about. What are you worried about?”
“Some kind of obnoxious direct action,” Clinton says. “Chanting ‘Meat is Murder!’, maybe, or shock-screening footage of the shark hunt.” He stops and laughs. “Actually, Tyler did that a couple months ago.”
“Yeah, while serving shark fin. He’s all about confronting the truth of your hunger.”
“Neat,” Mike says faintly. “What the fuck’s that mean?”
“We’re coddled and full of denial. He rips that off.” Clinton punches him in the shoulder. “So whatever consciousness-raising thing you’re thinking about doing, he’s probably way ahead of you.”
“I don’t know why you act like I’m about to go off at every opportunity. I can barely make small talk with baristas most days.”
“I dunno, Miguel,” Clinton says, “passion makes fools of us all. It’s just that your passion is…”
He doesn’t have a passion, he’s pretty sure, but he’ll play along. It’s better than stony silence. “Weird and idealistic?”
“That, too,” Clinton says. “I was going to say ‘pointless’.”
The entrance is to a warehouse, a metal door on tracks like a garage, lit by a single red bulb. Scratched into the metal is RDNTTH.
“What, vowels are passé now?” Mike asks. “What’d they do?”
Clinton ignores him.
Inside, the small crowd mills nervously around. The space is vast but dark, aside from the gleaming open kitchen. Across from the kitchen, past the “eating stations”, which Mike would otherwise have called “tables”, are red-lit nooks featuring burlesque dancers and a piano player.
Tyler Armitage is rail-thin, half a head taller than Mike but probably fifty pounds lighter. He’s one of those redheads who’s paler than copy paper; his hair is pulled back in lank ponytail. A Crips-style bandana covers his forehead, though Mike seriously doubts this guy has ever seen much, if any, of the barrio. His t-shirt is ancient, black faded to stormy gray, the logo for a metal band nearly indecipherable — all Mike can make out are a lot of umlauts and the twisting body of a naked woman being impaled on…a skeleton’s claws? Something like that.
“We’re all hungry,” Tyler says. “Aren’t we?”
A couple people murmur affirmatively. Tyler lifts his brows, exaggerating patience like a preschool teacher.
Next to Mike, Clinton says, “Hell yeah!”
Tyler nods, giving a bloodless little smile. “We’re all hungry. We repress this, try to ignore it, cover it like drooping genitals in shame and confusion, channel it into greed and status-seeking and social-climbing–”
“Most of us would just have a sandwich,” Mike says under his breath.
Clinton shushes him, the traitor.
“We are beasts,” Tyler continues, smiling for real now. “We are brutes. I dare you, tonight, to be. Be who you are, who you really are, forever, in your darkest moments, at your hungriest. That’s why you’re here, even if you don’t know it yet.”
“This might be a cult,” Mike says to Clinton, only to get shushed again. He can’t help but add, “A werewolf cult.”
Standing here is like listening to Jeffrey Dahmer give an Amway presentation. Gordon Gekko does Top Chef. They’re being sold something, flesh and ideology, narcissism and blood, but Mike can’t imagine wanting any.
Mike is all for encouraging people to remember their membership in nature, for acknowledging the fact that we are also animals. Terrible things happen when humanity cuts itself off from nature and elevates itself above the rest. That’s the history of Western civ, right there.
But acknowledging that status is more complicated, it has to be, than merely embracing the bestial predator within.
“We’re not just predators,” Mike mutters, working it out as he speaks. “That’s so gross, that’s dangerous–”
“Chill,” Clinton tells him. “What’d I tell you, huh?”
“I’m reacting to his speech! That’s allowed, that’s probably part of the whole experience.” When Clinton rolls his eyes at that, Mike gets stubborn. He does drop his voice, though. “I’m not making a scene, I’m discussing this with my dining companion.”
“You’re being superior.”
“Am not.” Mike has a lot of flaws, most of which he can list at the drop of a hat, but thinking he’s better than other people isn’t one of them. At least he thinks so.
“But — he sounds like a serial killer, man!”
“He’s a genius.” Clinton sounds so assured that that is a fact. All he had to do was read it in a few magazines, on a few cool blogs, and he’s convinced.
“Maybe, I dunno.” It’s difficult to argue with Clinton sometimes. He has such a strong sense of how things are, what’s what and goes where, who Mike is, everything. In the face of such confidence, Mike feels like he could be wrong, like maybe he doesn’t believe in very much at all.
But that can’t be right. He does have convictions, as well as superstitions and weird guesses, like anyone else. But when he’s challenged, his thoughts and beliefs suddenly seem so much flimsier than Clinton’s.
That’s really not much better.
For all the talk about returning to our animal natures, in the end, Tyler’s genius seems to boil down to reaffirming the usual hierarchy of man-over-all. At least in the garden, Adam stopped and named the animals. In his place, Tyler would tear open their throats with his teeth and eat their hearts and call that dominion as well as innovation.
At the eating station, Clinton complains because Mike didn’t move fast enough to nab a spot with a view of the kitchen. On Mike’s right, there’s a young woman who seems nice. Really loud, extremely excitable — each dish makes her cluck and shriek and occasionally whimper — but nice. She looks like Elvira Mistress of the Dark doing a guest spot on Romper Room, all this long black bouffanted hair over a homely striped caftan.
“What’s your deal,” she wants to know when they’re waiting for the next course. “What’s the worst meal you ever ate?”
“Back in Managua–” he starts to say. There’s a great story about his great-aunt trying to make pizza for him. It involves chopped hot dogs and an unfortunate masa explosion.
“Oh, my God!” She clutches his wrist and all but hauls him into her lap so she can show him off to her friend on her other side. “Did you eat balut? Tell me you did, was it horrible? Amazing? I have to try it. I bet it’s going to make me puke.”
“No,” Mike says. “Managua. Not Manila.”
“But did you have balut?”
“No,” he says. “I can honestly say that I definitely did not.”
“Pussy,” the friend says, and, just like that, he’s dismissed.
Eating’s an extreme sport for them. That’s what brings them here, makes Tyler some kind of gross prophet.
For the next course, they’re invited to the counter. Everyone gets a chance to stab a pregnant prawn to death.
“C’mon!” Clinton tugs on Mike’s elbow, but Mike lifts himself free.
“You go on. Kill mine for me, have a blast.”
“Fine, whatever, buzzkill.”
Hands in his pockets, Mike wanders away, checking out the paintings on the walls (grotesque, clotted with paint, a lot of flayed beasts and yowling death masks). In one alcove, a thin person in a red corset dances listlessly; in the other, a shirtless Black man plays an upright piano.
They’re both on break now. The dancer heads out for a smoke, but the piano player remains where he is. He eases his posture, drums his fingers on his knees, then rubs his arms like he’s cold.
He must be cold. This place is awful.
“I’d offer you my sweater,” Mike says as he approaches, “but it’s covering up this whole button mishap.”
“Thanks, I’m good–” The guy grins, startled. “Hey, it’s you! Mike!”
It’s the handsome kid from Nourishing Justice. The one barely old enough to be a Big Brother. “It’s you!” Mike echoes, then groans. “Sorry, no, you just said that.”
“It is me,” the kid says. He holds out his hand. “Gus. In case you don’t remember.”
“Mike.” No, he knows that, he already said your name, dumbass.
But Gus smiles as they shake hands. He turns in his seat, leaning an elbow on the lip of the piano. “I have to say, I did not figure you for this kind of scene.”
“Yeah, I…” Mike looks around. “I’m going to take that as a compliment.”
Gus’s smile is sudden and huge. “Oh, it was.”
“I’m working, man,” Gus says. He taps the piano for emphasis.
“Right, right.” Mike shrugs. “Sorry, I’m–. I want to say I’m a little rattled by this whole thing? And I am! But also–” He sags a little. “Anyway.”
Gus is shaking his head, still smiling. His smile is spectacular, wow.
“What?” Mike asks.
“Stuck on the idea that I just show up half-naked to play for strangers.”
“I don’t judge,” Mike says. “You do you.”
“Thanks,” Gus says. “Think I will.”
He’s no good at small talk, Mike knows this fact like his own name, but he wants to keep talking to Gus. He’s a sweet guy, he doesn’t seem to take much notice of Mike’s dumb fumbles, he’s just nice to be around. Even if Mike hadn’t spent the last hour in the company of determined pseudo-predators, he’d consider Gus a nice person. But since he did, Gus is basically a saint by comparison.
That Gus is easier on the eyes than just about anyone this side of a young Idris Elba makes Mike’s desire to stay right here that much stronger.
“How do you get a job like this, anyway? Something you regularly do, or what?”
“Craigslist,” Gus replies. “Answered the ad, I mean. I didn’t, like. Offer. I’m not planning on making a habit of this.”
“You look good, though.” Mike squeezes his eyes shut for a second. It’s true, Gus is broad-shouldered and his skin is so smooth, but also really inappropriate to say. “I mean–”
“No, thanks, it’s cool.” Gus meets his eye. “Taking it as a compliment.”
“Good, it was.”
They look at each other a little too long for regular politeness. Mike’s getting warmer, and it’s definitely not just the cardigan.
“So–” Gus starts, then stops when Mike speaks, too.
“Did they explain why you’re topless?”
Gus ducks his head and runs his palm over the crown of his skull before he replies. “They wanted me to wear a, what’s it called, like the Madonna thing?” He mimes pushing up invisible breasts. “The dancer’s wearing one.”
“Bustier?” Mike has no idea how he knows that. “Corset? Thing.”
“Yeah, but–” Gus spreads his arms and lifts his shoulders, so Mike has no excuse but to look at his well-defined pecs and biceps and all those other muscles with names he doesn’t know. “I was too big.”
Mike tries to whistle, but it comes out like a wheeze. “Oh.”
“Yeah,” Gus says and he sounds, somehow, sad. Not for himself, but for whoever thought that was a good idea. “Damn my busty physique.”
“Damn,” Mike echoes. He’s run out of things to say. He can’t stand here and ogle Gus, yet that’s all that’s occurring to him. “This is all really creepy, right?” He gestures behind his back, back toward the kitchen, where people keep squealing in counterpoint to the thunks of knives in wood. “Like, the hunger thing. Burlesque. You half-dressed.”
Gus squints a little, not at Mike, but at the wall beside him. His frown isn’t deep, but it is unmistakable. “Couldn’t really say.”
“Right, shit, sorry, I didn’t–”
“It’s okay,” Gus says. “Just, I’m at work, you know?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I get that. Sorry.” Mike can be such an asshole sometimes. Maybe Clinton’s right, maybe he really does need to trim down his superiority complex. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Gus says. “I am in the market for a patron, so if you know any bored billionaires looking to up their culture-vulture cred, let me know.”
“I’ll keep my ears open.” Mike grins a little. “Not my usual circles, but you never know.”
“Thanks, man,” Gus says and opens the piano’s cover. “Appreciate it.”
Now Mike’s confused. Again, still, more than ever. Maybe they aren’t flirting but just shooting the shit?
“You’re doing all right, though?”
“Everyone’s got a side hustle,” Gus says. “I’ve got about three.”
“Really? I’ve got, like…half of a main one.”
“A minimalist,” Gus says and stretches his fingers. “I like it.”
“Ha, that’s funny because–” Has he ever been a minimalist in anything? Just ambition, and that only recently. “An ambition minimalist” sounds so much better than “anxious slacker”, too. “Yeah, cool.”
“Get away from the talent,” Clinton says, right behind Mike. “This ugly bastard bugging you, handsome?”
Gus frowns, looking back and forth between them. “I’m fine, thanks.”
“I’m not–” Mike starts.
“He’s not ugly,” Gus says.
“Whatever,” Clinton replies, turning and bringing Mike with him. “Calves’ hearts are up next, you don’t want to miss this.”
“Ew,” Mike says as Gus waves goodbye.
After horsemeat licorice mince in a pâte sucrée for dessert, the meal is finally over. Mike approaches the kitchen; he’s here for a reason, after all.
Needless to say, he doesn’t make the greatest impression on Tyler. Clinton saves the day, however, stepping in and glad-handing, talking up Nourishing Justice’s mission like he’s as dedicated to it as Mike himself.
It all takes so long, however, that when they’re finally ready to go, after Clinton and Tyler have snorted a few lines and the dishwasher is emptied, Gus is long gone. The one good part of the night, and Mike missed getting his number.
Mike’s starving, too, and it’s too late to order anything. He has two bowls of Cocoa Krispies in quick succession before going to bed.
A week or so later, Clinton knocks on the door that separates the old servants’ stairwell from the main house. He’s had the servant apartment converted and modernized. Mike gets to live there in exchange for supervising its being rented out on AirBnB.
The next guest isn’t due until Sunday.
“So I’m throwing a party,” Clinton says. “Put on your nicest paper bag and come mingle.”
“I’m good,” Mike tells him. “Thanks anyway.”
Clinton’s leaning in the doorway, smirking. Cat with all the cream, that’s Clinton Gao. “The hot piano player’s coming.”
“Thought that’d get your attention,” Clinton says, cupping Mike’s shoulder and squeezing.
“Little thing called business cards,” Clinton tells him. “You make fun of me for taking one whenever I see them, but look how it turned out.”
Most of the people at the party are Clinton’s usual crowd, his club buddies and some assholes from venture capital and various social-innovation enterprises. Mike stays in the kitchen, making cocktails when asked so he feels like there’s a reason for his presence.
Gus shows up with a six-pack of Red Stripe and a different ring in his lip. This one’s gold, not silver, and it makes the inside of his lip seem even redder.
“You change it often?” Mike asks. He opens one beer, then another, and passes the first to Gus.
Gus licks his lip; Mike is hypnotized. “Special occasions.”
“This,” Mike says, indicating the party with his chin and a scowl, “is hardly one of those.”
“Maybe so, maybe not.” Gus raises his bottle as if he’s toasting Mike. “Are you on break soon?”
“Me?” Mike looks down at the kitchen island he’s turned into a makeshift bar. “Oh, shit, no, I’m not working.”
“Oh, I thought–” Gus has an abashed smile that uses only half his mouth, tilting like a pinball flipper. “Sorry.”
“I’m not good at parties,” Mike says. He tosses a halved lime from hand to hand. “So I…keep busy.”
“Want to get out of here?”
Gus nods. “Seriously.”
“Yeah, totally. I–” Mike takes a long swallow of beer. “Yeah.”
Gus keeps nodding. He’s starting to smile. “I’ll bring the beer.”
“Cool, these jackasses don’t deserve it.”
Mike leads him out the back door, around the house, and up to the separate entrance. He explains on the way about the arrangement with Clinton. As usual, when he tries to describe it concisely, it just sounds strange.
“I’m a kept boy,” Mike says, but the joke is terrible and he winces. “Not really. Well, sort of. No. It’s hard to explain.”
“Okay,” Gus says gently. He smiles a little. “Okay.”
Before Mike can open the door, Gus stops and looks up at the sky. The clouds are underlit by the city, yellow and beige; there’s nothing picturesque about it, but Gus’s study makes everything seem a little prettier. Finer.
“I don’t think you remember me,” Gus says after a little bit. He sips his beer; they’re standing next to each other, looking upward. He looks over at Mike. “A couple years ago, on MeatCute, you were Migue83, right?”
It’s been a long time since he’s been on Grindr and its failed competitor with the terrible punning name. “Wait, what?”
Gus pokes himself in the chest. “CiaoBelaBartok.”
Mike’s skin wants to peel off and strangle him. He’s cold and tense, his eyes burning dry. “No way.”
“Wondered what happened to you.” Gus toasts him again. “Last I heard, you were going home for a bit, and then — nothing. Ghosted.”
Before his life fell apart, Mike was on Grindr pretty regularly. He remembers texting a lot with CiaoBela. They traded some pics, talked about getting together, and then everything went to hell.
He doesn’t know what to say; embarrassment swamps him, drags him down, and he has to fight to shake that off.
“The morning I was supposed to fly out — back to Nica, for my grampa’s funeral — my building burned down. I was at the corner store getting” –a Yoo-Hoo and two extra-large Baby Ruth bars, but no one needs to know that bit– “snacks. Left my phone and luggage at home, good thing I had my passport and ticket in my jacket pocket–”
Gus nods slowly. “That’s….wow.”
“It sounds like incredible bullshit,” Gus says gently, eyes soft, voice softer, so there’s no way Mike can get mad, even if he wanted to. “Except usually bullshitters know that less is more.”
“Yeah. Life doesn’t.”
“Guess not, shit.” Gus cocks his head. “So you just…”
“Stayed down there, helping my aunts, basically hiding out,” Mike admits. He was in Managua for over a year, helping them sort out their father’s estate.
“Why’d you come back?”
“Can’t hide forever, turns out. Also, thought I–” He jerks his head back at the building, the party. “Thought I missed this.”
“This?” Gus asks.
“Yeah, no. More like the city. Movies, bookstores. Company. Guys.”
Gus’s eyebrow curves upward. “Dick?”
Mike swallows and then swallows again. He wants to hear this guy say that a lot more. With greater specificity. Hands-on demos, everything.
“Sure, yeah, when you put it like that..” He looks away and tugs at his hair.
Gus laughs a little and Mike has to look back. When he does, Gus says, “But the dudes down there must be hot, right?”
“Have you been?”
“No,” Gus says. He blinks, presses his lush lips together, and adds, “just basing that on you.”
“Oh, yeah,” Mike says, then finally hears what Gus said. He wants to shudder with his whole body. “Oh. God, no, I–”
“Take the compliment, man.”
“Or what?” This, he can do, easy banter lobbed back and forth.
Gus looks him over, taking his time, and gradually his mouth tilts up into an expression that’s nicer than a smirk, but sharper than a mere smile. “You’ll see.”
Mike rocks back on his heels. “Sounds fair.”
“Nah,” Gus replies. “I don’t play fair.”
He’s saved from trying to match that, thank God. That would be impossible, he’s a mere clumsy amateur of banter next to this Olympian.
“What about you? Weren’t you doing, um. I want to say music?”
“Composition,” Gus says. “I was studying composition.”
“Composition! What happened? You must’ve graduated by now, right?”
Gus grimaces. At that, gravity drops through the center of Mike, panic and despair sweeping up through the void, but it’s way too late to take it back. That’s the worst thing about small talk. You think you’re getting to know someone, but you’re on a minefield. It’s so easy to mention something painful, and it doesn’t matter how ignorant you are, you end up hurting them.
He’s just about given up trying.
“Nah, had to stop. Probably for the best, because the funny thing is there’s not much steady work for a composer.”
“Damn,” Mike says, apologies crowding his mouth, “I’m sorry.”
“Me, too,” Gus replies. He elbows Mike gently. “Let’s go inside.”
Mike holds the door for him. “Upstairs,” he says, and tries not to ogle Gus’s ass too much on the climb.
At the top, he hits the lights and guides Gus into his tiny living room. It’s a better choice than the bedroom, but now they’re sitting next to each other on the couch like awkward teenagers.
Gus sets down his empty beer. “So, you and Clinton?”
“No!” Mike says hastily. “I mean, yeah, we’ve known each other forever, sometimes we fool around. But we’re not together or anything.” He laughs, helplessly, the sound jangly to his own ears. “No way.”
“What’s so funny?” Gus asks.
That was not the question Mike was expecting next. He’d thought Gus would wonder just what their arrangement is, or how long they’ve been doing this. That kind of thing.
“Nothing,” Mike replies, but Gus purses his lips and looks doubtful, so Mike gives it another try. “It’s just laughable, you know? The whole idea of –”
“Being with Clinton?” Gus grins at that and cocks an eyebrow. “Yeah, I can see that. Guy’s a trip.”
Mike rocks into him, knocking their shoulders together. “Ha, that, too.”
Gus isn’t going to let this drop, that’s clear. Mike flops back and scrubs his palms over his face. “Me, all right? I’m not built for…. I’m not a good candidate for…” He circles one hand. “You know. Relationships. Boyfriends.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Gus says after a few moments. Like he really took his time thinking that through, which is both very nice of him and extremely, agonizingly embarrassing for Mike. Last thing he needs is good-looking guy actually analyzing his unworthiness. “That sounds pretty goofy to me.”
“That’s me,” Mike says brightly. “Pretty goofy!”
Gus cuts his gaze over, a faint smile playing over his mouth. “Not what I was saying, man, and you know it.”
Mike wriggles and rolls so he’s lying on his side, looking Gus over. “Do I?”
As he blinks slowly, Gus keeps smiling, the expression catching and deepening. “Yeah, I think you do.”
Gus has his arm up along the back of the couch and he extends his hand now, knocking lightly at Mike’s forehead before pressing his palm against Mike’s cheek. His thumb ticks back and forth through the beard over Mike’s chin.
His touch is warm and sure. Mike lets himself enjoy it, lets himself take in Gus’s sweet smile, steady gaze. He tips a little into Gus’s palm and starts to open his mouth.
He has no idea what he’s going to say. He just doesn’t want this to end.
“Bogarting my favorite guest? How dare you?”
Clinton’s voice makes Mike jump. Not too far, more like the jerk when he’s falling asleep, but plenty enough to pull him away from Gus, all the way out the intimacy and reverie.
Clinton launches himself at the couch, landing right between them, one leg hooked over Mike’s, arms around their shoulders. “I’m just teasing. Mostly. My party sucks. What’re you jerks up to?”
“Man,” Mike starts to say. “C’mon.”
“We were about to make out, actually,” Gus says.
Clinton laughs at that, delighted and shocked simultaneously. “Sure you were.”
“It’s not impossible,” Mike mutters.
“Hand to God,” Gus tells Clinton. Over Clinton’s head, he catches Mike’s eye and grins.
“Inconceivable,” Clinton announces. “Mike? My Mike? Miguel of the smooth Ken-doll parts and…”
“Man, get out of here,” Mike says. Clinton’s hand on his neck goes gentle, lightly stroking, tickling. He tingles, despite himself.
“Oh, Mikey,” Clinton says, voice suddenly husky, as he looks up from under his lashes and tightens his grip, “you don’t mean that, do you?”
Gus is leaning forward, crowding Clinton from behind. Grinning, Clinton wriggles into him, bringing Gus’s arm around his waist. Gus drops his chin into the crook of Clinton’s shoulder. “Don’t tease him, dude, that sucks.”
“Oh, no,” Clinton says and twists a little before settling even more snugly against Gus. “You have no idea how much fun it is, actually.”
Mike has to admit they look gorgeous together, Clinton’s leanness and sardonic expression next to Gus’s breadth and openness.
Gus replies to Clinton, but his gaze is leveled on Mike the whole time, Mike is (strangely, uncharacteristically) sure of that. “Yeah? Show me. Tease him for me.”
Why is he sure? And why is Gus playing along? Mike wants to know, he’d like to ask, but then everything is happening much too fast for him to do much more than go along for the ride.
Clinton’s kissing him, his hand still clamped on Mike’s neck to hold him in place, while Gus is kissing Clinton’s neck. Their combined weight pushes against Mike, driving the breath from his lungs and thoughts from his mind. Clinton keeps making the kiss go shallow, pulling back just enough that Mike nudges forward, mouth agape, seeking more. He can’t help it; everything’s so warm and exciting, the tingles have cascaded into something much stronger and faster and more thorough.
Gus pushes up Clinton’s shirt; Mike catches glimpses of his long fingers spreading over Clinton’s golden-tan skin, gripping and circling. Clinton breaks from their kiss entirely to arch and sigh, his head back against Gus’s arm. Gus kisses him, but he’s still looking at Mike.
Mike knows that he doesn’t want to look away, but what’s Gus’s excuse?
He leans in to help — the couch is in no way big enough for this, they’re all folded up awkwardly, knees banging elbows and digging into midsections — and kisses Clinton’s chest, then Gus’s hand. Especially Gus’s hand.
Clinton breaks away to pull his shirt off, and then Gus follows suit.
Mike crosses his arms. Clinton pokes him in the belly and sings, to the tune of Evita’s big number, “Don’t cry for me, chimichanga…my stuffed gordita, my ques-a-dill-a.”
Mike keeps his shirt on after that. Clinton made up the song their last semester in college, long before Mike was anything but averagely scrawny, but he disliked it even then.
“Hey, c’mon,” Gus says, plucking at Mike’s shirt-hem.
Mike covers Gus’s hand with his own and squeezes. “I’m good.”
Gus starts to frown, but Mike brings his hand to his mouth and kisses his open palm. He leans out of the way, making more room for Clinton to shift around. He watches them make out and holds on to Clinton’s hip.
They look amazing together.
Clinton twines around Gus, but still manages to push Mike’s hand inside his open fly. Mike grinds up against Clinton, stroking Clinton over his briefs.
“Sorry, Mikey, I’ve got to taste this, it’s–” Clinton says, writhing free of both of them to slide-drop-thump onto the floor between Gus’s legs. He had Gus’s pants open, too, apparently, and Gus is lifting his hips, lower lip caught in his teeth, as Clinton bobs his head, getting right to work.
“Hey,” Gus says hoarsely, drawing Mike in to close up the gap where Clinton was.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Mike says, palm flat on Gus’s chest. He wants to get all the way close, like air, like a blanket, sink right into Gus’s body.
Gus kisses him, finally, tilting his head and breathing out a wordless reply. His kiss is soft and strong, like his eyes, like his voice, slick warm tongue and plush lips, both certain and focused. Mike shivers all over again, sensation branching and forking just under each pore, multiplying and brightening with each brush of Gus’s tongue and squeeze of his hand.
As first kisses go, maybe it isn’t ideal, considering the fact that someone else is currently sucking Gus’s dick. All the same, it’s the best that Mike has had in a long time. (It is also one of the few he has had, but that in no way reduces its status as ‘superb’.) Mike curves his hand over Gus’s far shoulder, shifting forward so he can deepen the kiss, pour himself into it. Gus touches his lower back, rakes his nails lightly over the hollow there, then, moaning at something Clinton’s doing, grabs at Mike, nails digging in, kiss going toothy and sharp.
He holds tight and bucks; Mike opens his eyes to see Clinton looking up at them, hand wrapped around the base of Gus’s shaft, cheeks hollow and chin shiny with spit.
“He’s really good,” Mike admits in a whisper. Gus laughs a little into his mouth. Mike strokes his arm, up and down, and kisses him some more. “You look beautiful like this.”
Gus’s face is hot against Mike’s, his mouth opening and closing at irregular intervals. He fumbles in Mike’s lap — maybe he needs to shake the pins and needles out of his hand, maybe he’s trying to grope, Mike can’t tell — and gasps.
Below them, Clinton grunts, then again, until they’re looking down at him. Then he pushes down, takes all of Gus in his mouth; his Adam’s apple bobs, his eyes squeeze shut, and Gus is moaning full-time now, hand curled around Mike like an anchor.
“Go for it,” Mike tells him, sucking on his neck, plucking at one nipple. “Fuck his face, he’s into that.”
Clinton is, that’s no lie, but Mike’s way more interested in watching Gus lose control. It’s like shackles falling from him, or a building collapsing in stages: it’s beautiful, and inevitable, his chin lifting to the ceiling, then his hips. The tendons in his neck standing out, then his fingers tightening into fists, his mouth opening, his torso lengthening and legs opening wider and wider.
Mike touches Gus’s cock through Clinton’s cheek, strokes three fingers up and down, his mouth fastened all the while on Gus’s throat.
When Gus comes, he jerks up and down, buries his face in Mike’s shoulder and holds on like he’s afraid he’ll be blown away.
Clinton smirks up at them, come on his lips, shiny hair stuck with sweat to his forehead. “Man, I could do that all night.”
Gus replies with a hoarse sob as he unpeels himself from Mike. Mike’s skin is cold in the sudden absence.
“Oh, please,” Clinton says sarcastically as he settles next to Mike. “Don’t stop on my account.”
“Okay,” Mike tells him, reaching for Gus.
“But don’t leave me out, either, Christ.”
Gus reaches over, blindly, to tug on Clinton. They shuffle around again and — of course, Mike can’t help thinking, of course — Clinton ends up back in the middle, pants shed, briefs around his knees. Mike wraps his hand around Clinton’s cock, then Gus joins him, lacing their fingers together.
“How’s this?” Gus asks Clinton, kissing his clavicle. “Included enough?”
“Getting there,” Clinton says, and tips his head back. “Kiss me, Mikey. Kiss me like you mean it.”
That, Mike can do. Gus’s fingers with his feels great, and they swap kisses every so often when Clinton breaks to breathe. Soon enough, Clinton’s grabbing at Gus’s shoulder, cursing and biting his lip, coming over their hands.
No one thought to turn on the lights. It’s dark in here, Mike is hot inside his clothes, but it’s quiet, too, aside from heavy breathing. It’s companionable, almost.
Gus’s phone goes off. As soon as he checks the screen, he’s on his feet, cursing, reaching blindly for his shirt. Mike passes it to him wordlessly.
“Fuck.” He yanks the shirt over his head and tugs his pants up to his hips. “Fuck. Guys, I’m really sorry. Fuck, sorry, I have to go –”
“Dude!” Clinton says, frowning at Gus, then checking with Mike, managing to load one syllable with metric tons of offense and reproach.
Gus shrugs, leaving Mike to feel the worst of the sting. “It’s my auntie, I’m sorry, I’ve got to –”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mike says and coughs to clear his throat. “Go.”
Clinton’s up now, too, doing up his jeans. “I’ll walk you out.”
Bare-chested, he slides an arm around Gus’s shoulders and guides him back toward the stairs.
Mike stays where he is, head back, looking up at the ceiling. It smells like sex in here, and Clinton’s cologne. He wishes Gus wore cologne, so there’d be a trace of him to seek out, hunt down, grab onto.
After that, Mike’s life goes back to normal. He has NJ and the chores he does for Clinton. He’s busy. He’s fine.
He’s not going to call Gus.
The main reason is that he can’t, since he doesn’t have the guy’s number and isn’t sure of his last name. He could probably check the volunteer records at NJ, get the contact info for the Big Brothers chapter that visited, then call them, but who’s to say they’d give out Gus’s information to any random guy? That would be a breach of trust, among other things.
He asks Clinton precisely once. In return, he gets an earful of constructive criticism and suggestions for personal growth, at the end of which Clinton says, “so, no, I won’t give you his number, because you won’t do anything with it.”
“Bullshit I won’t. I’m asking, aren’t I?”
“You’re asking because you think you want it,” Clinton says, “but you don’t.”
Mike’s so angry about that that he ignores the rest of Clinton’s texts for the day and a half. He doesn’t tell Clinton he’s angry, because that would just be an invitation for Clinton to say the anger reveals Mike’s guilt about agreeing with Clinton. Some kind of pop-psych bullshit like that.
After a couple days, Mike decides that he doesn’t want to call Gus. No thanks to Clinton — in fact, the decision comes down to the fact that the whole threesome-thing was too weird and awkward. What’s he supposed to do in the wake of that experience? Better to move on.
He has several vivid and persuasive ideas about what Gus must think of him after that night. This assumes, of course, that Gus is thinking of him at all, which is a stretch. Gus can’t help but know now that Mike isn’t the guy he flirted with a couple years ago, not any more. Now that he knows that, whatever flicker of interest he might have had in Mike must have died and crumbled to ash.
If Gus left with an interest in anyone, it would be Clinton. Mike was more the doughy appendage to Clinton than anything else. The sex became the Gus and Clinton show, after all, which just makes sense. They’re good-looking guys, of course they’d be into each other.
Mike’s just the live-in, rarely-used fuck toy. He’s usually okay with that fact; it’s no pressure, after all, it’s well within his capabilities.
He can’t bear, however, the thought that Gus knows that about him now.
Holding patterns are underrated. Sure, he’s not exactly doing anything with his life, let alone going anywhere, but he’s not unhappy, either. He’s not psyched, either, but things have settled into a fairly decent arrangement. Nothing to write home (if he had such a thing) about, but nothing horrible, either. He has a safe place to live, a decent (if irritating) part-time job, a fantastic volunteer gig. What’s he supposed to complain about?
He misses his books, there is that. Not even the texts he had in school, but the battered old Oxford English Book of Poetry, its blue cover pulling away from the boards, that his mom got him at a library sale. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, a Penguin collection of nineteenth-century American literature. He can replace them all, and he will, some day, when he gets around to it, but what he misses is the actual objects themselves. The struck-out library stamp and forever empty card pocket in the back of the Oxford, the looping blue ballpoint pen that the Penguin’s previous owner used for marginal notes in 1973. The slim rectangle of the Rilke, perfect for fitting in his back pocket.
He misses his guitar. His orange velour loveseat.
His own place.
But those are all things, and you’re not supposed to get attached to material things. That way lies inglorious misery, or so he’s heard.
One afternoon, Mike’s headed home after a meeting at the downtown Sikh gurdwara. The Sikhs have been doing food justice for centuries; their open vegetarian kitchens, serving all comers for free, are one model that Nourishing Justice tries to emulate with the Thursday communal lunches.
Mike is trying to get the Nom-mobile onto a schedule coordinated the gurdwara’s roaming outreach. They overlap more than enough that the match seems sensible.
He cuts through the park at Bathurst, then decides to eat lunch in the shade on the low wall just past the skateboarding area. He hasn’t skated in a long time — he’d look ridiculous these days, hunched over and paunchy — but he likes the thwick-skid sound of the wheels and the thunks of successfully landed tricks.
He has a dish of saag roti, more than enough for lunch and dinner, but delicious enough that he’s pretty sure he’s going to finish it all right here.
A skater rolls by, then stops short, tail of his board scraping across concrete as he pivots. “Mike, holy shit!”
Mouth full, spinach on his beard, Mike looks up, startled. Beaten-up board in hand, Gus is loping across the grass. His smile is brighter than his blazing white tee.
“Hey,” Mike says, trying to swallow, cough, and clean up simultaneously. “You skate?”
Gus glances down at the board. “Sometimes, yeah. You?”
“While ago,” Mike says.
Gus is standing in front of him, rocking a little, side to side. All too belatedly, Mike realizes that he should say something else. It’s just that he’s surprised and happy to see Gus, but stressed now, too, all the worries about what Gus must think of him coming back to him, stronger than ever.
“Uh–” Gus looks over his shoulder.
“You want to sit?”
“Yeah,” Gus says. “I’d love to.”
“Saag?” Mike holds up the dish.
“I’m good, thanks.”
It’s awkward again. This is all on Mike; he kills every moment, or so Clinton would claim.
Clinton, however, is not here, but Gus is, and Gus seemed happy to see him. Mike decides to go with that.
“You keep turning up,” Mike says, as if Gus didn’t know his own whereabouts. “I mean, I’m not complaining! Opposite of that. It’s just–”
“Clearly I was meant to be in your life,” Gus says lightly. “Or maybe these are just coincidences and it’s up to us to make them mean something. If we want to.”
Laughing, Mike shifts over to make a little more room on the wall beside him. “Are you stoned right now?”
“I am not,” Gus says, so deadpan that he could be entirely sincere or completely ironic. “I just like thinking about patterns.”
“Composition,” Mike says, pointing at him.
“Exactly.” Gus rocks into him, then stays there, leaning on Mike. He’s hot to the touch; there’s sweat spangling his hairline. “I do have some edibles, though. At home. If you’re interested.”
“I’m interested. In you,” Mike says.
That is probably the worst line ever.
Gus, however, is sweet enough that he just grins a little and shakes his head, like he did back at Red in Tooth. “Thanks.”
“Sorry, that was–” Mike sets aside the roti. He’s not hungry any more. “Forget it.”
“Don’t want to,” Gus says quietly. He stretches out his legs before him and leans over. Turning to look at Mike, he adds, “Can’t make me.”
“Wouldn’t want to — wait, no. I’d love to, but I can’t.”
Gus straightens back up. “I’ve been thinking about that dude Tyler.”
Mike makes a face before he can stop himself. “Ugh, why?”
“Besides the fact that he still hasn’t paid me?”
“Yeah,” Gus says. “But, I mean. I’ve been thinking about his schtick with the blood and predators and decadence, right?”
“Decadent predation,” Mike ventures.
Gus grins and nods. “Exactly.”
“I think it’s like you were saying? That we take this necessity, everyone has to eat, right? But then we go and put so much onto it–”
“I said that?”
“Yeah, in your welcome speech. At NJ?” Gus holds his gaze, expression patient and kind and interested. Mike tries like hell not to look away, or shift uncomfortably, or anything. “Really made me think.”
“Ha, wow, that’s–” Mike starts to shove his hand through his hair, but catches himself midway and drops his hand. “Thanks.”
“Thank you,” Gus says. He really seems to mean it. “So, I was thinking. We pile all this bullshit and symbolism and insecurity onto a necessity like eating. Maybe it’s alienation, maybe it’s something else, I dunno.”
“What gets me,” Mike says, backing up a little to make room for Gus, “is how all he does is state the obvious, then acts like he’s made some stunning insight.”
Gus tilts his head a little. “What, like the ‘we’re animals’ thing?”
“Yeah, or the dancers and you. Treating people like sides of meat, oh, wow, that’s transgressive! Except no, it’s just horrible.”
Gus blinks, then leaves his eyes closed. “Yeah, that sucked.”
“I’m sorry, man,” Mike says.
“Not your fault.”
“I know, just–”
“But I appreciate it.”
Gus braces his hands behind him and leans back. “I really want to make out with you some more,” he says, musingly, ticking his gaze over to Mike. “Can’t stop thinking about it.”
“You heard me.”
Gus shrugs. “Sure, if you want. But my place is probably comfier.”
“Damn,” Mike says and then goes quiet. He’s trying to understand what’s happening, but he’s at a complete loss.
“Want to pick up where we left off,” Gus says.
“Before?” Mike asks, suddenly unsure how to make Gus understand he’s not that guy any longer. “Or more recently? Last month?”
“Whichever. Both.” Gus gives him that sweet, slow smile. “Whatever works for you.”
“Oh. Oh, rad.” What is he, fifteen? Rad?
“Yeah,” Gus says. “I think so, too.”
Mike is giddy, that’s the only word for it. His blood feels carbonated, his head feels like a balloon lifting for the sky. This guy really seems to like him. It doesn’t make any sense, of course, but Mike is sick of trying to understand and play it safe and keep to himself.
When they get to Gus’s, he barely takes in the small, neat apartment. It’s full of afternoon light, there’s an electric keyboard and papers all over the coffee table, the kitchen is narrow. Other than those details, Mike doesn’t notice a thing; he’s too busy kissing Gus. Gus’s hands are all over Mike, and he’s kissing hard, backing Mike up against the wall in the short passage.
This is past where they left off. This is heady and desperate, the kind of kiss Mike can barely remember experiencing before.
“Hey,” Gus says, hands coming to rest on Mike’s waist. His voice is hoarse and it scrapes up more desire, deep inside Mike, makes him open his mouth and suck at the air. “You okay?”
“I’m great, I’m–” Mike shakes his head and twists his hand in Gus’s shirt. “Wow.”
“Yeah,” Gus says, agreeing like Mike just made a profound, even revelatory, point. “I like kissing you.”
“Been thinking about it a lot.”
“Good.” With the back of his hand, Gus brushes the hair out of Mike’s eyes, then strokes the line of his beard. “What do you want?”
Mike’s mind spins faster. He smacks his lips, then groans when Gus touches his lower lip. “You. Just — you.”
Gus laughs. “Good. You’ve already got that.”
He kisses Mike some more, deeply and carefully now, hand firm on Mike’s shoulder. He kisses like he’s looking for something. Like he found it, in fact, and doesn’t want to lose track of it. Mike can’t stop touching him, the long muscles of Gus’s back, the sudden swell of his firm ass, the lift and fall of his ribs. The kiss turns into breathing, drinking, makes him lightheaded and crowds out everything else, all worry and most doubt.
“Damn,” Gus says, breaking, resting his forehead on Mike’s shoulder as he tries to catch his breath. Mike kisses the nape of Gus’s neck, the curve of one ear, and Gus shivers against him. “Want to taste you,” he adds, lifting his head, meeting Mike’s eye. He grinds against Mike’s leg lightly and Mike groans.
“Me, too. You, I mean, I–”
“I got it.” Gus grins and sniffs one armpit. “I should shower, though, I’m probably rank–”
Mike tightens his grip on Gus’s waist. “Don’t. You — you’re good. Delicious.”
Gus pauses, then says, “okay.”
They’re kissing again, harder now, and Gus moans and nips down as Mike’s hands slide down and around to his ass. He squeezes, lifts, mashes at Gus’s ass cheeks until Gus is grinding more, raggedly, against him.
Need has burrowed right down Mike’s core and it’s brightening, strengthening, now, enlarging and heating up. He mouths at the hinge of Gus’s jaw, grasps his ass more tightly and lifts his own hips from the wall to rub against Gus.
“I want to eat you out,” he says, eyes closed, preemptively embarrassed and ready to flee. “So fucking bad, man, I–”
But Gus pushes against him, grunting, then rolls back into Mike’s hands. “Yeah?”
“Let me?” Mike asks. “Please?”
“Let? Man–” Gus breaks off, grinning, and grabs Mike’s hand. He pulls Mike down the hall. “You do whatever you want, there’s no letting.” He glances over his shoulder, eyes bright and teasing. “I want everything you’ve got.”
That is never going to make any kind of sense. Mike trusts, however, and easily, that Gus means it. Believes what he’s saying, bizarre as it is.
In the little bedroom, Gus bounces backward onto the edge of the bed, arms open, reaching for Mike. Mike tries to bat away his hands when Gus goes to open Mike’s shirt, but Gus looks up at him. He makes a soft little interrogative sound that modulates into a groan.
“Okay,” Mike says, and Gus pulls open Mike’s shirt, hugging him around the waist and pressing his face against Mike’s belly.
It’s not bad, being seen like this, touched there. Far from horrible. It’s strange, and it’s nice, and also hot, because Gus’s mouth is a miracle and his hands are twin geniuses. Mike doesn’t forget to be self-conscious — that would be impossible — but the self-consciousness eases back a little out of the way. It fades markedly, but does not vanish, but it’s easy to get distracted by the handsome, laughing guy before him.
Shirtless now himself, Gus throws himself backward and pulls Mike down with him. He embraces Mike, kissing him all over again, and rolls them on their sides. Somehow he’s still smiling even as he’s kissing, even as he’s complaining and fumbling at Mike’s fly.
“What’s so funny?” Mike asks.
“Just psyched,” Gus replies. When he finally gets Mike’s fly open, he reaches inside, beaming. “Wingo! Been dreaming about this!”
“Don’t be–” Too disappointed, Mike almost says, but stops. Stops talking, stops breathing, stops everything but swelling and needing as Gus strokes him firm and fast. “Oh, Christ.”
“Yeah,” Gus breathes out. Still jerking him, he nudges Mike onto his back. “Fuck, you’re so–”
Without even knowing what Gus was going to say, Mike could argue. Disagree and demur, duck whatever compliments are being freely and generously offered. He is very good at doing just that.
It is a lot scarier, hypothetically at least, to nod and kiss Gus shallowly, rub Gus’s back and bite at his neck. To say, “thanks” and “you, too” and “come here”.
Concretely, however, rather than hypothetically, none of this is scary. It’s easy and warm and right. It’s exactly, completely, what he wants as well as what Gus wants. The small, perfect fact of this match is irresistible.
“Take ’em off?” he asks, plucking at the waistband of Gus’s cords.
“Way ahead of you–”
They are tangled up now, naked, legs slotted together as they thrust against each other’s warm skin. They’re sucking up kisses, palming sides – arms – waists. The bedroom is dimmer than the living room, but still, the picture of their bodies, Mike’s dark tan, Gus’s skin darker yet, Mike’s fuzziness and Gus’s smoothness, burns on the back of Mike’s eyelids, contrasts and complements.
There’s still laughter in Gus’s voice, twisting up his smile, when he mumbles, “score!”, as he finally gets his mouth on Mike’s dick. The sensation — slick, wet, affectionate — tugs at all the need already in Mike, sharpens it to saber-sharp, until he’s moaning and grunting. Gus looks up, lips stretched around the head, and he’s still smiling. He scratches light fingernails through Mike’s bush, rolls his balls together, bobs his head up and down until Mike’s seeing white light wash over his vision.
“Stop, slow down, I’m going to come–”
Gus pulls off with a slurp. “That’s the idea.”
“I really need you to,” Gus continues.
“Okay, but I want–” Mike pulls on Gus’s arm. “Can I?”
Gus blinks slowly. “What do you want?”
“You,” Mike says. “Do it together.”
As he understands that, Gus starts to nod and grin. “Shit, yeah, of course–”
He straddles Mike’s chest, knees digging into the bed against Mike’s armpits. His dick brushes Mike’s mouth and chin; Mike chases it, hands on Gus’s ass. When Gus bends back to take Mike in his mouth again, it’s overwhelming all over again. The angle, the depth of his mouth, and the bright, sour scent of him crowding Mike’s nose and mouth. The heft of his big, pretty cock, dragging sticky across Mike’s tongue, is itself almost too much. On top of everything else, the pleasure’s unbearable, and Mike’s glad that Gus’s weight is holding him down. Otherwise, he might just fly apart.
Gus goes still, a moan breaking sharply, when Mike works his way, tongue first, down the underside of his shaft, across and around his balls, and back, further and further back.
“Fuck, man, you don’t have to–”
Mike bites the inside of Gus’s thigh, makes him yelp, before hauling him far enough back to get his face buried in Gus’s ass. Back here, Gus is hotter than anything, sweaty, a soft tracery of hair suspended over slick, taut skin. Mike needs this, he wants this, so badly. His mouth is open, one hand on Gus’s cock in a loose grip for Gus to fuck at his own pace. He licks and licks, tastes Gus, opens him up more and more. Groans, both his own and Gus’s, run in resounding spasms through his body. Gus’s throat teases Mike’s dick, opens up, then backs off.
They start to move together, up and down, back and forward. He wraps his free arm around Gus’s leg to anchor himself and swirls his tongue inside Gus’s hole, then slides the flat surface of his tongue down to Gus’s slapping balls, and back. In Mike’s hand, Gus’s cock is jerking and twitching, running sticky with precome.
Gus pushes up, straightening the angle, sucking Mike until the white flash returns, brightens and persists, until Mike’s hips are lifting helplessly, seeking, yearning, as he fucks Gus’s ass with his whole mouth. He’s making out with the hole, sloppy and shameless, desperate for more.
Gus knocks Mike’s hand off his dick to take hold of himself. He jerks off, moaning reedily, as he shoves back onto Mike’s tongue.
Mike saw him come that night with Clinton, but now he feels it, tastes the spasms and sudden give to Gus’s whole body, sucks it all down, takes more, all he can get, as Gus tenses and stills, shoots down Mike’s chest, then goes slack.
His breathing is rapid and shallow, slightly whinnying, and he’s heavy atop Mike. After several moments, Gus struggles to lift himself free. He lies back down along Mike’s left side, hand back on Mike’s cock.
“Want to watch you,” Gus says as he props his head up on his hand. His face is sweaty, eyes huge, as he smiles.
Mike makes himself follow Gus’s gaze. He looks down his own body, really looks, past the shine of Gus’s come smeared into his chest, down the soft, jiggly expanse of his stomach, to where Gus’s hand is on his cock.
Why?, Mike does not say. He smiles back at Gus, tastes him all over his mouth as he licks his lips. He braces one foot, knee bent, on the mattress so he can thrust hard into Gus’s hand.
“You taste so good,” he tells Gus, fucking hard, fighting not to close his eyes. “Want to do that for hours, all day, just lick you–”
“Any time,” Gus says, his lashes fluttering for a moment. “Say the word, you got it. Just so long as–”
“What?” Mike asks sharply. Now he remembers that he ought to be worrying. He’s so close to coming, he’s actually enjoying being inside his own skin, why does it all have to go wrong?
“So long as I get to return the favor,” Gus says.
“Fuck. Yeah. Please.” Worry vanishes, need comes surging back. His leg muscles jump and clench as his stomach tenses. The thought of Gus’s mouth on him, in him, pulls him off the edge, into the open air, soaring into the glare.
“Then, I’ll fuck you,” Gus is saying, speeding his hand, twisting it, working Mike past enduring. “Can’t wait to fuck you.”
Sobbing, Mike moans, shooting several times before he curls onto his side, into Gus’s embrace.
“Yeah,” Gus finishes, kissing Mike’s temple, smoothing his palm down Mike’s flank. “It’s going to be so awesome.”
When they wake up, twilight has fallen. Mike takes a shower while Gus heats up shepherd’s pie for their dinner. Afterward, Gus cuts a chocolate peanut butter cup in half for them to share for dessert.
“Stingy,” Mike says. He means it teasingly, but then he remembers what he looks like, realizes he sounds like he’s complaining.
Gus, however, just pushes the candy over. “There’s like six grams in there,” he says. “If you need more, let me know.”
“Oh,” Mike says. “Edibles.”
“Yeah.” Gus settles back, popping his share into his mouth. He’s playing some jazzy hip-hop playlist and he hums along as he slings his arm around Mike’s shoulder.
“I’m not pursuing you,” Gus says a little later. “FYI.”
The weed is probably taking effect, but this could also be prolonged afterglow. Mike’s not sure. He likes it, whatever’s happening.
“But–” Mike gestures, but its import is vague even to him. He just waves his hand at himself, then towards the bedroom, then Gus.
“Not because I don’t want to,” Gus continues, “but because I get the feeling that would really freak you out.”
“I dunno,” Mike says and tips up his chin. “I’m made of pretty stern stuff.”
Gus rubs Mike’s forearm. “I’m sure you are. But the last thing I want to do is scare you off.”
“What? Why?” Mike wonders if he’s cold suddenly, or if he’s always been cold, and if this is how Gus is letting him down. Gus looks at him steadily, kindly eyes and soft mouth, and doesn’t reply. “Oh, wait. Because you are interested?”
“Got it in one.”
“But why? No, scratch that, sorry–”
Gus smiles. “I can elaborate.”
“God, no. Please don’t.”
They make out some more, giggling, limbs tingling, and fall back asleep.
“Don’t get mad,” Clinton texts from Leipzig. Or London. Maybe Louisville?
“Never a good intro,” Mike texts back. “What’s up?”
While he waits for Clinton’s response, he runs through his mental list of what he needs to have done before Clinton returns, just in case Clinton asks.
“I’m seeing someone.”
“And?” Mike writes back. “Like dating? Or are you sick? Like seeing a specialist?”
“Dating.” After a moment, Clinton adds, “We’re going to be exclusive. Please don’t be mad.”
Mike starts laughing and can’t stop. Usually when he runs up against Clinton’s idiosyncratic worldview, it’s baffling. Sometimes painful, but always confounding. Hilarious, all too rarely.
Clinton honestly believes, however, that Mike is pining for him. Just wasting away in his garret.
“Not mad,” Mike writes. “Happy for you. Who’s the lucky guy?”
Clinton replies with a snapshot. Him and Tyler Armitage, shirtless on a beach somewhere, holding up a giant sea urchin.
Mike’s still laughing hours later when he meets Gus for a skate session and drinks.
The next Saturday, Mike has to go on a foraging excursion led by Lori’s husband Martin. He’s been committed to it for well over a month; he’s the admin guy while Martin is the brains. Something like that. What it means is that Mike drives and Martin lectures. Mike accepts payments, and Martin lectures some more.
Gus tags along. Mike drives the group about an hour out of the city to a small park with good forest trails.
They drop behind Martin’s group. Gus has several clusters of sumac drupes in his shoulder bag, along with some wax paper bundles for hen o’the woods mushrooms.
“You’re really good at this,” Mike says when they stop to rest on some boulders glinting with mica.
Their hands are smudged with dirt; sweat’s stuck to Mike’s hairline and down the back of his neck.
“It’s fun,” Gus says. He leans in, looking serious — hooded eyes, pursed lips. His lip ring catches the sun. “I’m really glad we’re doing this.”
“No,” Gus says. “Well, that, too. But. This.” He squeezes Mike’s thigh and leaves his hand there. “Us.”
Mike wants to kiss him, but maybe they ought to wait. “I’m a mess–”
Gus shrugs expansively, holding up his scratched and muddy palm. “Me, too.”
“No, I mean, like. Spiritually.” He frowns. “Metaphysically?”
“You’re okay,” Gus tells him, and he sounds so calmly certain. “And, like I said, so’m I.”
“No, you’re–” The word forms in Mike’s mouth, weighs down his tongue. Either it’s self-preservation or cowardice that keeps him from speaking it; he knows which he suspects. Beautiful.
Gus nods once, twice, then a third time. “So are you,” he says, as if Mike had spoken.
“Exactly.” Gus’s arm goes around Mike’s shoulder and gathers him in, rolling him close, until Gus’s face is pressed to Mike’s.
He’s lost track of the meanings of things again. He isn’t panicking this time, however. He’s touching Gus’s cheek, his chin, the ring in his lip. Gus is doing the same to him, smiling a little, like he’s thinking of a good memory. He tilts his head as his mouth opens and his eyes drift closed, and Mike’s palm slips down Gus’s neck to make room for the kiss.