written and illustrated by Iron Eater
“Welcome to Reno. If you quote ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ at any time in my presence, I will smother you with a cushion and leave your body in the desert.”
“Hello to you, too,” said Ross, switching his carry-on to the opposite shoulder. He’d not been off the plane for five minutes and it already felt like he was on another planet: the giant wall ads for “gentlemen’s clubs” sharing space with family-friendly ski resort photos had been weird enough, but the taxidermied animals were another thing entirely. If he hadn’t seen them with his own eyes the notion of slot machines in an airport—most nestled behind the security checkpoints, no less—would’ve seemed like a bad joke at the expense of Nevada as a whole. The tall, wolflike man with well-groomed dreads and a chauffeur’s uniform looming out of the crowd seemed downright normal after staggering past rows of whimsically-themed video poker machines. Ross had to tilt his head up to look him in the face. “C. Ngom, right?” he asked.
“Just Chet is fine,” said Chet. He inclined his head to the duffel bag that was threatening to make Ross crab-walk the rest of the way through the terminal from its weight. “Want some help with that, buddy?”
“Yes, please.” He sagged as Chet took the bag from him. Even when not hunched over from the weight of his carry-on, Ross felt like a Weeble next to Chet. They rode down the escalator in tandem, fording through small groups of tourists that had clumped up among the downstairs slots. For some reason the vast majority appeared to be wearing bowling-related paraphernalia. Ross made a mental note to ask about that later.
“Everything’s taken care of,” said Chet as they made their way to the baggage claim. “You’ve got a room at one of the nice places, not the glorified Holiday Inns they pass off as casino hotels around here, plus guaranteed transportation for the entirety of your stay…”
He continued talking, but the ravages of air travel had already begun taking their toll on Ross; Chet may as well have been speaking Esperanto for all the impact his little orientation had. Halfway through the torrent of information, luggage still AWOL, Ross nodded off on his feet. He recovered almost instantly and managed not to keel over where he stood, but Ross didn’t fight when Chet eased him over to a bench. Exhaustion swiftly pulled him into dreamland.
He wasn’t sure just how long he was out, only that when he came to his bags were neatly arranged off to the side, he’d apparently been drooling in his sleep, Chet was seated next to him, and someone (presumably Chet) had placed a little box of McNuggets on a napkin in his lap.
Ross was not much of a fast food man, but the little fried blobs of probably-real-chicken struck him as the most delectable thing in the world right then, especially since a tentative bite revealed them to still be warm. Flying tended to make Ross ravenous no matter how much he snacked during layovers and today was no different. Soon there was nothing left of the nuggets but breading crumbs and some shiny grease marks on the bottom of the box. The weird aftertaste was far preferable to feeling both airsick and hungry at the same time. Ross wiped his mouth with the napkin before stuffing it inside the box and the box inside a nearby trash can. Chet handed him a water bottle.
“Get yourself hydrated, Sleeping Beauty, or there’s going to be some hell to pay,” said Chet.
“Thanks,” said Ross. He twisted the cap off the bottle and took a swig. “What kind of hell would I be paying?”
“You’re new to this altitude, right?” Chet asked. Ross nodded wordlessly, guzzling water. Chet nodded in return. “Feeling kind of sick at first is normal, but if you don’t make sure you’re constantly taking the time to eat, drink, and piss, you’re going to go from feeling sick to being sick.”
“Do a lot of tourists puke in your car, then?” asked Ross between gulps. Chet grimaced.
“All the time. At least the company pays for cleaning.”
“I’ll try to avoid that part of the Reno Experience, then, unless my esteemed guide convinces me it’s a golden opportunity I’d be a madman to give up.” Ross grinned and drained the rest of the bottle, sending it to socialize with the McNugget box. Chet barked a single laugh.
“Right, then, Mister Voynov, let’s get you out of this airport full of grandmas and into a hotel room that’s actually designed for people to sleep in,” he said. The thought of a soft bed sounded like heaven.
Chet rose to his feet with a grunt and picked up the monstrous duffel bag with the kind of ease that always made Ross’s stomach tie itself in knots. Ross had to bargain with him to be allowed to pull the wheeled suitcase on his own; a part of him had never entirely outgrown his mother’s insistence on good manners and self-sufficiency at all times, even when it came to people whose jobs involved moving things for others. If he’d known where Chet had parked he would’ve walked slightly ahead to keep from being distracted by just how well the other man filled out his uniform trousers, but as it was he had to scuttle along behind to keep from veering off in the wrong direction.
As befitting a professional chauffeur, Chet’s car was a classy, immaculate behemoth that looked as though it moonlighted ferrying superheroes around. Even the license plate frame was fancy, with an Egyptian winged-scarab design spreading its pinions above the painted metal numbers. They’d gotten Ross’s luggage loaded into the trunk—which itself looked suitable for all manner of mob-based shenanigans—before a mild dilemma presented itself.
“Uh…am I supposed to sit in the front or the back?” asked Ross. The passenger area had some lush-looking seats with polished piano black control consoles that no doubt operated all manner of hidden gizmos that car manufacturers liked cramming in, but the front…that part was closer to Chet, and Ross was very interested in keeping as close as possible to his driver. It’d be a nice antidote to spending entirely too much time in the air next to a very interesting-smelling man who chewed with his mouth open and never seemed to run out of chewing gum.
He was so caught up in his thoughts he missed what Chet said the first time.
“I said it’s your choice. If you were a client, you’d go in the back, no question, but circumstances are a bit different, yeah?” Chet gave him a smirk that was so perfect Ross suspected he’d spent time in front of a mirror practicing it, but it really didn’t matter; he melted a little bit all the same. Hoping he wasn’t being too visibly awkward, Ross slid into the front passenger seat.
“Are you always this talky with clients?” asked Ross during one of Chet’s rare pauses. Chet’s suave mask faltered briefly.
“Usually I don’t say very much at all unless they start something first. It’s not annoying, is it?” His easy smile had a changed into a forced, brittle grin. It didn’t suit him well, Ross decided, so he shook his head and settled himself into a seat whose upholstery probably cost more than half of Ross’s furniture back home combined.
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” said Ross. He drummed his fingers on the armrest. “I’m nervous, too.” Ross didn’t let himself linger on thoughts of what might happen if things didn’t go well before the week was up. There were things to do in Reno besides hang out with a potential romantic partner, right?
Chet made light conversation about what Ross assumed were local teams as they navigated the parking garage. Ross, who didn’t have much contact with professional sports outside of the odd round of the flavor-of-the-season Madden game with his cousins, opted to let his mind wander a bit instead, reflecting on the long string of events that had led to him unearthing himself from his native Memphis and navigating the quite possibly haunted halls of the Denver airport to meet up with a man whom he only really knew by voice.
It’d started when he’d signed up for DistalPen. Pen pal websites were much less stressful than any of the ones that doubled as dating services since they tacitly implied he’d rather take his time communicating than worry about whether or not he was interrupting somebody via IM. Being a dyed-in-the-wool dorky twerp by nature, Ross had never really gotten the hang of making new friends that weren’t directly tied into one of his hobbies, but like many dyed-in-the-wool dorky twerps he quietly wished he knew more people; the idea of meeting new people who were primarily interested in conversing via long e-mails instead of in real time was one that appealed to his loneliness and shyness alike. He’d agonized over his profile for hours. The sexuality dropdown had been kind to him, allowing him options like “other” and “prefer not to say,” but actually filling out the “Reason for Joining” field had him fearing he’d be seen as just another sad, weird little man in a sea of the same. Ross opted to put far more emphasis on the “Talents and Hobbies” section of the form. After uploading a sprite from one of his favorite old games as a user icon, he set his profile to live, drank two fingers of whiskey to calm his nerves, and promised himself he wouldn’t check his account for activity until an entire day had passed.
Two hours later he was angrily deleting what felt like the two dozenth creepy message from his inbox and pretending that the day-long activity moratorium had been on forum posting instead. He’d salvaged a few legitimate-looking greetings from the mire and shyly replied in what he hoped wasn’t unpleasantly formal language; of the messages he sent, maybe half wrote him back again. The man with the cropped Egyptian fresco for an avatar had been the nicest.
CNgom15 (when asked who the other fourteen were, he’d replied that sometimes old usernames died hard) liked trashy movies, claimed to be able to cook feasts for vegans and carnivores and everyone in between, owned far too many books on North African history, had been captain of the swim team in high school, and usually went to at least one casino show a month. He was the sort of Doc Savage overachiever that Ross found he got along best with. Most importantly, at least as far as Ross was concerned, he was very patient with Ross’s long-winded writing. They grew closer as the months went by, sprinkling their usual low-impact letter exchanges with IMs and the odd bit of voice chat while multitasking, and said closeness had been moved to an entirely different level when Ross found a tearful mail in his box detailing a nasty breakup with Chet’s now ex-boyfriend. In retrospect, Ross had never asked what exactly had caused the split, but in his opinion it was probably because the ex needed too much peace and quiet.
Chet got over it fairly quickly, as the longer he was able to talk the more he was able to see how the relationship had been turning increasingly bad for both he and his ex alike, and once the worst of it had passed he promptly started flirting. Ross’s long-standing crush was helpless in the face of Chet’s charisma; it hadn’t taken them very long to decide to meet in person to see if their chemistry could survive a face-to-face encounter. Ross would have a hotel room to himself so he wouldn’t be relying on the kindness of strangers to not get tipped out into the street, but Chet insisted on splitting the costs of the hotel and airfare. Adding giddiness at seeing a prospective lover on top of his already nervous flying habits had made the trip borderline excruciating. Still, Ross mused as they paused at a light that straddled the road leading into and out of the airport’s loops of lanes, enduring a few hours of misery in exchange for the opportunity to investigate sex with a gorgeous man was not the kind of opportunity he was about to turn down.
The drive to the hotel was uneventful. Once leaving the airport they took a grand total of two turns (and passed a lot of skeezy-looking motels) before pulling into the garishly-lit lot with its statue-flanked fountain, though despite his nerves Ross dozed for most of it. He was jolted awake by the window he’d been leaning on retracting into the doorframe to the sound of Chet snickering. After giving his best attempt at shooting Chet a withering glare, he hauled himself out of the car and blearily helped hand off his luggage to one of the concierges hovering around the dropoff points.
The hotel was somehow more and less opulent than Ross imagined. Being raised on media that focused more on Las Vegas than its humbler northern cousin, the casino floors seemed quaint by comparison, but the hotel proper had been done up in some sort of fancy pseudo-Mediterranean style that made him intensely aware of the fact that he was still half asleep and in desperate need of a shower while tromping around in a tee with a website logo on the front. He very likely wouldn’t have made it through check-in without Chet’s propping him up and giving him the occasional squeeze on the arm. They paused in front of the elevators, Ross’s bags already whisked away by the staff.
“You look like hell,” said Chet, still ever-so-fashionable in his uniform. He didn’t look the slightest bit out of place amidst the marble and brass.
“I’m not going to argue with that,” replied Ross.
“Go get some sleep, wash up, maybe order some room service, whatever. I’ll call you in the morning once I’ve taken care of the matinee tickets.”
“Just so long as you don’t call me before ten…”
“Ten-oh-one it is, then!” said Chet, grinning at Ross’s wail of dismay. He then pulled Ross close into a hug so forceful it nearly lifted the smaller man off the ground. His polished buttons pressed against Ross’s chest while the slightest hint of cologne teased Ross’s nose. Chet’s voice was gentler, but no less genuine, when he spoke again. “It’s good to see you, man.”
Closing his eyes, Ross let himself forget that there were other people in the lobby in favor of savoring the moment. Things were undeniably real now. Grainy Skype calls didn’t capture the deep brown tones of Chet’s complexion in anything but the broadest, RGB-addled strokes, and the mess of artifacts that swam across Chet’s terrible webcam feed had all but obscured the grace of his profile and the way his dark eyes crinkled at the edges whenever he told a bad joke. IMs never implied how he was tall enough to rest his cheek against Ross’s forehead. Even if nothing else went right, Ross decided, the entire trip was worth it just to see such a fine human specimen in the flesh.
“Yeah,” he said, “it’s good to see you, too.”
Morning was far too early in the day for Ross to be upright and moving, especially when theoretically on vacation, so it was clearly the hand of God that guided him out of bed and into proper clothing by quarter past eight. He noodled around on his laptop while picking at the miniature box of cereal he’d had them bring up with his meal the night before. One Twine game and several agonizing rounds of Sudoku later his smartphone rang.
“Ross Voynov speaking,” he said automatically. He was greeted by laughter on the other end.
“Good morning to you, too. I thought you said you got time off?”
“Habit, habit…” Even though Chet couldn’t see him, Ross flipped a hand dismissively. Phone manners were hardly his only tic. “You got the tickets?”
“Yeah. I’ll meet you in the lobby in thirty.”
“And if I’m late?”
“Cushion, desert, gosh-officer-I-haven’t-seen-him.” The tone of voice he used was the sort he usually paired with a winning smile. Now it was Ross’s turn to laugh.
“Guess I’ll see you on time, then. Bye, Chet.”
Even with plenty of colorful time-wasters on his phone, thirty minutes stretched into infinity like light passing a black hole. What felt like thousands of guests meandered past: some incoming, some outgoing, some headed to the casino floor, others ignoring the slots and table games all together and making a beeline for the restaurants. Even eons must end, however, and at precisely twenty-eight minutes after hanging up Chet walked through the lobby doors with all the bearing of a king. He’d traded his uniform for a white silk shirt and dark jeans that looked suspiciously painted on, though apparently he was the sort of man to wear cufflinks for casual occasions; they looked like little gold ankhs. Ross busied himself with cleaning his glasses to keep from gawking.
“Hey,” said Chet, swinging himself around to lean against the same planter Ross was.
“Hey yourself.” He straightened his cardigan. “So what’s the movie of the day about?”
“I have no idea, but it’s probably some godawful wannabe blockbuster left over from tentpole season. This early in the day we can probably get away with heckling it if it’s shitty.”
“Be still, my heart!” said Ross, pressing the back of his hand to his forehead in a not-completely-faux swoon. They’d joked that the ideal first date would involve a movie so bad neither of them would mind never seeing it again in case things went south, and Ross had long since tried to convince his friends of the joys of talking over the bottom of the cinematic barrel. One of his and Chet’s first IM conversations had involved entirely unnecessary amounts of trading Mystery Science Theater quotes with each other. When they’d begun their first tentative steps towards an online relationship Chet had even promised to take Ross out to the worst movie he could find. While they’d planned the midday movie well in advance, Ross still found it touching that he’d remembered.
“Let’s get a move on before some crusty old white guy asks me to take his bags. You can get the vapors once we’re in the car, Scarlett.”
“Fiddle-dee-dee, I guess.”
As fancy as the hotel was, the theater complex Chet drove them to was not, being buried in what looked to be a dilapidated parking lot surrounded by chain link fence; the fence itself boasted weathered signs promising that construction would be coming soon in spite of the patches of rust creeping along the metal. The asphalt looked ridden hard and put away wet. Inside was better, at least, with good carpeting, an alert (if somewhat bored-looking) usher, and a decided lack of mysterious smells. Chet procured a pair of drinks and a popcorn tub large enough to hide a basketball in before guiding Ross to their theater.
There were maybe half a dozen other people already inside, so it was no trouble at all finding a pair of good seats. Chet put his feet up on the row in front of him, half due to the laxer atmosphere and half so he could actually fit into a chair made for a shorter man, and splayed his arms out across the seat backs. Ross was left holding the popcorn. In the dim light he could make out someone tinkering with their phone, someone else apparently explaining the plot of the film to their neighbor via plentiful hand motions, and a couple that had already begun necking in the corner: hardly the most dignified company, but it made him feel less self-conscious about the idea of jeering at whatever fare lay in store for them.
The pre-movie reels were the usual mix of commercials, paeans to the virtue of not using phones during the show, and trailers that had already become shopworn on network TV by that point. Something about the trailers bothered Ross, though: while a few were fluffy action pieces or screwball comedies, the overwhelming majority belonged to that strange tradition of horror films cut down to get a PG-13 rating. There were a few half-hearted shrieks and a giggle or two from the audience. The tone of the trailers was all wrong for a bad everything-blows-up movie. He furrowed his brow worriedly as the lights went down entirely and the surround sound test played.
The camera focused on an office building at night, panning towards a white man in a tie working late at his desk. The soundtrack wasted no time in setting up an ominous thrum. Ross had seen enough movies of this one’s ilk to know that the handheld shots were meant to be someone’s POV, and that the man furiously typing away at a computer whose screen projected its display onto his face for some reason was not long for the world. He squirmed in his seat.
“What’s the title of this thing, again?” Ross whispered. Chet shrugged.
“Dunno. Something about blood, darkness, maybe an innocent-sounding location, the usual cliche grab-bag.”
A sharp musical sting nearly launched Ross from his chair. Bad enough when it happened at home when he was prepared for it: this was loud. It wasn’t so much the sight of the (conspicuously excised for inclusion in the unrated cut) gore that bothered him as it was the sound cues. Anyone could get used to fake blood or CGI guts with exposure, but enduring thunderous music intentionally designed to be dissonant and panic-inducing was a horse of a different color. He dug his nails into the seat divider. A gentle touch on his hand caused him to jump.
“There a problem, Ross?” Chet whispered. Ross wanted to be mad at him, being halfway responsible for dragging him all the way out to Nevada’s left elbow just so Ross’s eardrums could rupture, but it was taking all his energy just to keep his composure. The shrieking strings made it hard to concentrate.
“This movie is deafening!” he hissed through his teeth. Chet looked worried.
“According to that guy down front who kept spoiling every potential plot point this stupid thing has, this is the loudest part. Do you need to step outside?” Chet’s in-control-of-everything mask slipped again; even in the dark, lit only by the reflected light of the screen, Ross could see the unspoken footnotes: If you step outside, would you bother coming back? Did I fuck this up so badly you want to call everything off already? Ross was in such a mood that he briefly considered it. He instead helped himself to another handful of popcorn and remembered some of the exercises he’d been taught as a kid, back when he needed a lot more medication for this sort of thing. Things wouldn’t last forever, he was in control, he was okay, he wasn’t a bad person for feeling this way…
“The movie house I go to back home is a lot quieter,” said Ross, once he’d found a few scraps of composure. “If it gets worse, I’ll just go out and play arcade games in the lobby, okay?”
“Okay,” said Chet, crestfallen.
“Nothing personal,” said Ross between overly-focused soda sips. “I just have to take a few extra steps now and then to take care of myself.”
“Would it help if I put my arm around you so you have something else to think about?” he whispered back. Goosebumps prickled on Ross’s skin. He’d always thought that particular gesture was needlessly twee, but now that he was offered a shot at it he was having trouble remembering what exactly he’d objected to in the first place. Given the thudding bass of the theater sound system, having a nice little anchor to reality sounded particularly appealing. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad with somebody else to focus on instead of the music. He allowed himself a nod.
“That’s the spirit,” said Chet, laying one trimly built arm across Ross’s shoulders and resting his hand against a cardigan-clad bicep. “Wanna just shut your eyes and plug your ears for a bit and have me let you know when the bad acting starts?”
Ross was never the most romantic of people, but he easily could’ve proposed cohabitation right then and there. He nodded. Closing his eyes shut out the dizzyingly bad camerawork and let him think about how the music itself clearly thought itself the next Psycho, how the sound balance was off and seemed to favor the left-rear channel, and how warm Chet was against him. He leaned into his date a little bit—and how exhilarating it was to say he was on a proper date with another human being again!—and prepared to weather the storm.
After the first flurry of activity the movie became a lot more tolerable, the cacophonous score giving way to wooden dialogue and acting of questionable caliber. Ross’s ears slowly acclimated to the volume as the reels played on. Once he was no longer being deafened by every passing plot point and found an appetite for concession-stand snacks he even started enjoying the bad movie experience. Neither of them brayed at the screen as much as they’d been expecting, but the audience was a good one: most of the people present, Ross and Chet included, groaned in disbelief or yelled at a bad plot development as though they’d practiced. Even with having shut down a little during the first part of the movie Ross found he could predict every twist and turn the film tried to surprise him with. It didn’t even have the decency to embrace its formulaic nature and make a polished, if by-the-numbers, movie, instead going for a muddled (and slightly misogynistic) mess. The final jump scare before the credits rolled was greeted with a chorus of booing laughter. Ross strongly considered hurling the empty popcorn tub at the screen as the lights came up and everyone filed out.
They sat in Chet’s car in the parking lot, seats leaned back like lawn chairs, stretching their legs while talking about the mess they’d just seen. Chet gestured with his half-full drink to accentuate each point, the ice rattling; Ross had heard the enthusiasm in Chet’s voice before over the phone, and being present for every quirked lip and raised brow that accompanied Chet’s narration only made it better. He was so lost in listening to Ross talk he didn’t realize that the car’s engine was starting until they’d already pulled out of the space.
They pulled out of the fence-clad lot and turned onto the main road, the downtown skyline rising up to the north. Chet kept talking about killing time until lunch, but aside from some riverside park thing Ross had read about he was at a loss to where they might go: it was too early for shows or drinks, and as he’d just finished a movie he wasn’t really in the mood to enjoy them anyway. He didn’t think there were any art museums in the direction they were heading, either, and while he could see a hospital from the parking garage whose ramps they ascended he couldn’t imagine why they’d go there. Maneuvering his car into a spot marked “valet only,” Chet kept giving Ross vague lines about walking or going people-watching. Ross’s question only answered itself when they stepped through the first set of double doors in a swirl of air conditioning.
Living on the Mississippi, Ross had been on a riverboat casino before, but these were oddities all their own. They wandered through each of the bigger ones in turn: some were little more than a bunch of worn-down slot machines huddled around a bar, but one boasted a miniature midway, another a walkway that swooped over the street, and a third a bizarre-looking, two-story metal structure that made thunderstorm noises as they passed; the last one was decorated with oversized bowling paraphernalia, presumably connected to some event involving the bowlers he’d seen at the airport the day before. There were entire families with young children in tow wandering around off the casino floor itself.
Aside from the throngs of people, though, Ross found it most difficult to ignore the the conspicuous number of restaurants inside.
“What’s with all the places to eat?” he asked Chet. “Does every single place here have to appeal to locals and drunks?”
“Yeah, pretty much. No kidding, one of them up by the hospital used to have a goddamn Arby’s on the ground floor.”
“That’s great,” said Ross, who couldn’t help but imagine a cashier in a little visor and a showgirl’s outfit, maribou fluttering as they handed out packets of horsey sauce. High heels and ostrich plumes didn’t mesh too well with fast food.
“I’m kind of sad they changed it to whatever non-chain thing it is now,” continued Chet. “It was the perfect joke: ‘Welcome to our casino hotel, here is your Arby’s.'”
“The little shoppes in my hotel sell gelato and stuff,” said Ross. He’d been somewhat taken aback by just how many fine-dining places and sweet shops he’d come across before keeling over from travel exhaustion the night before.
“That’s what makes it extra-funny!”
Ross paused next to a worn statue of an elephant rearing up on its hind legs. Someone had dressed it in an oversized bowling shirt. He propped up a foot against his knee and rubbed at his foot; the loafers he’d packed hadn’t entirely been broken in yet and now he was suffering for it. Two teenaged girls walked past, sharing the same enormous ice cream cone, and his stomach chose to remind him that the popcorn, much less breakfast, had worn off fifteen minutes ago.
“So, O Gracious Host,” he asked, “what are we doing for lunch today? I hope this wasn’t just a setup to take me out for mass-produced roast beef.”
“Nah. There’s this great pho place I want to take you that’s walking distance from here.”
“More walking?” Ross wailed. He rolled his eyes in exasperation, half at Chet’s active schedule and half at himself for not wearing sneakers. The thought of walking even more, around so many people who seemed determined to only move slowly and in horizontal lines, was coming dangerously close to killing his enthusiasm for their date. Chet nudged him in the shoulder playfully.
“Don’t be a baby. It’s sit-down, so you can rest your tired dogs once we get there.”
“Fine, fine…but it better be worth it.”
“If it turns out you don’t like it, I’ll figure out some way to make it up to you.”
“Will it be full of old people in bowling shirts, too?” asked Ross.
“The grandmas in town for one of the million competitions they host here usually stick to stuff in the casinos themselves.” Chet pulled insistently at Ross’s arm. “Now c’mon, let’s get you to some of the best pho in Reno!”
Said pho shop was close to the main knot of casinos, tucked between a pawn shop and a liquor-and-groceries market, and while Ross had sampled Vietnamese cooking before it had never been in a place with jars of plastic square-tipped chopsticks at each table. The worn laminated menus featured a lot more options than he was expecting for a place with chairs that very well might have been older than he was, so he decided to order based on the time-honored tradition of placing his menu on the table, closing his eyes, and pointing at a random spot. A few minutes later, he found himself sipping at a steaming bowl of pho bo and more cilantro than he’d ever seen in a single place before; Chet’s meal was something barbecued that he cubed up vigorously before eating it a piece at a time.
It was a pretty good lunch, Ross figured, though he didn’t have much frame of reference. The hot soup and the pot of jasmine tea they shared chased out a bit of the mountain chill that had been lingering around him all morning. Unfortunately, warming up a little also made him aware of just how different their day out was from his usual routine; his feet hurt, the sun was far too bright, he’d been around large numbers of people all day, and his body was just now catching on to the fact that Ross had woken up far earlier than he normally would. Napping on a full stomach sounded like the best thing in the world. The question, of course, was how to get somewhere calmer without cutting their date short entirely.
“Hey, Chet?” he asked.
“Mmrph?” replied Chet around a mouthful of carrot and rice. Ross put on his best nonchalant smile.
“This is nice,” he said, gesturing at their picked-over dishes, “but can we go back to your place or something? I’m getting tired of being around crowds.” He untucked the napkin from his collar and dabbed at his mouth, hoping he sounded casual about it.
“Uh…sure, yeah, we can go back there, I mean there’s not dirty laundry on the floor or anything. It’s quiet and there’s plenty of paths to stroll along once your feet stop hurting.” Chet stole a piece of meatball from Ross’s bowl and devoured it.
“That sounds wonderful,” said Ross, countering by nabbing the last piece of barbecued something from Chet’s plate.
“So, uh, guess I underestimated how bad the crowds would be for you, huh?” asked Chet. He gestured at Ross with his chopsticks. “I mean, I knew you were an introvert, but you talked about giving presentations for your job a lot, so I figured you would be okay if we were just downtown…” Ross shrugged.
“Sometimes when I’m walking around I don’t care. If I’m out too long and it’s too crowded, though, I just get this little feeling that I’ve had enough and want to leave and so long as I heed that I don’t really have any trouble.”
“That’s good, I think?” said Chet. “I don’t really have much experience dealing with this kind of thing aside from this one kid I went to elementary school with.”
“Well, I guess now you know one way that kid might’ve grown up,” said Ross.
Ross’s flagging spirits rallied at the promise of resting in the shade. Soaking his tired toes, engaging in some light conversation, and maybe seeing how good a kisser Chet was all sounded like good ideas, and he could feel the low-grade anxiety starting to ease away from the back of his mind. It called for celebration, so Ross exulted in the best way he knew how: he loosened his tie.
Chet’s place was one row house among many tucked back against the hills. The walking paths he’d promised were there in abundance, winding their way through greenery so vibrant that they had to have been imported, and it felt like the mountains stretched out forever over the tops of the identical sets of white and gray buildings. The only thing that really set Chet’s house apart from its neighbors was the carport out front: whereas the rest of the houses had assigned spaces with little covers over them for parking, Chet’s had an actual modest enclosure big enough to keep his car out of the weather and, as he mentioned while locking it up, away from curious teens. He’d started going into detail about the deal his company had struck with the landlord and Ross’s eyes had glazed over again, quietly hoping that the rest of their small talk wouldn’t be centered around subjects he could only really comment on with an “uh-huh” or a “yeah.” After a bit of fumbling with his keys Chet finally got the door unlocked and welcomed Ross into his home.
In Ross’s experience, there were two kinds of people in the world—the tidy and the untidy—and Chet clearly fell firmly into the former camp. The carpet was vacuumed and both the sprawling entertainment center and the bookshelves flanking it were free of dust. It was a tiny oasis of calm after a day spent in the noisy, tawdry city. Chet excused himself to somewhere upstairs, and while Ross was impressed by the view from the entryway he still had an urgent need to sit. He wandered through the living room in search of a good seat; given all the books on Egypt and the Sahelian kingdoms weighing down the coffee table, he felt like he was exploring the study of a literary club rather than the house of someone whose genitals he was tentatively interested in seeing. There were even framed prints on the walls, their subjects ranging from movie posters to black-and-white photography. What caught Ross’s eye, however, was the tidy stack of frames in the corner with the pillowcase tossed over them.
“Hey, Chet? What’s with all these pictures of dog people looking into the sunset?”
They had some of the nicest frames in the room, and while they all appeared to depict some kind of pointy-faced dog standing on its hind legs, the signatures looked different. One of them was painted in watercolors so delicate that the grain of the paper itself was incorporated into the design. Another was inked onto some sort of embossed card stock and detailed with brilliant gold leaf. Most of them, however, had the slick-paper look that Ross had learned to associate with higher-quality digital printing. Ross briefly glanced between them and the coffee-table book discussing paintings of the Egyptian pantheon. What was the one with the jackal head’s name, again? Nubia?
“There’s dog guys in little skirts and they’re all piled up on the floor. I think one’s in eye makeup.” He tilted his head to study one of them better. Given how similar their designs were they were probably from one of the many, many video games or comics that Ross wasn’t aware of. The lanky build they all shared was certainly familiar; maybe he’d seen the character on Tumblr before, in some nth-generation reblog or in a tag he didn’t follow? Whoever it was, Chet was clearly a fan, and Ross made a mental note to ask for greater detail after he’d rested for a bit. He smiled. This visit was proving itself to be a good idea even more each minute.
Chet was quiet for several long minutes. Ross was tired enough to not notice until he heard Chet’s footfalls thudding down the stairs. He sat down heavily on the couch, legs splayed like a mantis with his hands resting on his knees. Chet stared straight ahead at the blank, glassy expanse of the television screen as though he’d just learned a favorite relative had been in an Incident. Ross hadn’t seen that sort of shameful self-psyching-up since he’d caught one of his first boyfriends feeling up his roommate back when he was still at TSU, but that didn’t make sense: unless Chet had spent their few minutes apart getting busy with someone else in the depths of his house, Ross couldn’t think of anything the man might’ve done to warrant such a guilty look. When Chet spoke, he didn’t turn to face Ross.
“He’s a Tesem hound, his name is Dawud, he’s named after a Songhai emperor, and sometimes I write stories about him.” He exhaled loudly through his nose. “This isn’t going to be a problem, is it?” Ross couldn’t figure out why Chet’s voice sounded so strange until he realized he’d never really heard the man sound embarrassed before. Ross gave the pictures of the hound-man another look. It was suddenly a lot more obvious why they’d seemed familiar to him: while there were some stylistic differences between artists, they all looked to be based on Chet’s actual build. Something clicked in his head.
“So you’re one of those furry fans?”
“Yeah, yeah I am. I don’t really bring it up with people since it’s kind of weird for me to talk about.”
“Oh, okay. I’ve just never met somebody in that fandom that was a tall guy in dreads, is all,” said Ross. He seated himself next to Chet on the couch and leaned on him reassuringly. The cushions were soft and the room was warm. He easily could’ve fallen asleep right there and then, though he mentally scolded himself for wanting to spend so much of his vacation time asleep.
“It’s not going to be a problem, is it?”
“Hobbies are hobbies,” said Ross, “so if you’re having fun and not hurting anybody I really couldn’t care less.” He kicked off his shoes and tucked his feet up under himself. It was getting harder for him to keep his eyes open.
“You’re taking this pretty well,” said Chet. He looked genuinely surprised. Ross raspberried and gave his best derisively effete hand-flip.
“I once dated a guy who was really into those Gor books, the ones with the bizarro-earth S&M space barbarians,” he said, pushing his glasses further up the bridge of his nose. “You writing fantasy manimal adventures is nothing compared to the really weird ideas he tried to push on me.”
“Fantasy manimal adventures. That’s definitely one way to put it.”
“I’d love to hear more about your stories later, Chet, but I wasn’t kidding when I said I was tired.” Ross cracked his neck. “So if you’re okay with it, I think me and this incredibly comfortable sofa have a pressing engagement.”
Chet hooked one foot around a nearby ottoman and dragged it close enough for him to rest his heels on. He put an arm around Ross’s shoulders again, mirroring their trip to the movies that felt like it’d happened years ago by that point, and with his free hand carefully took Ross’s glasses from him and put them on the side table. Ross sagged wearily. Chet turned off the nearby lamp as Ross rested his head against him.
“Get some sleep, shorty,” said Chet, but he needn’t have bothered: Ross was already lost in slumber.
Ross hadn’t expected to know what it was like to wake up with the smell of Chet’s cologne in his nose until much later on, but as he blinked away sleep and fumbled for his glasses he had to admit it was a pleasant sensation, indeed; it helped that he’d managed not to wake up with anything stiff or sore despite drifting off more or less upright against Chet. Chet himself was sprawled like a lizard on his back. Even in such an undignified position—he was drooling a little bit—he made Ross wonder what he looked like underneath that silk of his. Ross laced his fingers together tightly to keep from succumbing to temptation.
He didn’t have to wait long until Chet awoke. A bit of light conversation and mutual breaks to take care of nap-mouth later, they were nestled together in front of a DVD of some sort of car-enthusiast program. It was very educational: the longer Ross watched it the more acutely aware he became of how bored he was by the subject matter. His mind kept wandering to the rib-cracking hug from yesterday. The warm, happy feeling from having Chet’s arm around him earlier hadn’t faded once the movie ended, nor had it during their walk through the casinos or during their lunch, and napping half-slumped against someone he liked certainly hadn’t dulled things, either. Even resting with their legs touching while the program host droned on about engine specs was nice. Ross hadn’t realized how much he’d missed physical contact until he’d gotten a fresh fix.
Ross glanced over at Chet, who seemed as casually detached as ever. They hadn’t ended up talking about Dawud the talking pharaoh hound very much before Chet had put the disc in; Ross was still feeling out how the man acted off of the Internet, but he knew an aversion tactic when he saw it. Waiting for Chet to make the first move in this state would’ve been an exercise in futility. Well, fortune favored the bold, and if he kept pretending to be interested in whatever the show was about it was only a matter of time before he accidentally made an ass of himself. He cleared his throat, grinning goofily.
“Something on your mind, Ross?” said Chet. Ross twisted the tips of his index fingers together. Back home he’d promised himself he’d pace things, not wanting to burn out on the idea of a physical relationship before it even got started, but pacing oneself didn’t always mean slowing down…
“If we fooled around now, would it make things weird?” He could feel a blush flaring up, no doubt turning his olive-toned skin beet red. Ross mentally thumbed his nose at every ex of his that’d accused him of not being proactive enough. “I don’t want to spend the night or anything just yet.” Chet’s face blossomed into his trademark sly, satisfied grin that not even a bad webcam had been able to distort. He switched off the television.
“I think I’ll manage, somehow.”
While Ross had endured past boyfriends who balked at his insistent negotiations before getting into anything more involved than holding hands, Chet was mercifully not in said camp; after the shared indignity of having to remember the last time either of them had been tested, they laid some ground rules soon enough. Boring ones, perhaps, especially compared to some of the very interesting (and specific) dreams Ross had had about the two of them together, but trying to run before learning to walk had never worked out very well for him in the past. Besides, he told himself, they had an entire week to get used to each other. Having the luxury of taking it slow was the entire reason he’d wrangled so much vacation time in the first place.
It wasn’t long before they’d gotten tangled up on the couch, Ross’s trusty cardigan tossed to the side and Chet’s shirt unbuttoned to the navel. Kissing Chet, as it turned out, was very nice, and Ross would’ve been more surprised if a man ranking so highly on Ross’s internal hotness scale hadn’t clearly had plenty of practice making out. Ross kept his hands resting against Chet’s exposed chest, admiring how he still had the build of a swim captain. Ross himself had spent high school as a doughy teen only to mature into a doughy young man, so the contrast was interesting; thanks to some of their prior long talks over IMs about preferred body types, he was secure in the knowledge that Chet wasn’t entirely averse to businessman-shaped guys, and the modest confidence boost was doing wonders for getting over his own nerves.
A long-fingered hand pulled away from where it’d laced itself into Ross’s hair. A few moments later a warm, intimate pressure cupped against his slacks, and it only took a moment before he realized that someone he liked was touching his butt and it was pretty fantastic. Ross shifted his weight experimentally: sure enough, he could tell that Chet was half-erect beneath those scandalous jeans, and Ross pushed his hips against Chet’s in encouragement.
While grinding with pants on was the sort of thing Ross associated with teenaged awkwardness and feeling up a bi-curious childhood friend between rounds of Goldeneye, he had to admit it was certainly working for him. Chet grew harder in time with his pulse. Oh, but how Ross had daydreamed about this, one point at the height of his unspoken twitterpation having stared at the same spreadsheet for an entire hour while wondering what that nice young man he traded letters with would be like between the sheets. He also quietly hoped that Chet had a working washing machine on the property, since at the rate things were going Ross could already tell that his briefs were moist with excitement, and it’d no doubt only get moreso as the afternoon wore on.
Ross was a little out of breath when they finally parted. His heartbeat was hammering in his ears; had they been somewhere that had any humidity whatsoever, he suspected his glasses might’ve been a little fogged. Luckily for him his vision was clear, as Chet chose that moment to undo his fly and begin pulling down the zipper with frustrating slowness. His boxers, once revealed, were unmistakably tented. Hooking his thumbs underneath the elastic, Chet began working them down just enough to expose himself: first came the thatch of curls he’d shaved to geometric precision, then the curvature of his root, then his purple-tinged shaft, until finally his entire cock was on display, erect and inviting. Ross leaned back, half-kneeling around Chet’s legs, to get a better look. Chet palmed a foil-wrapped square from his pocket with a stage magician’s legerdemain. He twiddled the condom packet between his fingers.
“So, you want me to put this on, or you want to do it for me?” Chet asked. Ross felt his cheeks pinken again as he shyly held out his hand, palm up. Chet raised his eyebrows at this but handed it over. It was an unfamiliar brand, but if Chet bought them for himself at least it was more than likely to fit. Once he figured out where the easy-tear notch was on the packaging, Ross got down to business.
He worried open the little packet, careful not to drop its slippery contents, and pinched the tip before rolling the first inch or so of the condom over Chet’s glans and some of his shaft. The remainder of it Ross coaxed down with his thumbs and index fingers until the lubricated latex lip was nestled in place. Ross stroked the inside of his thumb and the meat of his palm along Chet’s shaft, causing him to murmur appreciatively. He flexed his cock against Ross’s hand. Ross took a moment to figure out a few of Chet’s less obvious angles before he closed his hand around Chet’s cock and began working the band of skin just beneath the head. Chet leaned against the couch armrest, propping himself up on his elbows and resting his hands across his sternum while he watched Ross cheerfully build up steam. He smiled back fondly when Ross peeked up at him.
“Your glasses are on crooked, your tie’s coming off, and your hair’s a disaster.” Chet reached down to smooth out one of the more offensive cowlicks. “God but you’re cute,” he added, wetting his lips. Ross beamed.
“Not bad for a guy who can’t bark like a dog-man, huh?” he teased. Chet tweaked his nose.
“You’re a regular laugh riot. Remind me why I should put up with you again?” he said. Ross answered by giving Chet’s cock a firm squeeze, which prompted another happy groan before Ross leaned down to cover Chet’s mouth with his own.
Coordinating his hand stroking Chet’s shaft, his tongue exploring Chet’s mouth, and his center of balance as he tried not to fall off the couch was a bit of a difficult task, but Ross managed all the same; focusing on multiple things at once was part of his day job, after all. The lube on the condom made things much easier than it would have been dry. He alternated between speeds and pressures, homing in on which movements caused Chet to make the loudest vowel sounds. Ross’s own cock pushed against his slacks. A hand that had previously been kneading his ass disappeared—he had long since closed his eyes, so anything not touching him might as well have vanished into the ether—only to reappear cupped firmly between his legs, giving a new part of Ross a squeeze. It was almost enough to throw him off his rhythm.
Ross took this as a challenge.
He adjusted the angle of his wrist, pinpointing exactly what made Chet writhe the most, and tapped into the reflexes that had both been very useful for playing space-shooter games and made him very popular among a small, private group of people. Chet whined around Ross’s tongue. Ross was a quiet man, unquestionably meek and mild, but his past lovers had all discovered in their own time that he was relentless when it came to trying to bring someone else to orgasm. He broke their kiss to bury his face in the join of Chet’s neck and shoulder, his hand fluttering, and refused to let up until Chet’s hips bucked against him with a cry. Chet shuddered against Ross’s palm as he came, the thin barrier of latex the only thing keeping Ross’s front from being striped with white.
It took a bit before Chet got his breath back. His shirt stuck to his skin in places and the tie restraining his dreadlocks was starting to come undone. Chet planted a kiss on Ross’s cheek before hobbling off to the bathroom. Ross finger-combed his hair. He had just stood up and had started tucking his shirt tail back in when Chet’s hands pressing down on his shoulders eased him back onto the couch.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Chet purred. “You haven’t tried my cooking yet.” He knelt in front of Ross, and worked Ross’s zipper down, trousers giving way to the distended front of his briefs. Just as before, Chet rested his palm against Ross’s crotch and lightly squeezed. Ross wriggled. Chet clearly didn’t mind the fact that Ross was still quite damp with excitement, and judging by the meaningful look Chet gave him there were clearly plans in place to require a complete change of pants; now Ross really hoped that there was a laundry machine available. Ross nodded his approval. Chet grinned and leaned in for a quick kiss. Their lips had scarcely parted when he started touching Ross in earnest.
Chet’s technique was pleasantly different from Ross’s own, particularly since there was still a layer of cloth between them; he had more of a pulling, spiralling method to his motions, like a chef working bread dough. Chet’s breath was as warm against Ross’s skin as the air was cool. He didn’t lean in for further kisses beyond the odd peck here and there, but the way Chet maintained eye contact made up for that detail.
Ross was worked up enough that it wasn’t long before he came into the fabric, resulting in much less of a mess than he’d feared. He’d had stronger orgasms in the past, but something like this on the first go-around was unheard of; Ross usually needed a lot more time to warm up to someone before he was comfortable enough to let his guard down so much. He smiled drunkenly at Chet.
“That’s your cooking?” he asked, wiping the sweat from his face. Chet laughed.
“No, doofus, that was a handjob. For dinner I was thinking more of a pasta with a pomodoro sauce, but I’m willing to negotiate…”
There was, indeed, a laundry room in the house, and Ross wore a towel as a sarong while the machine rendered his underpants fit to wear again. By the time the cycle finished dinner was ready; Ross had to concede that while Chet’s cooking might not be able to raise the dead, it was certainly delicious. Much to Ross’s relief, Chet put in a much more engrossing movie while he puttered around the kitchen cleaning up, and while they got distracted by each other a few more times during the evening it was overall a good ending to a good day.
Ross slept in his hotel room that night. The last thing on his mind before he drifted off was how cozy he’d been napping against Chet, and a flash of hopeless romanticism regarding how nice it would be if things ever were serious enough between them for him to wake up to the sound of Chet’s breathing every morning.
The week passed in a flurry of food and movies and mutual orgasms, and before he knew it Ross was checked out of the hotel and back in Chet’s passenger seat en route to the airport. Chet was back in his work uniform, his hand resting atop Ross’s on the armrest and only leaving it to switch gears. As talkative as he’d been the days before, though, now Chet was all business, double-checking every bag and verifying the itinerary. Ross found it a little uncomfortable.
They checked Ross’s luggage in relative silence. The Reno airport was no LAX: once past the check-in lines and baggage claim and the lake of downstairs slot machines, there wasn’t really much more to go until the security scanners. They stood next to each other in front of a little diorama of bighorn sheep, eye to glass eye. Ross wasn’t entirely certain what to say; they’d both agreed it had been a great visit, they’d exchanged phone details for ease of texting, and while he suspected he’d gained five pounds between all the eating out and Chet’s cooking, he’d already done his share of raving about the local dining options. Being Southern enough to drawl a little when drunk, he opted for good manners.
“Thanks for inviting me to your house,” said Ross. Chet nodded.
“Thanks for understanding the Dawud thing. It means a lot to me.”
“Sure. I expect to hear more about him once I get home, though.” He squinted at the departures board. Sure enough, his flight to Denver was on time, which meant he’d want to stand in line for a freedom grope sooner than later. Ross sighed. Twenty-four hours before he’d been watching Sam Raimi flicks in bed next to a gorgeous naked man, but here in the present he was up to his armpits in tourists and knew there was some paperwork already waiting for him back home in Memphis. All good things, he told himself.
“Your carry-on, Mister Voynov,” said Chet, handing over the dreaded duffel bag. It hadn’t gotten any lighter over the course of the week and Ross quietly hoped his connecting flight’s gate wasn’t going to require too much walking.
“Thank you, Mister Ngom.” Ross found himself getting restless; he was terrible at long goodbyes. Ripping off the Band-Aid wasn’t pleasant, but it at least made things easier, especially since air travel required so many lesser rituals to get from Point A to Point B. Too many farewells would end up with him moody and brooding over how unfair it was he couldn’t spend the rest of the year holed up in a hotel room, living on room service and ogling Chet’s double-breasted coat. Reality was the harshest taskmaster of all. Before he could file into the security queue, however, Chet put his hand on Ross’s shoulder and leaned in to murmur in his ear.
“So do you think this little experiment worked? Are we going to start telling other people we’re an item or something?” Chet asked, his voice soft enough for only Ross to hear.
Ross thought back to how their week had gone and everything they’d talked about, from the basic pitfalls of long-distance relationships to exactly where their mutual boundaries lay. He’d been familiar with Chet’s conversational side since their DistalPen days, and now he’d had a chance to see the more physical side of someone he once had never expected to be more than a good friend. Ross had come more times in the past few days than he had in the previous six months. There was something there worth pursuing for however long it lasted, he decided, but he couldn’t resist a final bit of mischief.
“We-eeell…doesn’t what happen in Vegas, stay in Vegas?” he replied.
“Maybe. This is Reno, though.”
“And thank God for that,” said Ross with a laugh, and he stretched up to kiss Chet with enough vigor to last him all the way back to Tennessee.