“On Burning”

Published by Blink Ink (April 2014).

On Burning

Samuel lights the joint, inhales, lungs aching. His wife’s footsteps echo down the hallway, out the open front door as he exhales, emptying himself into the night sky. “My whole life is aflame,” he sighs, smoke coiling around his pursed lips.

“My Biggest Regrets”

Published by Aperion Review (January 2014).

 My Biggest Regrets

When Sprinkles, my mom’s cat, got hit by a car after I accidentally let her out; That I didn’t fuck that French guy at the bar on my 25th birthday; Drinking in front of my sister during Lent; Whatever the hell led me to pierce my belly-button; The fact that I only ever fucked James so I could get ahold of the authentic, signed-with-a-Sharpie AC/DC shirt he basically never wore because he loved it so much; How I’ve never actually been honest at confession because of what the priest would think of me; Eating only ramen noodles for a week on a dare; Telling my sister I hated her after having too many car bombs at her birthday party; Making it to second base with Stephanie Stevens – sort of; The time I hooked up with my roommate Dana’s boyfriend while she was passed out at a St. Paddy’s Day party; That I didn’t throw my drink on the guy who called me a whore at the bar – that I laughed it off, cried later; How far I went to convince Dana he was the wrong guy for her; When I told James I had no idea what happened to the AC/DC shirt he said belonged to his dad; Faking a miscarriage to get Dana’s ex off my back; And the fact that I’ll deny all of it if you tell anyone.

“She Dreams in Furs”

Published by Apeiron Review (January 2014).

 She Dreams in Furs

At sunrise, after locking her front door behind her and leaning on the stucco wall to push her shoes to the carpeted floor – mind buzzing, running on autopilot from a full overnight shift at Smiley’s – she walks to the thermostat, turns it all the way down to 50°, and goes to the fridge to make a sandwich before bed. Crumbs kept carefully on a paper towel she wads and sets on the nightstand, she wraps her comforter around and around herself like a ruffled cocoon, nestles her head into the softness and dreams herself draped in rich furs – fine rabbit against her cheek, classic coats of red fox and gray mink, a vintage chinchilla stole, each like cloaking oneself in a bit of fine mist or wearing an accent of cumulus – dreams herself striding languidly down crowded streets in cities like Venice or Marseille – and she is distinguished, luminous, almost floating above the sidewalk as people step out of her way. She passes one of the men who tries to sneak touches at Smiley’s or pull bills from her skimpy outfit – she watches the delicious regret in his expression as he recognizes her, realization of his misjudgments blossoming in his mind, reflecting in his face as he casts his eyes to the ground. She collects those moments like small, shining stones, tucking them away for the times at work when she has to remind herself that she’s broke and “Any job is better than none,” times when she will pull those little jewels out to revel – just for a moment between songs, under the soft pulse of the club’s lights – in the soft protection of silken furs, the worlds within her that others cannot see, the luxurious splendor of getting what she deserves.

“Predatory Behavior”

Published by Open Road Review (November 2013).

Predatory Behavior

The open-top khaki-colored Jeep jostles down a sage-lined dirt road amid the chirp and rattle of insects in Africa’s bush, and I scratch my stubbled cheek while silently naming the students under my care – turning my eyes to the back of one head, then another, then another – as my waking moments creep back into my consciousness: when my hand, reaching for Richard’s in the bed beside me, met the edge of the mattress and the gauze veil of a mosquito net barely showing white in a still-dark morning. I sat up, careful not to break the thick silence though unsure why, orienting myself as I became more awake: the smells of wild sage and cool open air; the trip with the local university I was chaperoning while Richard stayed in Idaho because his boss – who lingers on the phone after teleconferences and coyly asks “I know Richard’s told me, but what do you do again?” at every plus-one business event – needed him for “a last-minute trip,” despite – as I pointed out – Richard having confirmed the time off three months ago; and the lips – each like a fresh, wet slice of plum – of Zayd, the native guide, as he told us a few days prior in his thick, smooth Botswanan accent, “Remember, you must now be more careful, more alert. Never make yourself apart from the group; don’t let yourself be vulnerable.”

The Jeep turns toward a shallow river, into a small clearing that’s part of a plain filled with dry, leafless bushes the size of small cars. About halfway in, Zayd taps the driver’s shoulder and motions off into the bushes as the Jeep slows down. “Watch,” he says, “for a lioness and her cubs.”

I see nothing for five minutes as the Jeep rumbles slowly forward, and just as I assume they have moved on, a dull gold shines between two bushes – and then two cubs bumbling behind, young enough that they still have faint, leopard-like spots on their legs.

“She is on a morning hunt,” Zayd says. “Probably curious about what we are doing. They look to be heading at the water up ahead.”

As the students hop onto the sandy river soil of the clearing, I shield my eyes from the sunlight glaring off the water and look around from within the Jeep, picturing the lioness watching us through the bushes’ thin branches – god, that attack on a wildebeest we saw yesterday: the lions’ speed, decisive lunges, snouts daubed with blood – and her cubs close behind her, watching how to approach prey so that it never sees you coming, never recognizes that a threat is present. Richard’s light brown eyes and smooth jawline pop into my head, bringing back glimpses of last night’s nightmare: a huge maze of a house I recognized but didn’t know my way through; him walking away, through door after door, his back always to me as I reached out for him, called his name; and then him disappearing around a final corner – one last pitying smirk back at me – his hand in someone else’s, someone who had vanished with him by the time I caught up. My feet make contact with the sandy ground, a lump forming in my throat as I think of Richard’s face from the dream, the cool expanse of the cotton sheet against my hand when I woke up.

I step toward the students – thinking of how seven days on the other side of the world can stretch to eternity when you imagine the ten still ahead, the long-distance fees the school won’t pay for, the argument Richard and I had the night before I left about him sharing a hotel room with his boss in my absence – then turn to my right and slip behind the nearest bare bush as I start to cry, my mind echoing with the image of Richard’s back moving always faster away. I bring my hands to my face and sob as quietly as I can, thinking embarrassedly of the students reacting to my tear-streaked face, telling myself that this has to be part of the nightmare, that I’ll soon wake up in Idaho to a warm indent in the bed beside me from when Richard got up moments before.

A timid, “Uh, mister Dowing?” from Zayd startles away my tears as I turn to him. “This is lion territory, and you must be careful. Come back where it is safe.” He glances nervously around, puts his hand on my shoulder, and looks into my eyes. “You must protect yourself. Lions might sit nearby; that is a threat you cannot ignore.”

I swallow hard and nod, remembering the moment of attack yesterday – the taut muscles in the lions’ shoulders, the blood streaming down the wildebeest’s side, the fear and pain in those wide, dark eyes. “Okay. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

He pats my shoulder. “It is all right. Sometimes we all drop our guard – but we must know when to have it up.”

As Zayd turns and I step with him toward the group, I smear the remaining moisture across my cheeks and picture the lioness crouched in the dirt behind a nearby bush, my head snapping toward her as she bolts forward, her claws extended, gold eyes blazing and focused on me, her mouth twisted into the same smirk Richard wore.

“How to Take It Like A Man”

Published by The Santa Fe Writer’s Project Journal (December 2013).

How to Take It Like A Man

Jason steps back, across the off-white kitchen tiles, his mouth slightly open and his eyes darting to the floor and the cabinets around him. “Naw, man,” he mumbles, then takes a swig of his Pabst and walks out of the room. I blink as my vision suddenly becomes crisp and my mind sobers, look around the dirty frat house kitchen and raise my beer to my lips despite the weight that’s churning in my stomach. Stupid, that’s what I am, fucking stupid. The edge of the counter feels sharper than before, like it’s digging into my back and pressing against the bones of my spine, so I shift forward, standing rigid and alone in Jason’s kitchen.

I drop my shoulders – how long have I been hunching them up like that? – as my left hand tugs at the hem of my baggy t-shirt. Just fucking stupid. I turn around to the sink and pour my beer on top of his crusty stacked dishes. Laughter and music from the party bounce into the kitchen from the living room and I set the Pabst can softly beside the sink as I keep still, trying to listen for any footsteps coming my way.

I close my eyes and breathe out hard from my nose, run a hand through my hair and roll my shoulders. Why won’t this fucking tension go away? My eyes pop open as Jason’s dopey, forced laugh joins the din of conversations and music coming from the party. Fuck this, fuck Alana Turner, and if Katie isn’t here now, she isn’t coming, so fuck her too.

I give a quick glance down the short hallway to the living room before turning to the back door, placing a hand on the cold glass knob and shoving my weight against the solid wood. The summer air billows inside, brushing against my face and bare arms as I step out onto the wooden stoop and take my first steps toward home.

***

Richard lights a cigarette and leans a shoulder on the bathroom wall, his hip jutting out. He blows smoke out his nose and says, “You know, Andy, for such a dumpy place, Empire has really nice bathrooms.”

I look around the simple, narrow bathroom. Richard is right: there’s not even dust in the white corners or smudges on the mirrors, but out in the club, the floor is sticky and all the vinyl barstools are duct-taped. I look back at Richard. “Isn’t this place no smoking?”

“Yes, Andy,” he huffs, rolling his eyes, “it’s no smoking, but what the hell are they gonna do? Ask me to put it out? Fine.” He nods his head toward the urinal facing us. “I’ll just flick it in there and that’ll be that.” Smoke trickles upward from his lips and curls in front of his face. “We’re here to pick up guys, not follow the goddamn rules.”

I smile at him as genuinely as I can manage and twist my head to pop my neck, which doesn’t work.

“That’s gross, I don’t know why you do it,” Richard says, his lips curling out.

“Because it feels good.” I straighten my back and put my hands on my hips. The door opens, letting in the pump of bass and the treble of gossips’ shrieks. A tall guy with a slim face, long legs and gelled hair – he kind of reminds me of Jason – walks in and glances at Richard before slipping past us and into the stall in the corner.

“He must be pee-shy,” Richard giggles. He taps his cigarette and the ash falls to the floor; he takes another long drag.

I fold my arms in front of me, my palms on the bare skin of my forearms. I want to go home already and we’ve only had one drink; I hate it when Richard drags me here. I tilt my head and cock one hip as the sound of pissing starts in the stall. “So are we going to Jason’s later? Katie said she would be there.”

Richard looks at me, pure dramatic shock on his face. “Why, Andy, would we want to go there? Frat boys suck. Besides,” he sucks more smoke from his cigarette, the tip burning orange, “you’re the only gay guy they like over there. It’s probably because you dress just as sloppy as they do.” He blows out smoke. “Besides, Katie’s a slut. She fucks every straight man I want.” The whoosh of a toilet flushing fills the small room and the man steps out from the stall and over to the sinks.

I watch the guy in the mirror, letting my arms drop and hang at my sides, twisting my hips toward him, and dropping my head a little bit, my eyes trained on the reflection of his lowered face. He waves his wet hands, water flying back into the sink, and wipes them on his jeans as he goes back out the door into the loud, humid club. Not even a fucking glance. I fold my arms again and look at Richard. “Are you done yet?”

Richard sucks down the last of his cigarette and flicks it across the white room and squarely into the urinal. It hisses for a second as the cherry turns black. He wiggles his head side to side and rolls his eyes at me. “Andy, you’re such a queen sometimes.”

I shake my head as Richard’s hips sway side to side on the way to the door.

***

I park my ’93 Nissan in my parents’ driveway. I’ll just walk to Jason’s, it’s only like five or six blocks; and that way I can get hammered and not have to drive back. I take my keys from the beeping ignition and step out of the car onto the pavement.

I shove my hands into my pockets and look up at the side of my parents’ dark house –  it seems larger than usual, and the side windows sit as lowlights of inky black – and start to picture an oil pastel of the house from this angle – Mom might like the sweeping lines of ivy and extreme slant of the roof. As I walk down the driveway to the sidewalk, I take wide, careless steps and concentrate on hunching my shoulders to appear unconcerned with my appearance. When on the street, especially at night, the best thing that could happen is for someone to not recognize me – blending is the main objective.

I stare down at the uneven slabs of sidewalk as I walk, my fingers rubbing on the sharp edge of my apartment key. Richard is so negative sometimes. I hope the guy he wakes up with is way less attractive in the daylight. After a quick glance both ways, I cross Maple Avenue, my eyes still on the ground. At least it’s a warm night.

The light from Jason’s house leaks out onto the sidewalk and I see the glow before I can hear the music. It’s so weird that a frat has a house in this little residential area; the Greek letters on the front of the house look so out of place among the thick oak trees and manicured gardens. I cut across the yard, pull my hands from my pockets and straighten my back as I jog up the steps and to the front door. Since Katie said she’d be here, I just walk in.

The TV is playing some new music video and a group of six girls are on the Wal-Mart rug in the center of the living room, doing the dance from the video and laughing at each other’s mistakes. I look around at the frat guys watching the girls and smoking cigarettes, at the girls in their heavy make-up, and remember to slouch a little bit; blending is still the name of the game, especially since I don’t see Katie. Across the room, Jason looks up and raises his beer like he’s toasting me. He’s so cute when his eyes droop from drinking so much so early. I wave and he points to the staircase that leads up to his bedroom.

I follow him up the stairs and into his room, where some guys and a few girls are sitting in a circle, passing around a colorful glass bong. “Want a beer?” he asks.

“Sure.” I stuff my hands into my back pockets and glance around the room, at the pictures of women – none of whom are really all that attractive – taped to the walls, the hot rod calendar and the glass tank that houses his pet iguana.

He pulls a Pabst Blue Ribbon from the mini-fridge by his bed and hands it to me.

One of the girls in the circle looks up at me, smirking lazily, as I pop open the can. “Hey Andy,” she says, one hand around the swirled glass of the bong, the other pushing her blonde hair behind her ear. I think we had Bio together forever ago, before I dropped out, but I have no idea what her name is.

“Hey, girl,” I say as I walk over to her, swinging my hips a little. If I know one of these girls then I’m safe, in this room at least. I lean down and give her a loose hug. “How are you?” I take a slow sip of Pabst and bat my eyes flirtatiously at her – girls love that shit.

“I’m good.” She grins wider. “Wanna hit?”

I shake my head. “Nah, but thanks.” I smile widely, showing all my teeth, and turn back to Jason, who is standing by his bed. The way he’s standing makes it look like he’s about to do something, like his body is about to go into motion, but he just stands there. I relax my right leg. “How’ve you been, Jason?”

He blinks and smiles. “I’ve been good, just hanging around here, drinking.”

I laugh. “That sounds fun.”

He kicks at the blue carpet with one of his sneakers. “Yeah, I guess.”

I nod toward the sleeping iguana. “How’s Rudolph doing?”

Jason spins to face the dry aquarium. “He’s been good, I guess. He’s been sleeping a lot, but he’s been eating more, too, so I guess he’s just in summer-mode.”

“Yeah.” We stand silent for a minute as the girl who spoke to me receives the bong again, takes a hit and sputters out smoke. “Well,” I say, looking straight into his dark brown eyes, “I’m going to go downstairs and mingle.” I take a step toward the door, still letting my waist rock loosely.

“Yeah,” Jason says, “I’m right behind you.”

***

Outside the bathroom, among the crowd of men dancing, making out and drinking, Richard and I pause to let two drag queens – one in shimmering green, the other in bright pink – get past us to the bar.

Richard leans back to me. “I’ve been thinking about doing that.”

“Doing what?”

“Drag, dummy,” he says, nodding toward the two who just passed us. We start walking behind them, single-file past the DJ stand to the bar, and I drop my arms so I can lean forward and hear him over the vintage Madonna and the screaming laughter of a cramped gay bar. “It seems fun,” he says. “I love to dance and performance is my forte.”

I make a show of rolling my eyes as I picture Richard’s many exes telling me, themselves still astounded, stories about theatrical arguments and sex acts.

“And besides, the whole ‘alternate persona’ thing would be fun,” he says. We stop just outside the mass of bodies at the tiny wooden bar, some shirtless, and Richard turns to me. I stick my ass out a little bit as I cock one hip. He raises one hand theatrically. “I think I would call myself Enya.”

I screw my face up to show him that the idea sucks. “Like the singer?”

His hand drops to his hip and he glares at me. “Yes, like the singer, but I wasn’t done.” Richard raises his hand again and leans back, his expression suddenly soft and angled toward the ceiling. “Enya. Enya Face!” As he says the last word, he bucks at me, pushing his shoulders and head dangerously close to mine. Then Richard bursts into giggles, covers his nose and mouth with his hands as the girls’ t-shirt he’s wearing rides up his waist and shaved stomach.

I laugh as he turns back to the bar and pushes past a rugged, hairy man in a leather chest harness. “Besides,” he calls over his shoulder, “have you seen the fucking tips those bitches make? Even the fat ones! I’d have no problem making mad money shaking my ass on stage. You want anything?” The man Richard pushed past looks down Richard’s slim hips and then looks out at the dancers, his expression completely neutral.

I put a hand on Richard’s upper back and lean in. “Get me a Cape Cod.”

Richard smiles sweetly at the bartender, whose blue eyes have that same sad, down-curving shape as Jason’s. I can barely hear him over the music, but I swear I hear Richard say, “I need a Heineken and a shot of Southern Comfort.” I straighten back, prop my hand against my right hip and raise an eyebrow at Richard, who leans back and shrugs. “Whatever,” he says, “it’s not like you don’t like it. And you need to loosen up, Andy. You’ve been sucking lately.” He smiles at me like he did the bartender and bends over the bar to wait for the drinks.

The leather man gets up from his barstool, and as soon as he does, I jump past him onto the patched vinyl. I feel something bump against my back and when I look over my shoulder, the pink drag queen is glaring at me. Whatever, I got here first.

The bartender crosses in front of the wide mirrors and rows of liquor behind the bar and slides a shot of Southern Comfort in front of me. He pauses just long enough for me to order a Cape Cod. Richard smiles at me.

“Shut up,” I say. “You’re such an ass sometimes.”

“Andy,” Richard croons, his face drawn in mock-sadness, “I order your favorite shot and that makes me an ass? Fine,” he reaches for the shot, “then I’ll take it.”

I snatch up the So Co and laugh, rocking back on the stool. “Fuck you, it’s mine.”

Richard smiles at me and takes a sip from his green Heineken bottle. He tips his head down and scans the club crowd over his shoulder. “A lot of fuglies tonight.” He looks down the bar. “And they don’t even have the strobe lights going to mask it, just those multi-colored pieces of shit that every fifteen-year-old acid head has in their room.”

I down the shot and feel my face contort. It’s good, but it’s nasty. The bartender places a clear plastic cup filled with pink liquid in front of me. “Thanks,” I say, hunching my shoulders forward like all those classic pictures of Alana Turner. I imagine my skin immaculate, my lips full and round, and wink at the bartender. He turns to the drag queen beside me and listens intently as she orders. Well, then, fuck you too.

My pocket starts vibrating as I take a sip of my vodka and cranberry and I pull my cell phone out to read the text from Katie. I tap Richard’s shoulder, distracting him from the shirtless stud on the dance floor whose muscles are gleaming as he writhes to some random remix. “Katie said she’s about to head over to Jason’s. Do you want to come, or should I tell her it’ll just be me?”

Richard rolls his eyes. “Tell her it’ll just be you, Andy. I hate that place.” He looks back to the man on the dance floor.

I text her a quick reply – that I’ll be leaving in five and she should meet me at Jason’s. I take a gulp from the Cape Cod. So much smoother than So Co. I tap Richard again. He turns to me, his jaw jutting out. “I’m leaving in just a minute, as soon as I finish this. Do you need a ride, or are you good?”

“I’m fine, Andy.” He looks back over at the shirtless man, who’s panting and walking toward the bar as the song changes. “Besides, I think my ride is coming right now.” He smirks.

“You’re such a slut,” I laugh. I raise the Cape Cod to my mouth and swallow the rest, then pull a ten from my pocket and toss it on the bar. “Here,” I say into Richard’s ear, “give him my seat.” He nods and we hug each other quickly. “Bye.” I slide off the stool as the man walks up and grins at Richard.

“Bye,” he says, not even looking at me. Whatever, I’ll see him tomorrow after I finally get off from the glamorous world of Kinko’s. I shift aside so the sweaty man can sit and then I squeeze my way through the people crowding up to the small bar. When I finally find a space to walk to the door, I let my hips move loosely side to side with each step. My head is slightly down, my eyes open wide and flickering to each man’s face as I imagine Ms. Turner’s would.

As I reach the front door and push down on the metal bar, I glance back at the throngs of men staring at the guys who are staying at the bar and ignoring the one who’s leaving. Well. Fuck all of you, then. I press my weight against the door and slouch my shoulders as I take the first heavy steps out of the safe-zone of the club and into the sticky air of a summer night.

***

As I go back down the stairs to the party, Jason’s footsteps pad along behind me; he taps my shoulder about halfway down. “Hey,” he says, his lips closer to my ear than I realized, his breath moving humid and hot on my neck, “can I ask you about something?” His words are a little slurred, but he seems pretty coherent.

“Yeah,” I say, “can we go to the kitchen?” I look down to the opening of the stairs, where the hip-hop is inspiring a dry-hump party between three girls and two guys. “It’ll be quieter.”

“Yeah,” he says as we descend the last few steps.

I try to make sure my hips aren’t swinging as I lower my head again, glancing up at the boys as I pass, smiling at the girls I’ve met before. I always wonder why more straight guys don’t realize the amazing networking opportunities I could open up for them.

In the dingy kitchen, I lean my lower back against the metal edge of the counter in front of the sink and fold one arm over my chest as I look at Jason. “What’s up?”

“Well,” he says, his eyes moving across the nicotine-yellowed cabinets, “I mean…”

I move my head forward, trying to coax him further, but he just looks around the room and then takes a sip of his Pabst. I straighten my back, my eyes on his face. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” he takes a shaky step back and slowly moves his hands back and forth in front of him before gesturing toward me, “but there’s something I need to tell you, and you can’t tell anyone.”

No way. No way is Jason about to say what I think he is. I lean forward a little bit like Alana Turner would and square my feet on the faux tile floor. “Sure, I promise. What is it?” I take a sip of my beer. Oh please, oh please, oh please say what I think you’re going to say.

Jason glances back down the short hallway to the living room. “See, it’s…just that,” he looks back at me, those big sad brown eyes looking straight into mine, “I’m gay.”

Thank you God, thank you Jesus, thank you Buddha and Allah and anyone I forgot. Thank you. I promise to be at church this Sunday – early, even – and to pray to each of you before bed from now on. I drop my arm from across my chest.

“Really?” I ask, knowing full well that no heterosexual male in a Bible Belt town would ever confess to homosexuality unless he was sure.

Jason looks down at the floor. “Yeah. I haven’t ever told anyone. You’re the only person I’ve felt comfortable enough with who I thought would understand.”

A little quiver starts in my chest as I take another sip of beer, my eyes still on that lean, masculine face. “I’m glad you did, Jason. Thank you.” I reach forward and pat his shoulder.

He looks up at me and smiles shyly.

“Does it feel better to tell someone?”

“Yeah.” He grins.

I stand up straight, a few inches closer to him, close enough that I can smell the soft heat of his cologne. I glance down at my beer can. “Now can I tell you something?”

Jason’s face scrunches but he keeps smiling. “Sure. What is it?”

Well, can’t stop now. “Jason, I kind of…well.” I pause and then lean forward and kiss him. Like, straight up on the mouth kiss him. Every muscle is screaming with tension and I almost forget to hang onto my beer, but the quiver in my chest is suddenly still. I wonder for a second if it’s what a heart attack feels like.

I feel the pressure of his palm flat on my chest – he doesn’t press hard, but enough to move me – just before my back strikes against the metal rim of the kitchen counter top.

“What to Do if His Phone Rings While He’s in the Bathroom”

Published in First Literary Review East (November 2013).

What to Do if His Phone Rings While He’s in the Bathroom

             If at home, call for him softly, if in public, simply watch the caller ID until the last ring; in the final second, answer – your voice slow and thick like honey from the refrigerator – and make it apparent that the two of you are together, but without ever saying so; place his phone just as it was before he left, sure to remove your hand before he enters the room; tell him who called and that you answered, that she seems like a lovely girl and you just wish he’d introduce you to more of his friends; if he smiles, fall back into what you were doing before he left and place a hand on his strong thigh at the soonest opportunity; but if he lifts his phone to scroll through the call log or says he didn’t know she had his number, stay up after he falls asleep and sit in the dark of the bedroom – on the mattress you bought for yourself after college, between the sheets you washed just after he agreed to come over – to record and double-check every phone number you don’t recognize.