In one of the windows, light is coming from an IKEA lamp. The heat of breath on the cold glass creates fog. That’s what he is doing. He is in a lounge chair, sweats wrapping bare feet. He sits with legs crisscrossed, forms his mouth into an O, and lets breath cover the window. He writes his name: DYLAN holding permanent until condensation streaks down. Jeff is over, next to him. They clank wine mason jars.
Dylan zips a hoodie over a wifebeater. “Why does it matter?” he says.
Jeff says, “Because it matters.”
“Okay. Maybe it was in the Kmart,” Dylan says. “I was in the Kmart with my mom, and I was seven, and she was picking out Spider-Man underwear for me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Belle from Beauty and the Beast because maybe I wanted to be Belle. Or maybe I wanted to have a beast. But I liked Spider-Man all right, so I said okay, fine mom. She was always picking out my clothes in the Boys section, and I hated Kmart because someone’s kid always peed the floor so you had to watch it, and it gave me this dizzy-head feeling. So anyway, Mom told me to try on these pants, too big for me, because she always bought a size above so the clothes would last longer. I took them to the dressing room, and I was alone, or I thought I was alone. I opened one of the doors, and it wasn’t locked, but behind it was this man. Or, I thought he was a man at the time. He was probably like seventeen. His pants were down and his shirt was off, and his skin had these dimples and muscles mine didn’t. He had this bulge in his Hanes at my eye line. And that was it. I didn’t know what was what, but I wanted him. I didn’t know what want was, but I wanted him. I knew I wanted him because I was scared of him. I stood there scared like I was the one who was caught. And that was it.”
Jeff wipes away Dylan’s breath on the window and exhales a clean slate, writes fisting backward with the light cast against it, displayed on the outside. “Have you done that?”
Dylan laughs. “Yeah.”
Dylan laughs again and sips his wine. “No.”
“Is that story true?”
“So tell the truth.”
“All right. It was seventh-grade science. We had this teacher who never taught. All she did was tell us to read the chapter and passed out worksheets. She was ancient and senile, so kids took the teacher manual from her desk when she wasn’t looking, copied the answers, and passed around the sheet. It was a free-for-all. We had to do this project with chemicals. This woman gave us chemicals. She played with mercury in her hands. The woman was batshit. I was assigned to work with Chris Hopkins who played basketball and got a deepened voice at eleven. He mumbled a sure when we agreed to meet at his house for the project. His room was lined with trophies and video games. Anyway, you know where this is going. Among those chemicals, while we didn’t know what mixed, he took my hand and put it on his erection, and I knew what to do. By instinct I knew. Afterwards, he told me not to say anything, and I didn’t, but he did. He altered the story. He said I was the one. And then the kids at school called me a word you know. I kept pretending I didn’t know, but I knew. I found out last year from social media that Chris sells used cars for his dad now. Part of me loved him back then and part of me still does.”
Jeff drains the last drop from his glass. “Did you ever jerk him off again?”
“No, I didn’t. There isn’t really a Chris,” Dylan says. He kisses Jeff and pours more wine. He writes Chris backward. Outside, a woman in a puffy coat walks a Pomeranian.
Jeff says, “Will you fucking be serious for once and answer the question?”
“I didn’t know it was a question to answer, but fine. Fine then. If I had to guess, make an exact approximation, it’s this moment I’ll tell you about. But we have to get to it first. It was 1999 heading into 2000 when we were freaked about Y2K, everyone scared about change. And you remember how AOL chat rooms were a thing. I was seventeen and pimple-pocked. I guess that’s relevant. Stories like these always start with the age, right? So, I was seventeen. All I did was go to school to be bad at math and on weekend nights went over to this guy’s house with other outcasted friends to play Mario Kart and eat pizza. That was my social life. It was pathetic and sexless. All I had were chat rooms. I waited until night because this was a time when the Internet clogged the phone line, and my Catholic mom and dad screamed if it was during the day. So I crept into my brother’s old room where we kept the computer, and there were lots of chats, blurs to me now. Lots of M4M, 17, KY here. Typing that gave me a thrill. M4M I mean. How coded it seemed. There was lots of cyber, lots of these men telling me what they wanted to do to me, because I didn’t know what or how to do to them. But what I remember distinctly is this guy. This man. He was in his thirties, and his name was Kenny, and he messaged me, Dylan is that you? He knew my name, which worried and excited me all at once, and fuck, who is this? He was this man who had worked at my grade school as a traffic conductor and part security, on the down-low selling candy bars to kids for their lunch money. He sold me KitKats when I was ten and he was like twenty-five, and here he was saying he remembered me, and I know it sounds creepy. I know it sounds so coincidental you don’t believe me, but I’m telling you it happened. He told me he liked me, and after weeks of chatting, he wanted to meet up.
“I told my mom to drop me off at the Sonic because I was meeting a friend, and when she left, Kenny pulled up in his stick-shifted red Grand Am, the color of candy wrappers. We went to O’Charley’s, and he watched me eat watery potato soup. He took me back to his place, which looked sterilized. Leather couch and chair, no pillows, a nice lamp, no pictures of anyone. It looked like something from a catalog, and I know now Kenny had stripped his life, made it simple, because he didn’t want his past in his present, and I get that now, but I didn’t get that then, so it just seemed cold and uncomfortable to me. Want to put in a movie or something? he said. He didn’t have big muscles, but his arms were bigger than my stick arms, so they seemed huge. He had a shaved head. He wore fitted jeans, which made me look at mine, ballooned at the legs, from the bargain rack at Big Lots, and I hated them while standing in his living room, looking around like some dumb idiot. He poured me cherry-flavored vodka with splashes of Sprite and Smirnoff, the perfect first-time drink. I told him I drank all the time, but he knew I was lying, so he mixed me that kind of drink. I felt the buzz at first sip.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen in that apartment or why I agreed to it. I think it’s because when I went to this private Catholic grade school where we were uniformed, these kids called me all kinds of words and phrases I won’t repeat here. You can infer them. You know them. I’m not the kind of guy who can say them to reclaim them. But when they called me those names and phrases and threw rocks at me because of the way I sounded when I talked, it’s like they took me from myself, assessed who I was for me when I hadn’t figured anything out. All I knew was that shirtless men gave me hard-ons, but I didn’t know what that could mean for me. So when I was seventeen and still dumb—Kenny could’ve done a shit ton of bad shit to me in that apartment, tied-up, caged, a kept Boy, whipped, shit on, pissed on, cut up, even though he didn’t—I turned to him to help me figure who I was to me.
“He put in a video, Queer as Folk, the US version with Hal Sparks because we didn’t know any better, but it was the first time I saw anything like it and thought it was a show with people like me, a revelation. I know it’s dumb but true. I got hard during the sex scenes, and I think that’s what Kenny intended the minute he slid that VHS into the slot. He cleared his throat, his Adam’s apple enormous next to my face, and he kissed me. Then he was kissing me in his bedroom on black-and-gray sheets, new, just washed. He rolled me around like he was in command of my body, and I liked the idea of him taking over. He smelled like AXE and body odor. He messed up my hair while taking off my shirt, and that made me feel wild. And just like that his hand was in my pants, finger inside me, and there it was: pain. He asked if I wanted to go further, and I did, so I nodded, and I was exposed for him, and he was in me, and holy-motherfucking-shit my insides felt like they could all pour out, more pain, and here it is, that moment I was talking about.
“He faced me, in me, pain that never stopped, pain giving him pleasure, and I thought, no one knows I’m here except me and him. My parents, my high school friends, my old teachers, those middle school kids, everyone I’ve ever met, don’t know I’m here, and this is a secret between me and Kenny. He told me he always had a thing for me, especially now, that I was cute since I lost the baby fat in my face, and he was flattering me to make me less terrified, but it made me terrified as fuck. He played this indie music I had never heard. He had this movie collection: The Boys in the Band, Resevoir Dogs, The Living End, Showgirls, Longtime Companion. Across his chest splayed a tattooed sphinx, the wings at his pecs, fading. He had quit his job at my grade school and worked a nine-to-five insurance gig. He never talked to his parents, but that was okay, because he had started a new life for himself without his past. He carried himself like he owned himself, and I thought I could be like him. I had a future. This sounds so pedophilic, I know. Anyway, it was that moment.”
Jeff says, “Please don’t say you’re bullshitting me again.”
“I’m not bullshitting you. I’ve never told anyone about that. I was scared Kenny and I would get in trouble.”
“That’s big. You had guts to meet him like that.”
Dylan gazes out the window. “That woman and her dog are still out there,” he says. Dylan and Jeff watch her using a grocery bag to pick up the dog’s mess on the manicured lawn.
“What do you think that woman would say if you told her that story?”
Dylan says, “It depends. I’m not sure about her type.” Dylan has lived in this apartment for five months and may as well be a shut-in. He makes no eye contact with neighbors.
“What is her type?”
“Maybe she’s had this super Christian upbringing she’s trying to shake off so she would want us to take her to brunch and think we would be good at giving her hair tips or something, and she would think that made her so progressive, but then when I would tell her the story, she would nod, say wow, but inside she wouldn’t know how to react because we all know how straights are scared of gay sex, especially with that puritan upbringing of hers, so she would ask for a mimosa and change the subject so she could vent about some guy she dated last month who wouldn’t pay for her dinner on a second date, and can you believe the nerve of that? She would act like she didn’t hear me.”
“Does she know about you?”
“I haven’t met her. Probably. Or who knows? She might be the type who would be into the story and ask a bunch of questions, like who was the man and who was the woman when you had sex? Or she might snub us and tell the neighbors a pervert lives in 302B. It’s hard to tell these days.”
“We should go out there and make out in front of her and that dog,” Jeff says.
“It’s too cold, and I’m getting tired,” Dylan says. He re-fogs the window with his breath and doesn’t write anything. “I think that woman, her name might be Bonnie or something. Can you believe that? Bonnie. I love it. I think she also has a boyfriend.”
“Is he hot?” Jeff says.
“He’s not bad.”
“Well, he’s straight, so what does it matter anyway, right?” Jeff says.
“You never know. Eighty percent of straight people are gay.”
“Is that accurate?”
“Yes. Take my cousin for instance. My cousin is a straight gay guy.”
“I keep thinking about that story you told. The chat room. That guy Kenny.”
“Right. Kenny,” Dylan says. “Yeah, I made him up.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. Do you think I would be that stupid and naive?”
“I don’t trust anything you say anymore.”
“Sorry,” Dylan says. “Do you really want to know?”
“I guess I don’t care now.”
“Well, I’ll tell you anyway.” Dylan sits up and hugs his knee into his chest. “It started when I was embryonic. There were chromosomes all over the place. They were running wild. X’s and Y’s intermixed and didn’t know what was going on. They were rampant. X’s wanted to be Y’s, and Y’s X’s, and they couldn’t tell the difference. They rushed everywhere. There was also an egg. Then the hormones came in, had been there all along. Testosterone and estrogen latched onto each other and became one in the same. A precise amount of each jumbled together. DNA strands, microscopic, looking like those pictures you see in science, colored with blue and red and green geometric coils, spiraled in me, clinging, twirled, inherent in my lump-of-cell self. And that was it. All of that was what gave me those feeling for Chris Hopkins if there was a Chris Hopkins.”
Jeff cocks his head to the side. “Stop it,” he says.
“Well, what do you want me to say?”
Jeff says, “I only asked a question to make conversation.”
“Well, I don’t know the answer. Maybe it was everything, my life as it’s been up till now.”
“You’re overthinking it,” Jeff says.
“Well, what about you?” Dylan says. “If it’s so simple, what about you?”
“Jamal Watkins in fifth grade,” Jeff says. “He was my first crush.”
“And that was it? That’s all there was to it?”
“That was it. It was that simple.”
“Now I don’t believe you,” Dylan says.
Jeff says, “At least I’m telling the truth.”
Dylan moves to the laptop on the coffee table and changes the music from ambient to classical, a Brahms two piano sonata, F minor. He refills their wine. He fogs the window again and writes truth, not backward, facing them. Jeff pulls a blanket over his legs.
“All right. I’ll stop kidding. I’ll tell you the truth, and this is it.” Dylan tosses the hood of his hoodie over his head. “I must’ve been seven or eight. We’ll say eight. It was in the Bait and Tackle shop with my dad. My dad was a man with rough skin, like it had an extra layer, and I was mystified by it, especially when he shaved. His face would be lathered, and what terrified me was catching a glimpse of his stomach or chest, protruded and full of hair. I don’t know why but it made me cringe. It seemed foreign from the rest of him. I would run to my room and look at my own stomach and chest in the mirror, cutesy cartoon bears my mom stickered around the border, and my body was the complete opposite. He was a man who looked defeated when he came home from work at one construction site or another, dried sweat dribbling his scrunched temples, and I tried to show him the play I wanted to perform, Mary Martin’s Peter Pan, and he mumbled he didn’t have time, cracked a beer for sedation, and is that what you did with your afternoon, a boy should go outside for once. I was dreading this fishing trip Mom insisted we take together, so boring, and I didn’t know how to act around Dad or what to say, because he preferred standing with fishing lines cast in the lake in a silence I couldn’t attach any kind of meaning to. And I know you’re thinking, emotionally distant father, typical, but he was more than that even if it sounds typical.
“We’re getting to the Bait and Tackle shop, I promise, but what you also need to know is that I had already acknowledged wanting men by this point, that young, but I didn’t know what to do with it. It was there, sitting in front of me when I watched old movies with my mom instead of playing kickball with the neighborhood boys. I knew what I knew from movies, and what they indicated was that it was women who were supposed to be with men, so I kept thinking I wanted to be the women. I was Doris Day to Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk and a whole slew of others. I wanted to be Doris Day but I wanted Hudson. I wanted him to pursue me, take me by the shoulders and kiss me, protective. When I snuck out of my bedroom to watch Species with Dad, I wanted to be that alien. I wanted to be her the most. She could go undercover in disguise. And she had sex with all these men. I wanted to know what that was like. But I thought I needed to be a woman.
“So here we are in the Bait and Tackle shop. Dad’s old red pickup is running outside. He is buying night crawlers and talking with these men who are gigantic and scare me when they ask Dad if I have a little girlfriend at school yet or if I’ll play Little League with their sons. I walk down the aisles of the cramped shop while Dad is up front, bellowing with his buddies. The shelves are filled with hooks and lines, like something for torture, and squishy worms grossing me out. And then I come to a rack filled with fishing and car magazines. I flip through them, uninterested, but then I come to the section in the back, and I see a naked woman on the cover of one of them. It arrests me, and I’m interested in a clinical, curious way. Her body is shiny, is all I think. There are a few more like it, and then I come to one, the only one: a naked man. I’ve seen shirtless men in Men’s Health at the grocery store, but this is different. I feel these twinges of excitement, which I understand, but what I don’t understand is how embedded in the excitement is also this vague fear, which I can’t explain. I flip through the magazine, more pictures, hairy down there, curvatures at the waist and hips, bloated arms, rounded pecs, and I want their bodies to wrap around me, cradle me forever. What are you doing with that? I hear my dad above me, toothpick in his mouth sharp, fishing cap eclipsing his face. I knew I shouldn’t have been looking at this magazine the moment I came across it, and my skin is the hottest it’s ever been. Here I am, eight, and holding these naked men in front of my dad, and I don’t have the words yet to explain myself, won’t have them for another ten years. But there is a demand to explain myself when I don’t even remember picking up the magazine. It happened instinctually, gravitating toward it without thinking. Give me this, and Dad yanks it from my hands. Men don’t look at this, you understand? The wooden point in his mouth circles as he talks. I have never been more ashamed in my life, the first shame of feeling the way I do. It’s then I know I’m not a woman who wants men but a boy who does, and that comes with consequences other boys don’t have to confront. So anyway, that was that.”
Jeff inhales with arms over his head, stretching to the side. “And that really happened?” He exhales and releases his hand to Dylan’s knee.
“That really happened. That’s the truth.” Dylan smiles at him and brings the mason jar to his lips for another wine gulp.
“How is your dad? Do you still see him?”
“No” is all Dylan says. He moves to turn off the music. Jeff follows him, bringing his arms around Dylan’s torso, pulling him into warmth. Jeff goes into the bedroom. Dylan puts the glasses in the sink and goes into the bedroom with Jeff. The lamp in the living room is still lit. The woman and her dog have gone inside. No more breath fills the window.