by Colter Ruland
You should pay for the hotel room on your mother’s credit card. It’s near Washington Square. There’s a park bench. You can sit there and wonder whether your mother will notice it on her statement; she paid for the trip after all. In the meantime, you’re waiting for check-in since your flight landed early—tailwinds or something like that—and there’s a whole eight hours to kill before your connection. Somebody walks up and sits next to you on the bench and you can’t help but feel ousted. You get a splinter when you move your hand across the wood to make room for him; he’s so close on the bench despite the dozens of other empty benches. The splinter turns blue under the skin. Then you hear the guy next to you say, Ouch, and you realize the person has been J all along. He’s shorter and a little heavier than what his profile had indicated just before you’d set your phone to airplane mode. You say, Shit, sorry, I didn’t recognize you. And he says something like, That’s fine, baby. You’re just fine.
The hotel is shitty, but you’ve kind of got a thing for shitty hotels. The hallway carpet is a worn red, marbled like fresh meat, and the lights are bare bulbs strung out so haphazardly you wonder whether the owner is just playing it up for effect. You’ve never been to this one before, not that you can remember. In the room there’s a hole in the wall, a view to another room. Or perhaps a view into this room. You’re not exactly sure, and so many things are racing through your mind you can’t dwell on who’s doing the peeping and who’s doing the act the peeping is for.
The attendant stands there with your suitcase and duffel bag and you look at him, then look at who’s accompanying you, expecting money to appear out of nowhere for the old man and his vestigial job. J takes out a few bucks, smiles at you, and hands them over like he’s done this before. Shit, if he hasn’t, then that makes you a saint, and you’re the furthest thing from it. J places the bills into the attendant’s hand the way you used to imitate swans’ heads growing up in a desert without any swans. All fingertips. Like he’s trying to avoid actual contact with another human being. The attendant takes it and leaves. The splinter goes in deeper, and J says, Damn, look at that. It doesn’t seem like it should be that noticeable. That hurt? he asks. Say you want to hurt all over, the way you did in high school under the bleachers, the time you got dragged around the tarmac, the time you got tied up to lockers by shoelaces, the time you got shoved into trashcans, the time you had fistfuls of gumdrops shoved down your throat in an even more nefarious version of chubby bunny—but really all you can say is, I’ll live.
The bed’s perfectly creased, so sharp you’re afraid to bend its lines. You’d think it was made by someone with the utmost care if you didn’t feel the ancient sheets practically crack beneath your weight. Your nose is running like you’ve got some kind of cold—even though it’s the summer and the flies are buzzing—and you wonder if you’re getting infected.
He tells you something like, You’re very guapo you know, which doesn’t really register as sincere. He must think you’re laughing with him because he starts to advance past the duffel bag, the suitcase, saying, Going somewhere, guapo? He slides the curtain over the window. It doesn’t cover it fully. For a moment you envision a hand pulling the curtain back aside, your own hand, and you’re staring at yourself.
The bed sheets snap again; the springs jolt a little louder. Let me help you with that. He takes your hand in his, then up to his mouth, then runs it along his face, his chest, his crotch. It feel any better, baby? It’s a question that lingers awkwardly in the buzzing of those flies that delicately dash themselves against the window panes. You want it to hurt then, guapo? He seems to be grasping for an answer, a name. I can make it hurt. It’s obvious this isn’t his role because his eyes are wet from whatever the opposite of tears is called. It’s a look you’ve seen before when your mother asked what was going on with all those gumdrops cascading out of your open mouth, and you refused to tell her what had happened, and it wasn’t until you got home that she realized you also had bruises blooming around you like rosebushes.
J pulls off the clothes that you’ve either shoplifted or have had another guy pay for when it was over. Always trying to run up other people’s credit cards. You don’t even have one; all you’ve got is debit and it’s starting to show in the wear-and-tear of the fabrics around your elbows and knees. The only reason you’ve been able to visit your father abroad twice a year is because he pays for it, while your mother bides her time back home in an air conditioned condo. Not that J is aware of any of this because he’s got his mouth full with your zipper, splitting it open, setting you loose.
Footsteps thud down the hallway, the owners of those feet momentarily casting dark shadows across the gap between the door and the carpet. The footsteps stop. You stop. You and J are still, totally afraid but almost wishing the door would open so you’d both get caught. It’s somewhat alluring like how that hole in the wall is alluring. The footsteps move on once the elevator pings to life. J gets up to lock the door. He looks younger than he is, like he’s snuck over in the dead of night, and you’re willing to overlook some of the heft he’s got around his stomach.
Sorry, I’m actually a little paranoid, he says with the least bit of seriousness.
Notice the cross that dangles around his neck as he climbs on top of you. On the same necklace is a pendant for a saint. Trophy? Memento? Penance? Remember how you’d sit in church sometimes, sitting with a different congregation every other Sunday as your mother church-hopped, occasionally leaving you to fend for yourself in a youth group taking place in a basement. Always in a basement. As though in order to get to heaven you first needed to start underground. Sometimes, in church, you’d drift off, get a boner, feel like the antichrist. Innocent enough, but the crucifix was the ultimate Peeping Tom. Now you just want to bounce your ass up and down and you wonder whether it’s the eye of God that is possibly watching you through the hole in the wall that constantly opens and closes as though something is passing behind it.
You go through the motions, or the variations of the motions. It’s systematic, a revolving puzzle. One piece goes in, another pulls out. You try to make it different from all the other times, but no matter how many reiterations there are, it’s still all spinning around the same basic mechanism. His lips on your neck, making bruises—it’s been done before and will be done again. His lips are thinner than you like and it becomes a problem for you when he pulls down your underwear and all you can think about then is the absence of lips, the absence of comfort, the feeling of standing on the edge of something, the feeling of standing on a diving board above an empty pool, your friends calling you away from there, calling you over to show you something, the pinkest candy known to man, throwing gumdrops your way because they knew what had happened, one of your buddies calling you the fruitiest kid known to man—fruitcake, femme, androfag—and you laughed because you thought it was so funny then and thought that was how you won over the affection of others.
Now you’re just there letting him take you the way only anonymity can give and take. A black beetle could be crawling over your back and you wouldn’t care. At some point he takes your arms and pulls them back. Facedown now. There’s pulling and bending and pounding that resonates in the awkward shrieks of the bed sheets and the bed springs and the bed frame.
Everything to do with the bed and with the two of you seems to be shouting at each other, like you’re telling J to be brutal, like J is telling you to accept his brutality, like the bed’s telling you both the truth about how utterly sad this situation is and there’s no one to call you out on it.
He throws you off the bed and puts you on your knees. You hear them scrape on the caked carpet. You hear your own gagging that’s a reminder of getting the wind knocked out of you for the first time as a kid. Sucker. You look at him, making doe eyes on purpose so he can say, That’s right, gorgeous, take it, and you, gorgeous, you take it like you’re told because that’s what you do, gorgeous, you’re fucking, you’re fucking gorgeous, yeah you, baby.
He tells you to look up at him and all you see is a fly that has somehow managed its way into the room and is now crawling along the white ceiling. You beg him to finish himself off in your mouth but only because he’s mentioned that on his profile chat. But that’s not what you want. You don’t want to do that. You’re not even sure you can do that. You’re so tired you don’t even know why anymore. So you let him thrust deeper into the mouth you once used to ask your mother what fruitcake and femme and androfag could possibly mean. The mouth you noticeably inherited from your mother, a mouth she refused to open for years even as you grew older and you started to hear more words uttered from other mouths not quite as beautiful but just as sharp.
Now J gets you to that point where your memories and your future cross-wire in your brain and you punch him like you punched someone in school years ago for calling you faggot and even as that same someone called you fucker and queer between the blows this only incited an animal rage and you let the blows fall until someone else held you back from becoming a damaged stereotype. J says, What the hell, unable to mark his own question because you place your hand around his throat, the other hand on what you already took so deep into your own.
You’re choking him and telling him, You really want this, don’t you? and he locks eyes with you and you’re telling him, You wanna know what it’s like, cutie? and he finally relents, the chain and cross damp to the touch, and you’re telling him, You’re being good now, you’re doing so good, and he gives out the frailest of moans as if to surrender everything as you clench harder, the splinter shoving deeper, so much deeper, as if rubbing against tendons, until finally you let go and he gasps and releases what can only be the last of his energy, shoving off what could have been his own strangulation under any other circumstance.
You check out half an hour later than when you first checked in, and the concierge must notice this. The old man is standing beside her and makes a sign to her because it turns out he’s deaf. The concierge shakes her head. She takes your credit card, swipes it again with a disappointed look—in you, in who’s with you, in the meager price you’re paying, you don’t know. When you leave you see the neon sign light up VACANCY. J tells you something like, It’s not as beautiful at night because you can’t see the stars. It’s the first either of you have spoken since you finished and got dressed. You don’t know how to break it to this guy who must be from the boondocks where one can actually see the stars. As you walk, you’re half-hoping he’ll hail you a cab, half-hoping he’ll hail himself a cab, say, Well, thanks, that’s just what I needed, I mean, good luck, you hear? and leave you on your way down the street. Instead you pass a clothing chain and he says, Come on, let me get you something. Like last time. This is one of the only times you must look totally stunned. He says, You don’t recognize me, like this is killing his vibe. He says, Jesus, you really don’t remember me, and, I knew I should’ve used the same name like last time, and, Jesus, again. You’re standing there with your luggage. The flies are hovering over every storm drain and pile of garbage down the block. You ask, Last time? He just says, Jesus, with that flamboyant flare he’s got, almost Spanish (that lisp) like his name really is Jesus and he’s trying to tell you that you should follow him to the ends of the earth.
This is the first time you’ve run into the same guy twice. You try not to let out your own sigh but it comes out anyway and he must be latching onto this because pretty soon he’s telling you he’s tried calling several times. At some point he says he worried you were dead. Imagine that, he says, if I’d slept with someone who’d died just after. I was worried that’s what really happened and I’d have to write about it and make it into a sob story. Think of everyone you haven’t gotten in touch with and wonder whether they’ve all thought the same thing, thought that you were dead. Wonder then how long it’s been since you’ve seen him. Like a zombie, he says.
Let me get you something. How do you break it to him as he stands there holding your hand—not holding hands, not you holding his hand, but him taking your hand in his like somehow that’s more of a violation of a person’s rights. Tell him you’re flattered but this isn’t what you want. Remove your hand from his. Then let me at least take you to a pharmacy, he says. Let me take care of that. Ignore the pain in your hand. Is it really pain from that splinter or from when he bent your arms backward? What does he mean by take care of that? Take care of what? Let him go, and don’t watch as he walks the other way, down a staircase into the street, past steam and past glaring headlights, never to be seen again, his last words being, Well, hit me up, guapo. You probably thought this last time, right? You thought you’d never see him again, yet here you are. You catch him sneak one last glance at you, something no one else has ever done, and then he’s gone in a maelstrom of traffic.
You’re walking back along the street and someone says, Nice get-up, and what you see in a window’s reflection is what you remember to be the faux-leather T-shirt from X, the skinny jeans from Y, the sneakers from Z. If you die, X will probably erase your contact profile, Y will say to himself, That dude was a strange one, and the chances of Z overdosing on opiates will jump up fifty percent. You once had someone spend over a thousand dollars on you but you can’t even remember his name. You try to recall what exactly the guy who calls himself J got you before, but you can’t form any idea whatsoever. You should’ve asked. The last thing you need haunting you is some token of appreciation that you’re not even aware of possessing. Then again, you can’t blame anyone else. Had your parents stayed together, had growing up been less about violence, had X and Y and Z been named, had J been someone you cared about—nevertheless you would still be here, trekking along, looking for a fling. Maybe you would’ve been a little less swanlike about it instead.
The flies are out in the streets now, en masse, their own dark swirls in the heat.
You got your duffel bag hanging from your shoulder and your suitcase skipping on the cement lines that you still try to avoid with your feet out of momentary superstition. Mother calls. She wonders where you are. Say you’re still waiting on your flight; you figured you’d get out of the airport for a bit. Say you’re getting fresh air. Admit you’re probably going to be late. Ask if she has antiseptic for your hand. She says yes, she has everything you need. Tweezers. Adhesive. Gauze. Just come on home, I want to hear all about your trip. Think if things will be different as the next flight takes off, as it lands in that endless desert stretch, as you exit, as you hail a taxi, as the taxi pulls into the driveway, as your mother opens the door.
You pick at the splinter, trying to get it out with the tips of your fingernails, and when you think you almost have it, you lose it again. It’s gone in so far it has to come out on its own.
Colter Ruland is a MFA candidate at the University of San Francisco. His work has appeared in Persona Magazine, Danse Macabre, Switchback, and Fiction Advocate. Follow him at @colter_geist.