He was a white male writer, and—despite having kissed a few boys at a Halloween party last year, even letting one stroke his bare chest, despite the occasional fantasy in which other boys featured — he knew he was for all practical and self-image purposes straight. So there it was: he was a man with light complexion and heterosexual leanings who wrote fiction, and he often expressed this in the cultural language of his day. Straight / White / Male he wrote in the margin of his notebook during class. Then he added, Unwanted.
Of course he wasn’t really unwanted. If he wrote something genuinely good, beautiful, and interesting, others would read and enjoy it, and he would eventually find a way of getting it published. Likely his path to print would even be easier than most. But his writing wasn’t genuinely good, beautiful, or interesting. He wrote a winking parable about a vendor at a gun show, a venomous parody about two lovers at the Student Center’s Tuesday Karaoke Night. He wrote a thinly veiled piece of autofiction about an unpleasable boy who had sex with the same girl as he had last year, in the same bed covered in stuffed animals. They were bad stories; unequivocally they were bad. Some of his professors thought they saw here and there the germ of good writing, perhaps in his ear for the names of fictitious groups like “Sudsy Studs Carwash,” “The Union of Back-Up Singers for The Tone-Deaf,” and “Melancholy Celibates Anonymous.” It’s more likely, however, that they were searching for something nice to say, some morsel of praise to cantilever their very constructive criticism. He noticed that his creative writing teachers, resolute in their practice of crossing out every last intensifier on his drafts, nonetheless used them in great quantity when prevaricating about what they liked in his stories. “It’s a very, very believable scene.” “I’m extremely impressed by the name of this group, really.”
He really would have attended Melancholy Celibates Anonymous, he thought one afternoon at the campus outlet of a popular burrito chain. Maybe he could get funding from the student government to start a chapter. Who would possibly come, though? Celibacy and melancholy were both things you could admit only when alone in bed. Maybe they could nickname their group “Damp Pillows, Damp Kleenex” or “Love, Actually Not.” He could put it on his résumé: Mike May, Chairman of the Sexually Unfulfilled Unhappy Undergraduate Committee. SUUUC.
Mike’s burrito was half-sheathed in shiny aluminum foil. Burritos had a confused gender identity. They looked like nice, heavy phalli when the Filipino guy behind the counter handed them to you, but when you tried to eat them things got confusing quick. Possibly you could nibble around and around, spiraling down. More likely you had to stick your face right in the burrito’s center, get your mouth and lips covered in bean juice and sour cream, slurping and using an ecologically unfriendly quantity of napkins. Alternatively you could be a philistine and eat it with a spoon, leaving the emptied wrapper on your tray like a used condom. The problem with thinking about everything as a sexual metaphor was it ruined your appetite. Mike rustled up a thought about sports and was immediately cheered when he remembered that the football team he rooted for had just acquired a new and by all accounts excellent player, a tight end. The six-dollar burrito disappeared before he could analyze this piece of football terminology.
A person sat across the plastic table from him, setting their tray down before saying, “Cool if I sit here, Mike?”
“No, no, go right ahead. Don’t let me stop you.” They were a person of indeterminate gender. Possibly taking hormones. Definitely with a sniffly nose. He knew this person from his short fiction class, and he hated this person because this person wrote better short fiction than he did. The person’s name was Andy. Andy had long brushed blonde hair and high cheekbones. Mike theorized it could be short for Andrea. He suspected that the praise Andy received in class was due to the possibility that Andy had originally been born a woman, that everyone was cutting Andy some trans slack. That this was why people liked Andy’s stories better.
“So, Mike,” Andy said. “I liked your story about the angry lobsterman.”
Mike grunted and blushed.
Andy went on, “I dug the politics. Is there really a Crustacean Liberation Front?”
“Yeah,” he lied. “The CLF. Look it up.”
“Wow, that’s cool. Maybe I’ll join. It always freaked me out that when you cook them, dogs can sometimes hear their screams. Like, it’s too high-pitched for us to hear, but did you know that dog ears can hear fluorescent lights and lobster screams?”
“That’s just gas escaping from the lobsters’ joints,” Mike said. “Anyways, the CLF wasn’t exactly central to the plot.”
“There was a plot?”
Mike balled up the burrito foil and pressed it into a tight patty with his thumbs. “You ever write a story about lobstermen before?”
“Yeah, okay.” Mike managed to shut up before saying something stupid. He was trying to filter more. He cleared his throat and said, “So it seemed like a lot of people liked your pastry chef thing.”
“Oh,” Andy sighed, like an aging diva, “that thing.” He let the act drop. “I guess some of the class did like it. But then I got my copy back from Ms. Wu and it was just, ‘Fix this sentence’ and ‘No clichés!’” Andy looked down at his quesadilla. “I don’t know if this whole writing thing is for me.”
“I thought that was your major.”
“Oh, no, no. I’m majoring in econ.”
“Oh,” said Mike. Ungreased gears rotated heavily inside his skull. “So you’re not trying to get published?”
“No way,” said Andy, throwing his head back and laughing. The laugh was high-pitched, even effeminate, but Mike noticed what looked like an Adam’s apple bobbing with each guffaw. Andy was smiling widely, but his voice had an edge of anger when he said, “Who would publish my crap?”
“Well, I don’t know.” He didn’t know. The campus lit mag wouldn’t publish his own crap; how could he know who would publish Andy’s crap?
Andy said, “What about you? Are you trying to get your stuff published?”
“No,” said Mike, and he got up. “I just heard it’s an easy A.”
He walked his tray over to the trash cabinet, and Andy called after him. “We should hang out some time, Mike. I’ll message you on Facebook?” It was one of those contemporary questions-that-weren’t-quite-questions, where you tipped your voice back at the end of a sentence, glided up ambiguously. Uptalk. It signified deference and respect for your interlocutor, softened your statement, but it could also indicate one’s healthy self-doubt and refusal to present false confidence. You had to be a social savant to interpret this shit.
Despite himself, Mike walked back by the table, spun around by where Andy was sitting, and said, “Okay. See you later. In class at the very least.” He pushed through the heavy plate-glass doors, through the airlock, through another reluctant door, and out onto the street, where there was no A/C and the horrible late-September heat and mugginess immediately covered him in sweat. So: Andy had an Adam’s apple. Right?
He and Andy started meeting up, sometimes after their fiction class but also to go to a book reading by a writer they had both liked in high school. They both enjoyed sitting in coffee shops, annoying the computer-entranced zombies by loudly discussing what they found were their actual shared interests: movies, sports, grades, and, especially, the idiocy of their peers. As they got more comfortable in their conversations, they once or twice even broached the odd feeling. Andy talked about his frustration with his parents, two Vermont “socialists” who wanted him to focus on developing a career and not to rule out Wall Street. Mike dropped hints about the corporal punishment his father had doled out daily over the course of a decade, even though he had pretty much processed that and was using it in his art. It was a gift, really, though he didn’t say that. Andy talked about getting bullied through most of high school for having long hair. About refusing to cut it off because it was who he was. Mike told the little story about hooking up for like a month with a girl from his freshman film theory class and how her friends, who were his friends too, all froze him out when the girl stopped wanting to hook up with him. They both agreed it was hard being a college sophomore.
Late one evening, Andy found Mike sitting and reading in his favorite pub. Andy bought them each a beer. They sat across from each other, on wooden stools.
“You know that movie The Day After Tomorrow? The one where the world ends?” Andy asked.
“Yeah, I watched that with my dad.”
“Your parents are split, right?”
“Yup.” Mike nodded and looked into Andy’s eyes and then looked down.
“Your dad have a big-screen TV and surround sound and everything?”
“Yeah, he does,” said Mike. “I guess you’ve met at least one single guy in his forties.”
Andy laughed. “Yeah, I’ve got an uncle like that. He never found the right lady, but he did have the perfect TV. I used to watch The Day After Tomorrow at his apartment. Uncle Mark went on these long trips for his magazine assignments, and he’d always hide a key for me, leave beer in the fridge.” Andy was getting loud and leaned forward in his chair. “How can an uncle be better than that? He was a fucking pal!” He gesticulated, knocking over his beer.
They both used their paper napkins to try to sop it up, but there was too much liquid, so the napkins sat like damp shoals in a sea that crept to the edge of the table and began dripping onto the floor. Mike said, “Sounds like a great guy.”
“Yeah.” Andy looked like he was going to cry, and then Andy did cry, quietly, with no napkin to dab the tears. They spread across his high cheeks and down into his mouth, where he licked them.
“I’m sorry, Andy.” Mike looked at Andy’s eyes, which were quavery and big, looking right back at him. “What happened?”
“Syria. Syria fucking happened.”
“Oh no,” Mike said, and he shivered. Part of him wanted to cry alongside Andy, but he pushed that impulse down and tried to see the facts dispassionately. Andy’s uncle had been a reporter. But then. No. He didn’t want to even think it.
“He’s dead,” Andy said, his voice tiny. Then Andy reached over, took Mike’s beer, which was still half full, and chugged it. His throat throbbed out and in, like a snake swallowing. His voice got a little stronger. “My uncle was a hostage, and we sold everything to try and get him back, but, you know what? They just took the money and disappeared.”
“I’m sorry,” said Mike, but he felt false saying it, because already the surge of sympathy had passed. How could he ever know how Andy felt? They were all of them, or at least, especially, him, utterly alone.
“Let’s get out of this place,” said Andy. “Come back to my room?”
“Um,” said Mike. “I’ve got homework, you know?”
Andy looked down and said, “Come on, man. Don’t bail on me. I’ve got some mezcal we can drink.”
Mike scrunched his eyes closed and then glanced down at his watch. It wasn’t so late, and Andy was sad. “Yeah, okay. Let’s go.”
They came up from the pub and crossed a big avenue. The air smelled of deep fryers and tomato sauce mixed with warm gusts of diesel-y bus exhaust and the perfume of passing freshman girls, who wore tiny black dresses and toddled in heels over the cobblestones. The further they got from the college, the quieter it got. At midblock there was the sound of crickets and the smell of white lilac. Mike listened as Andy’s breath calmed from wet gasps to deep sighs. Mike was thinking about ways of describing the flicker of a TV lighting up a room. An aquamarine semi-strobe? The Chromatic Nightmare? That could be a story title. What was he even doing, going to Andy’s for mezcal? What even was mezcal? He should be in the library, at his carrel, writing.
Andy turned in his gait and asked, “Should I finish the story about the disaster movie?” He laughed a little bit, and Mike couldn’t help but laugh a little with him. Andy was such a good-natured weirdo. How could you not like him?
“Yeah, why don’t you finish that story,” he said gently.
“Well, it wasn’t much of a tale anyways; I don’t want to oversell it. Ms. Wu would probably just write ‘Boring’ on the front page, in Sharpie. The thing was that I was getting with the first girl I’d ever gotten with, the one who took my virginity, this stoner chick a few grades above me, Rayna. She was so nice! She didn’t even complain if I came too soon as long as I helped her get off. And we got into this pattern that summer where every afternoon we went over to my uncle’s place and smoked a bowl, put on The Day After Tomorrow, and went at it on the couch. It was such a nice time in my life. Tidal waves, Manhattan under water, mega-tornadoes, the whole earth freezing—and there I am on the other end of the room, having my seven minutes in heaven.” He sighed. They crossed an empty street.
“That’s nice,” said Mike.
“Yeah. It’s nice getting to remember that.”
When they got up to Andy’s dark apartment, Andy sat down on the floor by the entrance and removed his suede sneakers, adding them to a careful row of shoes. Mike sat beside him and took off his black boots. It felt nice to have them off, but he also worried that his feet smelled. Andy got up and, still without turning the lights on, crossed the room to stand in front of a big window with a little table below it.
“Come look at our view,” he said. “My roommate’s out of town this weekend.”
It all seemed so grown-up compared to the dorm suite Mike shared with five other slobbish boys. The hardwood floor was slick against his socks as he walked carefully across the dim room to Andy’s silhouette. He realized, with a pang, that on some level he really looked up to Andy. He definitely was jealous of this rad apartment. He thought of the story about Andy’s uncle, and it felt like his heart got a little swollen in his chest.
When he reached the window, Mike felt overcome with friendly feeling for Andy. He put his arm around Andy’s shoulder and gave him a little squeeze. “Thanks for sharing that story with me,” he said. Then he took his arm back.
“Thanks for listening, Mike,” said Andy. “I’m really glad we’re friends.”
They watched the street together. They watched the faces in cabs, the rhythm of the homeless man who sold newspapers that had been written by other homeless people to passersby. Mike looked at the heavy manhole covers that concealed the vast infrastructure of the city. Being in a quiet room observing the big world with a friend felt good. Girls riding on the backs of motorbikes looked haughtily at people on the sidewalk.
Oh, shit, realized Mike. He was in Andy’s apartment, and now Andy was going to want to have sex with him. Right? And it was his fault for leading Andy on. How could he explain that he just didn’t like guys, at least not like that? It was like a knife in his gut, knowing how bad he was screwing up. He really liked Andy, too. If Andy was a girl—well, shit, he’d probably want to sleep with him.
Was Andy a girl? wondered Mike as he stared at yellowing maple leaves swaying in the breeze. Would it be so bad if Andy was a man with a pussy? Would Mike be into that? It didn’t really square with the story about getting it on with the stoner chick, but didn’t trans guys sometimes have prostheses? But, then, well.
Andy reached over and slipped his fingers around Mike’s right hand, holding it. Mike felt paralyzed. Was it happening? Andy said, “What are you thinking about?”
Mike stuttered, “Um, nothing.” He didn’t pull his hand back.
“Come on, I can hear the sound of your brain working from all the way over here,” said Andy. “Probably the neighbors are grumbling about the noise right now.” He laughed and gave Mike’s palm a little squeeze.
Despite his fear and confusion, Mike started to feel, of all things, an erection rising in his pants. He pushed his knees together, trying to make it go away, but it only grew harder. Could Andy see it in the dark light? What was happening? Andy was a straight guy! In Vermont, holding hands with your guy friends was probably as normal as skiing to school! But maybe Andy was after all trans. Would Mike, hypothetically, want it, then? His pants felt uncomfortable.
“Cat got your tongue?” asked Andy.
What the hell, thought Mike. It was a doomed situation anyways. It was a doomed life, for that matter. He opened his mouth and said, “Um, I guess I had a weird question, and it’ll probably offend you, but,” he said, and he slipped his hand out of Andy’s. He took a deep breath and then went on, “Are you trans?”
Andy was quiet for a second, but then it became clear that he was stifling giggles. He couldn’t hold them back any more, and he laughed and laughed, slapping the table a few times. Mike didn’t laugh, and he wished there was a light on so he could read Andy’s expressions.
“That’s what you’ve been holding back on me?” he said. “I mean I guess in some sense it’s—flattering?”
“I’m sorry,” said Mike. He was blushing crimson and could feel his face burning. His insides were as hollow as a drum.
“No, man, it’s okay,” said Andy. “Let me answer you. No, I’m not trans. I’m a guy, and I was born with a cock, too.” Andy giggled again, and he gently punched Mike’s bicep. “Let me ask you a question,” he said. “If I was trans, would you want to fuck me? Is that why you asked?”
“No, man,” said Mike. “It’s just, oh, I don’t know. I’m so embarrassed.”
“It’s all right,” said Andy. “I’ve been having some feelings, too.”
He pulled Mike into an embrace, a little roughly, and Mike was surprised to find himself not resisting. He still had a boner, and it touched Andy’s leg. Andy, he realized, was shorter than him. Andy’s face was tilted back, looking at him, and they looked at each other, that close. Mike had to choose whether to run or kiss. His brain wasn’t working.
They kissed. It was slow and tentative at first. Then the kiss became needy, hungry, filled with fire. Andy kissed up from Mike’s lips to his nose, his cheeks, an earlobe. Then he kissed Mike’s neck, sucked hard on it.
They pulled at clothes. Mike wanted his body next to Andy’s, wanted to erase any separation. He couldn’t let himself think. Don’t think! he told himself. He was naked, and Andy laid him down against the cool wood floor.
Andy kissed him. He kissed Andy back whenever Andy kissed him on the mouth. They didn’t speak.
Andy sucked on his cock. It felt so good that Mike felt like crying, and he moaned loudly, surprising himself. For a second he pulled back, the dumb thought of his mom wearing a skirt to go volunteer at her grange breakfast the fourth Sunday of the month came into his head. But he let go again, gave his body to Andy.
After Mike came, he lay there for a minute, purple and gold spots floating on his eyelids. Andy got up and returned with a folded wool blanket from the futon couch. He lay down next to Mike, covering both of their bodies.
They didn’t say anything for a while, just stared at the many overlaid parallelograms of light on the ceiling. Mike didn’t want to think. He reached for Andy’s body, moved his hand down to Andy’s cock. It was already halfway hard, and he started stroking it up and down as he knew to do from his own. Andy sighed, right by Mike’s ear, but he said, “Not yet. Let’s take a shower.”
They washed in the steamy glow of the bathroom, lit only by the lights over the vanity mirror. Once both of them were fully washed, their suds rinsed, Andy shut the water off and found a towel for Mike.
They walked to the bedroom. The bed was made, and there were no piles of clothes and books lying around, like there were in Mike’s dorm room. They crawled under the covers.
“Is this your first time?” asked Andy. Mike nodded, and Andy said, “I’ll go slow.”
After a lot of kissing and touching, Andy kneeled behind Mike. Mike hadn’t yet quite realized what Andy wanted to do. Now he knew. He felt scared, and his mind pulled up an image from amateur porn, a fuzzy video from behind of a woman on her knees. But he didn’t want to run. He felt Andy kiss his back, kissing up the spine towards his neck. Their bodies were pressed together, and it felt good.
Andy pushed into him. He was gentle, and, although it wasn’t comfortable, it didn’t hurt. It felt like something he could do. He focused on relaxing. It took time. As Andy pushed deeper, he touched a spot that made Mike’s penis jump, and Andy started moving slowly in and out. It felt good, he realized.
At some point, Andy touched Mike’s cock, and starting stroking him at the same time as he fucked him. Mike shuddered and moaned. Andy moaned too, high-pitched, his voice half-breaking. It turned Mike on more.
Time dilated and contracted. He lost track of the edge between their bodies. They both came.
Once Andy had pulled out of him, Mike felt strange and sore but also okay. They lay side by side in the bed. Soon Andy began to snore, little cut-up whines on the inhale. The sound was strangely comforting.
Mike looked out the big sash window. From the bed he couldn’t see the street. He looked at the building opposite Andy’s. It was an old apartment building, built of yellow bricks, with elaborate archwork over certain windows and a column of bay windows interrupting the flatness of wall. It was a happy building.
At the bottom of the window, Mike could see the very top of a storefront’s plate glass window, where there blinked a blue neon sign. “Wind Music.” The blue was electric and otherworldly, like an aquarium under a black light or unoxidized blood. The words were the title of a story—a good story.
Jasper Henderson is a writer and teacher from the Mendocino Coast. His work has appeared in Joyland, Juked, 7×7, Permasummer, and an anthology of California writing, Golden State 2017. As a poet-teacher, he works with over four hundred students every year, from third-graders to high school seniors. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University L.A. His cat is named Sybil, after the sibilant, favorite sound of cats across the galaxy.