Rumpus Original Fiction: An Other Man

By

It’s late July, and you’re sitting on a stoop covered in faint cracks. The scorching brownstone beneath your thighs is crossing slowly into unbearable when, suddenly, the postcard across the street—a regal park, a profusion of inquisitive dogs and distracted owners, toddling children and rigid parents—reveals a group of Frisbee-playing hipsters in the background. What begins as a harmless, anthropologic scan of skinny legs, steampunk boots, and Victorian mustaches descends into an obsessive survey of mounds, mesas, and bulges. More often than not, they catch the flying disc. Your husband, who burns easily, is sitting in the shade beside you. He is unaware of the panorama, immersed in the science-fiction novel he downloaded onto his phone. His pale white feet rest over his sandals’ brown leather straps; knobby toes grope purely decorative buckles. He’s been wearing these sandals since you met him. He orders a new pair every few years. These are his fifth.

“The heat makes it worse,” he says, while balancing Octavia Butler on his superhero thighs. “The exposed skin roaming around always does this to you.” His voice rings without judgment, but its certainty dredges up a gnarled tire of shame.

“How can we be so different from each other?” you ask.

The mosaic of green, yellow, and blue in his eyes becomes bolder, like a Catholic church at night. “If this is going to gnaw at you, then just do it.” He places his hand on your lap, less a lover and more a coach. Both are a turn-on. “I’m not worried about us. I’m only worried you’ll beat yourself up afterward.”

These are words you would never say to him. You can’t imagine a deathbed scenario where you could be so magnanimous.

“What if you end up wanting to do it, too?”

“I won’t.”

You believe him, but you fear the uncharted. “I’ll give it some thought,” you say.

 

You begin by downloading online dating applications. First, one. Then, two. You draw the line after three. Before you can even ponder your decision, faces appear. They fill your phone’s screen, in grid formation. A few of the squares are recognizable: acquaintances predominantly, a few neighbors, and possibly a poorly lit co-worker. You resist an urge to say hello, fearing you’ll impinge on Internet etiquette or that your greetings might be misconstrued. When you do say hello, you worry that the people who recognize you will think you’re cheating. You panic, disable your profiles, and disappear. You do this three times. A few days pass, and you re-enable everything.

You try to be innovative with your greetings (“What do you think: one- or two-state solution?”) and pleasant with your rejections (“I appreciate you reaching out, but I don’t sense compatibility.”) You chat and endure the eternal pauses. You are hamstrung by the reliance on punctuation as a conduit for emotions—a misplaced semicolon can rapidly alter the mood; exclamation points are ubiquitous and no longer connote the urgency they did pre-Internet. You’re awkward about addressing sexually transmissible infections: you had crabs when you were nineteen, but sharing that feels like an unreasonable standard of honesty. “Likes,” “barks,” and graphic images appear as if from nowhere. A few conversations escalate, but you don’t commit to meeting anyone.

You get ignored, too.

A white man with grey hair says he likes his men fiery and that you have “a Ricky Martin vibe.” Another, younger than you, says he’s not into your people: “no offense.” You wonder if the Digital Age is, in some ways, undoing progress. You swipe away. You block. You disable and delete, again. You uninstall. You give up. You try watching porn. Every day is a new day. And after a few new days, you try again—there are no limits to downloading and re-installing.

Tweaking your profiles becomes compulsive. You overvalue yourself. You undervalue yourself. You add a year to your age because numbers that end in 5 or 0 look commanding. You subtract two because numbers that end in 5 or 0 begin to look too neat to be believed. You aim for humorous and self-effacing. You don’t post naked pictures for fear of destroying a career in politics that is nowhere on your horizon. Before long, you start sending tasteful, faceless nudes to appease the men who are interested. One night, after your husband has gone to bed, after you’ve convinced yourself that anonymity is a devolution, after your second homemade martini, you send explicit and easily identifiable images to a “banker with a swimmer’s build.” You accept that you are not cut out for elected office. You’d rather be an agitator anyway, though you have no history of agitating. You never meet the banker.

You’re drawn to charming profiles with hints of self-awareness and intelligence. Salt-and-pepper hair, average bodies, and dorky demeanors are especially appealing. You prefer subtlety and clothed images. The similarities between the men to whom you are most drawn and your husband are impossible to ignore. You put the phone down and go for a run. At mile four, you decide to give up on white men altogether because of the intrinsic power dynamics—some things are undone during sex; others are magnified.

You focus on men who are direct about their proclivities and desires—but not too direct. You are especially curious about anyone who identifies as queer, a fairy, or an anarchist—you are keenly aware of the distances you are trying to bridge.

Some men list sex without condoms as a precondition. You mull it over. But then every PSA of the last twenty-five years flashes through your mind, and you just can’t, even if they are regularly tested for infections, even if their viral loads are undetectable, even if the science is on everyone’s side, even if their beauty feels like a prophylaxis. You desist and remain bothered by the implications.

 

Your phone emits dings and whistles, but your husband doesn’t hear them, or pretends not to.

“Describe your type,” you say while pointing to your screen. It’s almost noon on a cloudy Saturday of a nothing-special weekend in August. “Maybe he’s on here.”

He shrugs with one shoulder and one eyebrow, but you insist, and he begins listing attributes. He clumsily concocts you, then smiles. This would have served as an aphrodisiac once. Now, everything is a tranquilizer.

Doesn’t he know that a hint of jealousy might signal an end to your extramarital desires? Doesn’t he know that his territoriality would turn you on? The answer is yes. You’ve told him this, many times before, but he’s terrible at role-playing. He simply cannot act out what he does not feel. You can say, without embellishment, that you married the most self-assured person you have ever known. No one is less afraid to raise his hand in a crowded auditorium, send back an overcooked steak, or share his spouse. And never in a mean-spirited manner. Always matter of fact.

You’ve had nearly two decades with him. Two decades to observe and overthink. In this time, you’ve surmised that your disparities in temperament, self-efficacy, and propensity for obsession are likely a function of race and class—you’re a professor in a field of the social sciences and feel equipped to draw these types of conclusions. He’s white; you’re brown. He was raised in a home with more staff than family members; you, on the other hand, could eat rice and beans for months without flinching. Everything in you travels with the speed and tidiness of lava on the descent; in him is a durable glass beaker with a finely calibrated release valve. He does your tax returns without even a minor furrowing of anything; you are capable of kicking the vacuum cleaner into next week if it disobeys you more than once.

And yet, your love isn’t only measured in distances. You’re both gay men with degrees. You read the same things. You can have a conversation without straining in either direction. All the leveling that’s happened naturally over the years has made you a Venn diagram, with a beautiful, comforting, and egg-shaped overlap. And that may be the best you’ll ever be. Anything else would be inauthentic.

Or maybe you can’t work race and class into everything, hard as you try. It’s quite possible you just come from a long line of libidinous Lotharios, whereas his chaste chromosomes line up neatly, barely touching. Why not?

You keep to your conjugal schedule—Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons. And when your husband leaves the room or nods off, your hunting resumes in earnest.

 

Cruising was once anxiety inducing and soul shaking—docks, crowded streets, empty streets, public restrooms, changing rooms at The Gap, interstate rest stops. It was a fevered pursuit for the cup of Christ, more exciting for the journey than the stemware. The online version is less personal, while somehow more frenetic and invasive. At every single moment, you know if there are cis, trans, or gender nonconforming bears, cubs, hungry otters, silver foxes, discreet jocks, and leather geeks within a five-hundred-foot radius. The wealth of options is arousing, disorienting.

Noteworthy leads are thwarted by incompatible schedules. They disappear; you do too. This is more difficult than you imagined. A kid, a candy store, bins that are out of reach: who knew? It’s been nearly a month since this all began, and most everyone fits into one of three undesirable categories: no, distracted, or perfect, and perfect, as you well know, is the enemy. Under no circumstances do you want to fall in love. You want to play out fantasies while avoiding antibiotics, antiretrovirals, and body lice. Nothing more. The target is increasingly smaller, but you keep giving it your all. Life imitates carnival game.

Of course, the problem might not be the game. You begin to feel old in a virtual space where your age isn’t far from the median. It’s not only the culture—you could fill a bathtub with all the acronyms and pop references you don’t know. It’s the cadence, too. This is a carousel that never slows to a point where you can board gracefully. What if monogamy has taken your finely tuned instincts and skills and blunted them into useless, shallow spoons? Or what if your current path is a regression?The irony isn’t lost on you, but neither is it well drawn out. For most of the last twenty years, your sympathies rested squarely with Hillary; recently, Bill has become pitiable. You no longer align with either of them politically. You vote for them anyway.

 

It’s difficult to recall the feeling of truly meeting a man in person. The Internet certainly traffics more men than a gay bar, but you don’t recall so consistently leaving a gay bar alone. Maybe you did. That was a long time ago.

On a warm, sunlit evening when your husband works late, you find your way to a happy hour in the East Village. You approach with the trepidation of a tourist who doesn’t understand all of the signs and who is embarrassed to speak a language he studied only briefly in his youth. As cliché as it sounds, you still feel like the seventeen-year-old who used to sneak into these places. Throw a backwards baseball cap on and you’re not that far off—your brown skin has brought you some grief over the years, but at least it refuses to crack. And yet, in this room, you are mid-career. Apart from the worn survivors nestled at one end of the bar (you, had you been born one generation earlier), everyone else is in his late twenties or, worse, his early twenties (you, one generation later). The balance tips more toward quirky than shiny, but you nonetheless fear several types of discrimination at once. Intersections, you think.

You wait ten minutes for a drink. You hate this. The bar is far from crowded. How could he possibly not have taken your order yet? Drinking establishments would do well to implement a system of numbered tickets, like deli counters—both are meat markets, you think, and then smile to yourself. To make matters worse, everyone he’s serving instead of you is white, a few of whom certainly arrived after you. This is why you prefer to stay home; this is why you splurge at the liquor store. Everything is being confirmed. The seconds race. The cortisol courses through your channels. You’re already drafting a letter to the owner and rehearsing the call you’ll make to the local community board if the letter goes unanswered when, suddenly, he looks your way.

His hair is a pink faux-hawk; skin, blonde. The straps on his tank top are dental floss; his mustache is a car wash. He has a bull ring in his nose and tattoos everywhere—unicorns, Roman numerals, quotes, a subway car. He makes it all work. He looks familiar. Very familiar. “Hi, honey, what can I get you?”

“Slightly dirty gin martini, straight up, three olives, a step up from well.”

As he fills your smudged glass with imperfect cylinders of ice, you realize you’ve seen this post-impressionistic figure before—the online matrix. By this point, you’ve seen the faces of several hundred gay or bisexual men in New York City, and the torsos, cocks, and asses of dozens more. Come to think of it, it’s been days of double-takes and second glances.

“Here you are, darling.” He sets the drink down on a small napkin without spilling a drop. His artistry is evident, but understated.

“How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing. It’s been taken care of.”

“Really? Thank you,” you say, feeling somewhat foolish for having assumed the worst of a working-class stiff who’s living off of tipped minimum wage and probably wasn’t thinking about skin color or socially constructed racial categories when he ignored you repeatedly only moments before. His lurch from villain to saint is swift.

“Don’t thank me. Thank daddy over there,” he says, raising his chin toward a man too far down the bar for you to see clearly enough in the dim, red-filtered lighting. He has gray hair and a loose-fitting, short-sleeve button-down shirt, probably linen, either light green or blue. He’s white or orange. You try to refuse the drink, but the bartender walks away before you can open your mouth. You indulge in the moment and raise your glass in gratitude, spilling a fifth of the martini in the process. Maybe no one noticed.

Your free drink begins to feel like a tether. Whenever you browse the room, you make unintended eye contact with your benefactor. You fear you might lead him on—this sweet, or lecherous, old man. You pull out your phone and look down. Seven of the people on your screen are within seven feet of you. None have pinged you. This isn’t deflating, but neither is it imperceptible. You cease browsing online for the sentient beings who are chatting, laughing, and releasing pheromones all around you. You listen instead to the music: Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Sylvester, Blondie. Gay bar jukeboxes today are indistinguishable from gay bar jukeboxes twenty years ago, and possibly thirty. It’s comforting to still feel like part of the club. A stakeholder. You finish your drink, savor the olives, and go to the bathroom.

When you return, your patron has taken your seat. You change course and head for the door, but he spins around on his stool with great ease. “Why the rush?”

“I’m late to meet my husband,” you say, even though your dinner reservations aren’t for another hour, and the restaurant is only a few blocks away.

“I guess all the gorgeous ones are taken,” he says with a compelling grin.

Up close, he’s appealing. Objectively attractive. He’s in his early sixties, not the vague late eighties you’d suspected at a distance. He’s more than fit; possibly, strapping. He’s Omar Sharif in hue and smolder. His large watch, a lattice of silver and gold wrapped around his wrist, is endearingly anachronistic. You’ve always been attracted to older men, even if you don’t have daddy issues—in fact, your dad is great and you get along quite well, and except for those complicated late-teen years, you always have. You believe older men can appreciate beauty in ways that contemporaries cannot. To be clear, you’re into men who are older than you, not necessarily old men. This man is somewhere in between.

“What are you going to eat?”

“Cuban,” you pull out of thin air.

“Oh, where?”

“I let him pick the place.“ Another lie.

“I ask because, at some point or another, I’ve eaten at every Cuban restaurant in the city—I’m Cuban.” He smiles, revealing neat, white teeth, like piano keys. They’re real, you assume.

“Which is your favorite?” This—asking for authentic food recommendations—is something you are known for. The circumstances don’t need to change your ways.

“Well, I haven’t been for some time, but it’s across town, on Christopher,” he says.

You feign ignorance. A familiar prejudice creeps up, and you’re forced to remind yourself that New York Cubans aren’t Miami Cubans capable of tipping national elections unfavorably.

“I don’t want to keep you,” he says and leans forward, resting his hand on his knee. It’s a virile hand, attached to a brawny forearm—this man could race up a tree faster than you. You feel safe and inadequate all at once. You stare longer than you should.

“I live upstairs,” he says, like a highly specialized surgeon. “How late are you?”

His eyes double in size, leeching the remaining light from an already drab room. He rises onto his sporty, black loafers—he’s not quite an inch shorter than you. You two are slow dancing in a tenebrous and foggy hallucination, like Maria and Tony in West Side Story. You feel pretty. You haven’t been in this situation in a very long time, and you’re amazed at how familiar it is and at how quickly your blood is flowing. Your ability to be evasive or witty is nowhere to be found. You purse your lips slightly, slide your tongue across your teeth, and squint. A faint, distinct tremble appears. You struggle to remember your husband. Beautiful man, but he’s not a character in this vignette, and you have to make your peace with that. “I’m not late at all,” you say. You didn’t have to say that.

He leads the way out of the bar, up a brick stoop, then two doors, then two flights. As you climb, it crosses your mind to text your location to someone, just in case you’re never seen again, but you can’t decide to whom, and you’re not authentically afraid.

His apartment is long, white, and narrow for fourteen steps, then bursting bookshelves, floor to ceiling. Everywhere else, post-modern stacks—more books, some magazines—including a few skyscrapers on the glossy cherry wood floor. His living room is a fire hazard, but it’s clean, professionally so. One pile reaches your waist. Atop is a self-help guide, unimaginatively titled, “Self-Help.” You begin to judge him and wonder if this is reason enough for you to leave. You glance at your phone. From behind, his chin finds its way onto your shoulder. A delectable bouquet of cologne and deodorant feeds your senses in ways that a semicolon never could. His lips graze your ear with precision and heat—you wonder what he does for a living. He picks up the book you were eyeing moments before. “She’s very good. Have you read her work?” Side to side, your head turns slowly, caressing the prickliness of his shadow against your cheek. “If you’re into short stories…” he says and taps the book against the air, before returning it to its rightful place. You feel stupid but grateful you erred toward silence moments earlier. His warm lips reappear. He breathes you in deeply, taking with him the space between. You bite down on your tongue to quell the chattering. He kisses your neck as his hands travel assuredly across the rest. When he pulls away and disappears, you follow.

 

You’re on a splintered bench in Tompkins Square Park, combing your hair with your tears and your fingers. You need to pull yourself together. A disconsolate brown man in an unabashedly gentrified neighborhood is the beginning of a below-the-fold news piece. You take a deep breath, look out at the pink-orange sky, and scan the park. It’s busy, harmlessly peculiar, and casually segregated: New York City. You’re staring at a postcard. You’re always staring at a postcard, it seems.

What have you done? How could you have stained something so beautiful and immaculate? How can you ever look at your husband’s face again? At your own? What would your mother say? This was what she’d feared all along. She’d seen your lifestyle as a condition, a relic of biblical times, an eccentricity that proved the downfall of grand civilizations—the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the 1980s. It was years before she was comfortable with your relationship, and then you go ahead and queer it up. Suddenly, your ability to find a middle ground between your needs and your husband’s feels like a wasted compromise. You have typecast yourself.

“Are you okay?” A shadow appears suddenly between you and the remains of the sun. His T-shirt is cut off at the shoulders; his shorts, just above the knees. He’s an urban castaway. His skin is brown like yours, but younger and with more sheen. You’re dripping snot, but unembarrassed. He hands you a napkin from inside the paper bag where he’s stored the falafel sandwich that he interrupted to come see about you. There’s a small smear of tzatziki on his otherwise bare chin.

“Thank you,” you say after blowing your nose.

“Why is such a cute guy crying on such a beautiful day?” he asks.

“I’m married,” you say with unwarranted force. Then you hold up the hand that has the finger with the matted, gold band.

“So what?” he says playfully and then scans you conspicuously.

Well if this isn’t the kicker… If all you had to do was put away your phone, you might have done so weeks ago. You’re still upset, but now irony or coincidence or both are hoisting you onto their shoulders. The world is much clearer up here, but the line between cause and cure is muddled.

“An odd day, that’s all,” you tell your scene-stealing Puck as you rise to your feet—he’s not quite an inch taller than you.

Your thigh vibrates. It’s your husband. He has already sent two texts. You’re fifteen minutes late. The restaurant is less than a block away. “I’m okay, but thank you again for your concern,” you say, spreading the remaining tears with the back of one hand, while the other surreptitiously silences the kind, loyal, uncomplicated interruption in your pocket.

“You sure?” The Nuyorican texture in his voice reminds you of what the neighborhood used to be like. His deep brown eyes teach you the meaning of puppy-dog eyes. You’re not a pet person, so you honestly don’t know.

“Yes, yes. Thank you,” you say. You try to smile.

“Can I give you something before you go?” he asks, but you’re not sure from where the words are coming. “My phone number,” he continues, as he digs into his pockets. Triceps, marvelous. Everyone, it seems, has been at the gym for the last twenty years.

This encounter is intriguing but also unsettling. It shouldn’t be this easy, you think. He’s too forward. What if he’s a cop? Or high? You fear he’ll mount a campaign that won’t allow you to leave the park quietly or, worse, will follow you all the way to your husband if you resist—there’s endless gumption in those voluptuous cheekbones. “Okay,” you say, and pull out your phone, but then it rings again. “Sorry, I really have to run. Another time.”

You scan the faded, green bench for your belongings, but there’s nothing there. Your eyes anxiously dart around the perimeter for a bag or jacket, until you remember that you left home with nothing. You remember why you were here in the first place.

At the precipice of Avenue A, he calls out to you, “L’Agrado!”

You turn to face him. His high-top canvas shoes are wedged into the park’s waist-high perimeter; the bars frame his muscular legs—either he plays soccer, or he was born this way. He’s a foot off the ground, facing you, one hand gripping, as if he were riding a wrought-iron bull. Now, he’s Mercutio and Romeo, and the park’s magic has trapped him. He will not follow. You were wrong about him. “It’s my handle,” he calls out. “Look for me. Anywhere!”

You nod and cross the street. You know L’Agrado. You know her well. She’s the sex worker-turned-personal assistant in Almodóvar’s Todo Sobre Mi Madre, possibly your favorite of his films. Certainly, one of his greatest protagonists. This guy has just endeared himself to you in ways he couldn’t possibly imagine. You’re walking quickly, but you have time to open up one of the three dating apps. There he is: “L’Agrado, 28 y/o. Bottom, powerful. Queer. Anarcho-syndicalist. Poet. Latinx. ¡Independencia pa’ Puerto Rico o muerte! I am a shame-free zone. No bullshit hang-ups, please. #fuckwhitesupremacy.”

You get to where you’re going. The indisputable man of your life is in there somewhere, probably on his second gin and tonic—his summer theme. Your history tells you your future will be okay, but you’re afraid nonetheless. What if this is the onset of the undoing? Or, worse, the midpoint?

You catch your reflection in the restaurant’s window. You’ve looked better. Before you open the door, you pivot eastward: a corridor of multicolored awnings, a laconic stream of glistening humans, an interstitial field of fleeting yellow cabs. In the distance, framed by the park’s lush green giants, is L’Agrado. He is perched on the gate, looking at his phone. Waiting.

***

Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.


Alejandro Varela is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Republic, The Southampton Review, Pariahs (an anthology, SFA Press, 2016), Blunderbuss Magazine, The Offing, The Brooklyn Rail, Joyland Magazine, The Scholar and Feminist Online, and has received honorable mention from Glimmer Train. He was a 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Nonfiction, and a resident in the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s 2017–2018 Workspace program. He is also an associate editor at Apogee Journal. This story is from a collection of short stories, tentatively titled The First 200 Years of Eduardo. More from this author →