"Activation? For what?"
"A new kind of whole-grain pita chip. Super healthy. And gluten-free. I think. Come in and I'll give you a few free raffle tickets. You could win a car."
I followed his lead into the astroturfed parking lot, a temporary branded zone.
"International School of the Hague, right?"
"Wait. Yes. I went there. Do we know each other?"
"Was only there for third grade. Military family, moved around. Thought I recognized you."
I looked at him. He didn't seem familiar at all. His face kept changing, as though in a dream, a pair of oaken eyes the only constant.
"Ok, yeah, I think I remember you," I said. "We were in different classes, right?"
"Yeah exactly, I was across the hall."
I didn't believe that school had hallways—I was envisioning separate portable classrooms, trailer-like, plopped down on asphalt, each a self-sustaining pod, where eager volunteers had to rough the outside chill in order to ask the teacher next door for a dry erase marker. But what would you call those demarcated alleyways in between the little elementary houses? Hallways? I didn't think so. All I could recall was the tall brick building reserved for the middle school and the long shadow it cast upon the lower grade encampments, an insistent reminder that a place of true halls and gymnasiums lorded above us.
I stared at his outstretched hand, slender fingers with nails left slightly long, a hint of chaos. I squeezed his palm firmly, the disembodied voice of my mother reminding me "no dead fishes." But I was holding on for too long and jerked back my arm unnaturally. He smiled. The late afternoon was fading. Amber light mingled with his teeth, his eyes, his olive skin—he had strands of long hair that he habitually stroked back behind his shoulders, with every other fidget. Black bile was beginning to mix inside me with something unknown, metallic in taste, a liquid akin to mercury.
"You live around here?"
"Kind of. Was on my way home from work."
"Huh. Seems like no one in this city walks anywhere. You have a car though?"
I paused, searching for the lie and coming up empty.
"Well. I recently got a DUI so my license's been revoked for the next 10 months. Not my best moment."
"No shame in that. We've all been there."
"Have we though?"
I looked at him in mock-puzzlement, a bit too performative for the conversation's current tone. I saw a snapshot of myself: cocked head, face pinched, mugging for the invisible camera. My face went slack.
"Well, I've personally been there. Got pulled over in high school. It sucked."
He told me what he was doing (temp gigs, trying to become a model slash actor), I told him what I was doing (internship at an agency, trying to write spec scripts), he told me where he lived in the city (some art collective's loft), I told him where I stayed (on my cousin's couch), he said he liked living here (laidback attitude, positive vibes), I said I hated the people here (emotional vampires and grifters). This comparing of notes lulled briefly and a man, looking to be Gavin's supervisor, took the opportunity to make eyes at him from across the pita chip sample tent.
"I should probably get back to soliciting on the sidewalk. But what're you doing later? I get off in like, forty-five minutes."
What was this exactly? A pick-up; a friendly gesture; a professional connection; a grasping for Dutch nostalgia lost? Like his face, his intentions seemed ever-morphing, always on the verge of articulating themselves. A more forward, solid person would nail down these grayer details, would motion to define the dynamics at hand. But I was someone else, a different beast. I'd make my settlement here, upon this ambiguous mound, embracing the indistinct until evicted into clarity.
"I'm meeting my friend for a drink a few blocks away. You should come join us after you're finished here."
"Great. I'd love that. Let's meet there."
"Can I still get those raffle tickets though? For the car?"
"What do you need a car for? You wouldn't be able to drive it anyways."
We laughed at this and shook hands again. Before leaving, I surveyed the parking lot, unable to find any reference to the car or raffle tickets, no real marketing to speak of at all, save for a large inflatable bag of pita chips in the corner of the mini-mall, its body rippling upward in the air, finding and losing its form, constantly re-asserting its existence.
I met Alisa at the back of the bar, twenty minutes later than our agreed upon time. She looked at me, smiled, and rolled her eyes.
"So where's this boy that made you so late?"
"He's going to meet us here."
I had texted her on my walk over, summarizing the encounter with Gavin. She'd only responded with a clenched teeth emoji, the meaning of which eluded me. I was beginning to realize my disdain for our relationship, this hold-over friendship from high school that had been briefly rekindled post-college and was now souring into something like a bitter rivalry. Her small head, pygmy-like, those inwardly bent teeth, the metal band tees she always wore, her job as assistant to a high-profile video editor, the droning on about work, as though it were her only tether to the world—I listed these personal affronts in my head as I drank my beer and nodded along to her venting, unlistening and bored. A basketball game played on the TV and I watched it fade into a Geico commercial, the glow of the LCD reflecting upon the lacquer of the bar, the winter dusk outside making every illumination in the room heavy, exaggerated. A melancholy, sharp and acute, pawed at my left lung—I would soon have to respond to Alisa, her speech pattern moving toward a concluding tone, and a pin of anxiety also formed, this time from the right flank; it was becoming a full-pronged attack. I was there, in the bar, but tenuously so, my membrane on the verge of rupture, if not for Gavin placing his arm on my shoulder, introducing himself, dissolving the previous interaction and holding me firm in a new one.
"So you guys know each other from school?"
"Yeah a long time ago. Elementary school in Holland."
I listened to them talk to each other for a long time, barely speaking myself, enjoying Gavin's genuine interest in Alisa's work, her own fascination with his acting career. He recounted for her a recent student film he was in, describing having to get naked for a sex scene while a tungsten light dangled precariously over him, the temperature getting so hot that his pubes began to singe. The teenage director, who was shooting the movie "on precious 35mm film stock," had to beg Gavin to finish the scene while his crotch was slowly burning. Alisa was laughing, close to crying. I winced. Part of me questioned the story, his skin would be blistering into third degree burns if the heat were really so intense as to ignite human hair, but my less cynical side believed the story, or more, believed its mythic value, this image of a fire raging on this man's lithe body while he finishes the sexual act, a gif of his ejaculate extinguishing the surrounding flames, reanimated over and over again, action, cut, action, cut. I carried on with this train of thought until I realized Alisa's voice had shifted to a lower register.
"But is it, I don't know, more relaxing for the girl in the sex scene, knowing you're gay?"
"Oh, I'm not—"
"Oh my god, I'm sorry. I just assumed—"
"No, no, it's totally ok. I get that sometimes."
He smiled at me widely, amused without agitation, as though beaming with a newfound confidence. There was something of an expectant reflex I felt I was meant to give, a mournful moment for the desire, once excessive, now energy trapped, without egress—but I felt hollow. All these previous fluctuations along the axis of despair and intrigue—they fell into nothingness, theatrics for an absent audience. I was bored again. Maybe a little angry. Not being able to listen to another industry story, I got up abruptly to close out my tab. Upon my return, Alisa and Gavin were arranging for him to take care of her cat when she went on vacation to Brazil next month, a job typically reserved for myself.
"You said you needed odd jobs to support yourself, so this could be perfect for you. If you think you have the time."
"Wow, yes, that would actually be really helpful."
I stared at them both blankly. I said I was exhausted and needed to head home. Alisa gave me an unconvincing look of concern. Gavin, on the other hand, seemed startled, the emotion foreign on his facial features, as though things were going off script for the first time since our meeting earlier that day.
"Wait, give me your number. I want us to hang out soon."
I handed him my phone and almost flung the thing across the table, barely catching it between my index finger and thumb. I bugged my eyes out, into the middle distance, as if to communicate a "yikes," or possibly "yeesh," though at that point my aims were operating on a different plane than my actions, so who can say what I was doing. He put his name into my phone.
hey gavin, nice (re)meeting you today see you around
Yeah man! Was so nice! Lets hang out again really soon :)
hey how you been?
Been good! Just crazy busy with work. Auditions keep piling up, plus a new restaurant gig. How about you?
been ok, busy with work as well intern life is not all its cracked out to be
Tell me about it! Haha
so what're you up to this weekend?
Hey! So sorry I went MIA Been swamped with rehearsals for this new play I'm in. Lets grab a drink this week though?
oh cool—what's the play called? and yeah sure, just hit me up with a good day/time
What're you doing this weekend? I have a film premiere on Sunday. Student film of course, nothing fancy. But you should come! Free food and booze.
ahh that sounds really fun but I'm actually out of town this weekend for a family thing lets meet up soon tho?
No worries! Have fun with the family. And yes, let's definitely set something up for next week.
Hey Can I ask you a big favor? Kind of in a bad situation at the moment.
what's up? you ok?
I'm at Alisa's right now. Taking care of the cat. And I think something might be wrong...
what do you mean? like with the cat?
Yes. I think maybe its sick?
oh no what's wrong with it?
It's being a bit weird. Not moving around much.
you should take it to the vet maybe call alisa?
Could you come over and help me? I feel really uncomfortable with this. And you know Alisa and the cat.
uhh well i'm at work now
Can you take a break and come here Just need someone to help me sort this out Won't take long.
you really can't do this alone? or ask alisa for help?
Would like to keep her out of this. If possible. Because maybe it's nothing?
ok ill take an early lunch be there in about 20 mins
Oh my god thank you. I owe you big time. It means a lot.
its cool im doing it for the cat, not you lol
Haha Of course.
He opened the door to Alisa's apartment and I could tell right away that something wasn't right, the tenor of our texts not matching with the nervous dread on Gavin's face, him chewing on his finger, the other hand scratching at his hair, eyebrows pinned and raised, anticipating my reaction to what lay behind him. He didn't say a word, just groaned softly as he stepped back, allowing me to pass through, though at that point I could already see it, the distended body lying belly-up on the hallway floor. I carefully took a step forward, and saw it was indeed Alisa's cat, Persian, its abdomen now bloated, tongue blue and protruding from its mouth, swollen and mostly likely clogged in the esophagus. Its eyes bulged, bloodshot, like the deep-sea fish whose insides burst from the change in water pressure as they're lifted up to the surface. Its paws were erect; I had a fleeting thought of turning it over, seeing if it could stand up on these frozen legs, like a porcelain figure. Another step and I noticed the smell, dank and horribly sweet, like rotting vegetables doused in syrup. I looked back at him. He was staring ahead, watching his reflection in the front hall mirror while biting his lip, trying to calibrate his discomfort.
"What the fuck happened?"
"I don't know. I just came here to feed it this morning and when I came he was on the bed and was only moving a little, so I—"
"There's no way this cat was alive this morning."
"Well I don't know if he was technically alive, but he seemed to be moving somewhat and I thought—"
"How long has Alisa been gone?"
"I think, maybe, 15 days at this point?"
"Jesus Christ. You forgot to come take care of it. This was your first day coming here, right?
"No way! I came a few times. Like two, maybe three times, at least."
Wide-eyed, almost pouting—he was childlike then, beautiful. I had stepped beyond the cat's body by now and I looked down the hall, at Gavin still by the door, the protruding corpse in his foreground. His figure had such energy. His skin almond-colored and without blemish, a tight shirt and too short corduroys, canvas shoes with no socks, the hair on his ankles showing through. He leaned his elbow into the wall as he supported the back of his head with his hand; it was the pose of a faun. I wondered if he had taken the life out of that cat, some mystic ritual, blowing his air into the pet's belly, the cat's air flowing back into his lungs, giving him an injection of feline youth, the cat, death by tumescence, overcome by Gavin's breath. I had a twinge of jealousy.
"Should I leave?" he asked.
I looked at the thing between us, this unbreachable gulf, a new complication that would sever our ties. I wanted him, if only as a friend, that was fine. But no, that wasn't true. I longed for him. He was the one who had sought me out on the street and he continued to give me that look now, pleading in his eyes. Whether it was a plea for intimacy or friendship or simply help, I couldn't say, but he continued to give me those eyes in that hallway and I wasn't sure if I could do what needed to be done. I forced these possibilities to relent.
"Yeah, you should go "
He nodded quickly, waiting not for an answer but a formality, the response already known. The door was still half-open and he slipped out in a lateral motion, blinking out of the room, as though he were never there. He popped his head back in before closing the door.
"Tell Alisa I'm sorry."
The latch clicked back into place.
It was another Sunday and I had slept past 14:00. Still in bed, I decided to double down and embrace the slumber, the waking day already a lost cause. I became enmeshed in a triptych of dreams, threading together, an operatic trio of my subconscious.
I'm a space marine holding a baby, lost in a large commercial ship, long abandoned. I can hear the sound of otherworldly life crawling through the air vents and I hold the infant close, as though it were my weapon. I have a clear thought: if I die, they can stop the movie and reshoot it.
My father and I attend a conference in a foreign city. People set up colorful booths in the main hall and sell their strange wares, a fantasy bazaar. I go off on my own, down a stray hallway, and see the young men loitering in a corner. They're grainy, black-and-white, like old film characters. They reach out toward me, to stroke me, and I'm immediately hard. I look up and examine their faces. Their cheeks are now cragged and pockmarked. I pull away. I don't remember how we got there but we're back at our hotel. There's a knock on the door. It's the police. My father gives me a worried look. Behind him, in the window, a cityscape is engulfed in flames.
I'm in a theater, sitting in the center seat, the place is mostly empty except for a few blue phantoms just on my periphery. The screen comes down and a projection plays, something abstract, soft light, a refracted sun hitting the ocean floor. I walk up and touch the screen, finding that I'm able to manipulate the light; it reacts to my fingers as though it were oil in a pan. There's a scream from the audience. I turn around and see only a circular shadow, the dark movements of a carousel. My jaw is tired and I try adjusting it, but my mouth opens and shuts of its own accord, struggling to express an unknown.
I didn't awake fully until early evening, around 18:00 according to my phone, the blue light of my home screen blinding me in the darkness of my room. I looked at my notifications: missed calls from my parents, texts from work friends wanting me to go to brunch, a Facebook message from an old hookup wondering how I was, a Tinder match, a few notices for Grindr messages. I opened up Grindr, feeling lethargic and tangentially horny. I narrowed my eyes at the most recent message, zooming in on the man's profile picture. Posing in the mirror, shirtless, his elbow leaning into a bathroom's marble tile, resting the back of his head against his palm, there was no mistaking it. Gavin. A rush of adrenaline shot through me, though I chose to leave my feelings unexamined, for the time being. He listed his age 26, which I believed added up, it had been over a year since we last saw each other at Alisa's apartment. His bio only said "send pics in first message if you want me to respond," which seemed a bit jarring, but then again I understood how these apps fragmented people, giving bureaucratic forms for their ids to fill out. It was unfair, I thought, to judge anything said in hopes of carnal refuge. I looked at his message, a simple hey. Did he recognize me? My own picture was one taken during a camping trip a few months back, me in a tank top, climbing onto a boulder, toned arms visible while my face remained slightly obscured in side profile. It was me but it was also, possibly, anyone. I responded to his message with gavin?
I got into the shower and came out moments later to see that he'd responded. yeah its me lol. The ping for a new Grindr notification sounds like a thin rubber band being struck against cardboard, and I stood there, still in a towel, thinking about all the men awaiting that strum, the accompanying Pavlovian blood rush. always thought you were gay I typed out then deleted, re-typing long time no see, hitting send.
I was eating cereal, a nocturnal breakfast, when he got back to me. i know right. what're you up to? to which I said not much, just chilling. busy day. what about you?
I felt a buzz in my pocket while lifting weights in my building's gym and saw his message, not much at all. you should come over. There was something off-putting in his bluntness, an early warning sign. I asked him where do you live? and he sent an address that I put into Google Maps. It popped up as a villa in the hills, a wealthy neighborhood. Before I could follow-up, he was already explaining himself. i rent a room in a pretty nice house, the owner is sweet and gives me a good deal on rent. we can go in the pool here ;)
I decided not to get back to him for a while, showering again, post-workout, to mull things over. My feelings about the situation were mixed, excitement and unease forming a locus that dissipated the more I tried to isolate it. A certain unreality. The ping came again and I stepped out of the shower, the water still running, unlocking my phone with wet fingers, rainbow gradients of water droplet on the screen. if you give me your address, i'll have a lyft come and get you. I sent him the location of my apartment complex without hesitation. It was necessary at that point, seeing the whole ordeal to its narrative endpoint—I hurled myself in his direction.
On the car ride over, I stared at a work email. Subject: "Re: Trailer Analytics for Food Doc Series." I scrolled through the text: "well the results are in….a nice increase in unique views…meaningful interaction down a few percentage points…a re-edit with focus on chef's backstory…sample audience needs to be expanded…a key demo for the streaming client…an incorporation of more influencers…" I put away my phone. It was almost midnight but the next day still felt distant, the idea of returning to the office in the morning almost alien, a ritual from a past life. There was no future after this meeting, not one I could recognize. The roads were now steep and windy, the car whining on the incline. The driver had to press down on the pedal, almost standing on it, smiling back at me sheepishly. I opened the window and found the air outside to be different, oddly still, smelling of eucalyptus and charcoal. The houses were hard to make out in the dark, only their front gates visible, all connected with ivy-covered walls. Rust colored lamps shone a light on the door intercoms, their number entry buttons metallic, like that of a payphone. I remembered playing with those as a child, making bleep bloop noises with every press. The buttons had a flesh-like quality about them, the way they would softly resist being pushed down, my fingernail toying with their edge points.
"I think it's the house up here on the right."
I pulled up Grindr and messaged Gavin, think i'm here, considering for the first time why exactly we were still using the app to communicate rather than texting. A few minutes passed without an answer. I tugged at the fern planted near the gate, ripping off a leaf and tearing it into smaller flakes, catching them with the top of my sneaker before they could hit the pavement. I was about to message him back, a series of question marks, but he had already responded, hey sorry, gonna hop in the shower right now but my housemate will let you in. The side gate buzzed. Unlocked.
I walked up to the courtyard from the gravel path, taking big strides. I was on edge, the meeting clearly taking a strange turn. But the luxury of the property, the opulence of its grounds, enticed me. The simulative quality of it all began to heighten. A story was developing the I more I moved forward, the more aware of myself as a character I became, the protagonist of a future tale drunkenly relayed to friends, that crazy Grindr meet-up. I was eager to get to the next scene, my partner waiting for me, his lines memorized. I walked onto the front terrace and an older man stood on the front steps, as though expecting me. He wore basketball shorts and a tank top. Tufts of gray-brown hair, patchwork on his freckled shoulders, snaggle-toothed smile and beady eyes, a red baseball cap I initially mistook for a MAGA hat. A tableau of sexual situations involving him and Gavin flooded my head like pop-up ads and I grinded my teeth, a torrent of acid reflux building in the back of my throat.
"Hey, I'm Nick. Gavin will just be a second."
Nick brought me into the kitchen, beautiful, immaculately clean, granite counters that were at least half of my apartment's square footage. He handed me a beer from the fridge and I nursed it gingerly. I sat across an island countertop from him as he asked a string of icebreakers, eventually arriving upon a tiring inquiry involving the nature of my new job. I told him about the algorithm I was helping collect data for, an AI system that would create pre-edited trailers for existing video content. I could sense that he was trying to lead the conversation toward some point he wanted to make, something to do with every line of work becoming automated, but I kept my answers short, tempering his extrapolations. As I studied the interface on the smart refrigerator, he explained his line of work, asking me if I knew what a private equity firm was. There was a news ticker on the bottom of the fridge screen and a headline went by, an earthquake in Mexico City, only a few casualties but hundreds injured.
"Do you have any student debt?"
"Yeah, a lot actually."
"I can get rid of that for you."
I looked up at him, unsure if this was in reference to his job, his wealth, or something else entirely. He stood there with a glass of wine, lips pursed comically, the deep lines of his forehead raised and tense.
"You like cars?"
"Huh. Ok. Well let me show you the garage anyways."
"You think Gavin's coming down soon?"
"Yeah definitely, he'll be right down."
The garage had the comforting odor of concrete and new tires. Nick clicked on the light and a yellow car was parked in the middle of the empty space, the only one in the whole garage. It appeared sticky, as though polished with a thick lubricant, the light almost caught in its sap. An empty dog bed lay in the corner, faded white with brown stains. The two objects, the car and the bed, conversed with each other, both emptied of human life. I found myself marveling at the dialectic.
"You know what that is?"
"A Lamborghini Aventador."
The car was full of oddities. Deep crevices and caged vents, a stray dorsal cavity. I imagined a giant boot lowered down upon it with force, the whole thing crunching beneath it like the shell of a scorpion, mustard oozing from the cracks.
I considered myself in the scene: I'm sprawled out naked on top of the yellow hood, my chest pressed against the paint, feeling its heat. A pair of athropodic legs is pulling me apart from either side, digging into my shoulders. A wasp, massive in size, almost 1:1 with the car, lowers itself on top of me, tenderly, nuzzling its abdomen over my lower back, something poking at my ass playfully, without penetration. The car is revving up, the wasp is buzzing—I'm squished between the two, convulsing. Its wings are now flittering at a rapid speed and my body is pushed down by their wind. I hear the wasp let out a helium wail, sinking its mandibles deep into neck, a slow severing of my head, a satisfying bone crack. The garage is spinning, I can barely keep track of anything, but then it slows down, coming to a rest as my cheek lays down on what feels to be the soiled bed of the dog. I look up just in time to see the wasp itself enter me, thrusting deep, punching straight through me and into the car, the veins of my torso filling up with venom, my body now melded onto the vehicle's, a graft of ornamental skin and an engine now gushing with toxic juice.
Nick watched me watch the car, possibly reading the sexual undertones of my gaze. I was standing only a few feet in front of him, his breathing getting heavy on my neck. I turned around. It was a moment of mutual acknowledgement that we held for some time, much longer than a transitional pause. It was broken only by his cell phone ringing in the marimba tone I used for my own morning alarm.
"Got to take this. Make yourself at home."
He left the garage and I followed him out. He turned right, through the kitchen and out the French doors, into the backyard. I fell behind and turned left, going toward the spiral staircase, walking upstairs. I was almost certain there was no Gavin, that this had been an elaborate stolen identity scheme, a ploy to get me here. I was meant to acquiesce begrudgingly to some sexual encounter, yet I felt the power that afforded. As the desired object I held all the cards with Nick, the buffoon, a plaything. I treated the house like it was a set, flimsy and destructible, here today and gone tomorrow. I grazed my fingers along the paintings that hung on the walls, at one point digging my nail into a dried tubular glob, tawny dust falling onto the carpet. I opened every door along the hallway, whispering "Gavin?" like a babysitter playing hide-and-seek, every room either a bedroom or an office, each sparsely decorated, non-descript. I headed toward the double doors of the master bedroom, my leg raised in a kung-fu motion right in front of it, but heard the sound of sloshing water just beyond the entrance. I stopped before the completion of my kick. I waited for a moment, letting my hand hover over the knob. The sounds remained, rhythmic, fading in-and-out. Still operating on an ambient level of carelessness, I opened the door.
It was a large minimalist room, all white. A marble column on one wall housed a fireplace at ground level and a widescreen TV near the ceiling. A California king lay before it, low to the floor, without a frame. A balcony encircled the room, multiple glass doors left wide open. I entered slowly, the sloshing coming from what I assumed to be the bathroom, somewhere on the far side of the bed. I went past a wall outcropping and came upon a large archway framing a stone chamber, a large pool at its center, narrow and long, like the summoning waters of an ancient temple. And in the pool, I saw it, the source of the sloshing, a dark shadow moving under the water, toward me. I stepped back, feeling something close to fear. The shadow was surfacing, rubber hands grabbing onto the sides of the pool and pulling up its masked head, from out the water, a scuba helmet, either an antique, its design bulky and retrograde, or, more likely, a fetish curio, the entire thing jet black and leather shiny, an array of clamps and fasteners dangling off the sides. A large tube protruded from its mouth hole, an almost organic appendage made of porpoise-like body tissue, the texture of a hot dog. The helmet wagged its head from side to side, looking out in my direction. I backed away, first slowly, then turning suddenly to run.
I was already halfway down the path when I heard Nick calling back for me. I stopped for a moment, listening, and then quickened my pace. I was safe outside, I could leave unscathed, without consequence, and yet I struggled, physically hobbling through the woods as though a wraith were chasing after me.
"Hey! Where you going?"
I was at the gate, unable to pull open the lock. I groaned and without thinking hoisted myself up over the metal bars, landing hard on the other side. I looked down and realized I had ripped my shirt in half, the back caught on a spire.
"Did Gavin freak you out? He was just prepping for his SCUBA test! We're going to the Bahamas next month."
I jogged down the street for while, directionless. A woman walking her dog in the opposite direction let out a yelp when she saw me coming toward her, startled. I stopped, attempting a half-hearted shrug while pointing at my torn shirt. She gripped the leash close to her and moved along. I had an anxious thought: what if that was the dog's bed, in the garage? I took out my phone, pulling up Grindr, messages already pouring in from "Gavin." did you leave? so sorry, I was in the pool. was nick annoying you? dude come back , its totally fine. ill tell him to leave for bit. i want to see you. come back. I blocked him, exited out of the app, and deleted Grindr from my phone. As I watched the icon disappear from my home screen, I noticed my battery was at one percent. It died a few seconds later. Unfazed, accepting my lot, I looked toward the road ahead. An evening fog had made the ground slick, reflective, the bitumen-like jade beetles in the red-yellow glow of the streetlight.
The next and last time I saw Gavin was over ten years later, by the bathrooms. I was attending a queer-adjacent techno party at a converted warehouse, a gay male circuit party in everything but name. The promoters spun it as some alternative space for nonconforming identities, but this was just a trendy postscript, the space was specifically built with shirtless queens in mind. I was there with my long-term boyfriend. We had been together for almost three years by that point and I felt little fondness for him. We forged an open relationship one year in and I'd allowed myself to fully coast on this arrangement, maintaining sexual and emotional affairs with other men while never having to risk being alone, the intimacy and support of a boyfriend always within reach. My iniquity was compounded by his continued love for me, his ever-growing attachment to my presence. I was a horrible partner, selfish and unavailable, yet nothing I did was enough for him to leave me. I was trapped by my own cowardice: I could keep things going like this indefinitely. Complementing my general unease, I had let myself go over the past few years, lapsed gym memberships and pizza consumption taking its toll, and I felt self-conscious in such a setting, at the techno party, too aware of my lost prime, no longer one of the objects but a sucking void on the margins.
I was waiting in line outside, leaving my boyfriend on the dance floor. It was summer and the venue had set up porta potties in the back lot as extra bathrooms. I noticed the men in front of me, a half circle of four tall European-looking men, passing around a baggie of powder and snorting the substance with a key. I leaned in closer, assuming it was ketamine, and considered asking them where I could buy some. One of the men faced me while digging a key into the bag. It took me a few seconds, his hair had been shaven into a cropped style, and he was more built, a new muscular bulk to his shoulders. Soon he looked up, making eye contact with me while sniffing sharply, and I saw it was him and he saw it was me.
"Oh damn. Hey!"
I could tell he didn't remember my name, although I didn't mind, as long as he remembered who I was, the basic outline of our relationship. He hadn't aged at all, or rather he had only become more fully himself, the slight lines on his face further defining his features, calling attention to their singular quality. There was a hint of the predatory about him now, something he had surely developed in the years following his coming out, understanding the sway he held over men, a weapon he now wielded. His eyes were scanning the horizon as he talked with me, surveying the crowd, looking for new faces, fresh bodies.
"How've you been?" I asked.
"Really good. How about you?"
"I'm alright. Could be better."
"Who are you here with?"
"Just a friend."
My lie rolled off the tongue, well-practiced and deployed without thought. He uneasily laughed, trying to fill a gap in conversation. I worried he was already looking for an exit.
"You know I think someone catfished me with your pictures a long time ago."
The bass had suddenly flared up from inside the venue and the crowd was cheering.
"Sorry, say that again?'
I re-edited on the fly, unsure of my previous statement's validity, or its overall effectiveness, adjusting to another line of attack, an emotional appeal.
"I said—I always thought we'd get together at some point."
He stopped eyeing a guy behind him and looked me over, re-considering me for a moment, as though I'd never even crossed his mind before, then smiled, beaming, a new joy found in comparison to me. I felt helpless.
A porta potty door opened and he was already walking backwards, pointing to the empty stall, holding that same smile, unbroken.
"Meet you back out here."
I recounted his words in my head as I took a piss, the stream of urine hitting the plastic basin below, the whole stall alive with a slight vibration, as though it were an extension of me, of my piss shivers, and I thought of Gavin, just a few booths down, connected in a row, him pissing at the same time, his vibrations meeting up with mine somewhere in the middle, mixing together, becoming indistinguishable, a single force, a single body. It was enough, I thought. It was enough.
I walked out and Gavin was not outside. I waited for him on the edge of the line for five minutes until it became clear he'd already left the bathrooms. I saw the European men, now a threesome, smoking cigarettes a few yards away. I walked up to them.
"Hey, have you seen Gavin?"
"That guy who was in line for the bathroom with you."
"Oh no, he's not our friend. He just wanted a few bumps from us."
They looked back at each other, attempting to return to their conversation, and then at me, impatient, as though wondering why I hadn't yet left. I chewed on my tongue and headed back inside. It was inevitable, and yet still, what a great loss, a dangling thread yanked from the air and buried into the ground, the closure unbearable. I ordered two gin and tonics at the bar, delaying my return, not wanting to go back to my boyfriend. I considered huddling around the porta potties all night. The bartender left to go swipe my card and I looked at the TV above the bar, a music video playing older footage, something from the Eurotrance era of the nineties, a digitally-rendered woman, wearing nothing but a white mini-skit and bra, ice-skating on the rings of Saturn. Her animations were that of a ragdoll, limbs wobbling without form. I pictured a group of Dutch men, sitting around an old Macintosh, giggling in their cargo pants as they rendered her wireframe body, animating her like a drunk marionette, inserting the scene into a music video, a rave song about angels, the video playing on the local music channel, and Gavin and I watching it together, a pair of 8-year-old American expatriates, boys on a playdate at my house, in the TV room, the image of a space woman ice skating imprinting itself upon us. But that wasn't Gavin, it couldn't have been him—it was someone else. It had to be someone else.
I took the drinks and returned to the dance floor, realizing the crowd was too dense, too jam-packed with bodies—the drink would be knocked out of my hands the second I tried to cut though. I stood on the edge, holding the two cups, unable to find a way through.