by Brady Achterberg
My friend Dan died the other day. That’s fine by me apparently. I don’t get sad for shit. I am a dumb animal that only responds to physical pain. I used to think it was because I was young but now I’m 31 and the same way. I’m at the funeral reception at the reception room, a gym-looking place, with the tall rafters and the brown chairs all racked up on rollers in one corner, avoiding his parents, dodging for caprese skewers. I bump by a nest of teenage lanks occupying the cater table and they kind of look at me.
“Are you getting fourths?” one asks.
Stonily I turn my head. These kids don’t deserve my fear. Their suits all have the box creases on them. Like we’re in the shade of an aquarium. Two of them are wearing colored ties. One red and one blue. How did they know Dan? They can’t all be someone’s sons. Dan hung with a lot of young guys at the comic shop doing nerd shit, Dungeons & Dragons and shit. They look the type.
“Oh, you’re daddy,” says my interlocutor, putting a faggy lilt on the “you’re”. He’s in the middle, a head shorter than his friends—they spread around him like Wu-Tang wings. My authoritarian glare, which I’ve always fantasized could stall dog attacks, melts, and I look around for church people. The room is loud and everyone is amongst themselves. I get scared.
“Look at him, he doesn’t know what to do with that!” the gay one says. He has our trademark redemption of being better dressed than the others—quiet black suit, tailored, daringly clingy on the legs. I am staring at him inept and thinking yes, he’s a looker, on a pure lizard-brain, aesthetic appreciation level—he flashes a thoughtmelting knavish grin—already a heartbreaker at whatever God-forsaken age he is.
“And so how do you know the deceased?” I say.
He sobers. “Dan. Dan was the best DM I ever had.”
“He’s a legend at UCLA Gaming,” another confirms.
“You have to be majestic for the campus to call you hot shit eight years later. It’s his players’ players’ players’ who run the games now.” As his voice simmers down for a full sentence it sounds less limp-wrist and more lazy-tomboy. “How’d you know him?”
“We were friends.” Something stirs in me as I recalculate. “You guys freshmen?”
“Fishies!” He flips the peace sign.
“You alum?” asks someone else, tall and acned.
“English. Uh, class of 10.”
“We’ll leave him with you, he likes to do this.” The someone else grabs the hottie by the arm and sends him towards me. He’s standing in my air. I worry, because I smell of sweat. The gang falls off.
God he’s a smokeshow. I’m not even that gay, haven’t fucked a dude since college. I don’t really get laid at all, I make good money but money’s not that sexy right now and it can’t change the fact that I’m awkward and weirdly shaped and take on weight every year, I don’t fit into normal suits and I get people stopping me on the street telling me I look like Bashar Assad so it’s bad practice to pretend I have a chance. He punches me on the arm. “You’re a bastard, Paul. You don’t give a shit about Dan.”
“We were friends. I do give a shit.”
“It’s okay. I don’t care either.” His voice buzzing along like a swamp. “I only met him once. I was an impetuous little shit and he killed me with lightning.”
“Oh?” I look around us. People are leaning over me to get snacks. “Wanna move over there?” I slope my finger at a line of rolled-up bleachers at the wall.
“Yeah,” he says, fondly, as if entertaining me.
He walks there first. I follow him from behind. Sinewy gait. Blond bluebell curls knocking on the back of his head. He turns around at the line of bleachers. We are relatively alone here, mourning is sparse. Give me a second to look at your eyes, big buttery maple Snapchat filter eyes, let me look enough and I can map the indoors’ vanilla fluorescents in your eyes. He talks. “You got something to say to me?” Hands behind his back.
“Yeah,” I say. “I think you got my name, but I didn’t get yours.”
“Sommer.” He shakes my hand.
“That’s your real name?”
“Short for Somerset. You wanna see my license?”
He produces it from his jacket pocket. His photo isn’t the most flattering but captures the eyes at least. “You were born on 9/11,” I say dumbly.
“I love it. Everyone knows where they were on my birthday. Where were you?”
“I was in school,” I said. “They took me home.”
“I had a playdate with a friend and they still had the playdate. They wanted it to still be normal. I think his mom was supposed to die in the Towers but she was fine.”
“Wow! What did you guys do?”
“I don’t know. It wasn’t very fun. It was stressful. I was 12. I kinda knew what was going on.”
“Here.” He produces a phone, writes Paul in the new contact field with a red devil emoji and hands it to me.
I fill it out, feeling drunk.
On the drive home I’m right away guilty. I’m a 4, he’s a 10 in fresh spring bud. Will I even fuck him right? I never have. What happened to chivalry and solemnity? What happened to marinating on Tinder til I die? He wasn’t into me like that anyway. He was just having fun with an old man. And God bless him, he should be having fun.
“Fuck you. I still don’t have a date!” says Sasha, straddling her Coke cup.
“Okay, okay,” I say.
“Tell me all about him,” she says.
I do. We’re at a new nominally Korean joint in Pasadena (traditional halfway point for us now), another of those Chipotle slide-your-food enterprises—the food is bad but the prices are surprisingly median. I have a large Fanta in a big paper cup covered in noodle patterns alongside an alien assembly of shrimp and greens in a compostable burrito bowl. Dust of the outer canyons and the December blooms of the chaparral come sweeping in the front door.
Sasha was my girl for eight years after high school. Things have only gone uphill ever since I ran over her dog on the stoop of our shared two-bedroom and she broke down crying saying she’d been sleeping with a Salesforce admin she’d met while interning and she hadn’t told me until now because she thought I’d feel bad. What was a painful, protracted, tightly-wound romance is now a chill and positive friendship. Last year for Christmas I got her a regular lamp with a lava lamp body. Sometimes I worry she hasn’t moved on, though.
“So when are you seeing him?” she asks.
“What are y’all doing?”
I take my phone out and scroll up. “I asked him if he wanted to hit up bars in the city and he said, uh, ‘I don’t have any money for bars, why don’t you just come over to my place and we’ll get drunk and play video games?’”
She nods, serious suddenly. “It sounds a little too good to be true. You should worry that he’s only having sex with you to give you AIDS.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I say.
Sasha swallows a bite and puts out two fingers. “There’s essentially two gay male subcultures that you have to be aware of. The first group is essentially serial killers. HIV-positive, they use their few remaining years alive to avenge themselves on as many other gay men as possible. Master seducers—you think you’re getting a prime piece of ass when you meet them—but next morning you see a lipstick WELCOME TO AIDS in the mirror and, you know.”
“I figure these guys, if they’re real, they’re probably chilling out now that it’s treatable,” I say.
“I was getting to that. There’s a second culture that’s blowing up now that anti-retroviral therapy can so easily prolong life under AIDS. These guys don’t have HIV—but they want it. Because then they can get it treated and fuck all the HIV-positive guys they want!”
“That doesn’t track either,” I say. “If you really want AIDS just to sleep around, wouldn’t you just sorta be c’est la vie about it? Why would you actively go get it? Once you have AIDS you can’t fuck anyone who’s clean.”
“You’d think,” she says. “A lot of it is more about the degradation. ‘Pos me daddy.’ They have ‘posi parties’, where a guy gets tested positive and they celebrate with a big—you know.”
“Huh,” I say. “Well, I don’t have HIV. So he’s probably not the second one.”
“You say you met him at Dan’s funeral?”
“How did he know Dan?”
“They were just buds.”
“I’ve heard shit about funeral crashers. Roll city to city, circling obits, hit twenty funerals a month, fill up on free snacks and at some key point go to the podium and say Yes I know this man, we had a torrid gay love affair behind the scenes, he didn’t want you all to know about me—and by now of course he’s really crying—but I simply had to break out, he says—”
Sommer sent me a Snapchat vid of him sitting on a crate playing guitar and I have to turn on sound to see what he’s playing—Creeping Down the Backstairs by the Fratellis, kinda clipped and sloppy but good enough to impress me, his right thigh hefting over the crate is all bare to me, nylon shorts wide as a skirt, looking dusty, undercooked. He bobs and taps his foot. I wonder how many other people are watching. But I’m the only one who loves the Fratellis like I do and I must have told him about it.
Sasha waits looking pouty. “What are you watching?”
“Just a clip Sommer sent me.”
“Cute cute,” she says. “You guys are hitting it off anyway.”
“Yeah,” I say. “It’s so weird. He’s a stranger, he’s 18, he’s all different from me. And talking to him doesn’t feel like work. It feels effortless. That shit’s so rare.”
She nods. “Wear protection. I have some friends in the queer underground, I’ll do a bit of snooping for you. One thing I’ve seen with age gaps: the young one’s always a fucking conner.”
“Right,” I say. Sasha says a lot of things like this and I believe a lower man than I would reprimand her for it but I find she’s more often right than not.
I show up with rum and mixers. He said not to bring shit but I feel weird standing outside a stranger’s house with nothing. Relic of my days in delivery. Sommer lives in a ground suite in a new development in Westwood, with a rock yard and a big black sliding fence. He answers in an eyelet sash, black stockings and houndstooth check wool paperbag waist shorts bunched in around his thighs like a chef’s hat. The strands of his waist bow reach down lower on his legs than his shorts do. His legs shiny bare. I wonder how much time that takes.
“You weren’t supposed to bring anything!” he says, guffawing.
“I had to, I had—” I shake the paper bag of sodas.
“Come in!” he says in a rush, grabbing me by the chest.
Inside’s a magazine home. Carpets white as floss. Impeccable surfaces. No crumbs no beer coasters. Either he doesn’t live here or someone cleans on Tuesdays. First-floor room split between a kitchen and a lounge, kitchen with the oven on a counter island, lounge with a brown vinyl L-couch and a 72” flatscreen. It has the lived-in-yet-just-pulled-out feel that accompanies the accordioning time of college dorm rooms. Bare walls except for a few Godzilla posters by the stairs. A wide lane of Funko Pops on the black TV stand counter—Groot and shit—Blu Rays and manga on the shelf underneath. On the kitchen side there’s a shallow cupboard with the slated doors folded wide and a thin electric keyboard set up about a foot below some food shelves—industrial-size nutrient supplements, Ramen, sticky soup and bean cans. TV is on playing soccer. Liverpool v. Barcelona.
Sommer slides into the kitchen and catches himself on the island. I follow. On his couch a wiry butch girl with shell-blond hair watches the game and eats carrots out of a soup bowl. I turn and give half a wave but she doesn’t respond.
“Who’s she?” I ask Sommer.
“They,” he says from behind the island. “I’m sorry. They’re my roommate Jordan. I didn’t introduce you two.”
Jordan leans along the sofa to shake my hand. “Yeah, Sommer’s stonewalling me cuz he’s a bitter bitch. He’s been trying to get filled for two weeks now.”
“Jordan, stop! Don’t say ‘filled’.”
“Sommer’s getting FILLED TONIGHT! FILLED WITH SEMEN!”
“Oh my god, stop, you’re scaring him!” says Sommer. “Come here, honey, they’re not like that all the time.”
I’ve retreated over to the far side of the island, almost without noticing. I let Sommer drag me back to the TV room and try to rouse myself to the banter.
“Paul, Paul, you’re not shy! We’ll break the ice, Paul. Cats or dogs, Paul. Cats or dogs?”
“Are those the only options?”
“Fuck you, Paul!” Sommer starts jumping up and down. “Cats and dogs are the only good pets! If you own a fish you might as well own a fucking cactus! If you get a tarantula you’re always gonna worry they’ll get loose! Snakes eat rats and that’s FUCKED! Stop stunting with your man scent, Paul! Cats or dogs?”
“I had a lizard as a kid,” I say.
Jordan called from the living room. “It probably wasn’t just one lizard. Your parents probably subbed it out when you were at school every time you couldn’t take care of it and it died. You probably had hundreds of lizards.”
“Oh my god, don’t tell him that!” Sommer rushes me back into the kitchen. “I think owning a lizard makes you super fucking hot, Paul. Lots of hot guys don’t have lizards but if a hot guy does have a lizard that kind of completes the circle, you know what I mean? Take something to drink? Don’t listen to them talk for the rest of the night.” He looks back to Jordan.
“I’ll drink,” I say.
“What’d you bring, rum and coke? You want rum and coke?”
“I’ll drink anything.”
“We have special ciders!” Sommer claps his hands and throws them up, striding to the minifridge. “Jordan’s special brew!”
“You can drink that Paul. You’re allowed to,” says Jordan.
“Okay. I’m excited,” I say.
Sommer pulls a growler of some liquid roughly the color of a period stain out of the fridge and sets it on the counter. He gets a tiny plastic cup from a stack inside a tattered bag and pours me a bit. “Try it first. It’s not for everyone.”
I try it. “I like it.”
“Okay,” Sommer says. “Jordan, can we bring this upstairs?”
“You can kill it if you want to. I’m starting an industry.”
Sommer swings the growler to his hip and padfoots up the stairs. I follow.
“Get some!” says Jordan.
Sommer’s room is neat, like he’s living in absentia. He has the bungee dorm chairs, fake-fur stools, black fishnet tapestry stuck with pinned photos spanning one wall. Second tapestry with the moon and stars on the other one. Chest-high bed with like thirty box-packed Tupperware bins beneath it. By its head a rolling shelf of drawers with candles, incense, matte USB table lamps slideshowing from pink to purple. On the other side a dresser and a flatscreen TV, and a suitcase record player on top of a minifridge with a glass door. Cacti and more Funko pops on the windowsill. White Christmas lights on the ceiling. We walk in and Sommer doesn’t turn on the light, just lets his lamps do the work. It’s dim.
Sommer hands me the cider. “You can drink out of it. I’ll wash it later.” He hops up hip-first and worms to the back of the bed, finds a remote and flicks it on. Dull sapphire of the Xbox Home Media screen paints the room from the bedside corner.
“I hope I’m not the only one drinking,” I say.
Sommer shakes his head and pulls mango pineapple Svedka from the fridge. “I just only drink mixers. Bring that Coke up.”
I heave myself over the bed, conscious of my flab as my shirt rides up and it pools muffinlike over the mattress. Sommer pours the Coke and vodka into a MALE TEARS mug then hands me the bottles to sit on the bedside shelf. He stretches to the foot of the bed for a charging Switch controller. “Whaddya wanna play?” he asks, worming around into me as he gets comfy. “I don’t have anything crazy. Skyrim, Minecraft, you know.”
“Skyrim’s single player,” I said.
“Two-player’s easy.” Sommer snaps the two ends off the Switch and hands me one. “You got the left controller, I got the right, and we control two halves of the same person. So I get the right attack and you get the left one, I move and you orient, it’s tough but it’s real fun.”
“Sounds popular,” I say.
He shrugs. We get into it. Bickering over our guy’s looks takes like half an hour—he wants to be one of those cat things which I acquiesce to but then I try to fuck with him for the rest of it—and he refills his mixer a couple times and I off a third of the growler. I’m stewing in libido, at one point while we’re running around dying to the intro dragon because we can’t get our jumps to work right I shift up on him to get my junk more in line with his ass and he kinda twists his head back and puts a hand round my head and we start making out, him twisting and collapsing and reasserting onto me. I roll my hands up his back and grasp his hot shoulderblades, push him up and down along my body.
“You kiss with your eyes open,” he says.
“So do you or you wouldn’t know.”
“I cheat,” he says. “I peek them a little cuz I like to see the man I’m kissing but I don’t bug em wide out, that’s weird.”
“Should I stop?”
“I don’t mind.”
We strip down to our underwear over time. I get on top frotting him, ramming him like I’m carving him out of soap, cock out through the slit in my boxers, his coiled around in his briefs. When he’s wearing clothes he looks so soft but really he’s so spare and almond-hard all skin and muscle. It’s like fucking a football. He keeps making these wispy moaning sounds like a girl. It gets right to me and I finish early without thinking about it, jizzing all over his abs. I feel like a tool naked as I am. Sommer pulls me in and tries to kiss me but can’t stop giggling.
“Shit, I’m sorry,” I say.
“You’re funny,” he says.
I come down at 6 in the morning and Jordan’s up boiling something on the stove.
“Snake Juice,” they say, passing through it with a soup spoon. “Try it.”
I look over the pot. It’s cloudy water, a little pinkish, swirling with foam and weird white particles. I take a spoonful, blow on it and drink. It tastes like Adderall seawater—I hold it in my mouth for a moment, then turn and spit in the sink.
“No?” says Jordan.
“Fuck what’s in that?”
“It’s Snake Juice. So originally it was just water, potassium chloride and three different kinds of salt—I’m on the Snake Diet, basically, snakes eat only two hours a day, I eat only two hours a day, and the rest of the time I have Snake Juice—but the fact is that you can’t get all your daily nutrients in such a short window, so I’ve been exploring different vitamins and supplements to chop up and mix in with it, so if you’re getting a tangy taste it’s that—”
“Why don’t you just eat the vitamins on the side and drink the snake juice on its own?”
“I’ve tried other ways. This is better.” They turn off the burner. “I’m famous for my little innovations. Like I have a plan for once the brewery takes off, we’ll be blowing our own glass bottles right? And we’ll brew the beer at the same time, and when the bottles are still cooling down—then we put the beer in.”
“Does that work?” I ask.
“It ought to.” Jordan pours the snake juice into a smoothie cup and drinks. I keep watch for a flash of repulsion or something but there’s none, they drink it smooth.
We go at it for a few weeks. I fall in line with the banter in Sommer’s house—Jordan doesn’t seem to trust me but they’re willing to make a joke of it which is kind. Feels great to fret about this shit, like oh do his friends hate me or are they just playing, like I’m back in undergrad. I pick up little things about them. I become familiar. I pick up on wardrobe cues—when he comes to the door in sweats and a tee it means he’s tired, wants to smoke a hit and head to bed—when he has those wow-factor outfits on he’s horny, but horny for himself, he wants me to feel him up but never shuck and fuck, I’ll take him upstairs and he’ll take everything off himself swift and brusque like a husband. We walk around his neighborhood and he picks out the neighbor’d dogs. We pick cute spots to meet. The park at dusk and we lay out the quilt. Little Japan and we spelunk the closed tunnels and crash Anime Jungle hashed out of our minds and he shoplifts some blue plushies and jams them in my backpack to find later. The ice rink and he kicks up like stirrups, doing graceful, and I watch holding the rail, get frosting on my puffy coat. He pries me off to the arena and laughs at me shuddering on sawhorse legs, takes my hand and pulls me round, falls when I do.
“You okay?” I ask, hobbling up.
He laughs. “I’m made of rubber.”
We road trip to Joshua Tree, we pass the time with road head, I cum in him and hear him gag bubbles and I zone out trying to carry the soundbyte into the future. I don’t bring him round to my place. It feels off. For his part he never talks about himself no matter what I try to ask him. He just wants to hear about my life. It gets exhausting. It gets me greedy lazing about with him all the time talking about me.
I don’t see Sasha so much anymore. I think she’s in a flare of jealousy, the first big one since our separation. She goes on a Tinder date with an ex con and it blows up in her face, he’s trying to get her to give him money all this stuff, sucks cuz I was rooting for him and her. She calls in tears and asks can she crash at my place, I don’t even get a say, I start mixing drinks. Rum and coke like she likes them. She drops a mustard jacket on my computer chair and gets to venting. I think I know what’s going on here but I feel safe that it’ll be the last time.
“You just gotta know how to stay safe, do whatever makes you happy, remember it’s not a rush,” I tell her.
She wipes away snot, sobering. “I talked to my sources. They can’t speak to your boy specifically, but they have a word for what’s happening. It’s called kiddie fishing. You aware of it?”
“All right well, your guy, he’s, what, 19 he says?”
“This is how they get the big elites. This like, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Epstein situation, he was famous for pulling this. They get themselves a teenybopper, like a fuckin hard 10, like kids aren’t attractive at all of course but in this world, with these sickos….” She waves her hand.
“Okay,” I say.
“They set him up with a fake ID and a home full of cameras, send him to you to hit it off and, you know, do your business, they come to you a week later and say you know that twink you bagged, turns out he was only 14, what an understandable mistake we aren’t here to judge we just want you to follow these steps if you don’t want the footage delivered to the proper authorities—”
“I’m not a big politician or Hollywood guy though,” I say. “I’m just a staffing consultant.”
“Didn’t you guys just take a big contract with the DOD?”
“I guess.” I mix another shot and bring it back to the stool on her side of the counter. “I really don’t think he’s anything but what he says he is. Really! He’s worldly. He feels more 22 than 25, open minded and fresh and cheery but with a good head on his shoulders, you know?”
“Listen to yourself.” Sasha runs her hand along my sweatered arm. I push her off and she scrambles back.
“No really!” I say. She’s laughing and I’m laughing. “He’s really sharp. I feel like I’m talking to someone older than me—I feel like I’m talking to my dad!” She tickles at my knees and I grab her wrists. “It’s not funny! It’s not funny! It’s not that funny!”
“Shut up!” She pretends to slap me, cups my cheek instead. “Look at yourself.” She starts to brush by my neck.
“I know,” I say.
I wake up spooning her while she goes through my texts.
“No, uh, can I have that?” I say, feeling around for my arm.
She recoils with it. “Paul I just wanna ask you practical questions.” She slides off the bed and stands facing away from me.
“No! I don’t think that’s very appropriate.” I rub my eyes. “Why don’t I just hit it one more time and send you off? We could have a nice morning.”
“Eww! You’re so forward now. Just like last night. It’s a pattern.”
“No, I just think this might be the last time ever.”
“You can think what you want.”
I get up off the bed and start chasing her around the room.
She sprites ahead of me. “Paul! Paul. I need you to think rational, I need you to introduce some rationality. Can you do that for me?”
I don’t respond, lumbering, stiff from sleeping.
“What does Sommer do for a living? Where is he from? Who are his parents? Does he go to school? How can he afford his place?”
“He goes to UCLA.”
“What’s he study?”
“And are you going to call the school and ask if he’s on the roster? Has he ever mentioned a professor he hates, a class he likes?”
My phone rings. Sasha hands it over to me, stern. “He’s called you four times already.”
It’s Sommer. I answer it and stumble into the bathroom. “Hey!”
I sit on the toilet. “She’s fine, what?”
“It’s okay, buddy. I know. I’m not mad or anything. I just know. And I just want you to know that I always know, I’ll always know. But I’m not mad! I’m never mad.”
“Okay,” I say. “Should you be mad?”
“No! I mean what, we bang for a few weeks and now you’re my property? No! We can be modern about this. If we want to start dating, we can talk about all this, until then, of course, we can see whoever we want.”
“Wait, are you seeing anyone else?”
“No. Okay. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“Talk to you later, Paul. You got things to get to!” He makes kissy noises.
I make some back. I hang up. I open the bathroom door and accidentally knock Sasha back on her ass.
She rights herself and brushes back her hair. “So he has it bugged. No big deal. Normal people do that.”
“Sasha, he’s never even been to my house.”
“Oh, good! Good! And I was so worried! And what’s this, I bet you’ve never told him your address? How would he get a hold of that?”
“He’s not mad or anything. Really it’s okay. I would have told him anyway.”
“Paul! Paul, I understand what you’re doing. You’re acting cool because you know he’s listening right now as we speak. It’s supremely likely that you knew he was listening all last night too and had to keep quiet under dire threat. Well here’s my question to you, Paul. What do you get by playing his game? I mean, if he’s listening he’s surely listening to me saying this right now and he understands the level of play here….”
“I don’t think he understands the level of play here,” I say, walking out to the kitchen.
“Paul, give me some time to process the elements and formulate some kind of plan of attack. You are not beyond saving. You are not a hostage here, whatever you may think.”
I sit down. “I think I’m gonna go talk to Sommer. I just don’t want this to be a little hanging bubble. I want things to work out.”
“Take me with you.”
She follows me in her car. I don’t try to shake her. With 7:40 traffic it’s hard to keep track of her long enough to avoid her. I arrive in just under an hour. It’s crisp, a Sunday in November, peaceful. I park half a block up from Sommer’s house and get out waiting for Sasha. She creeps up, wary, but steady, and parks behind me. I walk around to her.
“You proud of yourself?”
She rolls down the window and peeks at the house next to us. “Well, what do you want to do, do you just want to wait?”
“No.” I open her door. “Let’s go in.”
We walk up. Jordan meets us. “He’s not home. Who’s she?”
I introduce them. Sasha gives a firm handshake, fazed but alert. Jordan walks us both into the living room. The TV is playing Pirates of the Caribbean.
“Where is he?” I say.
Jordan handwaves me and flops on the couch. “He does something on Sundays. How about you, girl? What you got on your plate?”
“What? I’m not doing anything.”
“You remind me of this question I was having. How do you like Kiera Knightly’s tits?”
Sasha looks at me and looks back. “I was reading this awful thing on Reddit the other day, where one guy was saying like they keep putting her in these movies where she’s like, she was Anna Karenina, she was Colette, she was Freud’s GF, like what’s going on? And then a guy was like it’s cuz she has tiny tits—”
“She DOES have tiny tits! Oh my god! It’s so terrible!”
“I don’t think it’s that big a deal,” I say.
“Yeah, well, you’re a fag so shut up. There’s room on the couch, Sasha! Are you scared?”
Jordan coils up to one side of the couch so they’re kind of in a half-squat. Sasha sits where there’s room. I don’t really know how to arrange myself so I stand near the TV.
“Sommer says you code?”
“Yeah,” says Sasha, “I’m between gigs at the moment. Kinda squirreling away for the big come-up, et cetera.”
“Yeah, you got bands?” Jordan flashes devil signs. “I saw you guys took two different cars. I thought that was cute.”
“We weren’t really….” Sasha fumbles.
“We’re not conjoined at the hip,” I say.
“I like to hear it! Sasha, can I pick your brain? I had this idea for an app, or like I’m working on it, I already have it working in Android Studio and everything.”
“I listen to politics. What do kids in my generation care about? Tuition. Student loans. You can’t get away from hearing about it. I can’t. So I figured, Why not start a new private school lender with a forgiveness program built in? If you keep your GPA above a threshold, you never have to pay back a dime. That way we’re really selecting for talent, not rich parents. Help move towards something, you know? Kind of a nonprofit, I mean we’d make money, but a mix of a loan and a scholarship—I have stuff I’ve written on it I could send you.”
Sasha listens, compact on the couch, hunting for hidden meanings.
“I feel like most student lenders are big banks, Wells Fargo and stuff like that,” I say. “You can’t really start from zero. It’s a whole process.”
Jordan turns to me. “Yeah you’re really cool Paul! Capitalism is a scam! You’re right! It’s all about making you say, Oh if I work hard enough I’ll get rich, but if you’re turning time into money you’re already losing! That’s why we’re out here making money into money! That’s what this is about! It’s the money to money mindset, something you apparently can only think of as some hermeneutical giant worship fully out of your reach! We’re getting some heavy bruising in our rapport here, Paul, obviously this is a staticky friendship, I think you get it, but I want to check in are you doing okay?”
I pause. “I guess I feel like you don’t like men.”
“Of course I like men! I mean, Sommer’s a man, and he’s my best friend. How about you, Sasha, are you doing okay?”
“I’m doing fine.”
“You wanna see my room?”
“If you want me to see your room.”
“Come.” Jordan takes Sasha by the hand. I consider giving them privacy, then follow up the stairs.
Jordan’s room is a blast of light—window frames pried off the drywall and stacked in the corner, and if the sun wasn’t enough there’s an 8-foot photoshoot lamp with a cage around its head like a Gotham villain in the near corner blasting 600 watts. Blackout curtains thick as X-Ray bibs sit rolled up on hooks. Their bed is in the middle of the room, mattress bulky like it’s been stuffed with melons. To the right is a heavy plywood desk stuffed with papers, rulers, jacketless reference books, and weird bits of plastic and scrap metal. Diagrams tacked to the walls, showing domes, combustion engines and huge maze-submarine type things.
Jordan pulls off a big one, six feet in their hands, showing half a dozen concentric circles run through with tunnels and mechanical joints labeled with neat, industrious marginal scrawl. They hand it to Sasha, who seems elated. “This is sorta the type of thing I’m working on,” they say. “I’d need to pick up a ton of money, of course…. A self-contained, self-combusting ecosystem, deep under the Pacific Ocean. The layers are hydroelectric models, gardens for oxygen, et cetera. A full retreat from the world economy.”
“Wow. That’s wild,” I say.
Shit calms down again for about two months. Sasha and Jordan start fucking which is fine but also kinda weird and hurtful—I know it sounds shitty but I miss having a girl at wits’ end for me, not that I’m for sure certain that Sasha was at wits’ end for me. And I can’t complain. Sommer and I are falling in love. I feel so cozy inside him now. He’s my enclosure. He dyes his hair hot orange. We never fight. He always knows how to play me out when I start getting arbitrary. At some point I ask if he wants to make it official and he says yes. A week later he wants to put a selfie on Instagram. I get cowardly for that, I say I don’t know if I want this to be about everybody. Don’t worry about everybody he says everybody’s everybody. He tells me a little about his mom. She has dementia in a care home in South Bay. He wants us to visit her. I ask him how old she is and he gives me a look like I can’t ask that.
We drive down a weekend. When we get there we buy pina coladas from Whole Foods and drop them in a cooler and visit the beach a while. I chill in a rented chair and Sommer’s on all fours making stuff in the sand. He builds two castles that turn into tits and a wiggling wall that turns into a snake. After 3 it starts getting cold so he knocks it town and we head to his mom.
The old folks’ home is all white and toffee orange on the outside, tinted windows chloriney, familiar architecture, one story, surrounded by neat hedges. We park diagonally across the street by an abandoned tire store and walk up, then in, down a rock garden path walled by giant concrete vases of big ferns and flowers. The front desk is all brown mosaic with more plants—hanging pots with vines growing up their chains. Pop hits from 2014 play damply above us. Sommer signs us in then leads me down hallways to his mom’s room.
“Do you hear birds?” I ask.
“They all get birds to give them something to do, it’s supposed to be good if they have little projects.”
Sommer knocks on the door. A dark-haired attendant in hex glasses answers.
“Who are you?”
“Maxine’s son and this is my boyfriend, Paul.”
Her eyes light up. “Come in! Yes, you were expected! Can I get you a drink? She’s in her room?”
She steps us into a kitchen-lounge suite whose green soft-industrial furnishings clash with a teak dining table with umbrella feet that’s clearly better off outdoors. China plates hang on wire wall hangers showing scenes from Tom Sawyer. Shelves around the room have cookbooks, Bibles, Lives of the Presidents type stuff. A flatscreen TV plays some old Dumb & Dumber type show about soldiers. By the far wall there’s a square standing cage holding plastic toys and a parrot. The parrot is pantsuit gray with a yellow front.
“We have all kinds of liquor in the freezer,” the attendant says. “My name’s Gretchen, by the way.”
“You look great today, Gretchen.” Sommer shakes her hand.
I meander to the back hall. Right door’s a tile bathroom with one of those big in-ground tubs with the jets. Left door’s closed and I assume it’s the bedroom. Window looks out on a bush, the road, a village of tin-roof storage sheds across the road and then, the ocean. Sun puts a hot rhombus on the floor.
“She’s sleeping, you probably don’t want her to go in there,” Gretchen says.
“Okay.” I turn back.
Gretchen grabs a handle of Stolichnaya like an iron and sets it on the counter. A line of freezer fuzz stuck to the label starts melting. “What do you like? I just do vodka coke.”
“You left the freezer door open.”
“Oh. Thanks.” She closes it, then opens the fridge. “We can do shots. Don’t wanna spread anything around.”
“Haha! Sure,” says Sommer. “Are you new?”
Sommer shakes his head. “No reason, you like it here?”
“Oh, it’s wild. Such an energy. It’s fun all day. It’s the fun that wears you down.” Gretchen pours three heavy shots.
“None for me, thanks,” I say.
Sommer takes his. “You seem to be getting right at home.”
“Yeah…. I put music on, too, if you want I can put on some music for us.” She sounds as if nothing would cause her more pain.
“You take care of the birds?”
“If the resident can’t, I do,” she says. “But a lot of our residents take care of them on their own. They love the birds. Birds are very popular. Others like your mom, I do gotta check up on em, but they do fine.”
“Did you ever have a bird?”
“I did! That’s funny. A little budgie called Blood—I was very young, I don’t know where I got that name.” She fake-laughs. “I couldn’t get him to talk, so I’d put my computer by his cage at night playing the same thing on loop, like ‘Good Birdy’ or ‘Hi Gretchie.’ Then he learned.”
“Yeah? I bet,” he says. “Do you know if Mom will—”
“How long have you been dating?” she asks. “Oh, sorry.”
“A few weeks,” says Sommer.
“Where y’all from?”
“Glendale, me,” I say.
“That’s a ways, isn’t it?”
“You take the 5 and merge onto the 105 basically and there’s always a couple slowdowns but I think we made good time, don’t you think we made good time, Sommer?”
Sommer hits the table. “I tap out. I’m seeing my mom.”
Gretchen utters a thin, wordless plea. “You’re gonna wake her up. She sleeps all afternoon!”
Sommer strides into the bedroom and I follow. His mom’s sitting up on the bed looking lost—a taut, enameled woman, with toned arms and sharp elbows, and sticky blonde hair just a shade lighter than her skin. She looks like a swim coach I had once. 50 at the oldest.
“Hey,” she says, quiet.
Gretchen butts past us. “How are you doing? Don’t you want to sleep?”
“I had the strangest dream,” she says. “I was sitting at a fire with my friends, we were all going around trying to… oh, it’s not important what we were trying to do, but everyone else was better at doing it. And we were slowly coming around to me and I was going to do my thing, I already had it pictured, and I so, so didn’t want to do it, but I couldn’t change my mind, it was that sort of dream sickness….” She pauses, like holding on a call, then looks at us. “Who are you?”
“I’m Paul,” I say. “I’m—your son’s—”
“Oh and who is this beautiful little gentleman?” she croons to Sommer. He looks down. “Oh you’re such a little charmer! What a smart boy. Is he yours?” she asks me.
“Uh, no,” I say.
“Little boy, I’m giving you some extra cash and you don’t have to tell anyone.” She unzips a teal plastic crocskin wallet and goes roving for bills. Sommer sits down by her on the bed.
“Hi, Mom,” he says.
She pulls out a 10 and puts it in his hand. “This’ll be our little secret.”
Seems like a lot of personal shit going on so I duck out. Off in the suite I start talking to the parrot.
“Schultz you idiot!” it says, shrill, questing, each syllable louder. “Hey Schultz.”
“Schultz? Who’s that?”
“For the Reich. For the Reich.”
“The fuck? Nazi bird?” It’s big. Its wicked curved beak looks unhealthy, like a hangnail. I poke my finger through the bars. It tries to nab me.
“I see nuffink!” it says, in a weird mocking tone. “I hear nuffink, I see nuffink!”
“Yeah, don’t like that, do you?” I say. “Nice birdie. They should take you out more.”
“Schultz. Help us escape, help us escape.” Its voice shifts to a bassy mutter.
“Sure thing little bird. Don’t see why not.” I fumble with the cage door. Do you have a name? Is it Schultz?”
“See nuffink!” it responds. I open the door and it flutters onto my hand, weighty.
“You’re good! Are you a boy birdie or a girl birdie?” I ask. “What do they do to you here? Why do you say this stuff?”
“When we escape. Escape. Escape.”
I take Schultz to the window, unclasp it, push it open, toss him out.
“Promise me, promise me,” he says, madly flapping, then skittering like Roadrunner across the lot, only stopping to peck at a white Toyota.
Sommer and I stop at a seafood shack along the wharf for some overpriced cod on his bill. When we walk back to the car it’s nearly golden hour. Sun’s on the water and the cement blocks are tinted postcard peach.
“Your mom seemed like she was doing well,” I say.
Sommer slows and looks out by me at the water. His pixie eyes seem opaque for the first time to me, licorice on this dim, like they’ve been made to put on a fancy suit and go to work—hotter than he’s ever been. “She’ll die soon.”
“Cancer in her left lung, undetected until it’s too late.”
“When did you hear this? What the fuck?”
“I didn’t hear it yet. It’s undetected. Like I said.”
“All right so, she’s not? What are you on?”
“You’re fucked up man. You’re a fuckin sociopath.”
“I’m living the same 19 years over and over again,” he says. “I’ll fall asleep on my 19th birthday and wake up being born. I won’t remember everything from this life—it’ll come back with all the other ones, in glossy layers, so I can sit around all afternoon daydreaming it. Every time my mother dies—I’ve come to expect it—be bored with it.”
“Like Groundhog Day?” I ask.
“Yeah. Like Groundhog Day.” He stops. I drop his hand and stop with him. “You guys always the same shit. It’s like a wave collapsing. I get shivers.”
“You say this shit to a lot of people?”
“A hundred thousand and some. And I’ve told you nine times Paul. You always get like this. I’ve dated the whole eligible population of LA. There’s maybe some stragglers. Maybe in another thousand lives I’ll go to another city. But I like repeating the favorites. I like coming back to you. You’re easy. You just take.” He’s crying a bit. I’ve never seen him do that. “And when Mom dies I feel all these me’s crying folded over in my head but I feel all these other me’s not giving a shit.”
“Yeah, that’s trippy, dude,” I say. “Damn. I don’t know what to make of that. That’s unfortunate. I feel for you. I really do.” What had Sasha been talking about then? “Have you been, like, keeping track of me?”
“No, Paul. I already knew you. I just explained.”
“No, not that bullshit. Like actually.”
I go back to Sommer’s house and simply drop him off. I get home at 11 and see texts from Sasha asking to stop by. I tell her sure and ask her how’s Jordan.
“They ghosted me,” she says, not till she’s in my house. “I think. But I’m not sure.”
“Nice. I think Sommer’s gonna do the same. I think seeing his mom not know him really shook him. I can’t get a handle on him, I know he gets affected by stuff and I don’t know how.”
“Did you break up with him?”
I pull rum out the freezer and gripe with the cork. “I don’t know if I did. Like I said I think he’ll ghost me. He seems the type. Otherwise I can tell him I’m sleeping with you.”
“You’re not though.”
“A little lie.”
“You’re really strange,” she says as I nab tumblers with two fingers from the upper cabinet. “Something’s gotten into you. Sommer made you into something.”
“He made me in love! I’m in love now. Every day I get up and go on another date with myself because I am just joyously, mindlessly in love.”
“That’s nice. No ice in mine.”
“I know.” I finish a near-gone bottle of Coke into our glasses, more in hers than mine, because she likes it that way.
“I’m not going to sleep with you,” she says.
“Jordan turned you out, huh?”
“I would never use you, Paul. I never have.”
“That’s all right.”
Brady Achterberg grew up on a chicken farm in southern Pennsylvania and studied writing and computer science at Susquehanna University, graduating in 2019. Previous published works can be found at Rivercraft, Plain China, and Spilled Milk. Since graduating, Brady has found work as a programmer, but continues to write and read.