An excerpt from a short story I’ve been working on:
These plans weren’t made in long advance. They were whimsically made, a result of one afternoon’s solitude and backward volition. I arrived in the city, if you could call it a city, before dark. I was nineteen, and I’d travelled alone, told no one where I was going. Even my hosts, I’d known them for years, were unaware of my coming. They were lax girls, good friends from not so long ago. “You’re always welcome,” wasn’t just something they said, Lara and Carmen.
Their apartment hadn’t changed since I’d been there last. When I stepped inside, the air was thick with makeup and hairspray, pot too. Dishes and crumbs sat neglected upon the counter tops. Shoes and sub sandwich wrappers had made themselves at home in the dim light of the living room. But through the chaos of it all, I saw the ghost signs of a vacuum, carpet marks that spiraled around like crop circles. I’d never felt so close and so far from home all at once.
Carmen greeted me from the couch. I knew she was real by the sound of her cough, deep and throaty—her lungs’ way of receiving a fair portion of the blunt. She let the long cough pass before she rose to hug me.
“Lara didn’t say you were coming,” she said. Her voice vibrated against my shoulder as we embraced.
“I didn’t tell her,” I said. “Is she here? I saw her car outside.”
She broke her hold on me. “Back in her room. Tug’s back there too.”
I raised a brow. She smirked. “I know. Her flavor of the week upgraded to flavor of the month.” Then she returned to her blunt, lying ignored and fuming on the coffee table. “You can go grab them if you want,” she managed before taking another toke.
“I doubt they’re sleeping,” I said.
“You can never know with Lara,” Carmen said. Her eyes were smiling from the joint, a look that made life look all too easy.
“How long are you here for?” she said.
“I’ll leave Sunday.”
“We’re going boating at the res for Labor Day. You should stay for that.”
“I might,” I said. But she and I both knew I wouldn’t be persuaded otherwise.
I raised my bag. “Should I put my stuff in your room?”
“Well you chose a busy weekend to come down,” Carmen said. “Brian’s coming to see me. He’s bringing Jack and McClain. Then remember Jenny from high school?”
“I remember. Holier Than Thou Jenny?”
“Yeah, forgot you never liked her. Well her sister and that Monson girl are coming tailgating with us tomorrow. They’ll be up tonight.”
I nodded. “Sounds like the gang’s all here.”
“They’ll be here around six.”
“Sleeping on the floor’s fine.” I tucked my bag in a corner by the TV, then took a spot in the armchair. “I suppose we should take in the quiet while it lasts.”
“You live for the quiet,” Carmen said. “But this weekend is going to be crazy.” Her words sounded like a promise. “And Lara will be glad you came.”
We sat in silence then, waiting. And I pondered how fucked up it was, me being there: where Carmen sat smoking and Lara was getting laid fifteen feet away, where sipping cheap vodka and cinnamon whiskey was all I would be able to do to keep up with them.
My phone buzzed, and I fumbled to check it. If not for a way to make that silence seem more graceful than awkward, then to forget my own unease. The message from Clint Bowers made a shimmering appearance onto the screen. It was an invitation, or in my case—a way out should I need it, an option B. Cliff and I met on my last visit to the city, at the gay bar off Gilbert Street. There we made fast friends of each other the way drunk strangers can do.
“Next time you’re in Iowa City,” he said. “Let’s all get together.”
His polished language and polite inflections, his calculated mannerisms were inspiring to me. He was an alternative to the fast and loose language I’d come to know in my own upbringing. And I longed to adopt those ways as my own. I longed to befriend Cliff Bowers. So, in the midst of my long drive south, I sent him a text, told him I’d be in town for the weekend, took him up on his offer. You can never have too many friends in one place.
Now his response sat unanswered on my screen, bidding me to stop for drinks later that evening. In truth I didn’t give the others a second thought: Lara or Tug, Carmen, Brian, Jack, McClain, or the other two girls. I accepted Cliff’s invite like it was primordial instinct, with one fell sweep of type. “Wouldn’t miss it,” I said.
I glanced over at Carmen. She’d made her way into the kitchen. She was heading into that stage now, the munchies.
“Have anything good?” I said. She was opening the cupboards like shutters on spring’s first day.
“Can’t eat too much,” she said. “Or I’ll have to drink more tonight.”
“Let’s split a pizza,” I said. She closed the cupboards, and I could tell my words had resonated with her. They were enough to debase her self-restraint. She even looked at me like I was a hero.
“I know a good place,” she said.
Carmen started dialing on her phone and I began wondering when Lara and Tug would finish up whatever the hell they were doing. I turned my focus to the phone screen again, searched for Cliff on Instagram, found him no problem.
The photoset, Cliff’s profile, exuded a charm, an echo of the feeling he’d left with me at the bar six weeks ago. His pictures placed him in the midst of high-price football games and airport terminals, restaurants with cloth napkins. These were the snapshots of a poised life, a lifestyle so rare and precious to me that it had always bordered on mystery.
There was a second boy in the pictures, too. Neither he or Cliff were handsome to me, but Cliff’s arms always seemed to find their way around this boy at the camera’s flash. I could only assume this, he, was the boyfriend as the photos revealed them to me. They seemed lost in some type of love, and I felt myself grinning for Cliff and his unknown other, a toast to their happiness hidden in the upward curve of my lip.
I glanced up. Carmen was on hold. “Pepperoni’s fine,” I said. Then softer, “I might do my own thing tonight and meet up with everyone tomorrow.”
“What are your specials?” Carmen said. Then she nodded at me. If there’d been ideal time to break away from the evening’s activities, this was it—with Carmen hungry and stoned and half-listening.
A door opened down the hall. It sounded too big for its jamb, imitation wood dragging across the carpet.
“Did I hear Brad Parker in my house?” Lara emerged from her room, smiling and radiant. She hadn’t caked on the nightly makeup yet. Her voice was over the top, electric.
I laid my phone, the pictures to rest. “You might’ve heard me earlier if you hadn’t been screwing all afternoon.” I stood to meet her.
Her hug was tighter than Carmen’s. She and I held each other like we needed holding.
“You’re so sneaky,” she said. “You told me you weren’t coming down.”
“I changed my mind last minute.”
Lara buried her head into my neck. “But you’re really leaving us tonight?”
“Not till’ after pizza,” I said.
Lara was quick at connecting dots. She practically pushed me away, bringing all sentimentality to a close. Carmen was still on the phone, halfway through ordering.
“Pizza?” Lara’s voice was all exaggeration again. “What are you ordering, Carmen? Is there enough for us?”
“Yeah—hold on,” Carmen said into the phone. “What would you want on yours?”
“I’d have to go ask Tug,” Lara said.
“Shit,” Carmen said. “I have to call you back.” She tossed the phone onto the couch cushion. “Where is Tug anyway?”
“He’s taking a nap.” Lara patted my chest with her fingers. “We were napping, not screwing.”
“She’s telling the truth,” Carmen said. “Usually we’d be able to hear.” She snickered at her own joke. “Where are you going anyway, Brad?”
“I’m meeting a friend,” I said.
“I’ll take you,” she said.
We pulled up to Clint’s building three hours later. It was raining. I felt the drops on my hands, thin and cool, after Lara dropped me at the curb. A girl was walking ahead of me, and I followed close behind. She held the door, and it was lucky. I didn’t want to bother Cliff with letting me inside.
I took the elevator up to the eleventh floor. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been inside a building so tall. This one to be one of the city’s tallest. The apartment was number eleven-o-three. I couldn’t miss it. While I stared at the door, I heard cool music playing from inside.
Cliff answered my knock. His cheeks were colored, his eyes alive with the spirit of a Friday evening. Each detail of his face seemed preconceived: the square eyebrows, the hair slicked over. It was as though his entire appearance had been delicately crafted inside a mirror.
There was nothing preconceived about me, however. That entire moment, my moment, had been conceived by something like randomness or disorder.
“I was wondering when I’d be seeing you again, Brad Parker.”
“Well wonder no further,” I said.
He invited me inside, and I followed him down a short hall to the living room. I paid close attention to my steps, keeping them on balance.
“Drink two in an hour to take the edge off.” Carmen had said.
She’d been right. The edge was off. As I trailed behind Cliff, my head felt warm like foamy waves were sloshing about my brain.
We turned a corner to find three strangers sitting on leather sofas, all women, friends of Cliff. Their legs were crossed in some delicate way. That’s how I knew they were a faraway variation of the girls I’d left at home. Their makeup was modest, but it still screamed sexy, and their faces were brighter, younger than Lara or Carmen’s. They stared up at me like the newest thing they’d seen all week.
Cliff introduced me, and I was still confident from the cinnamon whiskey. I shook hands around the room, forgetting each of their names by the time they offered me a seat. My body sank into a chair near the corner.
“Do you want a drink, Brad?” Cliff was swirling wine about his glass. I looked around. They were all drinking wine.
“Whatever you’re having,” I said.
“Perfect,” I said.
There was a knock at the door, and Cliff left me to the room full of girls. I leaned to the one closest me. “Is this supposed to be a party?”
She chuckled, and I could see was just as buzzed through her black rimmed glasses. “You’d know if they were having a party.”
“Their parties are unbelievable.”
I nodded. “Who’s they?”
“Cliff and Mason.” She must’ve read a puzzled look on my face. “They’re boyfriends.”
“Oh,” I said. “They live here together?”
But Cliff stepped back into the living room then, toting the boyfriend along with him. The girl beside me rose to meet them at the edge of the room. She hugged Mason and whispered something in his ear. What she said, I couldn’t begin to guess. From my seat, the pair of them looked exactly like the pictures I’d seen from earlier. It was as though one of those photographs had come alive in front of me; moving, breathing, and animated. I couldn’t help but feel that glass walls separated me apart from them.
Cliff motioned me over and made more introductions.
Standing beside him, I realized Mason stood a good head above me. We shook hands, and I was cautions not to appear overeager. I could feel Cliff’s eyes leery upon me. but I was resolute to gain his approval, his friendship.