Santiago hadn’t hooked in over a year when he invited the man over on Christmas Day. He waited in the kitchen for the door to buzz. He was thinking about the man’s name. It was either Alex or Jordan, the names the man referred to himself with over the years.
At the time, fresh from college, Santiago had tried to study him, wondering if perhaps the man was someone else with each name, but with enough time, he reached the conclusion that names just wouldn’t be important between the two of them. Of course to him, names were everything. He’d introduced himself as James, the English translation of his name according to the Bible, or so he had been told by a pastor in Miami when his mother still took him to church. He liked how James made his skin feel luminous, like he was glowing from within. It didn’t help their name situation that Santiago deleted his conversations with the man after every meetup. He felt abashed, a gluttonous little feeling tearing hungrily through him, the sight of those texts in his inbox, next to messages from his mother and friends. All he had to do was hit delete and the feeling of being caught would disappear. The inconvenience with this was that the next time Alex or Jordan texted him would require an introduction, and these went like this:
“ Who’s this?”
(Santiago loved responding to unsaved numbers like this, because when he typed out those two careless words, he felt aloof, cruel, whatever the damned feeling was that entered him through his thumbs and pulsed through him like electricity. He felt bright, unstoppable.)
“don’t you miss me mami”
(Let’s call him Jordan—to Jordan, he was mami.)
By this point, there was only one thing clear between them: that they didn’t know each other. They both wanted to remain, in a way, anonymous. That's why Santiago invited Jordan over on Christmas Day. He wanted to be mami again, like that name could make him someone else. He recalled fucking the man over a year ago, around Thanksgiving, and how last Christmas he’d confessed it to his then lover in the middle of a drunken fight. His lover held him, told him it would be okay, that he didn’t have to do that anymore. But he didn’t understand. Hooking had changed the whole shape of Santiago’s life in ways he hadn’t foreseen and that he couldn't articulate. In his mind, he was like his house plants growing towards the windows, how he had grown, mysteriously, towards the energy that hooking provided him, as if this secret, that he hooked, was his own private sun.
He lit the candles he’d jammed into the wine bottles. Their warm glow indulged the exquisite reality of the empty apartment. His roommates were gone for the week. Everything was in perfect order. Sometimes he wanted to live a small life like this. He didn't care how meaningful it all was, or even what it meant, so long as every detail could be considered.
He cleaned the countertops so well that the living room was reflected on the spotless black stone, and he could see himself there, spectral, waiting, in the penumbra around the flames. That’s what he wanted, to be aware in every moment of who he was and what was around him. It could be simply beautiful—life—if he could live it like this, he thought, sitting in his kitchen waiting for the man, the first trail of wax beginning to drip.
Santiago was new to the city when he met Jordan. It could be said that he was much more vulnerable then, almost three years ago, though in general it made him feel alive, the vulnerability, like he was precious, made of fine porcelain that somehow remained intact through its tenuous life. He liked ceramics. He thought of those teacups mended with gold by Chinese cultures. He was like that, he thought, a teacup, before he was embarrassed by the comparison.
It must’ve been September. Santiago was scrolling through pictures of people he vaguely knew starting the new year at Yale. He wondered how he’d gotten here, alone in this house and about to hook for the first time. He missed the clarity of college. He missed having professors who read and edited his work and how, in the arts, the successes of whichever professor was mentoring you at the time could be mistaken for your own. He had none of that now. It felt like his life hadn’t started but ended instead. He threw his phone down on the bed and went to the window. He knew the sad, pitiless sound was coming from the bees crashing into the glass, but in his mind, he pictured the man on the street, aiming little rocks at his window.
Any minute now he would be coming down the street and everything would be different. There were two guys in a black car blasting music further down the block but for the most part the street was empty. It was the middle of the day. They'd agreed on a price that seemed fair at the time. 100 dollars. He thought he wouldn't be the same afterwards and he was okay with that. He wondered how the street would look with its caged porches and little gardens after he slept with the man. This sort of thing was supposed to change you. He stared at the bees, which in September, in his third month in the new apartment were still a sight. He interested himself in how the bees traced the edges of the branches, how they seemed to be in the process of either assembling or dismantling the tree. It was hard to tell which, but he was happy they were there.
It wasn't until the man was directly outside his house that Santiago recognized him. He looked several inches shorter, thought Santiago, integrating the image of this man by the trash cans with the man in the mirror selfies wearing only gym shorts. From the window, Santiago located the man’s lusterless eyes under their heavy brows, his thick neck, and the wide rim of his shoulders, which in the ribbed jacket gave him the sturdy and stout look of a tire. He was almost handsome. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to do this, Santiago thought. Perhaps he could do it again, even. He went down into the foyer. The curtains on the door sliced the light out into tiny circles and crescents on his nose and fingers as he pried a sliver between the layers of soft lace. He was giving himself a moment to identify any tick or movement or expression that might reveal Jordan was dangerous. He thought everyone had the potential for violence, even himself. For some it was more certain than others. His whole body shuddered as he looked at the man, as he made a connection between him and the sleepless night before. He had witnessed a police raid from his window, helicopters and everything, which had reminded him of how the cop had pulled over to his U-Haul during the move—a few months ago, almost three in the morning—and said to him: This is a hot block, ya’ kno’.
That was the start of his New York life. It came as no surprise then that three months into being in the city he had decided to try hooking, and that his first client was Jordan, this ruined man standing outside of his house, watching the passing blue of the sky with lusterless eyes, his hands searching his pockets. Santiago opened the door and then unlocked the gate. He moved towards the two chipped teeth in the front of Jordan’s mouth. This immediately calmed Santiago though it should’ve alarmed him. It was like art, how real the man was, just plain and ordinary. Santiago liked real things and people. It comforted him, brought him down from the bashful, glittering feeling of doing this for the first time. This was life with its necessary threats and jolts of excitement. This was how he wanted to live. He was pleased.
Santiago was absolutely and tragically broke during this time. He was still unemployed and tired of staying at home everyday. He spent his days jerking off in bed and struggling to write while his best friend went to work. His record was seven times in one day and when he came that final time his dick was burning, a red and mangled strip of flesh. He squirted a single, clear bead of liquid into his belly button. In between the masturbation, he edited the story he was working on for the last three years because no matter how many different versions of the story he wrote none felt like the true one. He would fall asleep in the middle of these day and find his dreams scrambled, many at a time, like a brilliant cord lighting up all different colors down a dark corridor. He didn't know where his life was going or what to make of it. No one needed him or cared to know where he was. His dreams reminded him of the channels that turned to porn after a certain late hour in Colombia—hands coming out of mouths, legs from between breasts, an orgy of limbs in the television. In his dreams, he would start writing a story that used those channels as the main metaphor in a great, winding piece about all the bodies that had made up his life. He would surface from this sleep dehydrated, the story forgotten as he checked his phone where grindr would still be open, where he sometimes had a message from a faceless profile, a simple hey, that would be followed by another hey the next time he woke. He would do this for whole days, falling in and out of sleep in the middle of the day, masturbating, writing.
He took a studio assistant gig from Craigslist his roommate had forwarded him. He was desperate to do anything, even aiding the retired art history professor with his photography practice, even if already, on the first day, the man had made him uncomfortable. He loved Santiago’s pink shorts, he emphasized, rubbing the fabric back and forward between his clean fingernails during what was supposed to be his interview. He made every sentence an opportunity to say how beautiful he found Santiago, who was trying to smile, hoping this appreciation of his beauty was aesthetic and not erotic. Though of course, it was erotic.
The photographs themselves weren’t anything special, but their subjects, shirtless men holding their bodies in dancerly poses across Central Park were all beautiful. He didn't mind looking at beautiful things all day. The job was simple, to paint over the photographs with acrylic in clean, woven layers, which he quickly found he was terribly slow at, too exacting a task for him, and even when he took his time, there were often patches he had missed, which the artist would point out holding the print up to the sun. No, no, no. Simply, no. He left that evening feeling guilty, like he’d ruined the man’s favorite shirt, like he’d personally failed him. The following day, the two doormen grinned at Santiago as he crossed the lobby to the elevator. As the doors began to shut, he heard the men laughing. They were trying to be quiet, almost polite, one of them even punched or slapped the other on the shoulder, that meaty sound of the arm bouncing back into its unremarkable shape. When the doors closed, Santiago faced his reflection on the rippling, metallic surface. The elevator began to rise. The suddenness with which the numbers on the screen were counting upwards made him feel sick. He was sure he was one of many boys the artist had previously hired. If his experience wasn’t unique but ordinary, it meant he was playing a role he wasn't aware of and that others had played before, which made him paranoid and distrusting, like the world was a double-sided mirror and it was his job to find a fault on the surface to prove this.
He had to bathe the prints today. The artist showed him to the spare bathroom in the back of the apartment and began to fill the tub with water. Santiago didn't understand how the retired professor could afford this place—perhaps the professor thing was all a pretense to make boys feel more comfortable. The hot water would make the acrylic separate from the paper, the artist said, and then starting with the loosest corner, Santiago slowly peeled the acrylic towards the center of the print as instructed, as his hands felt the heat of the water as intense cold, until simply his hands went numb. In the end, if he was good, the acrylic would have pulled the ink from the paper. The image, transferred into the thin, milky membrane would float in his red hands. He'd set these out to dry on the dining room table and the following day he would help the artist stretch them out over mirrors and small sheets of mother of pearl.
The work was fine, but underpaid—after a week Santiago noticed that the man was turning the air conditioning off when he got there, that sometimes, depending on his mood, the artist would critique his brush strokes with impunity, or berate him for how long it had taken him to peel a stack of prints. Everyday at the artist’s apartment became an event of psychological terror. Then one day, bummed that the acrylic had torn on several prints, and hoping to call the day short and make up for his failure, Santiago took his shirt off. He knew this was what the artist wanted, why he kept on making the apartment impossibly hot—it was July—and why when he asked for water he was given the smallest cup in the kitchen—he’d laughed, thinking it was a joke the first time. Like that, Santiago allowed the man to jack him off in the living room where empty picture frames in different styles from baroque to mid-century decorated the walls. He disassociated by inserting himself inside of the empty frames like he was the work of art they had been waiting for. He wondered how his cheeks would be painted, if the brush strokes would be consistent across his face or if a painter would use different marks to make certain parts of his face more or less real. He wanted to see how others saw him. He was so deep in this fantasy that he missed the part where he came and the man swallowed his load.
He came back after that for several more weeks. The artist no longer cared about how the prints were handled as long as he was able to touch Santiago’s cock at the end of the day. He cooked dinner one night, poached cod and steamed broccolini, and asked Santiago to stay. They ate at the table surrounded by the dancers drying on the acrylic, the wrinkled blue ghosts. Santiago wondered why he wasn't one of the boys in the photographs but the help. All he wanted was to be art. The artist had Santiago read him a story of his, the only overtly sex-driven one he’d written, and in return the artist gave him a book called Plato on Love. That night the artist began calling him acrylic boy, because of how much semen he released when he came across the table after dinner. The man dipped the tip of his finger in one of the little cloudy puddles and tasted it. What a mess you've made, acrylic boy. He hoped the man would start just slipping him more money in exchange for the sex, but still, he continued to be paid fifteen dollars an hour. After a month, he didn't return and the artist, it should be said, never asked to take his photograph.
So it was September, his first time bringing the man up to his room. Late summer had brought one of its radiant days where everything outside the window glowed. The bee-swarmed tree obscured the horizon so that the world outside held an impossible depth of beauty. A strip of this light hung in two patches on the wall across the bed and there stood the man. If he reviewed the circumstances of this day, Santiago would say this was his father’s fault. He would no longer be supporting him as he had since Santiago moved to the city. The money came as a surprise since Santiago had paid for his last semesters of college himself by working shifts at the library and museum. He was used to being self-reliant, which he knew was the tidy way of saying that he couldn’t trust his family because they never did what they were supposed to. After his graduation his father divorced his second wife, who was also named Luz, like Santiago’s mother, and the whole thing felt so uncanny to the first divorce that his father began sending him money again. Santiago didn’t mind having his rent paid for. It was easy. If he called, or FaceTimed, or sent his father pictures of the city, he could expect a couple hundred in his account by the next business day. His father especially loved receiving pictures of bridges. He was building them all over Colombia. He especially loved Brooklyn Bridge, which was kind of amazing to Santiago, that his father in Colombia knew the bridge by name. Now the money was coming to an end. His father hadn’t even told him. He had called his mother and left it to her to relay the message.
So here was this man flanked by two patches of light on either side. It was September and Santiago had put a money bag emoji in his about me on Grindr, such that the application was almost always open on his phone now, waiting to find a little more than sex, and that is how he met Jordan or Alex or whatever his real name was.
Everything appeared more real, more itself in the pure, delicate light of Christmas morning.
Wow, this is so much space . Dmitri, the first boy of the day, had said. He looked down the hallway and undid his scarf. Do you live here by yourself?
Please, take your shoes off. And no, we’re four here , Santiago responded, thinking that perhaps the question Dmitri had meant to ask was: are we alone? And they were.
It was the first time Santiago wasn’t returning to Miami or Colombia for the holidays. The list of excuses he had given himself included: 1) he didn’t want to spend the holidays alone with his mother and her white boyfriend, since his brother would be going to Texas with his wife’s family, and the thought of a holiday spent speaking English with his mother made him feel incredibly depressed, 2) money, it was the busy season for the restaurant, they had just gotten a write up in Eater and The Times, and he hoped that working through the holidays, he would be able to leave NYC for February, which was decidedly the saddest month, 3) he hadn’t bought a ticket by Thanksgiving and knew already that it would be outside of his means, especially since his mother hadn’t offered to help pay for it, so that when the day came in early December that she called, and in her chilling immigrant mother’s tone said, “I didn’t want to ask because I felt that I already knew the answer, but, I have to: are you coming back?” He didn’t know what to say except the truth. No, he wasn’t. He had spent the last two weeks deciding if he was depressed or not, trying to remember how he felt a year ago this time, if this was a pattern or a new feeling. The turbulence of asking himself this question everyday at every moment led him to break up with the three men he was seeing, and the last two mornings, he hadn’t gotten out of bed before noon, which was strange for him, not a good sign, since he enjoyed waking up by ten to brew coffee and read on a bench in the park.
So here he was, on Christmas Day, trying, but failing to find comfort in the twenty-one year old boy across the table from him. His lips were rolling over each other because he was talking. Santiago stopped catching what the boy was saying. He wanted a world as subtle and private as he was. He put his chin in his hand in an imitation of listening. Inviting the boy over was a mistake, he had decided, he was too young. He remembered just last week, breaking up with one of his boyfriends after the guy started talking about how depressed he was, like it explained why he hadn’t written back, or at all, for the last three weeks, and Santiago just cut him off mid-sentence: I’ve been really happy. He didn’t know why he had said that. It wasn’t true. Yet even now, across from the boy, he could feel himself trying to project happiness. To give the impression that one has fallen comfortably into his parcel of the world—his mother had taught him there was nothing more beautiful than that. When Santiago got up to pour the tea he felt the moisture click between his ass cheeks. He lifted the kettle from the stove and was reminded of how he had hurriedly douched three times into the tub, just in case, he had said to himself, as the hot water ushered his shit down the drain. He wanted even his asshole to give the impression of happiness, like he was so happy he didn’t even shit. He shouldn’t have douched. He wouldn’t let this boy fuck him. At the counter, by instinct, he checked his phone and to his surprise—because he expected nothing, just a flash of the hour—a text lit up the screen:
(A number he hadn’t saved, with a NYC area code, if he remembered correctly, had texted him.)
He dismissed the messaged and sat back down at the Ikea table with the cups of tea. The boy leaned into his, almost speaking directly into the red, darkening liquid. Santiago wanted to take the boy to his bed and end this. He would pull his pants off in a single, swift tug. He wanted to see that uncut cock from the picture, to see it unfurl from the elastic waist band of the boy’s underwear, to have it up to his face, so close he would catch its sweet smell as it swung through the air. Perhaps undressed, Santiago would be attracted to the boy, since under the stupid costume of the clothes, there was a body, a cock, and that, after all, was what this was about. It momentarily embarrassed Santiago how ready he was to separate the boy from his cock, and then his primal instinct took over.
Hey , Santiago said, introducing himself into the conversation again. Let’s go to my bed.
Dmitri got up with his mug of tea. His scarf dragged behind him to the room at the end of the hallway, where Santiago told him to make himself at home while he pissed. In front of the toilet, with his dick out, Santiago stopped himself from impulsively checking grindr. His thumb had already unlocked his phone and hovered over the orange-black icon with the shovel-shaped mask. It would be inappropriate and rude to open the app when he already had a boy over in the other room. He would have to read it as a sign that he had a problem, that perhaps he was a sex and love addict as he was fond of joking. But also what if Dmitri was online, that would destroy Santiago, even if he didn't care about the boy. He began to piss as he opened the “happy christmas” message from the unsaved number again. His mind ran through the catalogue of the men he had slept with during the last three years in New York City. Which of those terrible, sad men could this be, he wondered as he typed back:
“Thanks, you too.”
And after a moment:
“ Who’s this?”
(He felt an exquisite sinking feeling through the carelessness of his words.)
Back in his room, Santiago found Dmitri by his desk staring at the photograph hung besides the window. It was an image Santiago had made in college by overlaying a photo of his mother he had found in Colombia and a self-portrait he had made in the style of his mother’s. It worked as a double-exposure of sorts, the large print of their composited faces blown up twice their size, in which their eyes and cheekbones were perfectly aligned, only their chins and hair a bit off kilter. Or perhaps, he thought, it was more like a long-exposure, a document of the passage of time. The unmatched edges of their faces were bright, ghostly, like a mirage that was at once there and not there.
It's my mom , Santiago said, but it’s also me.
He pointed to his bookshelf at the original photograph of his mother sitting alone at the top. They were almost identical. Then he pointed to the opposite wall, besides the door, at the small portrait of her with an orchid draped over half her face like a veil. She loved orchids above all other flowers because of how much attention they required. In a perfect world, it would just be her and her flowers.
The boy’s eyes darted to the pictures, falling on everything between them, shimmering. It was almost too many, the number of photographs of her in this room, or it was, and Santiago didn't care, because his mother was his muse, his art. Sometimes, he’d dreamed she was inside of his skin, peering out from his eyes, astonished by how vastly different their worlds were.
Santiago threw himself on the mattress and the boy followed seconds after. Their bodies hit the bed moments apart, and when they joined, it felt perfectly natural, like the whole of their lives had been built for this moment. They made out. Santiago enjoyed how the first kiss was unlike all the others, how tenderly his lips rounded the edges of the boy’s, even if earlier he hadn’t been able to stomach their conversation. The first kiss took every fray bit of his life and weaved a perfect ribbon out of it. Dmitri pulled away and they looked at each other. Santiago felt a pang of tenderness for the boy, which surprised him, like the shock of turning the faucet to find it either unexpectedly freezing or hot. It was the shock of physical sensation, of the first touch following a long absence that made him more human, no matter who the other person was. But after a moment, each kiss was more disordered than the last. Naturally, that’s how it happened—everything lead to disorder and when he noticed, their lips were like giant pink bugs trying to devour each other. Santiago pulled away. Instead of looking into the boy’s eyes again he frowned and looked off to the side, to the bookshelf, as if he had to make sure that it was still there.
Abruptly, Dmitri stood up and pulled his shirt off without being asked to. His face sprung from the fabric with a self aware smile. He returned to the bed, fitting himself into Santiago’s arms. His soft skin tingled under its light fuzz and its soapy smell brought the image of the boy anxiously showering into Santiago’s mind. It warmed him to think of the boy having the same anxiety as he, how perhaps they weren’t so different, and the boy too had showered, douched, and trimmed hurriedly before this meetup. The boy wrapped his arms and legs around Santiago like a sea monster. Santiago loved the feeling this approximated. They were strangers, worse than that, they didn’t particularly like each other, yet here they were pretending to be lovers, their bodies entangled, arranged in the intimate shape of two people in love. This was all Santiago wanted sometimes—to perform love. The performance was, to him, sometimes a more interesting experience than the thing itself. He figured, in that moment, that perhaps he wasn’t so much interested in love as he was in loneliness. He didn’t know if this was what he truly wanted, this performance of love, or if this was just what he had gotten used to because, in a way, he thought, this was all men had ever wanted from him. All the men he had known wanted some sort of relationship from him that existed on an imaginary plane. There, they acted out things in the ideal and perfect forms of themselves. Each kiss and embrace was perfect. But these were just holding patterns. This had fucked with Santiago’s head since he turned thirteen, the age other men began to seek him out. They never wanted more from him.
The boy shifted, stringing an arm under Santiago’s neck and burying his hands into the crevice of his armpit. This brought Dmitri’s head right under Santiago’s nose—the shocking wildness of its smell let Santiago know that the boy had kept his head dry when he washed earlier, which made sense in late December. He wasn’t in control of his feelings, of how they affected him or how they left him, and the smell of the boy’s head threw him into another. He felt his tenderness, deeply, like all feelings that came to him, and then it passed. He was left empty, feeling slightly dirty.
The boy shifted again and stood up to strip his pants off now, which Santiago felt was redundant, or hasty, since he was still fully clothed. He took the boy back into his arms. To pull his shirt of now would be like following the boy into a new room, other than this one, which was cold and large and somehow menacing—or Spartan, as his roommate had called it because the only things in it were the bed on its platform, a small metal bookshelf, the photographs, and a long mirror propped against the wall.
From the bed, looking up at the ceiling and with the boy in his arms, Santiago forgot for a moment where he was—he took another drag of the dark, doggish smell atop the boy’s head and felt again how it changed his perception of everything. The edges of his world were going soft. He watched the walls consumed, the photographs of his mother disappearing. The thick haze rolled over the sides of the bed.
When the boy left, Santiago returned to his phone. Hours were still left in the day. He was ready to try again with someone else. The unsaved number had responded:
“how r u”
“do u remember me?”
(He couldn't remember any Alex besides the one who had taken him to a gay bar notorious for its consistent smell of piss and campy communist propaganda. That Alex wore a smart camel coat and worked in marketing and resembled Santiago’s roommate’s boyfriend at the time—a marvelous man. But he ghosted Santiago after their only date, and Santiago blamed this on himself, on the fact that he was working as a barista then, instead of something respectable, like marketing.)
Santiago sat on the ledge of the only window in the living room. He liked sitting there and pretending that it was the opening to a cave on the side of a mountain. The image of himself as an Indian princess came into his head. As his hair grew longer he was beginning to resemble just that. The fifty year old bohemian man he had been seeing that fall said he looked like an Indian princess once. It stuck with Santiago. He sometimes became what people called him. The reflection on the glass showed that he still had glitter on his eyelids and cheeks from working the Christmas Eve dinner the night before. He gathered his hair behind his neck and twisted the thin rope through an elastic tie until he looked like his mother, dewy and glowing, as a princess should. The princess responded:
“I don’t. Sorry.”
He set the phone down and looked out the window. He hadn't let Dmitri fuck him but the boy was so eager to suck him off that Santiago had let him. Afterwards, he had briefly reciprocated until he saw the bumps on the boy’s shaft. The bumps came out of his mouth under a glossy film of his saliva. There were two, red. Fuck. How hadn’t he noticed them before he took Dmitri’s dick into his mouth? And when he asked what they were, the boy had simply said, oh I hadn’t seen them, like they were the most natural thing in this world. Santiago wanted to look at them again, for longer, but he also just wanted to forget. Fuck. He really didn’t want to go to the public clinic again after the last time he was there. He didn’t want to wait in a packed room for four hours again, to have to patiently sit through, and without an attitude, to a counselor listing all the reasons why he was vulnerable to disease.
It was Christmas. He wanted to think about that. Below his legs and all around him he imagined the hundred or so families in his building gathered in celebration while he was alone in the apartment. He listened for it and found it, in the distance, the muffled Caribbean music entering from the rooms that faced the courtyard. He recalled his mother worrying about him after he said he wasn’t going back. She asked him to make other plans, for her sake, please. He had lied and said he was spending it with a coworker and her husband to comfort her, to not have her worry because how could he have explained it to her that life was feeling cluttered and loud. That there was just too much of it and he was just so tired today. He had been pushing people away for the last six months, starting with the boyfriend she really liked, the one who had texted her first thing that morning to say Merry Christmas. What would that look like to his mother? What sort of life? He had learned this from her, he knew, the sheltering of his real emotions for other people’s comfort, to be palatable, a neat, easy image of a life.
He flipped the phone over to a series of texts:
“what u doing”
“i wanna see u”
The thought of someone wanting to see him today, of using those exact words, took him over. The feeling—of being desired—was like a swan spreading its white wings inside of him. He wanted this unsaved number to be anyone who could take him away from his life. He typed back:
“Send me picture?”
The time on the screen said it was only five but outside the streets were empty as if it were late at night. The crushed salt across the road gave the street a ghostly sheen. He hopelessly wished it were anyone different from who it probably was. He waited for a response and then the phone rang:
(Like that, the swan disappeared.)
Santiago felt embarrassed looking at that number on his screen. It was Jordan or Alex or whatever his name was, the guy he had met on Grindr during his first months in New York, the man who paid him a stupid 100 dollars each time they met up. It was his price, and in a way, it was also a name. Those three digits held together by the tiny space of pixels between them on the screen meant him. He wanted to feel offended by the number, how Jordan used it as a code between them, which was exactly what it was, part of their secret language, but it was his fault, too. Historically, whenever it was established that it was Jordan texting him, Santiago would type back 100, since he knew the man often texted him when he didn’t have money, hoping for a gift, or to pay him less.100, Santiago would repeat until Jordan said either OK or next week. It wasn’t much money. Jordan wasn’t rich. Santiago didn’t care though. He felt noble for being a hooker to a working class man. Like what he was doing was less bad than if he were fucking a rich white man in Tribeca or the Upper West Side. He knew from other friends who hooked that a regular rate was at least two hundred in the city. But fuck it. He hadn’t know any better the first time he did it. In fact, the first time Santiago met Jordan, he had forgotten to take the cash in advance, and once they were done, when he asked for his payment, Jordan gave him only eighty dollars. He said next time he would give him the rest though he never did.
Santiago typed out, feeling sure of himself, that Jordan was just who he needed to fuck today:
“Babe, come give me your dick...I’m horny.”
And almost immediately came Jordan’s response:
“fuck im omw”
“i want ur booty now mami”
Jordan was shorter than Santiago—and looked like the human equivalent of a pit bull, top heavy with wide shoulders and muscle-ribbed arms—but the way Jordan called him mami gave Santiago the feeling that he was the smaller one. He loved the name. Its effect on him was perceivable. He led Jordan to the room, peeling his shorts down an inch over his ass crack as he knew the man liked.
Fuck, mami. That booty is so good.
Jordan groaned. His pleasure was spilling out of him in low humming noises. The air was so still that each moan remained in the air like a tiny ribbon. Santiago felt these curling around his wrists and catching on the tops of his ears as he walked through the hallway. Puckers rose from the skin of his exposed ass, and there too, the groans hung. It turned him on to become whatever the man wanted to call him. He loved mami. The feeling that spun inside of him was total and intense. And that was it—why he hadn’t enjoyed Dmitri, because that boy had wanted to know him, and Santiago didn’t want to be known. He wanted to be a surface for someone else’s fantasies. Tonight, he wanted to be someone else.
A single light—his reading light—illuminated a circle over his pillows, the little stage. He remembered his last meeting with Jordan, how after the man left, Santiago found his hand prints pressed onto the wall over the pillows. The greasy lube the man always brought over was impossible to wipe off. Santiago began to like them there, the hands over the bed. He noticed how the hands were only visible from opposite the window, only when the sun came into the room at a sharp angle. He later realized this only happened in the late afternoon, around the hour of their last meeting, when the sun held more or less the same spot in the sky. He liked how this trace remained there, somehow locked in the space and time of the moment it was made. In the periphery of his sight, at a sudden turn, unexpectedly, the mark would be there. It was a reminder of what had passed and who he had been, of the turbulence of his sexual cravings. That was in his last apartment. Jordan hadn’t fucked him in this room yet. Santiago looked back at Jordan coming through the door. Here was a man who didn’t want to know him, a man who saw him, and his ass, and thought mami. It was beautiful, the feeling of being undone by that name, of becoming whatever he was named.
In the room, he grabbed Santiago, each hand claiming an ass cheek and pulling him into his pelvis. His jacket was freezing and the down collapsed between them to a stiff, crinkling layer. Somewhere inside of Santiago a bucket tipped over, and its contents, warm, glittering, flooded him. He felt himself stiffen in his underwear. He was sure Jordan could feel it too. He hated how obvious his body made its eagerness. It would be impossible to ever get more money out of him since the man knew, that in a way, he enjoyed this too. He would always be 100.
Give me the money first , he whispered. He stood so close to Jordan that he watched as the man’s eyes melted into a single white puddle before him. He smelled like cold skin with the hint of a cigarette. Like he had smoked the day before, but skipped today because he knew Santiago didn’t like it. To Santiago, all these things had meaning, because there was a network of meaning that held all things together and it was his job to understand how everything had to do with everything. And in this system, the weak scent of a cigarette on the man’s neck meant he was considerate.
C’mon, mami. You know I always pay you , Jordan said as he made a space between them. His eyes slipped apart, two again. He tugged off his Brooklyn Nets beanie and began to work on the zipper of his knock-off Eddie Bauer jacket.
Santiago escaped from Jordan’s reach and crossed the room to his desk where he lit the small glass lamp. The orange light flickered on, filling the space between him and Jordan. It was as if they stood in the bottom of a sunset, the light on the verge of being extinguished. Santiago didn’t want to sink into this man, to lose himself in him, as was almost always his instinct. Unlike every other relationship, this one was about the distance, which meant, in a way, that it was the purest, freest version of desire Santiago had known in his life.
No, now , Santiago responded. The seriousness in his tone was uncharacteristic of him. It shocked him like an unexpected sound or foul smell. He enjoyed this part, too.
C’mon, mami. I’ll pay you after , it almost enraged Santiago as much as it confused him, how Jordan thought he could rip him off again, like he had forgotten their first time. But, Santiago understood that this was part of it, of their secret language and the thrill. The negotiation always stiffened the air with a dark charge, and Santiago imagined that Jordan would feel compelled to fuck him that much harder, to return the air to a tender state.
Now, or nothing , said Santiago, shooting a glance at the door.
Jordan reached into his little drawstring sack and pulled his wallet out. He held it close to his pelvis and counted the bills. It had been over a year since they last met up. Santiago had stopped seeing Jordan after he began dating his ex-boyfriend, the one with the trim beard and Apple watch. His ex had taken care of him and paid for most of his things. There were vacations to Puerto Rico and New Orleans. It was the first time in his life that Santiago felt financially secure, the first time that he didn’t doubt that there would be a future for him. But his ex was never able to fuck him, and as they approached their one year, Santiago began to see how he was just an idea in the man’s head. From that moment on he could do nothing but sabotage the idea the man had of him. He schemed small acts of rebellion and resistance against him. He was unruly, unconquerable. It was compulsive, how he tore his relationship down, until a year had gone by and there was nothing left of it. Tonight, he was four months single. He was no longer poor since he became a waiter at a nice restaurant, but he was lonely, and without his ex in his life, Santiago couldn’t stop thinking about how his future didn't promise anything anymore. He had come to understand that money wasn’t necessarily a future, or rather, that the money he had now could be taken away from him at any moment. There was nothing to assure him that he would live beyond this day. He resented whatever dark force in his past had made him like this, sinister. Fatal.
Jordan was making a show of all the bills in his wallet, counting through them several times before pulling two fifties out, and instead of handing them to Santiago, he set them on the desk. Santiago questioned this, wondering if there was an ulterior motive to putting the money on the desk beyond dehumanizing him. Perhaps Jordan would try to pocket the money at some point. It’d be easier to snatch the bills back if they were just atop the desk. He made a mental note to hide them when Jordan went to the bathroom as he invariably did after every time they fucked. There was no reason they should trust each other anymore, he realized. But for now, it was time for him to fall back on the bed.
He sat at the edge of the mattress in front of Jordan and reclined on his arms. He adjusted the slant of his body, paying attention to how the light slid down his belly until he was satisfied with how the strips and puddles of shadows collected on his abdomen. This was the angle he knew revealed the scope and complexity of his body, his angle of repose. He waited for the effect this would have on Jordan who was stripping off his underwear and crew neck. He waited in suspense to be possessed by his gaze.
He knew already the arc of the exchange to follow. First, Jordan would instruct him to undress and lie on his belly with his hands over his head. He would finish undressing as Santiago looked ahead, saying corny things like, Uy mami, you so beautiful. I should have that booty everyday . Jordan would then come down with his lips, for several minutes kissing and licking and biting and sucking on every part of Santiago’s back. He would fuck him like this first, from behind, Santiago lying still as if he were dead. Jordan would then tell him to stand up by the mirror where he would fuck him from behind again, this time looking at himself in the mirror. Finally, Jordan would fuck him in missionary, pressing Santiago’s lips together between two fingers and kissing his clamped mouth. Santiago never understood the point or purpose of this. When he came, he would back away from Santiago immediately, swiftly pulling the condom off and throwing it defiantly on the ground.
Santiago didn't cum. As Jordan began to pull his pants up, dumb with arousal, he stuck his hand out, a gesture for Jordan to come over and put his dick on his face so he could finish.
Jordan pulled his underwear up, shook his head, and said, laughing: 100.
After locking the door behind Jordan, Santiago went back to his room and pulled the drawer out from under his bed where he kept vials of medicines from the last seven years, most of them expired, and the tangles of chargers and cables for electronics he no longer owned but was still hesitant to get rid of—there, at the center of the drawer, atop a hair comb, sat the two fifties.
Santiago was in the living room when his loneliness greeted him again. His and Dmitri’s mugs sat on the countertop cold. It’s Christmas, he remembered, and he should be making the round of calls soon, to his family members and friends, those worrying about him and his decision to spend the holiday alone in New York. Before it gets too late, he said, but first I need to eat. The miracle of having a body was that you had to feed it, and during that moment where all you had to do was chew and swallow, he would forget that there was an uncertain future ahead of him.
He turned the burner on under the pot from last night. He started singing a Spanish song, one that was festive and played at parties, so loud that you forgot it was about the slave trade in Colombia. He sang aloud with all his lungs, filling the empty cave with his voice. He felt like an Indian princess again, pausing at the single window, checking his reflection, seeing not darkness but himself and the things around him. He poured out a coin of olive oil into the pot. He tilted the handle in a circle until the oil slicked the bottom. After a moment, he added a spoonful of garlic, then a cup of rice. The pan hissed and the smoke rose up to him. He started laughing at himself, at the impossibility of his life, the randomness of it, how funny it was that Jordan called him mami. Now that was a real case of mommy issues. He laughed again at his own joke. He felt like his father, singing and laughing to himself, as he imagined his father did in those little towns in nowhere Colombia. He was frying the rice with garlic before boiling it, like his father did in their kitchen, on the weekends he wasn't off on some mountain, or some desert plain, before Santiago, his mother, and his brother left him and Colombia. His father was spilling out of him at the stove. He was singing. The smell in the kitchen was delicious and familiar. He put the spoon down on the counter. He could see his childhood in the dim, insinuating light above him.
Excerpted from the manuscript "We Never Expected to Win."