Joyland

PNW |

Incredible Empathy

by Thomas Renjilian

edited by Kait Heacock

I.

Lucas started losing hair on his twenty-third birthday. He woke to dark spirals on his sheets and his chest almost bare. There’d been so few hairs to begin with, just two rings around his nipples, and the strands had detached in clumps, so each nipple was surrounded by a semi-circle of black, one like a smile, one like a frown. He fingered what remained and got out of bed.

He had a lot else on his mind, like loneliness and his morning routines. He opened a diet Coke. Instead of drinking it, he listened, giggled, pretended its bubbles were the whispers of a creature speaking a language he didn’t know. He spent a little time body shaming Broadway gays via his troll Twitter and talked back to faceless spam bots on his sex app. Have you enlarged penis with the drug? HUNG HUNG HUNG, a bot tried.

“Yes,” he said. “Hang me by my drug enlarged cock.”

By the time he finished his routines and rushed to campus through the drizzle, which dimmed what light his antics brought and smudged his consciousness to something almost preverbal—cloudcloudclonelylonelynofriendshatehereherehatewet— he’d stopped thinking about the hair. He arrived first to the seminar room where they held Writing the Body. As he waited, he stuck his hand up his shirt to scratch his chest and remembered its new smoothness. When his classmates arrived, they greeted him and made little jokes. One even put out a Tupperware of cupcakes. She’d seen it was his birthday on Facebook.

He didn’t mention the shedding. It wasn’t quite a funny story or a genuinely worrying one. It felt like the kind of minor intimacy you share with a close friend, and he hadn’t been in Oregon long. It was September of his first year of graduate school. Despite their kindness, he wasn’t close with anyone. He said thank you for the cupcakes and left for the bathroom just as the professor arrived. In the stall, he lifted his shirt. It didn’t seem like more hair had fallen out, but when he sat to use the toilet and looked down at his coiled pants and underwear, he found another black strand.

There were a lot of reasons he might be losing hair. His diet was bad. He lived next door to a fake Mexican restaurant called Taquito Shawn’s where all the food was gray and bland and upset his stomach. He ate there every night. He thought of words like vitamin A and keratin, which he’d heard related to hair. Surely, he wasn’t getting them. And he was stressed. He’d lied on his application. He said he wanted to research traditions of queer memoir because he was writing his own about prejudice he’d suffered while attending the Baptist college in his hometown. The program director wrote him a note with his acceptance, offering a full scholarship and calling his work—though he hadn’t sent a sample of the memoir, which didn’t exist—“necessary.” Really, his time at the Baptist college had been sad but fine, mostly just lonely. He’d blamed his exclusion on homophobia, but he was just as lonely here, where everyone had rainbow bumper stickers and open marriages.

The stall was scratched with names he didn’t know, jokes he didn’t understand, and rebellions so boring—love yourself penis 666— they seemed like they might’ve come pre-painted on the stall. He started to feel the way he’d been feeling here, like everything was fake but familiar, a strange place in a dream that had some but not all of home’s features. Not frightening, but disorienting nonetheless. He stroked his nipple. Was it his? Only the itch where hair once grew confirmed it was.

He wanted something blunt and known. He wrote FAGGOT in pen on the stall.

**

“The author conjured incredible empathy,” one of his classmates was saying when he got back.

“I felt like I knew exactly how he felt. Like I knew everything about him by the end.”

“Yes! This is going to sound weird, but I felt like there was the exact right amount of suffering. Obviously, he didn’t have a choice in how much he suffered, but he put in a good amount. It didn’t feel like trauma porn.”

“How much more suffering would have made it trauma porn?” the professor asked.

“Even just a little bit more. Honestly the littlest bit. It’s perfect how it is.”

“Right, good point.”

They were discussing a memoir by a man who’d attempted suicide during conversion therapy. He knew he should like the book, but he resented it. It was beautiful and sad and made so much sense. Maybe he was jealous that this man was a better writer than him, or maybe just jealous that he had something to point to and say, “This is the way I’ve suffered.”

“Welcome back, birthday boy.” The professor’s eyes were on him. He had some green frosting on his lip. “I’m especially interested in your thoughts.”

“Oh, I liked it.” He flipped pages like he was looking for textual evidence.

“Just liked it? I added it to the syllabus when I heard your interests. I was worried you would’ve read it already.”

“Yeah,” Lucas said. “I had. Read it. It was, well, it was absolutely necessary.”

“Ok, yes, sure.” The professor tongued the green off his lip. “Anyone else?”

After class, the professor suggested Lucas deepen his analysis next time.

**

It was raining and had rained every day that week. Oregon was the perpetual aftermath of a gaudy funeral, all damp, dying roses. Lucas was reading his email in bed. He’d skipped Writing the Body because his stomach hurt from the discolored pork he’d eaten the night before. A week’s worth of hairs scarred his sheets. The small of his back was smooth.

“It has come to our attention,” the email began, “that hate speech has been discovered in Calhoun Hall. It should go without saying based on our statement on acceptance, diversity, and support, that the School of Literature, Culture and Society tolerates discrimination in no form whatsoever. We stand with the homosexual victims of this act of rhetorical violence.”

Damn snowflakes , he whispered, but the email made him feel guilty. What if he’d ruined someone’s day, or worse? What if an undergrad had seen the graffiti and felt so bad that he hurt himself? At the Baptist college, this kind of graffiti was all over. Every private place was marked by something threatening. Sure, eventually a janitor would scrub it off, but no one ever made a big deal about it. One of his professors even claimed that most acts of prejudice—slurs on walls, nooses hung from trees—were the work of liberals and homosexuals and women and African Americans or other diverse people who wanted to feel like victims. Had he proven right the exact people he defined himself against? He didn’t think he wanted to feel like a victim. Maybe he was just a bad person, a weird person, a mean person, and he couldn’t hold it in any longer.

That afternoon, when he got to Calhoun for Literature of War, the department head approached him.

“Lucas.” She reached out and touched his forearm. “I don’t know if you saw the horrible graffiti, but I want to reassure you that we do not condone that. We want to do everything we can to make this a safe space.”

“I didn’t see it.” He pulled his arm away and began twirling his bangs. “I heard, of course. I’ve seen much worse. I feel very accepted here.”

“Good. Hey, why don’t you send me an email with your availability. I’d love to take a look at that memoir. We can figure out a really personalized course of study.”

“Right, great, thank you.”

In Literature of War, the class debated whether every stabbing in The Song of Roland was a metaphor for gay sex or if only some were. He’d only read the SparkNotes, so he just listened.

**

One night in October, he went out to Taquito Shawn’s with people from class. He didn’t usually drink. When he came alone, he ordered diet Coke in a glass bottle, but that night someone bought a round of margaritas, then someone bought another, and Lucas, feeling a little bubbly and a little pressured, picked up the third. They got too drunk, and one of the poetry MFA students started asking prying questions. When did you feel most alone? What event in your past originated your least favorite aspect of the person you are today?

Everyone had long, thought-out answers.

“You’ve been quiet, Lucas.”

Something was off about the lighting in here. He never noticed it alone, but everyone’s skin tone seemed slightly wrong, like they were all inside a badly tuned TV set.

“I’m not introspective,” he said. “I don’t have a good memory.”

“Aren’t you writing a memoir?”

“Yeah, but it’s bad.”

“Tell us.”

He said OK.

“I’ll answer that last question.” To buy time, he licked salt from the rim of his glass, but when he started talking the words just came. “Sometimes I think I’m too weak and wonder why. Remember the graffiti? The homophobic graffiti in the bathroom stall?”

“Of course.”

“Outrageous.”

“People!”

“Well, when I saw it, I felt so hurt. I could barely speak in class.”

“Oh, I remember that.”

“Which day?”

“When he had nothing to say about the gay book.”

“My birthday, right. It just took me back to my undergrad, you know, at this horrible Baptist college, and I just remembered how—”

He paused for a long time. What should he say? That the church hadn’t consumed his life, that as a kid it had scared him, sure, but he’d learned to laugh about it? That his mom had cried when he came out, not because she’d been disgusted or afraid he’d go to hell (though she was), but because she loved him still, because she loved him enough to look him in the eye and say, “I love you for you.” And what was you, then? Who he fucked? Well, he didn’t. Who he wanted to? Was unattained desire enough to be a you? Should he admit he hadn’t suffered that bad? That he had had friends, Abby and Angela, two platinum blond atheists in cosmetology school who had more anal sex than he did, each with her own alcoholic boyfriend. He’d met them in the dining hall, where he did work study and they worked full time. What should he say? That they went for drives and drank cheap beer in parking lots like any normal not oppressed people, and they liked him, and he liked them, and it was that liking that felt bad?

Could he say that the problem with acceptance was it hurt worse to come close but fall short, to live in the same house with acceptance, to see the love promised to you in spite of what they think is worst about you, to unwrap gay YA novels your mom bought for you, to be driven to the only gay bar in town, to stand a few feet away from Abby and Angela to look available, to sway there, to be ignored there, to be driven home, to find your mom waiting up with a mug of hot chocolate for you, to find your mom wanting to talk, to have nothing you can put into words, to know you are more and worse than what she loves you for, that you’re just bad and that’s it. This hurt worse than it would to be shut out entirely, to be banging on a door with its locks changed as the family inside shouts die die die. There wasn’t a word for this feeling, and without a word you just had to feel it.

“Are you crying? What happened? Fucked up shit?”

This was Scott. He was straight and friendly but still everything he said to Lucas sounded like a threat. There was no reason it felt like that. It just did.

“Scott, fuck off,” one of the poets said. “Trauma is inarticulable. That’s its whole thing.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I can talk about it.” Though the frame he’d given his feelings was false, this was true. He had no idea what events originated who he was.

On plates, stray onions and meat crumbles. Their drinks just ice melting in green dregs.

“I’m going to use the restroom. Then maybe we should go? I’ve gotta get some more writing done tonight. On the memoir.”

When he went to the bathroom, he brought a knife from the table. He pressed the knife to the waxy stall door and carved GAY = HELL.

The next morning, he woke to long, black curls on his pillow—these must’ve come from his head—and his eyes were scratchy from sleeping on top of them. He imagined how the hair would accumulate as more and more detached, imagined a full black nest and his head lying in it, like one a crow plucked from a lost doll and flew away with.

**

He spent November avoiding the program director and ignoring assignments to write some semblance of a memoir. In the morning, he’d pour a bowl of cereal. On the back of the box, a woman ate this same cereal in a bright kitchen with big windows looking out on the ocean. She wore exercise clothes and seemed incredibly hopeful. This was the first time he’d bought a cereal box featuring people, not cartoons, and something about waking up to the woman made him feel both capable and moral, like the way he lived might not scare people, might actually inspire them.

Biting the cereal hurt cavities he’d never filled. It never got soggy. He sat at his laptop in the kitchen and didn’t write. He read descriptions of hate crimes for inspiration, but he could never get more than a few sentences in before he closed the tab. Fragmented images flashed through his mind, like memories, like he was both there and watching himself, and he wasn’t the victim. Faceless and vague, he was the one lifting a chair, a pipe, about to throw a punch.

Snap out of it.

Sometimes, he’d realize that as he read, he’d been curling his hair around his pointer finger. When he pulled his hand away, there’d be a black knot around it. Was he doing this to himself? And in his sleep, too?

He wrote almost nothing, read almost nothing, and when his meeting with the director approached, he said he had a stomach ache and described it with too many details, all of which, though he hadn’t been to Taquito Shawn’s in weeks, were true.

**

He didn’t want to spend the night alone. It was near the end of the semester. People were keeping their distance from him. He could tell. Someone was throwing a party a few blocks from his apartment. They’d invited him, of course, but he didn’t want to go. He saw pictures online of his classmates getting dressed for it, and later in the night he watched short dark Instagram stories of people swaying and jumping in a kitchen.

He opened his sex app and scrolled through. His own photo was a headshot his mom had paid for after his graduation. Up in the top corner, he looked like a chaperone looking down on the bare torsos and drunk gazes and brows so dramatically plucked and angled they seemed in the throes of perpetual orgasm. At home, where he had the app but no picture, he sometimes worried profiles were hate-crime bait, that he’d meet up with a man and find him different, violent. He never messaged anyone. Here, he wasn’t worried the pictures were fake but that they were too true: that these men really did want sex as much as they seemed to, and that being part of their wanting would feel bad, or gross, that it would be not quite violent, but painful still. Just looking at the other guys’ pictures made him feel regret, but prematurely, like the pictures had already done to him what the men would when they arrived, like they’d implicated him in something before he’d chosen to do it.

His mind was worse than anything real. He’d just message someone. He just had to.

One man called himself a “Christian, vet student, vers bottom” and all of that sounded strange but fine. He hadn’t expected to find another Christian, not that he was Christian still, and it made him feel comfortable, like they might even have a conversation. He was attractive but not intimidatingly attractive, a little older than Lucas and he looked it (bearded, tired), so Lucas messaged him.

Hi

He sent Lucas a shirtless picture. He had a nice body.

Hello

Your Christian lol?

yeah lol don’t ask or do if you care idk.

He didn’t.

I can host if you wanna

He didn’t even ask for more pics. He’d be there in a half hour. Lucas hadn’t washed his sheets in months. It was December—so cold and wet—and the laundry room at his complex was across the parking lot. These were his only sheets, and they were covered in hair. The large ones were easy to sweep away, but there were so many, and the small ones were so ingrained that they seemed like a stubble growing from the fabric itself. He tried to rub them off, but they stuck.

He found tweezers in his bathroom and went to his kitchen cabinet to get a crumpled plastic shopping bag. One by one he tweezed the strands and put them in the bag. They clung to the sides. When he shoved it into his closet, he felt guilty, like he was hiding something he himself had killed and mutilated, an animal hide turned inside out.

When the vet student got there, he was the same as his picture. He had the awkward start of a beard. He was wearing a hoodie and cargo pants, which were both too large for him. He looked straight, and Lucas found this both scary and hot. When he opened his mouth and said, “Lucas?” in a high pitched and tentative voice, he felt less scared. But why did the vet student phrase his name like a question? Did he look that different than his photo? Was he Lucas?

“Yes,” Lucas said.

“Well, let’s get down to business.”

The vet student undressed. Lucas led him to his room but didn’t turn on the light in case any hairs might be visible.

While the vet student was going down on him, he felt little pinpricks on his groin. He didn’t remember this pain from last time he did this—just for a few minutes, behind the dumpster outside the dining hall at school—and this didn’t happen when he jacked himself off. Maybe this man had sharp teeth, maybe it was his stubble, or maybe when someone else got you this close to orgasm it hurt a little bit, like how when someone else tickles you it feels more intense and painful than when you tickle yourself.

He was getting close, but the vet student started to gag. The vet student pulled away and reached into his mouth and tried to fish something out of his cheek. He pulled out a tangle of hair. He laughed and threw himself onto his back beside Lucas. “I’m so tired, I should go.”

“OK.”

The vet student left the hair on the nightstand, and when he was gone, Lucas brought it to the bag in his closet. Neither of them had come. It seemed unfair to hate yourself for the kind of sex you wanted, and when you got it, to hate yourself for being bad at it.

The next day, he went to the library and found a copy of the conversion therapy book they’d read in class. He opened it to a random page and wrote “FAGS DIE” with a permanent marker, and then he wished he hadn’t. Whatever. It wasn’t necessarily a command or threat. You could read it in the indicative. A fact that made fags more relatable. In Literature of War, someone had brought up misogyny in A Farewell to Arms, and the professor explained that great literature had the ability to transcend identity, to become universal. From that perspective, he’d made this book more effective: it now confronted the important theme of death. Maybe it would win an award.

**

He turned in mediocre papers, promised to meet with the director sometime in January, and booked a flight home to Scranton. The night of his red eye, on the way to the airport shuttle, he went back to Taquito Shawn’s. He ordered three pork tacos, ate them, and sat in the booth until his stomach hurt. He went to the bathroom and waited by the sink until the guy in the stall finished. The guy made eye contact with him while he left. He didn’t wash his hands. Lucas rushed into the stall, slammed the door, and saw what he’d done.

He’d started a conversation.

Fuck off homophobe fuck off faggot suck a cock 5557188765 faggots call me if u wanna die. The tip of a cock touching the tip of another cock under the wordsgay sex. A picture of a gun. A picture of a body hung from a tree. This is sick fags are sick. A face with exed out eyes. You make me want to die so die don’t do it do it don’t kill yourself call 18005552782 5557188765 every life is preshious and blessed. A torso with a six-pack labeled jack off 2 this fags.

It was well drawn. He got a little hard. He took a photo of his cock and sent it to the vet student. “Feeling horny before my flight.” The vet student sent back the heart eyes emoji and a plane. Lucas said, “Deleting this app while I’m home, text me.” He sent his number and deleted his account before he left the stall.

The vet student texted him. He was surprised. He knew he hadn’t been fun. That sex with him had been, actually, odd. Parts of his body had torn off.

Hey you.

His teeth wouldn’t stop clicking no matter how hard he clenched his jaw. Under a blanket on the plane, he stuck his hands in his pants and rested his palms where his pubes had been.

II.

For time to pass while he stayed himself was unfair. To travel so far while he stayed himself was unfair. His eyes burned from being open all night. He needed to stand, leave this cramped seat, go to the bathroom, but he couldn’t. He was stuck. What he’d done was still something he’d done. Outside the window, Pennsylvania’s sun was rising, but in Salem it would still be dark. Another coast was continuing without him but with his repercussions.

Sawdust falling from carved stall doors.

Faggot faggot faggot .

What if a homophobe saw the words and got inspired and went out looking for gays, and what if the homophobe found the vet student, what if he found the vet student and hurt him? Or what if the vet student saw the writing and somehow knew it had been his? He couldn’t control the marks he left behind. It was very easy to lose yourself but very hard to erase yourself, and when you were on a plane circling the small airport in your hometown as last streetlamps dimmed and people woke, and you were so far from where you’d just been, it was very hard not to feel that everything you’ve done and everything you’ve imagined and everyone you’ve known and all the thoughts they’ve had about you, that all of it was you and would always be you because you couldn’t even send a text. You were just here, in a too small seat, in your body, rubbing against a stranger’s night sweat.

Beneath the blanket he rubbed his smooth skin which was, now, maybe less complicated in a way, less inclined to spill past itself, to erupt. They landed.

Hi

Thinking of you

His mom hugged him in the airport and said, “You’re safe,” as if her stating this made it true. They got on the highway. It was Sunday morning.

“You’re sure you don’t want to try going.”

“No.”

“The message can be good.”

He pressed his forehead to the glass. He’d forgotten how bare this place was in winter. Wet cliffs the highway was blown from. Through trunks, muddy white of passing train cars. A layer of ice over leaf litter.

“I didn’t sleep on the flight. I just want to sleep.”

Landscapeless yards. Clotheslines hung with empty snowsuits. His scraped, raw throat, like he’d been screaming, but he hadn’t.

When he opened the glove compartment to get a tissue, he found a cross wrapped neatly in the cord that once dangled it from the rearview mirror. Had she hidden it from him? Or placed it there so he’d find it hidden? The way she wrapped it, Jesus wore the coiled black string like a crop top. He felt dirty looking at it.

**

How was the flight

He’d woken up from his nap at night and started unpacking. He pulled the plastic bag of shed hairs from his suitcase. Why had he brought it?

Hahahahahaha

He pulled out his laptop, his “How to Write a Memoir” book, the few scribbles he’d written in his journal. It felt just as absurd to have these as it did the hair bag. The hair bag! Jesus. What was more embarrassing: trying to represent himself and failing or these little black shards he’d shed and saved?

Hahahahah

Flight was fine, home is weird.

Haha ok

Texting the vet student made him feel normal, like he had a real partner, the kind, regardless of gender, his mother might approve of even if their church didn’t. He reminded himself: It was 2015, gay marriage was legal, and for most people, being gay was not great but was socially fine. Still, when he went to bed, he felt nauseous.

Do you cut up animals ever

Hahaha uhhh

**

Hi

Hi

Hows home- Portland right?

Beaverton. I’m in Salem till Christmas. It’s boring.

want a nude

yes

He went to the bathroom and took one.

hot

He looked in the mirror. Was he? From the pictures, the vet student would have no idea what was wrong with him. A hairless chest was normal, and he cropped the photo at his forehead and held his hand over his thinning pubes. From the pictures, the vet student wouldn’t know anything at all.

He dressed and walked into the hall. In the dark living room, his mother’s face was pale with computer light. She was always in the living room, always staring at the computer. For work, she added old classmates as friends on Facebook and convinced them to buy glue-on fingernails. She was focused, but her focus looked too purposeful, like it was affected. Had she been outside the bathroom door listening? Peering under the crack?

“Hi sweetie. Want to go for a drive to see the lights?”

She’d become more observant after he came out. She’d warned him not to let anyone at school know—for his safety. When he was living at home during college, she’d barge into his room unannounced just to check in. She would, against his will, do his laundry. She’d change his sheets. She’d rearrange the furniture, looking, he figured for porn he’d stashed behind a bureau or bookshelf, and now her presence, her closeness, her accommodation felt cloying. Was she trying to love him or find a reason not to? Would she still love him if she stood at the threshold of the bathroom and watched him take a nude or stroke his cock to the vet student’s pics or carve slurs into wood?

“Sure, yes, I’ll just get my shoes.”

From the car, in one of the rich neighborhoods, they were looking at an elaborate display.

“Oh gosh, Lukey, all those penguins, look, oh gosh. What a party!”

The penguins’ light on her metallic nails.

“Wow, yeah”

“How many is that. Would you count?”

“Looks like ten.”

“Ten penguins, oh gosh.” She laughed. “That means ones a gay you know.”

“Mother.” They laughed and stayed parked there deciding which of the ten was a gay until someone in the house pulled the cord and the penguins went dark at once. Would he ever have something like this? Would he say to the vet student let’s go for a drive? Let’s go look at glowing trees and elves and count the Marys tipped over in life-size mangers. No. His mother leaned over to kiss him, and he pulled away from her.

**

Back in his room, worries returned. He’d twirled out some more hair, and when he checked his email there was one from the director offering to read a draft over break, and then he remembered the graffiti. He imagined his mother in the car, looking at the penguins, but she had a different gay son, and that gay son had a black eye because he’d been beaten up by someone inspired by his graffiti, and the mother couldn’t stop crying.

What’s your relationship with your mom like?

He liked being able to text the vet student—being there and here, not a body but something existing between them, like trolling but with love, or affection, or something at least. He got a thrill and felt excited while he waited, excited but safe because of the randomness, and the cliché, which made vulnerability easier.

Good. Can be tense idk.

Tell me.

She had a hard time accepting me.

Made me go to counselling with out minister which was…

interesting.

That sounds like hell.

Actually he was a cool guy

He like listened to me

He got my mom to listen to me

Were close now. We talk about dating lol

Will you tell her I sent yout his.

Hahaha wish I could suck that no I wont tell her ;)

My moms nice about it too. Creeps me out.

Why

Idk

feels fake maybe or like invasive idk

Don’t wanna talk about it

I imss you

I imss you too lol

He did feel that, the missing, though the typo had been intentional. The missing felt fake. Unearned. They’d only met once. They barely texted. They didn’t know each other. He didn’t think it was missing that he felt, but it was something close.

**

During the last days before his flight back to Oregon, he’d borrowed his mom’s car to drive around. He went to random places like the McDonalds in the next town over. While his nuggets cooled, he’d drive somewhere else, like the abandoned Blockbuster parking lot, which had a view. He’d look over the guardrail at Scranton in the valley and the mined-out mountains around it. He’d sit in the car in the parking lot, peel the breading from chicken nuggets, dunk their bare bodies in honey mustard, then eat the skins separately. He’d feel his lungs constrict, and he’d and text the vet student, something like:

When I was like 9 I thought I was the antichrist lol

Sorry

Home sucks

Hahaha feeling nostalgic?

Don’t yu have to have good memories for that

I don’t think so I think they just have to be memories

Everythings fine once you live through it

Haha no

The reason I thought it

They said something at bible school I forget what

and then whenever the sky looked red at night I thought it was a sign

and it was following me the redness

and I told my friend I thought the devil was making the sy red

*sly red

*sky red

and she said its not red its pink

bc the antichrist will be a faggot I think she knew I was gay

I was only 9

I was scared a lot too haha

Haha im drinking wine

Haha I figured

It was just little things like that

What was

Hows Salem?

**

On his last day home, he decided to drive to the Baptist college. He parked in the lot near the dining hall. The campus was empty, but he didn’t get out of the car. Nothing about the place should be scary, but he locked the car doors as he sat and watched water ripple in the pond they’d dug and filled while he was a student there. What was he doing? What was he afraid of? Old people walked laps around the pond at all times of day here. No one would recognize him. They couldn’t ban him from campus for being gay.

He walked to the dumpsters behind the dining hall. During breaks at his work study in the kitchen, he’d stand out here with Abby and Angela while they smoked. When he met Abby on his first day of work, she took one look at him and asked, “Are you a Baptist or a bottom?” He said, “Baptist sort of and the bottom of what?” He was 18. He didn’t know about the different positions in gay sex. Abby and Angela explained it and set him up with Skeeter, one of the cooks. He brought Lucas out back by the dumpster and they took turns sucking each other off until Skeeter said, “That’s enough.” Skeeter got fired a few weeks later for stealing the frozen pork they used for Taco Tuesday, and Lucas spent the next four years celibate.

Look at him now. Practically in love.

Near the trash, he redownloaded the sex app and paid for the premium version, which let you set your location to anywhere, even if you weren’t really there. He set it to Salem. There he was: the vet student. He messaged him. He laughed. He waited for a response. Was he doing something sweet and funny or cruel or something else?

HI SEXXY Christian

Crucify me

Nail me to your big wood

Thatd be hot pics?

He went onto Facebook, found a picture of Skeeter, and sent it.

Wow so fucking hot

So fucking hot

He’d never been so enthusiastic for Lucas.

Oh yeah you wanna get fucked?

Yes

Tonight?

Yes

Say please

Please

This was probably what he’d wanted, to troll him and ghost him, and to feel how? Rejected or betrayed? Comforted by his insignificance? He felt happy, no manic, a mania like what he thought unconditional love was, like he could tell the vet student anything.

Where

I can’t host

I know a spot

He told him he’d wait in the stall at Taquito Shawn’s. They’d wait for the bathroom to empty and fuck against the wall. But Lucas wouldn’t be there. It would be the vet student and the graffiti. He wondered if the vet student would text him about it. He wondered if he’d know Lucas had written the first slur, or maybe he wouldn’t notice it. Maybe it wasn’t a big deal at all.

It felt like sharing a secret even though it was done through a lie.

He couldn’t be alone while he waited, so he texted Abby and Angela. They were free and drunk and hanging out at Abby’s place.

Guess where I am. I need a favor.

He wasn’t sure why he’d been avoiding them. He just was. He hadn’t texted them much the summer after college and barely at all while he was in Oregon. They were obsessed with their boyfriends, and if he didn’t reach out, they wouldn’t either. None of them took it personally.

It felt good to be there with them. He sat in the living room of Abby’s apartment while Angela talked about her break up. He was wrapped in a garbage bag, and all he could hear was the buzz of Abby rubbing the shaver against his scalp. They laughed at old stories. He brought up Skeeter and the pork, and Abby said, “Yeah he’s married now.”

He watched clumps of hair fall to the ground.

“This isn’t normal Lucas, you should see a doctor. Sorry.” She’d clipped his ear. “You got a fuck buddy out there?”

“That’s one word for it.”

What the fuck man?

“Wanna see his picture?”

Seriously

What the fuck

“Damn he’s cute. A fucking doctor? I’d let him heal me.”

Abby mimed sucking a cock.

“He’s an animal doctor, but yeah, me too.”

Lucas mimed it too. All three of them mimed sucking cocks in a circle.

“Take a look.” Abby held up a mirror. All the hair was gone.

“I think I love him. He gets me. He just gets me.”

You fucking creep

Fuck off

Hows your night?

Its ok hows yours

He didn’t respond. He didn’t need to. He fucked off like the vet student told him to, and he felt ashamed but safe fucking off. In Oregon the previous summer there’d been an eclipse. He watched it— the way the sun disappeared behind the moon, and the moon got dark, and the earth got dark because neither had ever had light of their own. But maybe it was fine to pretend.

**

His mom was on the couch when he got home. A beer can in her hand, two beside her.

She didn’t drink.

“I thought we could enjoy a beer together honey. A nice beer.”

She came toward him, arms spread. “My little baby.”

“Mom.”

“But I drank all the beers. I’m so, so sorry. All gone.”

She held her empty hand in front of her face for a moment, then took it away.

“You can’t stay for Christmas sweetie, really? Really?”

It was the first she’d brought it up. Tomorrow, his flight, was Christmas Eve. He’d told her it was the only day he could get a flight. She hadn’t argued though he knew she’d been hurt.

“Sometimes we don’t know who we are,” she said. “Sometimes we think we’re one thing because we see it on TV or someone tells us to be it and we aren’t it, we aren’t. Have you ever thought? Maybe?”

“Yes.” He sat beside her and drank the last warm sip. “I might be wrong.”

**

He flew back to Oregon. Christmas passed, New Years passed. He missed the first week of class and the second. Professors emailed. He didn’t respond. The program director emailed. She said she was worried. He felt guilty, but he didn’t write back. It was so cold outside.

He thought maybe he could get an excuse from a doctor, an explanation. Since he’d shaved, he couldn’t tell if the hair was still trying to fall. It was growing back unevenly. He made an appointment. A specialist. He sat in the parking lot thinking this is it. Something.

Shirtless, seated on spread tissue paper, he held out his phone to the specialist.

“I shaved it, but it used to look like this.”

“See the splotches?”

“This is my chest.”

“I’m sorry they’re dark.”

“I thought it was stress.”

The specialist examined the pictures of him. He didn’t look for long.

“No. This is alopecia universalis.”

Universal? “Is it contagious?”

“Genetic, maybe. It may have genetic factors. Not contagious. The etiology is uncertain. It’s an autoimmune disease. The body is attacking your hair follicles as if they’re foreign substances, like germs.”

“My body believes my body is a germ.”

“Well. Responds to itself as if. There’s no, well, rationality, no belief. It’s cellular.”

“How do I stop it.”

“You don’t.”

“Is it rare? Will it kill me?”

“Yes and no. The rarity of a condition isn’t synonymous with its severity.”

“My body is attacking other parts of my body.”

“It’s mostly a nuisance. Mostly aesthetic. You may have a greater risk of other conditions, but I see no other symptoms. You seem fine.”

Fine? He seemed fine? He seemed fine.

“Can it have psychological effects? The disease?”

“I suppose. One can have a psychological response to anything. Death, depilation, any minor stress. Psychology is very subjective. I’m a dermatologist. You might consider hats. Hats have been shown to minimize shame.”

**

He texted the vet student. He said he was sorry, that he hadn’t meant to ghost him, but that in Pennsylvania he had a really hard time. He’d gotten sick, very sick, but now at least he had a name for it. It was so good to have a name for it at least. Could they maybe hang out?

Maybe this week?

sure

A teaser

Thanks

**

Movie theaters reminded him of churches. People sitting in the dark and looking at the same thing, hearing the same story, and you didn’t know how the story was going to go, and if it went a way you didn’t like you couldn’t leave. But the movie he’d suggested to the vet student was in Spanish, or French, some language he didn’t speak, and if he didn’t like it, he could just zone out. It was a documentary about homosexuals living under repressive regimes and the ways we could make them stop their suffering. Maybe it would be inspirational. He doubted it.

Still, it felt like a good first date for him and the vet student. He figured spending time together in the dark might be a good transition, might let them get used to being with each other without seeing each other. What if he didn’t like his new hat?

Lucas got there late, or not early enough, and the only two seats were in the front row. He was looking forward to sitting with the vet student beside him. They might share an arm rest or lay their hands one each other’s lap, but the vet student was later than he was.

The previews passed, and dancing popcorn told him to silence his phone. He reached into his pocket and found no new texts. What had the vet student realized about him? Maybe nothing. Maybe he’d just felt ignored. He’d never know. The screen dimmed. He would probably have to leave. He would probably have to go home. He stood, but before he left, he was mistaken, by the program director in the back, corner seat, for a defect in the screen, a tear or a smudge that for just a second blocked the light.