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Seal

lips

 

Tori looked so picturesque that Zach cursed himself for not bringing his camera. She’d called at two in the morning, needing a ride, and then begging off and telling him he could go back to sleep. But she was downtown, and it was a two mile hike uphill to her dorm at Vandy. He was pulling up beside her three minutes after leaving his trashy-chic studio loft near Five Points.

Her black skirt swished a half-beat before the rest of her body followed. Her red hair seemed to absorb the glow of the bar front neon. He would have honked, but the familiar rattle of his old Wagoneer gave him away, and she waved to make sure he could see her. Of course he could see her.

“Tell me again why we’re not dating?” she sighed, climbing in and leaning back in her seat.

“Your giant, giant boyfriend, mainly,” he told her. He pushed in the cigarette lighter below the dash. He didn’t smoke, it was just something he did. Some folks touched their nose. Others tugged their collars. He played with the cigarette lighter in his truck. “Also,” he added, curling his fist and lowering his voice, “my art is my true love.”

“Oh, Jesus. What do you call it when someone cliches a cliche? Hypercliche? Megacliche?”

“I’m a barista and a photographer, living in a studio apartment above a pizza joint. I am the Voltron of cliches.”

“You’re not too cliched! Didn’t you sell something recently?”

“Sure did. From that gallery there.” They passed by a tiny storefront, the picture window covered in white blinds. In huge Veranda font the numbers “465” were stenciled in black. “Dude bought a picture of mine for a grand.”

What? Hell yeah!” She punched him on the arm, and he added to his cliche gestalt by pretending the punch hadn’t hurt. “How are you not more excited about that?”

“Well, it might not happen again.”

“Oh, Jesus.” She shook her head. “If you’re gonna be broody I think I’d rather walk.”

“I’m not broody. I just don’t wanna get too comfortable with the idea I can live off my photos.” He’s in a good space now, but when he worked two grueling jobs just to survive, he’d sometimes wake in the middle of the night unable to breathe. But things evened out for him. He starves now, making coffee and hustling photos, but at the price of finally living.

Ben Folds was playing in his stereo.

And all this wanderin’…

Got you nothin’…

“So I guess I’d be the chipper one.”

“What?”

“When we’re together. I’ll clearly have to be the optimistic one.”

“Yeah.” The lighter popped back out, and after a beat he pushed it back in. “But we won’t be together.”

“Yeah,” she nodded.

You were ready to…

But never could…

“So was it a bad fight?”

“Not really. Just…” she sighed, “a stupid one.”

“So you’ll call him tomorrow.”

“Guess I gotta.”

“Yep,” and in the flash of a street light he could see her smile at him, “now that I’m gonna hold ya accountable and all.”

He pulled up to her building. The campus police call box by the door flashed blue and red in the still night. She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “You’re a lifesaver, man.”

“Cherry flavored and everything.” And he smiled after her as she climbed out. He caught himself a little too late watching the swish of her skirt against her thighs as she went in.

“Come on. Get your head on straight.”

At a light, he caught his reflection in the rear view mirror, saw the faint pink imprint on his cheek where she’d kissed him. He snapped a quick pic with his phone, and back at home he toyed with filters and exposure until her lipstick was a steel-gray print, framed by flecks of stubble along the slate white board of his cheek. He printed a copy, then scribbled along the gloss with a permanent marker. Once the words had soaked in he made two more prints, one to hang, one to hustle. He could easily get thirty bucks a copy for this print. He was gonna try for three hundred.

Are…

You…

Happy…

Wanderin’?

He texted a woman he knew, but she never responded before he fell asleep. Beside his whirring laptop, the corner of the print hung over the edge of his desk. It wafted in the eddy of his ceiling fan. Across the gloss, beneath Tori’s steel kiss, was the title, scrawled in black ink.

“Seal.”

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Queer Exchange

fuzzy crash screen

 

We’re scrambling tonight. An idiot coworker changed the register password. I can’t blame him for that. The system forces us to every three months as a security measure. What I can blame him for is the hopelessly idiotic neglect he’s shown by not telling a single fucking person that he changed the password. No one can reach him, and the owner texts saying he’s on the phone with IT.

“I’m on hold now,” is what he actually texted. Then another text, forty minutes after the last one: “Still on hold.”

One poor woman with a cart full of groceries patiently waits for us to tally her amount by hand, and pays with cash. She’s extremely cool about it. Our apologies are answered with a casual “It’s no problem,” and she tells us she’s just grateful we let her in through the back exit, sparing her a walk through the alley to the front door. She ducks back out the same way on her way back to her apartment.

The next guy isn’t so understanding. I hate this guy, and lately it’s gotten harder for me to hide my displeasure whenever he’s in the store. He’s a fucking throwback, one of those gays who insists on endorsing every effete stereotype that society likes to hoist on the rest of us. He’s whiny and rude and self-absorbed. We’re a small produce shop but he complains when we don’t carry prices or merchandise found at Kroger. He’s a twelve year old in a gay fat man’s body, and I can’t stand him.

I think he can read my disdain on my face. I tell him our system is down and ask him if he’s comfortable writing down his card information. He tells me he’s not, which is understandable, and I apologize. What throws me, though, is his attempt to hand me his card immediately afterward.

“So, you want me to write down your info?” I ask him.

“No! No, I’m not comfortable with that.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sorry, sir, our system’s down…”

“Well WHEN IS IT GOING TO BE UP?” He gives me a glare I would almost call evil, but he’s such a priss I can’t help but think of it as bitchy. It’s weird, how prissy he is. The guy’s a head taller than me and outweighs me by a good seventy pounds.

“I don’t know, buddy. It crashed.” I sigh, and tear off some receipt paper. “You can just take your merchandise, and we can take your phone number down and call you to settle the difference at your earliest convenience.”

He notices my irritation, and his mood shifts to apologia. “I’m sorry, I just had an issue lately with my information, and it was a nightmare…”

“I don’t care, sir,” I say, too honestly, of course, but there it is.

“I’m sorry,” he says after a moment, “but do I irritate you?”

“No,” I lie, unconvincingly.

Later, after we close, I stroll down to a bar and get a couple beers. He’s there, of course, because God was the kind of kid who liked kicking puppies.

I sit beside him without realizing it, and it doesn’t dawn on me that he’s there until he notices me and starts talking.

“You seem disapproving of me,” he pushes. “I’m not trying to be catty, but…”

“From one queer to another,” I tell him, hoping to shut this down before I take a few more shots, “you fucking embarrass me. And if somehow you’re not queer, then I still find you embarrassing on a human level.”

“How DARE you call…”

“…myself queer? Fuck you, prissy-pants, you don’t own that goddamn word. You’re a shitty, pampered little asshole, and I don’t want to fucking talk to you.”

“I’m friends with your boss,” he threatens.

“Everyone’s friends with my boss. My boss fucking loves me.”

“And nice play trying to pretend you’re gay. That’s the lamest shield for gay-bashing I’ve seen in a while.”

“I’m not gay, I’m bi,” I correct him. “But I don’t care if you believe that, either. I’d never fuck you, you fuckin’ whale.”

I’m being meaner than is necessary, but fuck him. Fuck him for appropriating me into his definition of himself. Fuck him for using a defining aspect of my humanity as a fucking shield. Fuck him for never carrying cash.

I down two shots of Cutty Sark, one two in a row, and ask for another beer. Something hoppy, something that’ll boil the way my blood is right now. Right now I hate this fucking kid the way I hated the redneck last week, who went on and on about how much he hated queers and Jews, a bizarre double-hitter for a guy like me. In a way I hate this kid more. At least the asshole last week was bold enough to display his evil transparently. This shit hides behind shields. He’s a coward who uses persecution as a blank check to be an asshole. He probably sells it as being “brave.”

I turn to the friend I met there, another bi guy. I kiss him. He’s initially surprised but he gets what I’m doing, and he rolls with it. I hold the kiss a little too long, long enough that the pissy tub of aggravation to my right knows I’m not bluffing.

“I don’t fuckin’ like you,” I tell him when we break. “In point of fact I might fuckin’ hate you. You’re a prissy bitch and you’re every reason I got beaten up every week in high school. You live in the lofts upstairs, and I have to card you when you buy wine. So I know you’re rich, and I know you’re younger than me. I would bet a week’s pay you never got a tooth knocked out in a public school’s locker room because you like kissing boys. I got two fake teeth because my tastes weren’t limited to pussy. So fuck you, and fuck your false outrage.”

I was going to take another shot of Cutty Sark, but I let my temper get a hold of me and I sling it across the asshole’s shirt. The bar has my card in the system and the bartender knows me, so I make peace with the automatic gratuity they’ll charge and I leave, hugging my friend as I go.

“Later man!” he calls, then dives into a conversation with his current girlfriend. Girlfriend, by which I mean he and she fuck now and again.

Outside I come across a young woman I saw earlier in the evening, an attractive kid, a college student. “Oh hey, you work at the store down the block, right?”

“Sure, yeah. Whenever I catch myself behind the register, I mean.” I smile to indicate I was joking, but drunk as I’ve gotten it might just look like a snarl. She smiles a little but she clearly doesn’t get it.

“Hey, um, I actually think you may have rung something up wrong when I got apples there earlier…”

I sigh, and reach into my pocket for a cigarette. There’s a handful of small bills beneath the pack, and I pull them out and throw them on the sidewalk.

“Take the difference out of that,” I say, and walk to the bench on the corner. I light my smoke. My ears are burning and my face feels hot. I sit on the bench and wait for the end of the race between my blood and the booze. The prize goes to whichever burns its way out of my system the fastest.

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