The Sincerity Game

Jameson did not settle well; when keeping his company, neither did anyone else. His fingertips tapped, his foot bounced, his lips were perpetually chewed or dampened with a quick dart of tongue. He kept his hair buzzed short, taming some flyaway curling problem. He exuded a cloud of nervous energy like biting flies. I learned this, afterward, asking friends of friends about him, none of whom knew where he’d gone.

“No matter how much you feed a wolf, he will always return to the forest”—or so claimed the tattoo on his side, scrawled over a bumpy topography of rib and muscle. There was more than a touch of irony in that: an indelible stamp of ink on such a skittish canvas, a brand to pin self to flesh. The question people failed to ask was: what self?

I met Jameson at the Halloween party of an acquaintance. He was tucked into a stairwell sipping a noxious cup of cheap gin and diet tonic water. I was stoned and nonverbal and feeling adrift in the noise and the lights; I floated like flotsam and bumped up against his shore. Or, his shoulder. Spilled the drink on us both, which was no loss. His bark of laughter was hard–edged and I wanted to bruise myself on it, so I took him by the elbows and put my mouth over his.

Jameson appears small, contained—it’s that sense that he’s about to bolt—but his chest is broader than mine and his hands are large, strong, competent to grip when not occupied with fidgeting. We staggered outside in the cold crisp night and I found myself with my hand down his pants and his in mine, scratches from zippers where you don’t want them and stubble burns like a rash on bared collarbones.

He bit the bottom of my jaw and wiped his hand on my shirt; I opened my eyes to find him gone. I felt sober. I sat in the backyard until I realized I could skirt through the neighbor’s alley to avoid crossing the sea of the party looking like some kind of libertine. Or at least somebody who needed a shower. So I did that, and I drove home shaking a little, skin throbbing like it wanted to crawl off somewhere more exciting.

Hiding in plain sight—that’s a version of the sincerity game.

Or, more accurately, it’s a motif.

The fairy–lights strung over the bar’s patio lit his face in pale blues and reds. I knew the line of the jaw, the abrupt bump of muscle between neck and shoulder that I had mouthed with mute passion two nights before in a cold backyard like a teenager. I threw back the last of the PBR I’d been sipping, ordered another, and watched him. He was alone, tense, leaning against the far end of the bar top, knee jiggling in a jerky pattern that didn’t match the music. His mouth was pressed into a tight line when it wasn’t wrapped around the neck of a bottle—some high–price IPA, I suspected, pegging him by his black–rimmed glasses and unsubtle air of agitation as someone a little more hip than the laughing man I’d fucked around with before.

I could do hip. I could handle that, palm it, pull it in where I wanted it to be.

I went over, half–smiling, holding my beer at waist level with my free thumb tucked through a belt loop. Casual, relaxed, open. Evens to his odds. As I approached his eyes cut over to me. He raised an eyebrow and watched the close of my approach, then said, “Fancy seeing you here.”

“I was about to suggest the same thing,” I said, turning my back to the bar and slouching against it a couple of inches from his perch. “I guess you left the party, the other night?”

“I did,” he said.

There was a moment’s silence. I sipped, he sipped. Our eyes roved. He looked good in the colored lights, lithe and fit, wearing nice slacks and a tight thin sweater. I wondered at the odds of seeing him again, counted them higher than usual—small groups of friends, moving in the same circles, going to the same watering holes. Of course I might run into him.

“I’d ask if you wanted another drink, but I’m cheap,” I said with an edge of a smirk, glancing from under lowered eyelashes. Rolling the dice.

“But you would like me to be drunker,” he said. His voice had taken on the high–tone of a joke, a ruse, a little game of one–upmanship.

I bit. “Oh, certainly. It’ll make me more palatable.”

Self–deprecating humor: the kids love it.

“Good,” he said. His grin flashed incongruously white; his eyes were a silver–grey that stole the breath right out of my chest when I met them stare for stare. His voice dropped, normal and soft and so suddenly unapproachable. “I do need help with that. Otherwise, I might get bored.”

I swallowed a mouthful of razor–cold beer, looked out across the patio.

And all I had to say was, “Touché.”

The sincerity game is a tactic, or so I like to think of it, for revealing significant information but in the process making the truth seem so outlandish, so comedic or harsh or impossible, that the listener skips straight past it without acknowledgement. Tell the truth; it comes out like a lie. Then tell a lie, tell it simple or awkward or stammering; it comes out like the truth. And it’s all a joke. We live in the age of post–postmodern irony—the new sincerity is no sincerity at all, I hear.

In short: I am a liar, but I am also quite sincere.

I took him to mine—a second floor walk–up, decent enough with a deceptively artsy bare brick wall on the street side. He had his hands stuffed in his pockets and his spine ramrod straight while he stood next to the door waiting for me to jam the key into the lock; I had the sense that at any moment he might change his mind, tell me he’d left his oven on, possibly hit me over the back of the head and run for it. It didn’t happen. Instead, he followed me in and I led him to the couch.

“Beer?” I asked.

“No thanks,” he said, sprawling across the leather. His loose limbs and lambent stare pulled at the bottom of my stomach like a fishhook, more for the sudden change in affect than anything—that nervous edge had dissipated in a split second.

“I could give you the tour,” I said. “Emphasis on the bedroom.”

“I’d be delighted,” was his deadpan response, but he also licked his bottom lip and sat up. I had an alien desire to tear my clothes off and fuck on the floor, like a static charge was building up under my skin. He smiled like he could see right through me, filthy and fully on–board, said: “If you would be. Delighted, that is?”

“I would be,” I said. That was the truth and I conceded it.

I saw his tattoo not too much later, having pulled off his sweater. I paused, reading it, and spanned the words with my hand. “What should I take that to mean?”

Jameson’s shrug was tight and controlled, moreso than the narrowing of his eyes. “Lots of things. Maybe I just can’t stay put for long.”

“Is that it then?” I said, bending to mouth at the conversation piece. “You’re phobic of commitment?”

“I didn’t say phobic or commitment,” he said.

“I am,” I said. He raised an eyebrow at me. “So are plenty of people.”

“I just said I don’t settle,” he replied. He tugged a fistful of my hair hard enough to distract. “It’s not my nature. I have a very complicated nature.”

“Do you now?” I said, a glance at his expression revealing a remarkably well–crafted poker face. He had a quirk to his lips, not quite amused, a slight tilt to his head like he was condescending and cracking a joke at the same time. I fought against the kick in my chest, the uptick in my breathing, to smile and say, “I must be simpler, because I just kind of hate myself.”

He put both hands in my hair and yanked me up to his mouth, biting my lips. “You say the sweetest things.”

“I don’t,” I murmured into his kiss. “I’ll say—”

“Anything?” he finished on a groan.

“Got me,” I said.

It was his turn to look me over, reading whatever he could from the lines of my face. Then he blinked and said with casual and clearly plastic–fake curiosity, “Oh, do I?”

The beat of muscle in my chest skipped, flipped, sank into my stomach. I swallowed, wordless and caught out. Trust me to chase the thing that spurns me—I like the sensation of being kicked in the gut, I guess. Oh, do I?, he says. Read: as if he cared enough to be curious, as if he cared enough to play the game. He was playing his own. I pulled out of his grip to mouth the tattoo again, shivering with something raw hidden behind closed eyelids. I functioned on pulling curiosity, interest, the willingness of others to be charmed—and this man was not having a moment of it that he wouldn’t be happy to turn around and watch me cut myself on. To ribbons, probably.

“What’s your name,” I whispered.

“Jameson,” he said.

He didn’t ask for mine.

The refrain I hear most often from myself in moments of quiet self–awareness is: what am I doing what am I doing what am I doing. It isn’t a question. It’s more of an existential state. I don’t know what I’m doing. I really, very much do not. This is a problem.

It is a problem because I choose to do things that I am aware, one hundred percent aware, are going to hurt me—because I find them exciting, because I want to feel something. Staggering from one pleasure principle to the next. Case in point: Jameson left as soon as he pulled on the rest of his clothes and took the number from my phone without asking, long fingers tapping the screen on his own. His keys jingled in his palm as he walked out.

He called on a Friday night, asked if I had plans—I thought to say yes, but my mouth was already saying no. I’d spent the night after he left antsy, pacing, feeling half like I wanted to chew off a limb and get out of a trap. Except I couldn’t find the trap. This was also a problem because I have occasional bouts of intense, destructive depression, but I do not have anxiety. It reminded me of the tight press of Jameson’s lips and the unceasing movement of his tapping foot, his jiggling knee.

I didn’t remember him fidgeting, the last time, though—not once the clothes came off.

I should have found that curious.

He showed up two hours late, carting a backpack and a case of cheap cider. I hated cider. I drank six with him, regardless, letting it loosen my tongue and ease the displaced feeling I had sitting with him on the couch. I didn’t know what I had agreed to, what I wanted to agree to.

“I’m just getting up the courage to ask you what the fuck we’re doing,” I finally said.

“I suspect what we’re going to be doing is fucking,” he replied.

“Clever,” I replied, edgier than I meant to be.

In bed, I kept spilling the drink I’d carried with me—little runnels of sticky apple taste down his chest and ribs, into the waistband of his jeans. I lapped it off of the tattoo, asked him again: “What’s this about, really?”

“Maybe I’m a werewolf,” he said with a raised eyebrow. “It’s just not a full moon tonight.”

“Oh, fuck you,” I said. “You’re just being outrageous.”

“Am I?” he said winsomely, but it rang hollow.

“Yes. I do it all the time,” I replied, sitting back on the mattress. I crouched on my heels. “I should avoid people like you. You’re like me,” I said, feeling as if I’d seen a glimpse through dark glass. “Not fully a person on the inside.”

“Do you mean to say I’m dishonest?” he said. His eyes were flat, his tone as much so. “Or that you’re broken?”

“That’s not even the half of it,” I muttered.

“Or maybe I’m trying to tell you that you can’t change what I am,” he said after a long, strained moment. “No one can change what anyone else is.”

“Agreed.” I crawled back over his reclining body. “So let’s just—do this, then.”

“Let’s,” he said.

The whole time, I was quivering with irritation and prickly like a porcupine. I bit and scratched and fought, drew a little blood. “Christ, I just want to fucking feel it—fuck me—” I snarled at him, too bruised and starving to make it sound like it wasn’t the real honest to god truth. He just laughed like a bottle breaking and scattering shards underfoot, pinned an arm behind my back and kicked an ankle out to the side. I felt out of control, and Jameson rolled with it, matched it, something animal in him responding easy in kind.

A werewolf, I thought giddily and with great deprecation, in a moment of pant-ing post–coital sensation. I’ve never thought to say that to somebody before.

Do you ever have a moment of freefall clarity, in which your backbrain prickles—that lizard part of you—and recognizes that you have certainly bitten off more than you can chew? It’s like danger. It’s not like danger. It’s something that tastes a little like copper, or a lightning strike. Rational people stop and turn right around, then.

Rational people.

On the second day of our company–keeping, I realized I was not a rational person.

I thought I was fucked–out and done on the end of the third day, watching the Sunday night sun go down, listening to a story Jameson had begun to tell me about changeling children and the lands under the hills. Except the staccato scratching of his fingers through my hair was like being tickled with a livewire. I could not stay still, I could not focus, I could not speak or pull together the self I wanted to present.

So then it was round god–knows–how–many, aching for it and with it and wanting to climb out of my body. Jameson had gone ever more still and solid the wilder I became. I had lost the veneer, the vestments of personality I wore to cover up the hollow grey reality underneath. But his hands were not fidgeting, his foot was not tapping, and his mouth was occupied tasting crevices of me. He was growling in a low, rolling tone that vibrated against the back of my neck. His pleasure felt like ice drops to prick the skin.

“What have you done to me,” I groaned.

“Maybe I’m your demon lover,” he whispered, sounding so quiet and full of potential as if he was revealing something precious. But I knew that maneuver, and it cut the legs right out from under me—

“Jesus Christ,” I gasped, whole brain lit up and trembling like an earthquake. “What the fuck are you getting out of this?”

“Eating you alive,” he said into my ear, thumbs digging into the small of my back. I arched into and away from it in a writhe, panting. “Getting inside you and devouring you whole.” His words burst over me and flowed in, like sticky sap—coating my tongue until I choked on it, until I was sobbing with how cracked open I felt, how bare. How seen.

“I love you,” I managed.

“That wasn’t a lie,” he said, breath short like punctuation.

I wanted to scream. I might have. I came hard, moments later, silent and shaking with his hands and mouth and body everywhere I needed them to be. He moaned into the muscle of my back, bit me again and again, leaving bright pains in his wake. He was furnace—hot, quick, rough and sure—nothing skittish at all, and in that moment it seemed he loomed twice the size of me, like a great shadow, a stunning weight of living desire.

“I would love you,” he gasped out. “I would love you, but I would ruin you. You’d burn up. Fly apart. You’re not made for this, for me.”

Delirious, colors streaming behind my eyes and chest aching, hips aching, I nodded. Like a fervent believer, I agreed in supplication, rubbing cheek on sheets and feeling them wet under me from my own spit. It felt like I was on an island of time split off from the rest of the world, like I’d slipped realities.

It was the most alive and the most afraid I’ve ever been, burning with real fucking feeling and knowing to the bones of me that it was not going to survive.

I woke up shivering in a bed that was half–cold each morning for a week, phantom fingertips on the small of my back in the form of a healing bruise, inhaling the smell of him off of rumpled sheets and dented pillows.

Of course, he stayed gone.

I had lost, somehow I couldn’t figure out, and lost spectacularly—beaten at my own game, tangled up in half–truths and real truths and the staggering weight of being alone with myself again. I was not a mirror to reflect Jameson and keep him out of me like I had thought, like I had been a thousand times to a thousand people; instead, I was a piece of transparent glass about to be broken. I just hadn’t seen it coming in time.

No matter how much you feed a wolf, he will always return to the forest.

Meaning: he will not stay. For whichever reason—for whichever secret that wasn’t a secret, whichever preposterous lie wasn’t a lie—he will worm his way in and then he will be gone and he will not come back. The world won’t look the same afterwards, it will be full of ink–black shadows and cracks like hidden doors. And I won’t know, in the end, about what things he might have been sincere.

(Editors’ Note: “The Sincerity Game” is read by Amal El–Mohtar and Brit Mandelo is interviewed by Deborah Stanish on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 8B.)

Brit Mandelo

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She has two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth–Telling, and in the past has edited for publications like Strange Horizons. Her other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer. She also writes regularly for Tor.com.

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