From behind the desk-cum-checkout counter, Lucy said, “I’m sure you’ll find some good pieces. The family was super eager to clear the estate or I wouldn’t have been able to snatch the whole lot, and I’ll give you a deal, because obviously I overshot.”
Hangers scraped on metal as Katrin sifted through the items on the opposite side of the rack. A scrum of colors and textures and cuts tussled for attention, crammed into every possible centimeter of the consignment shop. Charlie ached to give each of those discarded pieces a glancing brush of recognition before time and circumstance separated them all from one another.
“Thanks, darling,” he said from the corner of his mouth.
“Just look at this place, it’s a mess,” Lucy continued in a personable drone.
He swept his thumb over the shoulder seam of a crème blazer with peach trim. An impression flitted through his curious fingertips while he stroked the lining at the pinned waistline, wafting across his mind’s eye like dust and perfume: a mistaken acquisition that survived one mediocre dinner engagement then got parked in the corner of a closet. The Gucci tag might attract a purchaser but the piece itself had no real life.
Katrin’s inspection routine involved squinting, picking at hems and sequins, testing for pulls and pilling. As for Charlie’s approach—he said it was holistic when customers asked, women from the suburbs with fat pocketbooks crooning over the vibe of his Northside storefront. His eye, Katrin insisted, was impeccable.
Though he agreed that his taste was refined and particular, that was a matter of practice. Charlie relied on more than simple taste to curate his pieces. He flexed his feet in his slides (Balenciaga, candy red) and the prior owner’s worn-in divots prickled his toes with remnant summer pleasure, the extravagance of a gift from a doting, mature lover. While the average customer didn’t possess his skill for eavesdropping on the whispered histories loitering within his hand-me-down selections, the effect worked on them regardless. Subtle and permanent as the scent of smoke, the lingering memories were friendly ghosts.
He moved forward to handle another piece on the rack, buoyed along on the shoes’ reliable borrowed affection, then touched the next, and the next, all zeroes. The phone rang. Lucy answered it—“Hello? Hi Jan, what’s up,”—with the cordless tucked against her shoulder while she got up to prop the door, letting in a breeze that rushed off the distant lake.
Katrin said, “Did you check out that room Davey’s renting?”
“No,” Charlie said.
“I’m sure he’d be a good roommate.”
“Katie,” he groaned. “He’s best friends with Annie, and Annie is still Rich’s best girlfriend. There’s no way. Just absolutely no way, okay?”
“Okay, okay,” she said. The next hanger clattered.
“It’s not like I’ve got the money, anyway,” he muttered.
“Cissy, it’s been two months. When’re you going to get out in the world again?”
“Yeah, it’s barely been two months, so give me some room to work.”
Silence returned between them as he continued to sort his touch across mild old memories attached to mild old clothes rather than dealing with the unpredictable present. Katrin lifted up a shimmering grey evening gown with miniscule pearl detailing on the shoulder caps.
“This one?” she asked.
Charlie stood tiptoe to reach across, the bare strip of belly between his low-slung slacks and high-cut blouse pressed onto the jumbled murmuring fabrics. The gown was butter-soft, purring with satisfaction in the afternoon sun like a happy cat; he nodded and plopped back onto his heels. Someone would whisk it to a fresh home within the month, without knowing precisely why it caught their attention. Katrin draped it over her arm.
She’d let the matter of Davey’s spare room drop but it stung regardless, nettles at the root of Charlie’s tongue. Rich had found an apartment over in Edgewater that Lucas told him had a big, bright living room and built-in bookshelves. Boring steady income could do that for a guy. Charlie slept on a futon in his storeroom and brushed his teeth in the employee bathroom.
“I saw him last week,” Katrin said.
“Rich,” she said. “He was out with Lucas and Miranda, I ran into them at the Melrose.”
The blazer in front of him oozed the distasteful exhaustion of too many board meetings. He uncrimped his lips, flicked it past, and without meaning to said, “How’s he doing?”
“Hon,” she started.
“Why’d you tell me if you didn’t want to talk about it?”
Katrin snapped her fingers and he met her stare over the rack. “He’s fine, and he asked how you were holding up, which was very awkward for me, if you have to know. He wondered if you wanted to come see Stevie sometime.”
Stevie, their six year old calico who had no business living in an ambitiously ratty Chicago storefront with her erstwhile owner. She must have been enjoying the big apartment with the big bookshelves and Rich’s bed—which had been Charlie’s before, too. He gave Katrin an unimpressed look to cover the prickle that crept across his arms like the worst cousin of goosebumps. She returned a comical face of concession that telegraphed sorry, nothing’s going to make this not weird via the scrunch of her eyebrows and a flattening of the dimple on her left cheek. He snorted.
“That’s a terrible face, very ugly, would not recommend repeating,” he said.
Big city, small circle—a hundred thousand people around but a handful he could call his own. Less now, as most of them refused to choose a side. He skipped past another set of blazers, which Lucy had at least made some concession in stocking together, and paused. Stuffed between a high-button-collar blouse and a winter-weight sweater he spied the tiniest burst of sunset.
“Lucy, I forgot my watch, what time is it?” Katrin called.
“Four forty-five,” she hollered back.
“Shit.” Katrin sighed. “I’ve gotta go, Cissy. Shift starts at five-thirty.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said while she crossed the shop and deposited three items of her choice on the desk. One bustling smack of a kiss on the cheek then she was out the door without a pause for reply, striding across the street as if there weren’t a crosswalk a half-block down. Lucy rolled her eyes and flapped open a paper sack, folding the gowns between tissue paper before stacking them into it.
Against logic, whirlwind-Katrin’s departure constricted the room. Charlie shoved the sweater aside. The spark of fabric that had caught his eye belonged to a burnt-orange silk robe, pale blue flowers stitched in cascades over the length. The lining, too, had the color and texture of a sunrise sky. The contrast smacked him in the stomach. He plucked the hanger, lofted it overhead, and crossed to the window to catch the best light.
Lucy said, “Wow, that’s gorgeous.”
One hand cupped the bottom hem—worn at the edges—and he spilled the length brimming with home through his fingers in a caress: evenings spent reading with feet on a partner’s lap and head on a pillow. Sedate tenderness. It had been loved, deeply loved, soaked through with ages of adoration. He dropped the hanger on the floor and slid the robe over his shoulders. The bridge of his nose burned. Stevie used to sleep on his stomach while he read and Rich rubbed his calves. He’d had that, settled into it for good, but as abruptly as it had begun it was done—and here he was alone, older than he’d ever been and certainly older but less experienced than half the boys he saw at Berlin.
Too strange a man for Rich’s sedate preferences on a few levels, not limited to his habit of knowing secret feelings from a glancing brush of belt, collar, button. A pang of habituated distaste caught him when the sleeves strangled tight on his biceps but the radiating constant of love buried it again fast. The door to his left swung further open with a metallic scrape as he reveled in the ghost of someone else’s safe, perfect moment preserved in the amber of silk and thread.
“Lucy, I have to have this,” he said in unhindered awe.
“You look amazing in it, Cissy. Fits you like a charm.”
“It’s really lovely,” a man said.
Charlie jerked his head to the side to blink owlishly at the stranger standing a step from the doorway. His suit was pressed, fresh, charcoal and slimming; plain brown eyes, plain brown hair, clean-shaven face. The cornflower silk tie didn’t match his lace-up high tops in forest green. A flush rose to his cheeks as Charlie continued staring.
“You’re really lovely.” The tremble in the stranger’s voice crossed between embarrassment and candor. “Sorry, that’s not the best start, sorry. Hello,” he said.
“And you are?” Charlie replied in his best dowager impersonation.
“Making myself look like an idiot. I saw you in the window with the kimono, I was walking outside. I know how this is going to sound, but would you happen to have plans for dinner?”
Charlie raked his gaze over the stranger again. His knuckles were prominent and his hands veined. The watch on his wrist hadn’t achieved hideous ostentation but it was worth six months of Charlie’s rent. Older, not too old—the mature end of his thirties to Charlie’s latter twenties, he guessed. The contrast of the robe’s domestic bliss with his own regular loneliness ached in double-time. He glanced at Lucy, who flashed him an okay gesture and waggled her eyebrows like this was a humorous interlude he should roll with, some daddy picking him up.
The man said, “No expectations, I promise. I’m only here for the night?”
An uncertain lilt, as if surprised that he’d propositioned a total stranger in a women’s consignment store. A guy with a watch like that should have had plenty of confidence to spare but instead he held himself like a pane of glass about to crack. Fissures spread at the edges of his winsome smile.
Charlie muttered, “This is a very awkward pickup.”
The stranger snorted, self-aware and self-deprecating, then rolled his shoulders. His hands hung at his sides. Fashion made the man, Charlie thought, reaching out to tap his mismatched tie for a stolen glimpse past the surface. The silk sighed grey drizzling rain, solitary afternoons—a familiar sort of emptiness. He swallowed. The robe’s neckline cradled his frightened, tripping pulse. Charlie pictured the lumpy mattress in his storeroom, a month’s overdue rent slip on the desk waiting for him; he compared that surety to the breathing human potential of the narrow chest under his fingertip. The adrenaline that pumped across his nerves was far headier than salvaged feelings bought secondhand.
So he found himself saying, with a slight tremor, “All right, why not?”
The imitation smile pasted on the stranger’s face spread boxy with relief, unearthing wrinkles at the pinched crescents of his eyes. The cut line of his jaw hinted at a solidity that Charlie allowed himself to pause on. His mouth: thin but not unserviceable. Just dinner, he’d agreed, but—
“Thank you.” Subdued and sincere gratitude, not a trace of presumption.
—Charlie was out of his depth. He hesitated. “I just need to, uh, get my stuff?”
“Of course,” the gentleman said.
Two steps to traverse the room and Lucy forked over his satchel from behind her counter. He whispered, “Not to be weird, but could you call me at the shop in the morning? Just check, you know.”
“Gotcha,” she said. “Wear the robe out, seems like he likes it.”
Charlie glanced across the stuffed shoebox of a store. The stranger had turned to face the front window and the sun haloed the crown of his head in burnished auburn filaments.
“Seems like he does.”
On the sidewalk, the stranger tucked one hand in his pocket in casual contrapposto. Charlie adjusted the strap of his satchel across his chest and tucked the bag behind his hip. The sunlight beat down unforgiving with the barest sweeping breeze to lighten it. He wasn’t sure who was going to speak first and judging from the pursed mouth, neither was his companion.
“I was thinking about treating myself to the Signature Room,” said the other man.
“What’s your name?” Charlie asked.
He shifted from one heel to the other. The angle of his chin tilted as he swept a glance across the length of the street, and said, “Could we wait on that? I’m not saying no, but for a while, I’d like—”
“Okay,” Charlie cut him off.
The thump of his pulse kept up a persistent clip. He wrung his memory for the name of the restaurant and it came to him in a splash: a review in the paper of the new face of the 95th, last month, when it opened up under a fresh name with fresh staff and linens.
“That’s pretty high end,” he ventured.
The stranger leaned into the street, sticking his arm out with his elbow cocked at an uncomfortable angle. Charlie tipped onto his toes, the slides unsticking from the soles of his feet with a slap, to see the topper of a cab approaching. His companion said, still waving like a marionette and laser focused on the cab, “Is that okay? I wanted something, I don’t know, memorable.”
Charlie’s ears went hot. “And you want to take me there, looking like this.”
The cab rolled up. Charlie slid onto the sticky leather seat first with the robe bunched up in his hand to keep from dragging it; the stranger blurted their destination louder than necessary through the barrier. The driver muttered a bullshit warning about traffic and cost that Charlie was almost one-hundred percent sure meant he would drive them the longest route he could get away with, but it wasn’t his money on the line when the stranger agreed. After they merged into the stream of afternoon traffic his companion cocked a knee up onto the seat and leaned his spine against the door.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“I mean, you’re not looking to go somewhere in Boystown,” Charlie said. Tousled blonde-streaked hair in fluffed waves but perpetual stubble on a square jaw; plump mouth but thick arms and flat broad hips stretching at the limits of his slacks and blouse; bony feet and ugly-bright shoes. Charlie knew his mismatches with intimate displeasure and had been reminded of them often.
The stranger’s expression narrowed. He said, “You’re handsome. Or beautiful, whichever, both. Stopped me dead to rights on the street.”
“Going to get some stares,” Charlie muttered, flushed with the tickle of handsome/beautiful, and propped his chin on his hand to break the tension. The stranger’s reflection in the window frowned again.
“Well, fuck them,” he said with surprising vehemence for a guy who looked clipped out of GQ.
Charlie flopped against the door too and kicked one bare foot up. His toes touched the leg of the suit pants, disappointingly so new they had gathered no impressions but storage rooms and tailor’s pins. “In town for business?”
“No, personal time. Putting some things in order. I thought I’d see the sights, have the coffee and doughnuts, trawl the bars a little later.”
“That’s a very crisp suit,” Charlie said.
He tugged the hem of his white sleeve, long under the charcoal jacket. The turn of his wrist flashed light off the watchface.
“First time I’ve worn it. It’s certainly slimming.”
“Bless the new style,” Charlie murmured.
A flint-spark pause. Charlie’s throat clicked on a swallow. Fabric tickled his damp toes, the ball of his foot. The rhythm of the city flowed along outside, crowded and exuberant, a hundred sights to see—even if he’d lost touch with the how of risking himself within it, retreating to his borrowed cloth-textured ghosts instead. The stranger’s hand slipped across his own knee and calf, stopped for permission, then two fingers passed over Charlie’s ankle to curl around the crest of his foot. He allowed the contact while the stop-signs skipped past, breathing in the stale air conditioning.
Dinner crowd at five-thirty was sparse. The host seated them in a small booth with a sweeping view of the cityscape, one candle flickering in the centerpiece. Charlie touched the table linen and appreciated the dense weave of harried serving labor with luxurious relaxation. His companion ordered a bottle of wine from a crisply-pressed waitress who smiled at them with empty eyes and clicked across the floor to the kitchen in low heels. Charlie winced to imagine running a supper shift in them.
The man said, “Here we are. A little like a blind date, I guess. Tell me about yourself?”
“Huh, all right.” Charlie paused. “So I’m not from Chicago originally. I have a bachelor’s in fine art. I restore and sell vintage clothing.” Another hesitation. Might as well—“I’m broke. I’d never consider coming to eat here in a million years.”
“Glad to share my best day with you, then,” he said.
Charlie made an inquisitive noise, flicking his glance up from the menu.
The stranger wrinkled his nose in thought, a tic Charlie noted, charmed. “I’m trying to do that. Have a best day, today. Otherwise I wouldn’t have, just…” He trailed off with a gesture flicked at the room.
“Picked up a guy you don’t know?”
“Well, I might’ve done that tonight if the mood felt right.” He flashed another performed-though-warm grin. “But not coerced a gorgeous young stranger into letting me buy him a nice dinner.”
“I don’t feel coerced,” Charlie returned with a smile of his own.
The waitress returned and both ordered. A seafood appetizer, steak for the stranger and roast chicken for him, an ambitious pre-dinner decision on chocolate cake for dessert. She poured their wine into spotless narrow glasses, mahogany-tinged red, and Charlie plucked the glass up to tilt for a toast.
“Me either,” he said. “I mean, I also don’t do this, things like this.”
The stranger clinked rims. “Why’d you say yes if you don’t mind me asking?”
“It’s like, cinematic,” he said.
He hummed in agreement and said, “Our moment out of time.”
The wine coated Charlie’s tongue, acidic and smoky. He resisted the urge to smack his lips like a heathen and, under the tablecloth, crossed his bare feet on top of his slides. The high daylight complimented his date’s cheekbones, the shadow of a morning shave starting to come in over his top lip. Those human details, one at a time, colored in the stolen moment he’d found himself caught inside. An island of time where he was someone else with someone else, not the same Charlie as when he woke up and not the same Charlie as he’d be when he went to sleep. The poetry appealed to him in his core. Rich was an accountant with a set of five plain suits of the same shade and two pairs of leather flats, one brown one black. Poetics hadn’t been his strong suit.
“What brought you to Chicago?” his date asked.
The second mouthful of wine allowed a moment to consider before he answered with the truth. “A boyfriend. My college boyfriend, actually.”
“No,” he said. The relaxed softness of the stranger’s expression keyed at the dull pain in his chest. The softer version of the tale, the one he rehearsed for friends, tumbled out: “He left me a couple months ago. No one’s fault, that kind of situation. He said he needed more stability. I haven’t had it in me to try to like, meet someone else yet, with everything going on.”
“I keep having to thank you,” he said, grasping Charlie’s hand on the tabletop once then withdrawing. If Charlie’s insides were a cinched knot, each moment spent wearing orange silk that breathed lovelovelove in his ear unwound him another centimeter.
“Thank me for what?”
“You’re giving me a lot. Your first date as a single man,” he said.
“God, you’re too nice to be real,” Charlie sputtered through a laugh.
The appetizer came; their waitress arranged the plate of fresh mussels between them, turned on her heel, and left without a word. The stranger crimped his mouth at her back. “Unlike some people.”
“Like I said, you might pass but I sure as hell don’t.”
He snorted and plucked up a mussel. “And I wouldn’t have asked for you to. I’m perfectly happy to be seen out with you. If they’ve got a problem they can suck my dick, figuratively speaking.”
A steel surety lurked beneath his pronouncement, one Charlie relaxed within, remembering his own nights staring at the stars in the middle of fucking nowhere before he made it to a place he could breathe. The stranger popped the mussel into his mouth. Watching his jaw work as he chewed and swallowed the fleshy piece of meat plucked a nerve in Charlie’s guts he hadn’t felt in weeks, had gone so far as to morosely entertain worries of never feeling again. The invisibility he’d languished under dissolved at once, a slipped knot, in the face of being improbably seen.
“When you noticed me, what made you stop, honestly?”
“The look on your face when you put that pretty robe on, all lit up in the sun. It was unreal.” Swipe of tongue over his lower lip, dart of his glance to the side. “And if we’re being honest, you reminded me of someone.”
Charlie asked, “Someone important?”
“Yeah, they were.”
Charlie nodded, allowing the matter to drop, and his date’s charming smile belied his relief at the lack of pursuit. Conversational pirouettes around the use of past tense had become a familiar dance among friends.
After a moment the man said, “Tell me more about your clothing business.”
The meal unfurled, glorious in spite of—or, the echo of they can suck my dick ringing in his ears with pride, a little bit because of—the silent judgement of the waitress. Charlie spoke at length as the wine and the freedom of being unknown loosened his reserve: the shop he needed to succeed, his misplaced sense of futurity, the cat he missed, the bracelet he had to sell because it wouldn’t fit his wrist, the boy before Rich in high school who would suck his cock but not date him because gay was one thing but whatever Charlie had going on was entirely another, all of his friends still being Rich’s friends, his favorite spot for late-morning coffee. The stranger opened to him in bursts also, though detail remained sparse—he worked in academia, he was not from Chicago, he’d chosen the city for its distance from his home. He’d been in town three days and this was the last night. He was a reader and he’d already finished the book in Charlie’s satchel, The Secret History, the week it came out while Charlie had waited for the public library. He was having his best day, whatever that meant.
Charlie asked, finally, “How do I fit into this day you’re trying to have?”
“I guess there are things—” the stranger said over their decimated dessert plate, hand trembling enough to wobble the line of his wine. “There are things you need to do on your own terms. But you don’t know what the terms are until the moment they set themselves up in front of you. I didn’t know I’d share this dinner ’til I saw you, and I couldn’t have guessed how much I’d want to know you until I talked to you.”
Charlie scraped the delicate spoon across the last crumbs of cake and syrup. The check folder sat at his elbow, paid in crisp big bills from the stranger’s wallet.
“I do miss Rich,” he blurted out. “But not as much as I did. So, yeah, I’m glad I said yes to you too. I didn’t know I needed this.”
The stranger laced their fingers and Charlie squeezed, their hands the same size to the centimeter. Touching bare skin alone left him blind and guessing, outside of his comfortable habit. But he felt matched. Their eyes met, locked with magnetic and embarrassingly nude potential. Charlie’s stomach flopped. The clock in his head ticked closer to the end of this unexpected mapping of himself against the man seated across the table.
The man who then said, “Time scrambles when you lose someone. You get stuck. Even if he’s still there he’s someone else, and so are you.”
The meal was over. He caught a fortifying breath.
“Take me to bed?”
The stranger’s hand twitched. “You don’t have to.”
“I don’t think our night should end here. I promise, I want to.”
“I won’t say no to that,” he murmured, allowed hunger glowing from his lowered pitch.
The silk of the robe caught between a solid palm and the strip of skin at the dip of Charlie’s spine as his date ushered him from his seat, leaving without their change. A thumb found the divot of his hipbone from behind and pushed into it. He shook with one aggressive tremble from head to toe and smacked the button for the lobby in the elevator. The stranger laughed, airy, rubbing his wrist over his mouth in a nervous motion.
“I’ve seriously never done this before, so don’t be disappointed,” Charlie reminded him.
He said, “Then let me take care of you. That’s all I want to do tonight.”
The stranger paid for a room at a hotel two blocks further on the Loop while Charlie perused the lobby décor. His insides pitched with delighted horror as he heard, at proud volume, “No, it’s just one bed for us, thank you dear.”
In the elevator, Charlie said, “My ex was always worried if we looked too together or if I was too much when we were out. Like, fair enough, but—”
“But you’re not the quiet type.”
The floors pinged past. He leaned enough to touch their shoulders together, flame-silk against shade-wool. “No, I’m not. I’m strange, I guess.”
“Strange is good. Sounds like maybe he wasn’t what you needed, either,” he said.
No one else was in the hall as they picked down the row of numbered doors. Holding his own forearms inside the robe’s sleeves gave Charlie the illusion of calm while the stranger unlocked their room and stepped inside. The lights clicked on, lamps with gold shades. Dusk pitched itself in the corners. Charlie kicked the door shut while his date walked across the room and sat the keycard on the end table, face in profile. He left the slides behind and walked barefoot to sit on the edge of the bed. The clunk of the stranger’s watch on the table drew his eye and he watched as the suit jacket slid off, slick with practice. He pressed his hands between his knees, big and gangly and small and unsure. The comforting whispers from the robe had nothing on the abrupt understanding that he’d made himself available—come upstairs, sat himself on the bed—without doing the conversation.
“Hey,” the other man murmured.
His shoulders hunched like a startled bird; in an instant the stranger took two steps to join him, cupped his cheeks in careful hands. One cuff was unbuttoned, the other still held firm. He bent at the waist, an awkward angle that let Charlie keep his legs together, to press a kiss to his forehead—dry and slight—then another to his left eyebrow. He choked on a nervous giggle.
“Sorry, I’m so nervous,” he said.
“Don’t be sorry. If you’re still into this, all I’m aiming for is to take care of you. Nothing that won’t be safe, I swear,” he said with a certitude and gravity that unlocked Charlie’s risk-stiffened shoulders. Mischief lit the other man’s eyes as he continued, lightening the moment, “Just promise you’ll wear the robe.”
Charlie found himself able to smile as he snagged the stranger’s wrist to unhook the second button. He wished he could steal another peek, but the fresh cuff told him nothing. Instead skin spoke in the language of a tan-line wrapping a pleasant forearm, a smattering of dark hair lightly pricked with goosebumps. He put his other hand on the man’s waist and stood eye to eye, toe to toe, then nose to nose. Breath coasted over his lips.
“Tell me your name now,” he whispered.
“Will you let me lie?”
Charlie tipped his chin in languid invitation and murmured, “All right. And call me Cissy, like my friends do.”
“Then call me Marcel, or Oscar, or—“
“I refuse to fuck someone using Proust’s name, sweet Jesus,” Charlie burst out, the moment breaking into a hundred giddy pieces as he tucked his face against the stranger’s throat. Hysterical snickers shook his whole frame. The man huffed once in affront. “Next you’ll ask me to call you Richard. Worse, Frances!”
A nudge of nose on his cheek. Both men moved at once and the kiss stopped his laughter in his chest. Charlie made a bitten-off sound into the wet plush seam of his mouth while he remembered in all his cells what it meant to be wanted. The mattress dipped at the back of his knees and a hand on his thigh pulled. He collapsed onto the bed in a flutter of silk, visions of cinema in his head again, stubble burning his chin.
“David,” his date said. The plain handsomeness of his face was startling from below. He was anyone, everyone, futures bundled reckless into the present instead of the reliable echoes of a past left behind.
“Nice to meet you, David,” Charlie repeated.
“And you too, Cissy. A pretty name for—you, you’re so pretty.”
“Oh,” he gasped. Teeth skimmed the tendon that strained in Charlie’s neck as he tossed his head.
“Do you like that, darling? Being pretty?”
The question held implication nestled as careful as the fingers skimming his blouse up his belly. He yanked at David’s dress shirt to palm his waist. He’d touched the same body for almost seventy straight months and this was, notably, not it. His heart soared and swooped in time with the pulse taking up residence in his dick.
“Yeah, yes,” he admitted. “Call me pretty.”
Charlie’s clothes vanished to the floor a piece at a time and took their stories with them. He scooted to the center of the mattress, blushing to his chest, bare-ass naked except for the robe pooled at his elbows and strung out around him in a cloud. One hand half cupped and half covered his erection. His fingertips rested ticklish on his balls while David stood at the end of the bed and flung his shirt and tie in the direction of the windows. Streetlight and sunset touched the hollow of his belly as he undid his belt and stepped free of his pants. His briefs were Calvin Klein, straining against the weight of him.
“We don’t have to talk about it or go further if you don’t want to,” David said.
The chain dangling above his pectorals held two gold rings. Charlie’s knees pulled together then relaxed. The mirth drained from his lungs. He leaned onto his elbow and offered his hand. David took it, solid and sturdy, to climb onto the bed. Each moved for the other on instinct: David’s arm beneath his neck, his knee between David’s, tucked at perfect angles. The rings slid to one side on their slender loop of gold; Charlie resisted the urge to read them for himself.
“Are those for someone you’re still with?” he asked.
“No,” David said. His free hand skated across Charlie’s stomach, drawing sloppy circles. “It was for the person I mentioned before, who you, well—” He trailed off.
“It’s okay, keep going. I don’t mind hearing,” Charlie said.
David’s hand joined his, nudged him to stroke himself. He watched their fingers woven together, knuckle against knuckle. His hips kicked in reflex. David hummed into the mop of his hair and kissed him there, then his ear, then his jaw. As the pleasure built with domestic ease he hid his face in the crook of his elbow and sipped for breath. David paused to lick his palm wet before taking over entirely, leaving Charlie to grip the sheets in one hand while the other curled between their chests.
“He was so vibrant. You looked like he did the first day we met,” David confessed in a reverent hush. An arrow of tenderness pierced him, scraped a jolt of unexpected desire across his nerves.
“Oh, fuck,” he groaned.
“But I’m thinking about you, Cissy, just you right now, thank you.” His bent knee splayed over David’s thigh, underside of his leg pressing him through the briefs he’d left on. He reached to reciprocate but David nudged his hand onto his own chest again. “We didn’t grab anything to use, darling, I’m all right. Just let me do this for you.”
Charlie melted. The stranger held him close while he played him with his fingers saliva-slick and, at the end, as far inside him as he could fit. At the last moment Charlie curled his pinky into one of the rings and the resultant rush of bittersweet longing tipped him past his limit. He came with a hoarse grunt and a shudder, letting go of the ring in an instant. David’s thumb drew streaks through the mess on his hip and stomach as their ricocheting, panting gasps began to settle.
“Hey,” Charlie protested when David rolled to stand.
He smiled over his shoulder, adjusting his underwear, and said, “I’ll be right back.”
Charlie drowsed until his companion returned from the bathroom to wipe him clean with a damp towel. The lamps clicked off one at a time as David made the circuit of the room. Charlie slipped the robe off and folded it at the top corner of the bed, unstained except with the fresh experience he’d certainly imprinted onto it: delight, discovery, simplicity. He’d relish in that later, when he needed a reminder of the merits of the world outside his shop.
But inside the quiet dark he asked, knowing better than to hope, “Was it a breakup?”
David shook his head and Charlie wrapped his arms around his stomach, tucked up against the other man’s clothed butt. Strong fingers clutched at his. Despite the early hour, sleep loitered with the palpable intention of a kid needing to bum a cigarette; he was fuck-drunk and exhausted—tenderized enough to hear the memorial that he knew needed to be given.
“I lost him a year ago, this week,” the stranger confessed.
“But you’re not going to forget him, and neither will I,” Charlie murmured against the nape of his neck. He guided their hands to the dangling rings and closed their tangled fingers around the warmed, endlessly looping metal radiating that pained adoration. “I promise I’ll remember.”
“Our moment out of time. You don’t know how much you gave me tonight, truly,” David agreed in a hoarse murmur.
After a pause, Charlie said, “You know, you’re only the third guy I’ve ever slept with.”
“No shame in that. And it was good, right? Something we could do for each other,” he said.
Charlie woke disoriented and sore at moonrise. The keycard and the watch sat together in a pool of light under the bedside lamp. David’s clothes were gone. The robe fell loose and freshly sensual around his shoulders when he shrugged it on; David had helped him create that comfort for himself. Under the watch sat a note that said, Thank you for helping me get through my best-worst day whole. The trails of bites and kisses on his body twanged sweet.
Metal retained less impression than fabric, but when he took the watch onto his palm its bleak, exhausted echoes startled a knotted inhale. The coffee mug untouched in a dish rack for months, boxes half-packed and left to sit in defeat: those were the brutal daily indignities the watch remembered without the buoyant romantic symbolism the rings had to imbue more pleasant impressions. After a settling pause he strung the linked band open to read the interior plate inscription: “DL to RK 8/89.” The watch fit loose. He latched it anyway, platinum banging the knob of his wrist bone when he let his arm fall slack.
If nothing else, their night together had offered David the chance to pass those stone-solid memories along. He’d cherish the watch as a remnant of RK, one man from thousands, gone but held alight in him and in the man each of them had shared. Lingering stiffness as he walked to the bathroom grounded him to his bones again. He started the tub running then used the room’s phone to dial Katrin. Her machine picked up after ten rings. He hesitated. I fucked a stranger and I’m never going to see him again and it was the most beautiful thing to ever happen to me, will you be at the store in the morning—he wasn’t going to leave that on a recording. They’d talk tomorrow; by then he’d have the whole experience neatened into a tale about pasts and futures. He hung up, snagged the book from his satchel, and climbed into the steaming water. The watch clinked on the porcelain at the whispering turn of each page.
(Editors’ Note: Lee Mandelo is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2020 Lee Mandelo