I’ve been trying to feel more comfortable in my skin. Let go, man. Don’t think it, do it. That’s what everyone’s been telling me. Not you, but everyone else.
The club is thumping with Britney, Carly Rae, and Sia, and they all got my body loose. To feel this good on the dance floor requires space in my stomach. The last meal I ate: a bowl of Raisin Bran, a cup of oat milk. Lapped up every drop so I’d have enough to hold onto without feeling weighed down. I’m starving, but this way I can keep up with you. Except—you’re doing the Straight Guy thing. Again. You’re bumping against any woman who gives you an opening, and some who don’t. I’m not intervening; I watched you take several large pulls from a vodka Gatorade on the train into Manhattan, on an empty stomach, and the last time I got involved my nose made friends with the back of your hand.
A guy approaches me to dance when Whitney comes on and I will myself to stay cool about it. When he leads me to the dance floor, I spot a touch of gel on his eyebrows. I’m guessing it’s meant to keep them in place, which I get on a practical level: we’re all trying to tame the untamable. I smile, which elicits one from him that makes his face look like sculpted wax when we step into the wrong lighting. And tonight there’s a lot of wrong lighting.
There’s a good chance you’re hooking up somewhere. I assumed before leaving the apartment that I’d end my night abandoned, cooling off in the backseat of a Lyft, that I’d fantasize about taking your clippers and shaving a clean stripe down the center of your head while you’re sleeping. We’ve joked in the past about you hating my guts and my wanting you dead. Some nights this cuts closer to the truth.
I dance a few songs with Gelled Eyebrows until La Roux starts up, then he asks if I’d like a drink, which I do, but you’re disappearing through the side door and I should check on you.
We find you alone in the alley, smoking a cigarette down to its butt. And now tonight is more like that time in college when I found you on the floor of our common room, in your boxers, hours after ditching me at a house party. You were eating cheesy bread from Domino’s, which you had told me I should stop eating because of the cholesterol, but when I knelt down to touch your shoulder you looked up at me, your eyes pink and glazed over from Everclear, and you offered me a warm piece, the white cheese stretching away from the box like taffy.
Tonight, I’m dealing with that version of you.
You start going on about how women don’t like shorter dudes, as if it’s a fact, how it’s all about your height, how your dance partner took off with a six-foot tall guy, maybe taller, with good hair and nice jeans, and how could you ever expect to compete with someone like that? I’ve been hearing the same tale since we were both nineteen and held dumbass beliefs about what we thought women owed us. Anyway, you say, wanna get some food?
Gelled Eyebrows is behind me, waiting to be introduced. Before I can ask him his name, you flick your cigarette at a dumpster and say, Fuck it, there’s a bodega a few blocks away from here. Gelled Eyebrows and I exchange a glance, his eyebrows in full slants of confusion. I pat him on the shoulder and think maybe I should take pity and let him go, but then I nod your way, and soon he’s following me following you.
We stand in line at the bodega, our faces lobster red, hair soaked, our shirts damp and yellowed under the low-wattage fluorescent lights. Gloria Estefan’s voice hovers around us. And I think maybe the rhythm is going to get us.
We near the front of the line and I can almost taste the grease hissing on the griddle. I’m drooling, starved. I got my mind on bacon and globs of cream cheese doused in hot sauce.
Gelled Eyebrows is squinting at the menu. I guess this is a bad time to tell you I’m vegan, he says, and you roll your eyes.
I’m thinking about a salad, you say. Doesn’t that sound nice? Your eyes are bloodshot now and you’re wavering with the rest of the crowd. I think about shoving your face down onto the hot griddle, a beautiful sizzle. But no dressing, you add, though we didn’t ask. I stopped messing with that shit like a month ago.
More people pack in and our noses almost touch the deli case. I’m keeping centered with my palm on the glass; its grimy surface feels like our entire world.
We pay for our food and step back outside. The air is cooler. Gelled Eyebrows slows behind us. He says, This has been, well, something, but I’m heading home.
Are you sure, I ask, though I lose interest in his answer after saying it. He must catch this in my eyes, because he sighs. He shoves both hands his pockets and the two of us are caught in a stalemate, which you break by holding out your salad container, saying, Actually do you want this? There’s no cheese or anything and I’m not hungry anymore.
No, not really, Gelled Eyebrows says. He pulls out his phone to request an Uber. I’m OK. Get home safe, he says, then he leans in for a hug, and I’m so surprised by his kindness my arms fall limp. He pulls away and offers a half-hearted wave as he crosses the street. I feel a pang in my chest watching him go. I had derailed his entire night, dragged him out to this bodega all so I could put off the inevitable: when the night would loop back to you and me.
When it’s just you and me, I don’t think about our differences. We’re two short kings. And that scares the shit out of me. How easily I can fall in step with you. How safe this friendship feels until we’re in a room with other people, surrounded by more interesting narratives, and I begin to pick myself apart. I get too caught up on everything about me that doesn’t match up with you that I can’t fully be.
The street is emptying out. I consider my sandwich. I rip open the aluminum and stare at two beautiful halves, the layers so delicate and perfect: white cream cheese, chewy bacon, a ripple of red hot sauce. Life is rarely this beautiful. The steam rolls up, tickles the inside of my nose and I drink it in, let it work like sage on my spirits.
You gonna eat it or make out with it, you say. You’re standing closer now. I imagine smashing the sandwich into your face, can taste the satisfaction of smearing cream cheese in your hair and burning your nose with hot bacon. But I offer you one half of the sandwich instead. And without another word you receive the offering, raise it to your mouth, and bite.
Christopher Gonzalez (@livesinpages) serves as a fiction editor at Barrelhouse and a contributing editor at Split Lip. His stories appear or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including Lunch Ticket, Wasafiri, Third Point Press, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The Acentos Review. His short story “Dress Yourself” was selected for the 2019 Best Small Fictions anthology. Cleveland-raised, he now lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY and spends most of his free time on Twitter. You can also find him online at www.chris-gonzalez.com.