In my fantasies, I’m always the big, strong guy, the guy who looks like he could totally kick your ass, so when he caresses you, it blows your mind. Yeah, picture me as that guy, with muscles that bulge (but not too much), and eyes that fuck you up from across the room.
I sat in the back corner of the bar at Club Fred’s, dismantling a matchbook and watching Drag Night unfurl around me. I’d grabbed the stool closest to the wall, and because Fred’s was nothing if not quirky, there were about three inches between the stool and the wall. Just enough space for my ass to almost not slide into the gap. But still, it was a hell of a lot better than a stool with no wall, or standing.
Not a great day, body-wise, but I’d still made myself go out. I should have worn more comfortable clothes, because I could barely bend my knee in the ridiculous leather pants and I could feel my leg getting ready to seize up at the worst possible moment. But if I don’t go out when I’m having a bad day I’d never go out at all, so I force myself.
It wasn’t particularly bad. A little tingly, that’s all. Oh, did I not mention I have MS? Multiple sclerosis. Yeah. Well, anyway. That’s why I’m never gonna be the big, strong guy with thoseabs. That guy? Doesn’t travel with his collapsible cane at the ready just in case.
“Emerson, boy, you’re a sight for sore eyes!”
Okay, the truth is I’ve never had a lot of friends. I have acquaintances through different channels who don’t get sick of me; some of them decide we’re friends. Like Zane. She was my real estate agent, and now we’re . . . friends. Kind of.
“Hey, Zane.” I watched her lean in toward the cute lesbian on the next stool over and whisper in her ear. The girl blushed and moved her tiny jeweled handbag to her lap so she could shift stools, giving Zane the one next to me.
I couldn’t help smiling. Zane was kind of a . . . force to be reckoned with.
“What’d you say to her?”
“Told her she was way too cute to be the kind of asshole who takes two stools, and anyone she might be waiting for would be a fool to sit with her at the bar when they could be dancing. Yo, Fredi! Can a thirsty woman get a beer around here or what?” When the bull dyke who owns the bar didn’t even acknowledge her, Zane sat back, brushing a shock of purple hair out of her eyes. “Damn busy in here, which I guess is the point of these silly fuckin’ theme nights.”
“I forgot it was a theme night,” I admitted.
She laughed. “Joke’s on you! Seriously, you know what I think about these nights?” After another check to make sure Fredi was at the other end of the bar, she leaned in. “Welcome to the Queers of La Vista, Emerson. It’s an ongoing soap opera where all of queer La Vista gets together to rub off on each other and gossip.”
“You think it’s really that bad?”
Zane waved an expansive arm, and didn’t seem to notice when she almost knocked the little lesbian’s head off. “Okay, over there you’ve got the La Vista rite of passage, a young queer turning twenty-one. And look, he’s surrounded by his hottie friends, and he’s got a good-looking black boyfriend who’s definitely the reason he’s here tonight, because that kid’s probably never set foot in a bar before now.”
The kid in question sort of tilted toward his boyfriend while we watched, bashful and begging to be drawn out of himself. I turned away. Boys like him were my kryptonite, as if I could look at them and imagine their skin under my hands. But I knew I’d never touch them. Too pure.
My leg twinged like it knew I was thinking about tying up a boy with an innocent face and it wanted to remind me that if I tried, it’d end badly. Thanks, leg. Message received.
Okay, so I’d never tied up anyone. But I’d always wanted to. I just hadn’t exactly gotten around to it. And since the diagnosis, it seemed like a stupid idea. This is one of those diseases they can’t cure, that only fucks you more as time goes on. Why would I even bother?
Zane, who was still explaining the characters starring in her imaginary soap opera, poked me suddenly.
I twitched away from another poke. “What?”
“Check out DJ Rixx eyeing you over there.”
It’s not as if I’m a font of pop culture, but DJ Rixx had posters all over the East Bay. That face? Come on.
The boy she was all-too-obviously gesturing at had the same baby face, the same hooded eyes. I swallowed a gulp of my beer (my one beer, don’t go all health-lecture on me), and tried to distract her.
“So, how’s the whole, uh, trying to get pregnant thing going?”
She turned fully toward me, and I didn’t shrink back, at all, so any rumor you’ve heard to the contrary is a lie. “How’s the multiple sclerosis coming?”
“You think of pregnancy as a disease?”
“I think of it as something I have limited control over and don’t really know what to say when people ask me how it’s going. I’m not pregnant.” She bowed her head, like some kind of distinguished gent in a top hat. “I know you didn’t mean anything, Emerson. Just, I get sick of people asking.”
“Sorry.” I was, too. Because I knew what she was saying, and yeah, I got it.
“Anyway, you should go over there and talk to Rixx. I’ll stay here and wait for Fredi to bring me refreshment, and make up more stories about people. Hey, can I ask you a question that might be really fucked up?”
She leaned in, and the wildly colorful polka-dot shirt thing she had on kind of drifted against my arm. “How long does it take you to switch pronouns when someone, y’know, transitions?”
I blinked. “Um. I don’t have any idea.” Okay, truth: I don’t really know that many trans people. It’s not like they have a thought bubble over their heads that reads Hi, I’m trans, ask me about my pronouns. How would I even know? I mean, except when you . . . know.
“Because I totally misgendered a really good friend of mine in my head and now I’m afraid to go talk to him because what if I do it while we’re talking?”
“Well, but how often do you need a gendered pronoun when you’re talking to the person?”
Zane brightened right up. “Hey, great point. Okay, I’m gonna go talk to Ed, you’re gonna go talk to Rixx, and one of us is gonna get laid. So go seduce that boy.” She didn’t quite shove me off my stool, but she obviously wanted to.
I ran a few internal tests on my left side. I’d had serious pins and needles on the bus and when I first sat down, but I’d tried to stretch it out unobtrusively, and now I felt pretty stable.
It was a bad day. I don’t have to wonder if my leg’s going to hold me up a hundred percent of the time. But stools are kind of a dumb idea anyway. I just like sitting on them. They feel so bar-like.
I shifted my messenger bag, feeling for the shape of the cane. It was there if I needed it. I hated knowing I might.
The guy was still looking in my direction, so I smiled at him.
He smiled back.
I’m so fucking in right now. I managed to ease myself off the stool without falling or jerking around, and started toward the Rixx-alike.
Who held my gaze, yeah, with those smoky eyes. I couldn’t tell if he’d used makeup to get that look, or he was naturally blessed with a mysterious air about him. Not that I cared. I wanted him on his knees with my dick in his throat and my hands in his hair, and I sure as hell didn’t care if he had on eye shadow or whatever.
This is a good time to remind you that you should be picturing me tall, and strong, and cut. Not skinny with a limp and stooped shoulders. I used to be pretty strong, but apparently you have to eat to keep up muscle mass, so at this point the most you could really call me is “lean,” and that’d be if you were too polite to say “scrawny.” Oh, and give me a crew cut that makes you think twice about fucking with me, okay? Pay no attention to my limp soot-colored hair.
Anyway, fake DJ Rixx didn’t seem to give a shit about my hair. He straightened as I approached, and his smile widened.
“I was hoping you’d come over here. I’m Joey.”
“Emerson.” We shook hands, the way you do when you plan to fuck someone in ten minutes. Like, Let’s take a minute to pretend we’re evolved before we maul each other.
“Tell me you don’t want to sit down,” he said. “It’s not really my crowd in here tonight.”
“Me neither.” Actually, I love drag nights. I just wasn’t in the mood for one.
Joey’s eyes sharpened on me. “Go to the back?”
God, this would be fucking fantastic. Assuming we were on the same page. Not that I’m anti–blowing guys—I’m definitely not anti–blowing guys—but no way was I trusting my leg to kneel and then get me up again.
Fuck it. Joey wanted me. I could tell by the look on his face.
If I was the guy I pretended to be, I would have pushed ahead, led him to the back hallway, to the suspiciously large men’s room where Fredi pretended nothing untoward happened. Instead I’m the guy who followed his trick to the back, praying to gods I don’t believe in that my leg didn’t pick this moment to totally screw me over.
But that ass. I had no idea what the actual DJ Rixx’s ass looked like, but the La Vista version had an ass that begged to be spanked.
Joey and I found an empty stall, and I was already half-hard just thinking about his pink lips on my dick. He seemed pretty fucking into it too, judging by the rod he was adjusting in his tight jeans.
Yeah, this was gonna be perfect. I grabbed his neck, pushing him to his knees. His hands hit my thighs. Yes, fuck yes. I thrust forward, more a hint of what was to come, but the motion somehow messed up my balance, and I felt myself tumble. Somehow I twisted, trying to save myself with my right side, but overcompensated and caught my lower back on the toilet paper holder.
The kid, Joey, scrambled off the floor and backed against the stall divider like he’d burn if I touched him.
“Everything okay in there?” some helpful jackass asked, laughter underpinning his words.
“Fine,” I forced myself to say through clenched teeth. The pain shone white-hot, more an impression of color than sensation, sizzling through my nerves. I was shaking. I could keep myself up on the toilet paper dispenser, but even though my left leg had returned from its temporary vacation to wherever the hell it went when it simply stopped working, I wasn’t about to risk putting my weight on it.
And, oh god, Joey was staring at me like I was some kind of circus freak. He noticed me looking and wiped the expression off his face.
“Hey, you all right?” His voice had changed. It was now some mix of the voice you use for the homeless guy you watched fall off the curb and the one you use for the little old lady you’re playing checkers with in the nursing home to work off your community service.
“Yeah. Fine. Probably should have eaten earlier . . . or something.” Dig yourself in deeper, Emerson. Now I needed him to get the fuck out of there and leave me alone. Sex was no longer an option. Fuck, leaving Club Fred’s without my cane was also no longer an option.
“You, uh, want me to walk you out? You got a car or something?”
I know I’m supposed to be grateful and shit when people offer help. I know this thing where I want to claw their eyeballs out of their heads is probably not healthy. But still.
He must have seen something in my expression, because he held up his hands. “Hey, no worries.”
“Yeah. Sorry.” I slid as far as I could out of the way, but we were basically stuck together in the stall. In order to get past me, he had to brush against my body, and I couldn’t help noticing he was still hard as a rock.
I closed my eyes after he left, barely resisting the urge to bang my head into the cinder-block wall a few times. It’s not super trendy to be the bitter cripple, but sometimes I can’t help it. I hate this. I hate that I can’t trust my body. I hate that there’s no cure. I hate that some people with MS seem totally fine, like you can’t tell their body is betraying them, and I’m this skinny prick who can’t even get sucked off in a bathroom without falling apart.
I didn’t bang my head into the wall. Self-pity is so much prettier when you don’t have blood running down your face.
The cane needed more clearance than I had in the stall, so I pushed open the door and shook it out until it clicked, ignoring the stares of whoever the fuck was in there. No one I knew, apparently; they all looked away with that guilt/shame response that’s as good as putting up a sign reading Maybe if I don’t look, it won’t happen to me.
Hobbling back down the hall was better with the cane than it would have been if I’d tried leaning against things and hoping for the best. Daring to hope always made me so vulnerable to failure; having a prop made it easier to pretend I didn’t give a shit.
The trip across the room took longer, and I kept to the edges, trying not to over-rely on the cane or trip anyone. Zane was back at the bar, chatting up the cute lesbian. I tried to look away before she saw me, but no luck. I watched her spot the cane, and didn’t wait to see what her face would do then.
I got the fuck out of Fred’s and limped my ass to the bus stop. Almost nine months after my diagnosis and this was it, this was the end of my Friday night: boarding the bus with a scattering of drunk teenagers and various swing shift workers on their way home, clutching my cane, wondering if people were looking at me trying to figure out what the hell a thirty-one-year-old needed a cane for. I hoped they thought it was an affectation.
I did not think of Joey’s hooded gaze on me in the club, or the blowjob that might have been.
I was hungover for a couple of days after that night at Club Fred’s. To be honest, I think it was a humiliation hangover more than a physical one; later I realized that it had only really been a moment of stabby pain, some inconvenient numbness, and me being clumsy. If I’d pulled my shit together instead of freaking out, I probably still could have gotten laid. Hell, if I’d let Joey-with-the-DJ-Rixx-face walk me out, I probably could have gotten laid.
On the bus to work Monday morning, I contemplated my uselessness, which is always a good look on me. I’ve never seen it in a mirror, but I’m pretty sure my expression resembles a dog’s after being scolded and it’s staring at you with its head on its paws, but its eyes follow you pathetically wherever you go.
My eyes didn’t have anyone to follow. Until they did.
Damn. Look at him.
He was a little too hipster for my taste: cloud-pale skin, long brown hair, unnecessary layers of clothing, even for March. Tight jeans tucked inside heavy black boots.
The boots looked like the only real thing about him. The rest—red shirt, red flannel over it, black vest over that, battered brown suit coat over that—could have been a cardboard cutout of anyone.
Fuck. I have an eyes thing. He had this strong brow, but the hazel eyes underneath it were bright.
I didn’t really expect to see new people on the bus in the morning. There were always some, but I commute every day. The folks in my neighborhood and the folks on my bus line are pretty familiar, and this guy wasn’t one of them. And I noticed him because he was tall, and his boots looked like he lived in them. I don’t know how sometimes you can tell the difference between “bought worn out” and “worn until worn out” by looking at someone, but I would have bet money that even if his jacket had looked threadbare when he pulled it out of whatever thrift store he favored, those boots had only known his feet.
When I finally wrenched my eyes away from his boots, he was looking right at me. Of course he was.
I flushed hot and turned to the window, tightening my hands on my messenger bag. Then five seconds later I looked back. Because I’m weak.
He smiled. The partial hipster with the motorcycle boots smiled at me. I liked his smile as much as I liked his eyes.
That should have been it. I was in the first row of seats by the window. He was on one of the perpendicular sets. The bus wasn’t that full, and I had no idea where he was getting off.
Three old ladies boarded, each with a purple hat, and my cute booted hipster offered them the long bench he was sitting on. They fussed appropriately, and I mourned the loss of our slightly flirtatious glances across the bus.
Until he slid into the seat next to mine.
Listen, maybe people pick each other up on city buses all the fucking time, but I can tell you I’ve never done it. I looked into his damn eyes and said . . . okay, nothing. For at least thirty seconds.
He smiled again and held his hand out toward me. “I’m Obie.”
Yeah, that’s genius. Say the guy’s name like it’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever heard, I’m sure he’ll find you irresistible.
“Short for Obadiah Magovney. Cool, right?”
“Yeah.” I belatedly tried to shake his hand, but instead of shaking, he held mine. “I’m Emerson. Robinette.”
“Until right this minute I was really annoyed my bike broke down. Meeting you might make it worth it.”
“How do you figure that?” I’m an idiot.
He tapped his fingertips against my knuckles. “I don’t know. I just . . . like the look of you. Emerson’s a great name. Like the writer, right?”
“Like my great-grandfather, actually, but also the writer.”
“I think my parents read my name in a book, or maybe heard it in a song.”
My stop was fast approaching. I’d have to get around him. Should be fine. No problems with my leg since Friday.
Still, I felt for my cane.
“You getting off soon?”
I shrugged. “At Horizon and Second.”
“Enough time for me to get your phone number. Unless I’m, uh, barking up the wrong tree?” He arched one dark eyebrow at me. Up close I confirmed my theory about the jacket: it was worn the way something gets when you wear it every day, at the cuffs and elbows, but not quite at the right spots for his body. This had been previously owned by a man with shorter arms, I decided, as if it mattered.
“Um, no,” I said. Wait, what was I saying? “I mean, not the wrong tree, not no about the phone number thing. Yes about the phone number thing.”
He pulled out a phone and looked at me expectantly.
Right. I reeled off my numbers, and he entered them, then went through the “text you my number” ritual.
Then I had his number. Obadiah. Obie. I secretly liked his name.
My stop. “I need to get off here.”
He moved out of the way while the bus was still rolling, but I wasn’t about to risk my balance until it stopped, even though he was giving me a strange look because I didn’t immediately get up.
When I shifted out into the aisle in front of him, I gripped the bar hard so there was no chance I’d fall in front of the handsome hipster.
He squeezed my biceps. “Good to meet you, Em. Can I call you ‘Em’?”
I should have said Sure, but what I actually said was, “I kind of hate that.”
He grinned. “I’ll never do it again, promise.”
Damn. I got myself down the stairs and tried not to swoon against the bus shelter. We’d been sitting on the far side of the bus where there was no way for him to see me, so I shook out my cane for the walk to work. I don’t have big walking problems, but a little extra support for the quarter mile was a good idea after the weekend.
I looked back at the bus—of course I looked back at the bus—ready to mentally move on from Obie, since the likelihood of him ever calling was low, and the only thing lower was the likelihood of me calling him.
And there he was. His face. Up against the back window. Watching me limp with my fucking cane. It wasn’t exactly an “O” of comic horror, but he definitely looked shocked.
I turned and hobbled my ass away, probably trying too hard to look halfway dignified while I did.
* * *
I never expected to hear from Obie. And I didn’t.
For two days.
My job’s one of those great inspiring things where when you tell people you teach English and coach adults through their GED and do job training, they look at you like you’re some sort of saint. I’m not a saint. I’m a guy who needed a job and had a BA, which is what was required. I started doing the teaching English stuff at Salvation Army right after college. I’ve been at La Vista Community Resources for about seven years now, and the GED classes are my favorites.
This group had another four weeks of practice before taking the test, and even though I could tell they were all doing well, they were increasingly neurotic about it. After two hours of reassuring them they’d be fine (as long as we could stop processing and get back to actual instruction), and eventually reminding them that they could retake it as many times as they needed to until they passed, I was ready to be done.
Which is when I felt my phone buzz against my leg.
It probably wasn’t him. Even though I have practically no friends, so if I’m at work and my phone receives a text, it’s definitely strange.
“Emerson?” Rosa’s tone was vaguely apologetic. “I asked about the waiting period?”
Focus, Robinette. “You can take each section three times before there’s a waiting period. After that, you need to wait sixty days.”
“Hey, you think I’m such a bad teacher you’re all going to fail three times? I’m offended by that! Rosa, you don’t think you’re going to fail three times, do you?”
“I’m not too sure.”
I shook my head and tried to look, y’know, sure. “Listen, you might struggle with some of the sections, but you’re all testing pretty well in class, and we have four more classes before the test. Stop stressing!”
“But you said that a lot of people fail—”
“Some of the sections, yeah. But not everyone. And failing one section doesn’t mean you failed all of them. Come back here and we’ll keep studying until you get it. Right, Paolo?”
Paolo waved a hand. “You never give up, Emerson. I think that probably means you’re some kind of crazy optimist.”
“I’ve seen a lot of people come through here, and a lot of them passed the GED. But I can see by your faces it’s time to break out the big guns.” I sighed, playing it up for a second. “Next week, I’ll bring snacks.”
A few chuckles. Rosa clapped.
Paolo waved a hand again and muttered, “Don’t get excited.”
Marianne—who I privately thought of as “the only white lady in class”—was clearly excited. “I’ll bring something too!”
Rosa was already nodding. “Me too!”
I hadn’t meant to start a potluck, but since they were excited, I was excited. “Great. So I’ll see you guys next week, and we’ll feast like champions after we do another practice test.”
“Spoonful of sugar, right?” Carmen asked me, doing something with her face that I think was supposed to be seductive.
“No more Disney movies for you, Carmen.”
They cleared out, and the whole time I was saying good-bye I was really thinking about the weight of my phone, how it seemed heavier now, as if that mystery text somehow added a few ounces to it. I could go hours without feeling it in my pocket, but right now it was like a hot brick, intruding on my awareness.
I forced myself to wait until my official break, and then almost dropped my phone in an effort to get it out.
It was him. It was Motorcycle Hipster Obie.
You know that thing people do where they exchange numbers and never use them? Let’s not be those guys. Got my bike out of the shop if you ever want to go for a ride.
Jesus. What the hell was I supposed to say to that? I almost sent back, Can’t. Cane, remember? Except why the hell couldn’t I? I could hold on tight.
It might be a dumb idea—because guys like me don’t take motorcycle rides with guys like Obie—but I wanted to text him back and say yes. Tell him when I got off work, watch him pull up. What did a helmet do to long wavy hair like that? I kind of wanted to know.
“Something interesting on your phone, Emerson?”
My boss, Alma.
“No.” I slipped the phone in my pocket. “Oh look, you made me a Lean Cuisine.”
“Get your own. What’s on your phone?”
She narrowed her eyes and cocked her hip, which would have been a lot more effective without the tray of cruddy microwaved food in her hand. She looked less I’ll get the gossip out of you if I have to beat it out of you and more Did you do your homework, young man?
“Is there a boy on that phone?”
“He’s not a boy, Jesus, Alma!”
She grinned. “So there is a boy! Oh good. Well, if he’s a decent one, I’m all for it. Though be careful walking around, after Saturday.”
“What happened Saturday?” I turned away and reached for my healthy Doritos-and-Grandma’s Cookies. And anyway, I only got the peanut butter ones, which have protein, or whatever, from the peanut butter.
“Do you live in a hole? Haven’t you seen the paper?”
“Oh, right, the paper. Sorry, I must have been interrupted this morning while I was reading the paper and eating the seven-course breakfast my chef prepared for me.”
“Don’t be rude.”
I sat at a table with my feast and started opening things. For a second I thought she was too annoyed to eat with me, but no, she dropped her disgusting-looking tray and went over to pick through a newspaper someone had left out.
“This.” She smoothed it out into readable condition and pushed it in front of me.
I wasn’t really paying attention. I didn’t even wipe off the Doritos dust before pinpointing her finger on a headline.
Body Discovered in East La Vista. Local performer found murdered. I glanced up, but Alma waved her arm in circles like I should keep reading.
I did. And oh shit. Shit. I knew her. Not knew-her knew her, but I’d just fucking seen her Friday, at Drag Night. Mistah Olmes, whose real name was apparently Melissa Loren. She was supposed to be kind of a dick in person, but when he was doing his show, he was hilarious.
“Oh my god.” My eyes traced down the column. The paper delicately said she’d been “in costume” when she was discovered. Which meant . . . what? She’d been killed Friday night after leaving Club Fred’s? “Oh my god. I saw her. Him. Fuck, I don’t know what you call someone who’s killed while doing drag. Shit, Alma.”
Her expression fell. “Oh, niño, I’m so sorry. I never even considered—”
“No, it’s okay. Damn. I just watched her perform, you know?” Or no, it was “him.” He’d done an office sketch where he’d sexually harassed his hot girlfriend, who was done up like Joan from Mad Men. Really, Mistah Olmes was one of the only ones who could do comedy in the five minutes Fredi gave performers.
And now she was dead.
Alma finally picked up her fork. “They’re saying they think it was a hate crime.”
“Every time anyone gets killed who isn’t white and straight, I assume it was a hate crime. But god.” I mechanically started shoving chips in my mouth and washing them down with a Monster energy drink. “I can’t believe this.”
She patted my arm. “You be careful with your new boyfriend. You never know who’s out there, you know?”
“Jeez, Alma, you’re a happy-go-lucky lady today. Anyway, he’s not my boyfriend.”
“I saw the way you were staring at that screen. Maybe he’s not yet, but you want him to be.”
“I don’t even know him!” I shoved the paper away, and after a thought, flipped it over so I was no longer staring at the headline (Local performer found murdered, oh fuck me). “He’s cute, though.”
She grinned in triumph. “That’s what I’m saying. Well, good. Go get an apple from my office before you go back to class.”
“So that you eat something your body considers food today.”
“My body’s fine.” Liar. “I should go finish up for the day. Or do paperwork. Or something.”
She waved her fork. “You should call that boy back.”
“He’s a man. I’m a man. We’re adults, for god’s sake!”
“Don’t curse at me, niño.” This time the fork was leveled at my eyes.
“Have a good day, Emerson.”
“You too.” I gathered the rest of my stuff and dumped the trash. “See you later.”
My brain was torn between two obsessions for the rest of the day: possibly going out with Obie of the motorcycle boots and hazel eyes, and narrowly (probably not that narrowly) avoiding being murdered. Had I seen a killer when I was at the club? Who killed drag kings? Did women kill people? As far as I knew, Mistah was a lesbian. And how would the killer have even known he was a woman? His Mistah clothes were enough to make me do a double take.
And seriously, had I looked right past a fucking murderer?