The frozen pomegranate martini glistened beneath the bar lights like a trophy from some gag awards show. Ryan had always wanted to order one, but Miguel was in a wine phase. South American Riojas. French Bordeaux. But this wasn’t the kind of bar where you ordered a glass of wine. There was a shirtless bartender and a Guys Gone Wild video looping on the overhead TV screen. It was the type of place Miguel called “the epitome of everything I hate about the gay community.”
A guy from down the bar was looking at Ryan. Ryan took a careful sip from his martini glass. The guy wasn’t bad looking. Shaved head. Probably in his thirties. Maybe older. It was hard to tell in the dim light and with his eyes clamped into position straight ahead like a stage lamp. He fought through his nerves and took a sidelong peek at the guy. It had been a long time since he had flirted. Well, there was the cute college kid he talked to in the elevator at his work building. Matt. He had the fullest wavy, black hair. He worked in the accountant’s office down the hall on Fridays. Knots coiled around Ryan’s stomach. Had he been totally obvious chatting up the kid? Did that make him a pedophile? There were probably fifteen years between them.
He took a long draw of the drink. An icicle shot up his nose, and a prickly burn spread across his face. Not like a good wine buzz when everything was mellow and his legs got heavy. But he wanted a frozen pomegranate martini, and he got one. Fuck Miguel. Always trying to control every little thing. He said frozen drinks were “the nadir of American culture.” Ryan wasn’t sure what nadir meant, but he could pick up the context — chain restaurants, shopping malls, pleated pants, everything Miguel considered tacky.
“Ryan escaped the suburbs,” Miguel liked to say whenever one of his friends asked Ryan where he was originally from.
“Ryan’s in marketing,” Miguel answered in response to questions about Ryan’s temp job at a PR firm.
“Ryan’s incredibly smart, but he decided to go straight to work instead of going to college.”
These things used to make Ryan feel flattered. Like Miguel cared so much about him and knew so much more about the world, he wanted to protect him. But lately, Miguel’s editorializing just made Ryan feel like shit as though his history, his entire life needed to be photoshopped like a model with a crook nose and blotchy skin. It made Ryan wonder why Miguel wanted to be with him in the first place. He gave up his studio in Hell’s Kitchen with all the paint peeling off the walls to move into Miguel’s Upper Westside two-bedroom with the river view, but it would always be Miguel’s place. Ryan’s artwork and all of his books had been relegated to the guest bedroom. They didn’t work with the Spanish Gothic motif in the living room.
Shaved head guy stepped over. Ryan looked the other way. It was a reflex. Every time he and Miguel went out together to a bar and some guy looked at him, he felt a great sinking sensation, as if he had already slept with the guy. He had never once cheated in all the four years he and Miguel had been together. He tipped back his drink and got some icy slush on his nose. Perfect timing. The guy had parked himself next to him at the bar.
“Hey,” the guy said.
“Hey.” Ryan wiped his nose with a cocktail napkin. The guy was cute up close. Shaved head and a day’s growth of beard. Like that guy who won American Idol.
“I always wanted to try one of those. Any good?”
“It’s my first one.”
Nothing about the night was premeditated, Ryan reminded himself. He’d thought about it, but not the details — which night he’d go out on his own, the place he’d go, the story he’d tell Miguel. He said he was meeting his friend Colleen for drinks. Half true. He was having drinks, but Colleen wasn’t there. She could’ve texted him to say she couldn’t make it. He was already at the bar, had already ordered a drink.
“Ready for another round?” the guy asked.
The guy flicked his hand to the bartender and ordered two more. Ryan was impressed. He never had any luck getting a bartender’s attention. He reached into his pocket to get his wallet, but shaved head guy waved him off, pulled out a twenty and laid it on the bar.
They clinked glasses carefully. The guy kept his eyes trained on Ryan as they took sips.
“Mmmm…not bad,” the guy said.
“And the company’s even better.”
One side of Ryan’s mouth curled dubiously.
“C’mon,” the guy said. “You gotta know you’re the best looking guy here.”
Ryan rolled his eyes, but the compliment grew inside him. Miguel used to say the same kind of flattering things — he was the hottest guy in all of New York, he should go out for modeling, everyone was envious when he held Ryan’s hand walking down the street. Ryan thought it was over the top. He’d deny it and change the subject quickly. But he’d noticed when Miguel stopped saying those things, not long after they moved in together, and he wondered. Had it just been a practiced routine, or at some point did Miguel realize what he’d really got?
“So, you here alone?” the guy said.
Ryan’s left hand traveled to his knee. He was wearing his commitment band. He scratched his leg and threw back some more slushy drink.
“Anthony,” the guy introduced himself.
They shook hands. No lingering weird stuff. Just a regular handshake. A nice hand though. Warm and strong. Anthony leaned toward him. Ryan leaned back. Their shoulders almost touched. Then Anthony eased back in his seat and swirled his glass. He took a long swig. Ryan tended to his own. He was really starting to feel the drink.
Anthony put his hand on Ryan’s knee. “Wanna get out of here?”
Ryan stole a sidelong glance. The guy didn’t look like a serial killer. Though, supposedly, none of the good ones did. “Where to?”
“I’ve got a blender at my place, and I don’t charge eight bucks for a drink.”
Ryan shrugged. “Sure.”
They got up from their bar stools. Anthony put his hand on Ryan’s side and squeezed. Ryan’s insides collapsed. It was the most contact he’d had with another guy since he’d been with Miguel. Four years. And for the last year, nothing but starts and stops of intimacy with the weight of twin resentments hanging over them like a lead balloon every time they were together. Meanwhile, Ryan’s eyes couldn’t stop wandering to every half-cute guy who passed his way. He followed Anthony to the front door of the bar through a knot of guys darting glances around the room.
Out on the street, he could see his breath. Late fall and he had gone out in just a t-shirt, jeans and a light jacket.
“My place is just a couple blocks from here.”
Ryan shoved his hands into his jacket pockets.
Anthony drew up beside him with an arm around Ryan’s waist. Ryan’s heart pounded, and he suddenly had to piss. There were a lot of people out on the street. Guys holding hands. Neighborhood couples loping along with their dogs. Skinny twenty-somethings flitting from one bar to the next. He tucked his head. He imagined an edited movie reel. He’d met this guy, discovered they had a lot in common, and they decided to go for a walk. Turns out they had a mutual friend. Colleen’s cousin — the guy was Colleen’s cousin, and they got to talking about her. Lame, lame, lame.
They turned a corner down a quiet block of brownstones with flower boxes on their windows. No one around. Ryan loosened up. If no one witnessed what was happening, it couldn’t be proven, it might have never happened, or it was happening in some unrecordable void like a lone tree falling in the forest. Ryan could play those odds — just him against his conscience.
But halfway down the street, he spotted a group of teenagers coming toward them. Swaggering. Screeching. Passing around a forty in a paper bag. He could hear them talking in Spanish. Anthony removed his hand from Ryan’s waist. Ryan pointed his eyes at the sidewalk. The kids weaved their way in their direction. Ryan and Anthony shifted to the side.
Ryan looked up. It was Miguel’s seventeen-year-old nephew Ricky. They took the kid whenever his mother was having problems with her boyfriend. Every summer Ricky insisted that they take him to what he called “Great Adventures.” He and Ricky would stand in line for hours to ride the new roller coaster they came up with that year. Miguel was scared of heights, so he’d buy burgers for the three of them while he waited for them to come out of the exit.
Ricky stumbled over to shake Ryan’s hands. His friends stood back, all goofy smiles. Ricky was always friendly — immediately, unquestionably friendly. He had a sort of blind acceptance for any man who took the time, however briefly, to be part of his life. Ricky’s father was more out of the picture than in it, and his mother’s boyfriend had other kids and other girlfriends, Ryan suspected. Ryan helped Ricky with his homework and listened to his girlfriend drama — things Miguel didn’t have the patience for. The kid just wanted someone to talk to, never seemed concerned about their differences in culture or sexuality. Alone, they were just two guys; Ricky was the younger brother Ryan never had.
Ricky looked at Ryan, then Anthony. Ricky couldn’t pass math or science, but he knew enough about the world to figure out the situation. Ryan didn’t say anything.
“Hey – don’t tell Tio Miguel you saw me out like this. You know how he can be.”
His friends laughed. Ryan nodded. The guys passed by.
“Yo – that’s whack, man,” one of them said.
“Shuddup. That’s my Tio Ryan.”
Ryan stood in place. His shoulders were trembling though he couldn’t feel the cold.
Anthony stepped over. “Hey – some other time, k?” He walked back in the direction of the bar.
Ryan wandered over to a brownstone stoop and took a seat. When he was five years old, some kids on the block dared him to throw a rock at a passing car. Ryan grabbed a chunk of asphalt from the street and tossed it at an old lady’s sedan crawling down the road. It shattered the passenger’s side window, and he ran straight home and told his mom and dad everything. That night, he hadn’t even done anything, but it felt worse than breaking the window on the Oldsmobile. And there was no one to confess to.
Time passed. Ryan thought about going back to the apartment. Miguel would be up reading a book or looking over his designs on the computer. He’d picked up a Chilean Cabernet Franc and set out two glasses on the kitchen counter earlier that night.
Would Miguel notice something was off when he walked in? Was what he did — almost did — seared on his face? What felt worse, lungs collapsing worse, was what he did to Ricky. He felt intuitively that Ricky would never say anything, but they would always share this shameful secret he had sprung upon him, forcing him to lie to his Tio, to pity his Tio. Ryan pressed the heel of his hands into his eyes. He was no different from Ricky’s father or the string of men his mom said he should call Papi, guys who moved into the apartment with a couple garbage bags of clothes and went home to their wives or girlfriends after a few months. A year maybe. In any case, they were never around in summer to take him to Great Adventures. Ryan’s doubts about being with Miguel had been around from the start, but the two of them together with Ricky had always felt right. Roller coasters, video games, staying up late with some action movie on TV and just talking: they had something that came easily, naturally. It was something Ryan had never expected, and Miguel was always there to tell them it was time for dinner, time for bed, always the one keeping them in line, but never harsh about it; those weekends with Ricky were the most Ryan ever saw Miguel smile. Now he and Ricky could pretend nothing had changed, but they would both know he was a fraud, and that he was on his way to check out of the family.
He thought about telling Miguel everything. He lifted with the idea of what could be, what he really needed, a happy daydream that Miguel would take him in his arms, comfort his tears, tell him everything was going to be OK. But what he knew instinctively throttled him. It wouldn’t be like that; Miguel’s ego couldn’t take it. There would be no yelling or crying — Miguel never let himself go — but he could dole out the cold treatment, tight-shouldered anger, refusing to acknowledge what Ryan had done. He might come around in a detached, rational way and schedule an appointment with a couples’ therapist. Miguel knew some guys in private practice. And what would Ryan say? They couldn’t talk honestly in private, so how were they going to do it in front of someone else?
The more he waited, the less he was sure of anything. His legs felt weighted down. The chill autumn air gripped his lungs. He imagined sitting there so still no one would notice him. Or maybe the rest of the world would be stripped away.
© Andrew J Peters