by E H Lupton
A long time before he officially became Jonathan Morrow, the king of everything, he was Jonathan Morrow, the boy who couldn’t own up to anything.
He was a programmer, working the nine to five, or more often the 10:30am to 4:00pm and the odd 6:00pm to midnight on a deadline, in a cubicle on the fifth floor of an office building which seemed to stretch all the way to the clouds, and although he’d been there for six months, he knew no one at all save for Marissa, the extremely young head of Marketing who had run into him in the elevator one day and decided, after a lengthy conversation that took them five floors, six blocks, three subway stops, and a falafel sandwich, to become his roommate. Jonathan was mildly confused by this progression, but he had been looking for someone to split the rent payments with, someone to fill up the empty room in what seemed like a vast amount of free space.
He’d recently graduated from college and moved to the city with some vague intention of finding himself, but the vast space in which he found himself seemed more terrifying than liberating. Like a house cat released into the wild, the tall buildings and background noises were distracting and the population density made him nervous. At night in the corner of the bar he’d staked out as “his”, he watched the young men and women cavort, unable to join in.
Perhaps inevitably, one night a guy with short hair the color of straw and a body like mortal sin approached him, two beers in hand.
“You’re quiet,” were his first words.
“No, I’m Jonathan.”
“Joe.” There was some juggling so Jonathan could take the beer and shake the guy’s hand; his skin was cold and clammy from the bottle, and Jonathan wondered if it was some sort of technique created to hide his nervousness. Morrow’s own hands were slightly clammy from anxiety, but he didn’t think Joe noticed.
“What do you do?” he asked, licking suddenly dry lips.
Joe laughed. “You’re cute. I like that.” Jonathan drank his beer.
They were having toast and coffee the next morning when someone knocked on the door. Jonathan got up slowly, his hangover protesting the movement, and opened it.
It was Marissa, holding a big box. “You want to give me a hand?” she chirped, pushing past him but leaving her burden behind. It was labeled “books” and weighed at least twenty-five pounds.
He cursed internally. “I forgot you were moving in today.”
“Really?” Marissa laughed. “I left you a message last night.”
“I didn’t really get to my messages last night.” His stomach twisted as she stepped into the kitchen in search of his answering machine.
“The light’s still blinking,” she confirmed, then turned to Joe. “Hi, I’m Marissa.”
They shook hands as Joe got to his feet. Jonathan wondered if his hands were still cold.
“So you’re a friend of Jon’s?” Marissa asked, stepping aside to let Joe out from behind the small table. Jonathan closed his eyes, holding his breath to see what answer Joe would give.
“Yeah, we’re friends,” he said. “I was just heading out. See you around sometime.”
“Look, I’m sorry,” Jonathan told him at the door. “I really did forget.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Joe said, half-smiling. “Give me a call sometime.”
“Sure thing,” Jonathan said, and the door shut between them. He rested his forehead against the wood. Joe had never given him his number.
Back in the kitchen Marissa had opened her box and was hanging a bright yellow clock on the wall. The hands were shaped like crayons.
“Who was he?” she asked over one shoulder.
“Just a friend.”
“Just a friend?” She turned around, frowning a little. “You’re not some kind of queermo, are you?”
Jonathan wanted to say, “A what?” He wanted to say, “Yes, and where do you get off judging me?” He wanted to say a lot of things. Instead he laughed a small, embarrassed laugh.
Marissa smiled and crossed the kitchenette to put an arm around his shoulders. “You and me, we’re going to have so much fun together,” she said. “I just know it.”
It wasn’t a lie, because they did have fun. It was just fun of a type Jonathan wouldn’t have picked out for himself. Instead of playing video games, he was going to museums and gallery openings; instead of drinking beer at the place around the corner, he was sipping wine at a jazz bar across town. And if occasionally their conversations veered into territory that he wished they could avoid, well . . .
“Why don’t you have a girlfriend, Jon?”
He shrugged. “Don’t call me that.”
“You’re a good looking guy.” Marissa sat back in the booth, looking at him over her wine glass. She had blond hair which fell down to her shoulders and large brown eyes made larger by the careful application of some makeup product. She was wearing a soft, light blue sweater and a skirt that stopped well short of her knees.
In conventional terms – in any terms, really – she was very pretty. Beautiful, even. She was the kind of woman men were supposed to chase after.
“I should take you shopping,” she said. “If we got you some decent clothes, the ladies would definitely come running.”
“Oh boy.” He tried to smile. She smiled back. She had a lot of teeth.
Marissa was working late on some sort of big last-minute sales project and their trip to a wine and cheese tasting had been canceled, so he found himself at loose ends.
The new t-shirts she’d made him buy felt faintly ridiculous, with the logos of bands he’d never heard of or artistically rendered pictures of birds, but they did do something for him. He’d been getting more looks lately, from the barista girl with the uneven haircut and glasses to boys on the street to the harried department assistant to Rob in accounting.
That last one worried him a bit.
But with nothing better to do, he put on a shirt and a pair of jeans, dragged his fingers through his hair and went back to the bar. His bar.
The crowd had changed with the seasons and he didn’t see anyone who looked familiar. The bartender slid his drink down the bar without ever making eye contact with him, and if that was Joe in the corner he’d dyed his hair and didn’t look too interested.
Fair enough. Jonathan took a drink of his martini and turned to watch the bodies on the dance floor, wishing he smoked so he would have something to do with his hands. The whirl of lights and the press of bodies were hypnotic, and he tried to tell himself that he’d be out there after another drink.
He was still sitting there half an hour later when a woman slid onto the stool next to him. She was quite thin and wearing a blue wig over her normal hair, which was interesting. She wore a leather bustier above her jeans. “Hi.”
He blinked, realizing belatedly that he had been staring. “Hello.”
The music was loud and he had to raise his voice to be heard. “How’s it going?”
“I saw you sitting here all alone and thought I’d come over and say hi.” She had some sort of mixed drink made with orange juice, maybe a screwdriver, and she swirled the ice in it with her straw. “You look lonely.”
“I think everyone here is,” he said. “That’s why we’re hanging around in a crappy bar dressed like we think we’re rock stars.”
She laughed. “What is it about men that they always think I’m trying to get in their pants?”
So he took her home.
If he’d thought Marissa was a bit restrained with Joe, she was absolutely icy to Nina when they met the next morning over coffee and scrambled eggs. It hardly seemed fair. Nina smelled faintly of smoke, and she’d taken off the wig at some point, exposing her own short red hair. She was pretty, in a boyish way, and if Jonathan had been into that sort of thing, he would have asked her out. As it was, her tongue had barely licked its way into his mouth before he began to feel weird and excused himself, pleading too much alcohol. Nina was unfazed by his refusal, and curled up next to him. She’d been asleep before he made it through his stammered apology, and he wondered how many screwdrivers she’d had before she came to talk to him.
In the elevator down, he told her she was a charming girl and that he hoped she’d find someone worthwhile.
She smiled, a little sadly, and said, “I thought maybe I had.” Nina stepped out of the elevator and looked back at him from the lobby. “You too. I mean it.”
Jonathan blinked. “Thank you,” he managed, and the doors slid shut.
Marissa gave him a look when he came in. “Who was that?”
“Nina. I introduced you.”
She shook her head. “I leave for one night and you’re back to your old ways.”
“Honestly, Jon, picking up girls in bars? That’s not the way to find happiness.” She shook her head, looking suddenly tired.
“You’re right,” he said softly. It was hard to tell if she’d heard.
She started wearing more short skirts after that, and he occasionally caught her giving him laden glances out of the corners of her eyes, glances he didn’t care to interpret too closely, telling himself it was just a thing. He had a hot roommate who liked to wear provocative clothing.
He was in so much trouble.
A few weeks later he was at the office at 10 o’clock one night, staring at lines of code that had begun to go crooked as his eyes shut down in protest. He didn’t know quite where the desire to move came from, but he had covered two and a half flights of stairs before he really paused to think about what he was doing, where he was going.
There was no concrete answer, just the impetus to continue, so he kept walking. Down the steps, through the revolving door with the handle tarnished green from continual use, faster down the street where it was dark and chilly, pulling up the collar of his coat as he went. In the subway car, he watched his reflection in the black glass. His hair was askew from running his hands through it all night and the new pants Marissa had made him buy gave him a lanky, leggy look he had never managed before. He looked like he needed someone to buy him a hamburger. He looked like someone other than himself.
Or maybe he looked more like himself than he ever had before.
At the corner bar, the bartender delivered his martini with no sign of recognition, because this wasn’t fucking TV, and he shrugged off his coat and shoved himself into the corner of a booth at the back of the dance floor.
It was trance night, and aside from a few tripped-out looking kids swaying gently under the disco ball the bar was pretty chill. Jonathan finished the drink and contemplated the olive at the bottom.
“Need a refill?” a guy said, sliding into the other side of the booth.
“Thinking about it,” Jonathan said, looking up. The guy was thin and dark haired, and when Jonathan met his eye he winked.
“Go get one, I’ll wait here.”
Jonathan went to go get one.
When he got back, he had put himself together enough to introduce himself.
“I’m David,” the guy said. He was drinking something pink, practically a fruit salad, the sort of thing no one would be surprised to see sporting a curly straw and a little paper umbrella. His fingernails had been painted with black nail polish, now chipped around the edges. “Did you hear their latest album?”
“Who? Oh.” Jonathan looked down at his shirt. “I’ve never heard their stuff, actually.”
“Don’t worry about it. They’re crap.” David leaned forward to pull a cherry out of his drink. “I’ve seen them in concert twice.”
“Last month.” He ate the cherry, looking satisfied. “I’ve seen you around too, a couple of times.”
The act of inhaling his martini was painful and involuntary. Jonathan coughed hard, holding up a hand. When he could breathe again, he said, “I haven’t been here for months.”
“I see you around town, too. Thought you were cute, that’s why I remember you. Like at that café on Fourth Street.” He smiled. “Always with that girl. She your girlfriend?”
“No,” Jonathan said, a little too emphatically. “Just my roommate.”
“I hear that.” David leaned back. “You don’t like me saying you’re cute, do you.”
“It’s not…” He squirmed. “I came to the city to try to come out of my shell a little.”
Jonathan licked his lips. “It turns out change is more difficult than it seems at first blush.”
“These things take time.” David sat forward, staring intently at Jonathan. He had dark eyes which sparkled despite the darkness of the bar. They sat in silence for a few moments. “Has it been long enough?”
“For you to settle into a new paradigm. Of not going home with girls, when you and I both know your preferences lie elsewhere.”
Jonathan finished his martini. “Are you propositioning me?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
He was out of lube, embarrassingly, but David just laughed and dragged him, naked, to the kitchen to forage for vegetable oil. Jonathan found that he liked the way it made the other man’s skin glow in the soft yellow light of his lamp. He found that there were a lot of things he liked about David and David’s body.
At one point, they heard a loud thump against the wall between his bedroom and Marissa’s.
“Shit, man.” David considered this. “Want me to be louder?”
“Be as loud as you want,” Jonathan said, and sunk his teeth into the man’s shoulder.
The next morning was a Saturday, and Marissa was up by the time they slunk down to the kitchen, David in his boxers, exposing a handful of hickeys Jonathan was both proud and vaguely embarrassed by.
“Who’s this?” If Marissa’s voice was any colder, it would have been liquid nitrogen.
“This is David,” Jonathan said, getting out the coffee. “David, this is Marissa.”
“Lovely to meet you,” David said.
Marissa was glaring. “I thought you’d grown out of that nonsense.”
Jonathan wasn’t sure what she meant, and he suddenly realized he didn’t care about the nuances of her speech. He felt like laughing, but instead he just smiled. “No, I think I’ve just finally grown up.”