Austin Bunn is a writer, playwright and performer. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Zoetrope, The New York Times Magazine, One Story, The Pushcart Prize anthology and elsewhere. Favorite LGBT authors? Andrew Holleran (Grief is on the nightstand), Adam Haslett (utterly convinced me about inner life), Alan Hollinghurst (can filigree a sentence like no other), Ed White (the ultimate stylist), Paul Monette (I had his dorm room!), and Pinups (which is not an author but very much belongs here). Favorite flower? Whatever’s in the clearance aisle at Fruitbasket Flowerland.

Austin Bunn is a writer, playwright and performer. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Zoetrope, The New York Times Magazine, One Story, The Pushcart Prize anthology and elsewhere. Favorite LGBT authors? Andrew Holleran (Grief is on the nightstand), Adam Haslett (utterly convinced me about inner life), Alan Hollinghurst (can filigree a sentence like no other), Ed White (the ultimate stylist), Paul Monette (I had his dorm room!), and Pinups (which is not an author but very much belongs here). Favorite flower? Whatever’s in the clearance aisle at Fruitbasket Flowerland.

Yes, Henry would like to say something. In the early part of his marriage, Henry started an extension to the house that he never finished. Ten years and counting, conduit still sprouts from the ceiling. Pink ribs of insulation are just there. Margot, his wife, put in a twin bed to home it up. She was afraid their daughter Effie would go and electrocute herself, fork in socket, to a curly-haired cinder. But Effie didn’t go in because she thought the room was haunted and, in a way, it was. Eventually, there was this unpainted door they didn’t talk about and never went into.

One morning this spring, Margot opened it. This was right after the tests on her lump came back with nothing doing, and she was all about new patterns. Like soy milk, like no more unfinished business. When she moved the bed to clean, when Henry heard the crash of his magazines and videotapes, his body tensed in the magnifying quiet. At the state concert hall in New Brunswick, where he stage-manages, he’s heard a soloist’s violin crack and fold in from pressure. He’s seen the lighting grid come raining.

Irrevocable things happen all the time.

Henry rose and went to her. Margot sat the mattress of the twin bed, leafing through his porn, his secret cache. Men in the photos, mouths and bodies penetrated on every page. At her feet, she’d made a neat stack of the videos, the sad lot of them, whose titles — Fuckbuds, Uncut Timber, Dungeon Cops II — gave Henry’s shame a fresh edge.

“Sweetheart, tell me,” Margot said, slipping her arm around him, “did these do you any good?” And at that moment when their marriage made no sense, when all they had were their patterns — the little sun of grapefruit in the morning, a joint each month on Date Night — Henry was more in love with her than he’d ever been. Love like she was the last log of a splintering raft. Henry was, is, terrified.
 

Margot’s therapist faxes Henry’s therapist a brochure. Dawn Manor, it reads: When it’s time to get found. On the front, a group of men sling their arms over each other like a softball team. Honestly, Henry prefers a little more space between people. This Manor, a big Victorian in the Catskills, is a kind of workshop for “men who love men” but are bent out of shape about it. Henry can’t find anybody close to his age in the photos, but he never sees people his age in advertisements unless it’s for pills or Florida. On the last page, staged with professional light, two men with identical goatees knock their heads together with a golden retriever between them. “Dawn Manor is operated by author/certified intuitive Bodi Charles,” the caption reads, “and life-partners Spike and dog Rigby.”“Life-partner,” Henry says, and it depresses him. At fifty years old, six months out of his marriage, he’s never had a partner or boyfriend or fuckbud and suspects he never will. Now that his secret life — furtive visits to an adult bookstore, terrified opportunism in public restrooms — has become his actual one, he sees he has chosen to die horny and alone.

Henry takes the brochure back to his apartment only to ignore it. Tonight, Van, the sound engineer at the concert hall, is coming over to “christen the escape pod.” They’ve been friends for years, but lovers in Henry’s mind for months. At work, the crew calls Van “the Pirate” on account of his hoop-earring, shoulder-length hair, and grizzle along the jaw; the nickname alone brings Henry’s cheery erection out of early retirement. Van wears construction boots with the laces so loose they’re really flip-flops. Everything he keeps on him — wallet, watch, Leatherman — is hitched to his belt with metal links. Van is twelve years younger, a divorced father whose son visits on weekends, but Henry is lonely enough not to care that he’s in love with a straight man.

“I like the Christmas lights,” Van says on arrival, taking in the studio. “Very bachelor Noël.”

Van wears a sports coat inside out, pockets flapping like ears. You can just do that? Henry thinks. Van’s longish hair tucks under a cap with “VOLUNTEER” stitched across it; this visit, it occurs to Henry, may be a form of community service. Under his arm, Van carries a radio with a crude tinfoil antennae and volume knob that “gets angry” if you play with it too much. “From my divorce to yours,” Van says as he leans back in the other chair.

“Beer?” Henry asks.

Van shakes his head. “Soda? I’m sober these days.”

When Henry hired him, Van had been a mess. In middle of his own separation, Van showed up at work with blood-shot eyes and lazy about feedback. Henry sensed around him a general state of transition, and he felt compelled to know it, join it, as if he himself were there, choosing his life all over again. Early on, Van’s car got repo’d — a negotiation in the settlement had gone sour — and for over a month, Henry picked him up and drove him home, an errand that became the high point of his days and made work seem like the interruption. He’d never met someone so open. Van was fearless and unencumbered, lobbing provocations out from the passenger seat with his feet up on the dash, like a boy. His talk drove a wedge into Henry’s character, widening him. What Henry truly remembered, in a way that he was only beginning to understand, was the dark prairie of hair on Van’s forearm, the surf at his collar: the places on men that he only now allows himself to see. Henry dances the salt and pepper shakers in his hands for an hour, angling up to his confession. It is difficult to be honest with the people you find beautiful.

“I feel about twenty years late to this, but I think I just finally found out I am…,” Henry says, “someone who is…”

“Gay,” Van says with a sly grin. “I’ll have that beer now.” Henry’s surprised at his drinking, but Van shrugs. “Special occasions.” They toast two chaste, low-carb bottles. Van claims he knew about Henry all along, telling him that it’s theatre and “Everybody’s gay-ish.” This alights Henry’s sense of an opening. Van, too, then…? On his departure, Van hugs him tightly and Henry registers that a man has never held him so forcefully, so intimately. The sheer surface area nearly makes him puddle.

“Congratulations Chief,” Van says lightly into his ear. “You’ll never have boring sex again.” Van’s hot breath makes new weather across Henry’s interior life. He wants so badly to tell Van that they’ve been lovers for months, that it’s about time he knows.

“You gonna be okay?” Van asks, at Henry’s sudden tears.

Henry waves him off. “Allergies.”
 

Henry’s daughter comes by with throw rugs, donuts, a scented candle the size of a layer cake which gives him headaches. She is in college in the city, and to his amazement, now that he is damaged, she’s taken more of an interest in him, like the three-legged hamster she had as a child. When Henry speaks to Margot, by phone, once a week, she makes him feel as though his new life is a lunge from a moving vehicle. But Effie is Florence Nightingale to Henry’s foot-soldier, off in a war where the opposing armies touch penises. They’re good together; raising her was the one thing he did well. She even wants to help him write a personal ad, for Craigslist or Manhunt or DaddyCentral or the cavalcade of humiliations online, but some things your daughter cannot help you do.“CuriousFather,” he types. It sounds strange to him, his new name, if it is a name. He decides he is Oral Versatile, a box he’d never thought he’d have to check in this world. He crops Margot out of a photograph of the two of them and posts it.

Within an hour, he has responses. The first is from a teenager in Poughkeepsie who asks him if he has back-hair. The second, from FurCoach06, wants to know his feelings on “cock-fighting”. He wades, blindly, through the acronyms, NSA, LTR, PNP, 4:20, P.A., T but V…, but the abbreviations do not end — the dynamic itself feels abrupt, hurried, capitalized. He chats with a lanky (and shirtless) young man named ThckReggie “in publishing” who comes on very strong, who asks him “U cam?” before he even knows Henry’s name. “Wanna get off?” comes the next email. Followed by a link to pornographic website. Then comes the realization that Henry has been talking to a script, a robot of some sort, for the past fifteen minutes.

The next day, driving home and feeling frustrated and combustible, Henry makes eye contact with another driver. He looks a little like Van in eyebrows, but darker, more heavy-set, in a crisp white dress-shirt. At a full-stop, he winks at Henry and lifts himself to display his cock, masting out from the waistband of sweatpants. It’s all Henry needs to choke on the possibility. For twenty minutes, Henry follows him to a giant, suburban house, somewhere in the wilds of Bridgewater. Margot would have loved the block, Henry thinks as he parks at the curb, this ideal degree of dappled light and tended hedges. Henry watches the other driver step out of his car — he’s squatter, more thuggish than he thought. Then man unmistakably adjusts his erection and shakes his head at Henry, decisively, brutally, No, and vanishes inside.
Emboldened, Henry crosses the front lawn and pushes through rhododendrons and thorn-bush to peek in the bay window. On a long console table, track lights halo a bowl of polished stones. He can see the backside of a row of framed photos. Henry decides that he has come this far out of his way, he deserves something. He goes to the front door, knowing with every step that he is turning into a monster. In the glass pane, his reflection shocks him. His gray hair tufts out in all directions. Scratches on his face, like he’s crawled all the way here, to this exact moment.

A woman opens the door. “Can I help you?” she asks. The other driver, Henry’s prize, cowers on carpeted stairs. Henry can feel the secret becoming a knife.

“I’m sorry,” Henry says. “I’m so completely lost.”

Three weeks later, Henry is on the train upstate to Dawn Manor. He’s been instructed to get off at a small station where the Dawn Manor van will pick him up. “We’ll be doing body work,” Bodi Charles told him over the phone. “Make sure to bring comfortable clothing.” Henry gazed down his front, his new middle. In the stress of the separation, Effie’s donuts and the nachos for dinner, he no longer has comfortable clothing. Everything feels like a vice.A nondescript minivan idles in the station lot. The driver jumps out and throws open the passenger door. He wears a leather jacket and black t-shirt with the word “Juicy” stitched in sequins. Henry is fairly certain Effie has the same one. This is “Spike,” and his handshake, Henry is reassured to find, is vigorous with heterosexuality. His face and scalp are as smooth as glazed ceramic except for a brown goatee so elegantly manicured it could be topiary. Henry sits as far back in the van as possible, the only passenger.

“Don’t you want to sit up front?” Spike asks.

“I like it in the rear,” Henry says and Spike cocks an eyebrow. Immediately, Henry’s convinced that he’s made a gross miscalculation, that’s he’s too old, too unjuicy for saving. He hates it in the rear actually – he gets carsick.

The densely forested road gives way to acres of rolling hills. Henry feels out of joint in such a remote and rustic place; if he’s going to find himself, it’s going to be somewhere off the Garden State Parkway, near Indian food and cloverleaf intersections. Spike turns into a long gravel driveway, where a peace-flag bolted to a roadside maple only increases Henry’s sense of personal doom.

“Look, I’ve changed my mind. Could you take me back to the train station?”

Spike answers, “There’s only one train a day.”

“I’ll stay at a hotel.”

“There’s no hotel.”

“Then I’ll call a cab,” Henry says.

But Spike has already parked in front of the Manor, a three-story Victorian painted, of all possible colors, purple. A wooden double-door, impeccably restored, opens on a broad porch with empty rocking chairs. The house is surrounded, on three sides, by forest.

“You’ve come this far Henry,” Spike says. “Try going a little bit further.”

Henry steps out of the van, closes his eyes. He takes a moment to notice the cold, a private sign that he is one year older. Soon, his December birthday will come and go and he may never answer the questions his body is asking.

“OK,” Henry says. “Show me.”

In the hardwood foyer, an over-long pussy-willow branch teeters in a vase like an accusatory finger. Above the telephone hangs a photographic portrait of the golden retriever slavering in a swatch of autumn light. Henry counts six arm-chairs in the living room and nothing else. The place seems willfully under-decorated, as if everything might need to be rearranged or cleared for yoga mats and trust falls. This is precisely how Margot always wanted their home to be — airy, uncluttered. Perhaps now it is, since he was the clutter.

“So no alcohol, no drugs, no sex, and no plastics,” Spike says, leading Henry up the narrow stairs. “Bodi is environmentally sensitive.”

“Plastics?” Henry asks.

“Some guys think they can bring their rubber gear anywhere.”

On the second floor, wedged under one of the gables, is Henry’s room. It’s the sort of space people turn into a crypt of bad clothing and exercise equipment. A blond young man, Henry guesses mid-20s, lays on one of two twin beds like a deposited doll. He’s dressed in a puffy, orange hunting jacket and loafers without socks. With a small terror, Henry understands that this is his roommate.

“You know, Jed,” Spike says, “you can take off your jacket.”

“Are there no single rooms?” Henry asks as kindly, diplomatically, as possible. Jed snorts.

“Everybody gets a roommate,” Spike explains, one hand on the door-knob which, Henry notices, does not have a lock. “If we put people in singles, they just close off to the process.”

“The process…?” Henry says.

“Of integrating… And actualizing…. Oh don’t ask me,” Spike says. “I just cook and fluff the pussy willow.” Spike leaves them to get acquainted.

Henry sits on other bed and Jed hugs himself petulantly. Neither of these two people, it occurs to Henry, were in the goddamn brochure.

“So are you cold?” Henry asks. “Is it cold here?”

Jed eyes him bluntly, shaking his head. He has sharp, blue eyes. “So are you gay?”

“I have been married for twenty two years…,” Henry begins but stops. He’s not sure where the story goes after that.

Jed leans back. “Thank god.”

Bodi’s eyes fix Henry and every man in the living room. “It’s the secrets that kill us,” he says. “The cure for secrets is stories.”Dawn Manor’s resident guru sits in the only leather armchair in the living room, wearing a linen shirt and flowy pants that are basically drapes. He’s greyhound-thin, with rimless glasses and the flexibilities of a man half his age; every now and again, he lifts himself up on the arm-rests, like a gymnast on the bars, and tucks his feet underneath to sit cross-legged. Henry has noticed how Bodi touches things – tabletops, shoulders – with intense, appraising grace. Bodi was an antiques-dealer in “a prior life,” he told them over the first breakfast. “It made me understand that everything has a delicacy that must be protected.”

Four men face Bodi in a scattershot arrangement. Across from Henry, Jed sits on his hands and contemplates his kneecaps. Of the group, Henry is by far the oldest.

“How about you, Doug?” Bodi says, hands resting upwards on his knees. “Tell us the story of your secret.”

Doug’s baleful gaze relocates from the window to Bodi. In a cowboy shirt and stained jeans, Doug spooks Henry. He gives off stray voltage, mumbling his reluctance under his breath. Even his moustache doesn’t look completely enlisted. Doug works a cigarette from his pocket and Bodi stops him.

“I just want to roll it between my fingers,” Doug says. “Helps me relax.”

Doug worked in a shipyard in Bayonne, he explains, running the cranes, and “pruning up” in the showers. “I was Jiffy Lube. In and out,” Doug says, and Henry shivers with a revulsion that almost instantly becomes intrigue. Doug’s boss showed up, fucked him, and fired him the next day. “Those were union showers,” Doug says. “Asshole was management.”

He lights the cigarette and Bodi says with impressive calm, a first show of authority, “Put the cigarette out or go outside.” Doug smirks and lopes out to the porch.

Bodi threshes his hands, recovering the moment. “Henry, what about you? Would you like to say something?”

Henry looks for an entrance, a beginning to what seems like hopeless years of middle. He sees the ghostly white bridge of Scott Malcolm’s forearm reaching into his sleeping bag at Boy Scout Camp circa 1963. He remembers, as a teenager, imagining his parents dying in a plane crash so he could live with the tenor Jussi Bjorling in his Italian castle and hold Bjorling’s penis in his hand whenever he wanted to, the secret root of his talent. Then, with a stab of self-loathing, Henry recalls the certain fold and tuck to the coverlet on the guest bed. “In the early part of my marriage,” Henry starts, and it’s like working a pale, dense nut free from inside him, “I started this extension to my house that I never finished…”

At the edge of the driveway, Henry and three others stand in a confused huddle, trying to fix a snow-break. At noon, Bodi sent the men out to the lawn to work. “Across cultures, across time, men go outside to go inside,” he told them. A day in, and the platitude per minute of speech ratio is getting to Henry. It’s as if Bodi has learned to turn every sentence inside out, like a sock. Henry holds a notched wooded brace while Doug sets two 4 X 4s into it. Another man, short and talkative, hammers at the juncture point, missing as much as not. His nametag reads “Ronnie!” He works as an inspector for the Transit Authority, which means, he told Henry with relish, he can cruise every truck-stop on the Turnpike while getting paid.

“This was supposed to be some singles thing,” Doug announces, blowing air into his fist. “Except it turns out I paid eight hundred bucks to come here and fix this guy’s lawn. Fucking joke.”

Jed, standing uselessly nearby in his jacket and loafers, giggles.

Doug shoots back, “You think eight hundred bucks is ha ha?” Jed retracts his hands inside the sleeves of his jacket, holes up.

Since the morning, Henry has been feeling increasingly remote, like he has tickets to his life except they’re last row, obscured view. What did he come for? None of the men seem like prospects to him; they’re all as warped and lonely as he is. With a pang, he realizes he’s missing Van, back home, tending to his plants and mail. He must call.

Suddenly, a brown-black flutter of wings explodes from behind the trees. Canadian geese, assembling into a V.

Jed asks, “How far do they go?”

“Delaware, Maryland…,” Henry says.

“Outside Bethesda, some guy held a knife to my throat until I swallowed,” Ronnie says. “That’s Maryland in a nutshell.”

Gunshots pop from behind the Manor, out of view. Henry flinches – he’s heard shots before, in the city, but he always told himself that it was a car backfiring, fireworks. But these shots are close and unmistakable. Hunters. The geese go wild, squawking.

Henry notices that there are tears rolling down Jed’s cheeks, and the kid makes no effort to wipe them away. “It’s something that happens sometimes, from my meds,” Jed says. “I don’t have control over it.” Ronnie hums the Twilight Zone theme but Henry makes him quit.
With relief, Henry hears the peel of a bell at the front porch: Bodi calling them inside. Doug collects the tools and shoves them at Jed, saying, “Since you didn’t do jack shit today.” As the others head back, but Henry lingers with Jed. They’re roommates, after all, and this is what roommates do. He notices, at his ankle, a little strip of bluing skin. Even in the cold, the kid’s not wearing any socks. Up close, out here in the bracing cold, he sees that Jed is older than he thought, with difficult skin. He’s not so much young as preserved. Jed’s father runs a Christian school somewhere, and last night, Jed took out a portable Bible to read from the “gay part”. “Goliath was ‘uncircumcised,’” Jed whispered. Henry said, turning off the light, “Look, don’t give me nightmares.”

Out in the dusk, Henry puts his hand on Jed’s shoulder, the gesture he can think of. With an expectant look, Jed follows Henry’s hand to his face, registering a proposition.

“Am I what you’re looking for?” Jed asks.

Henry says and removes his hand. “I’m not looking.”

Jed’s face goes flat. “You’re too old and fat anyway.”

Henry leaves him burdened with the tools, thinking: Go ahead and freeze.

Lunch is Spike in a Mexican peasant shirt and shorts, delivering their plates to the table and flexing his biceps. He could be working the Leisure Deck of a cruise.“Should we save some food for Rigby?” Ronnie asks.

Bodi takes a quick breath and straightens. Spike pulls up close to him. Rigby had a stroke two weeks ago, he says, and for the first time, seeing them together, Henry realizes this is partly what Dawn Manor sells, the miracle they’re all there for: two grown men, leaning into each other.

“It was horrible and spasmy,” says Spike, “and like froth was coming out of her mouth—”

Bodi interrupts him. “—Please Spike…”

Spike and Bodi excuse themselves and retire behind a door marked “Private”, their area the house. A lock slides home.

“Guys,” Ronnie says, “Who do you think is cuter, Bodi or Spike?”

Doug crashes his fork. “We just heard about a fucking dog dying.”

The yearning here, Henry thinks, none of them is exempt. Henry decides he has to leave, before he turns into one of these people. He locates the phone, underneath the framed Rigby portrait. His gaze coalesces on the well-chewed Barbie in her mouth. A brass caption reads, “Rigby, Gender Warrior.” Henry dials Van’s cell.

“I want out of here,” Henry tells him.

“Is it a cult?” Van says. “Tell me and I’ll get the Better Business Bureau to do an airlift.”

He hears, faintly, the clink of ice in a glass. Henry stays silent, making room for Van’s dynamic to take over. And he does, telling him that his ex-wife is moving to Orlando, and that she’s taking his son with her. “Now I realize why people kidnap their children,” Van says. “What’s the jail time on that?”

“Are you drinking?” Henry asks, and from the quiet he knows that he’s right. But he’s in no position to challenge anyone on their contradictions. If anything, he feels honored that Van raided the liquor cabinet, that he had something Van needed.

“We have to look out for each other,” Henry says.

“Roger that, Chief.”

“You’re my closest friend,” Henry says, wincing at the truth of it.

“I know,” Van says, “and I just really feel bad about that.”