Bruce Whiting twirled his wedding band around his finger, thinking about comments from the chat room: Sometimes a guy just needs to get it out of his system. One and done. It’s normal. He smirked. He couldn’t write an anonymous query and leave it in cyberspace, yet here he was. He continued to twirl his ring, a nervous habit his wife found endearing. It was the smallest male-sized ring the jewelry store sold. The sales woman had asked if he wanted to look at women’s bands, said men did it all the time. He told her no, clenching his fist to hide his long, slender fingers.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asked. He had been doing prep work—cutting lemons and limes, spooning out cherries and olives and cocktail onions—and hadn’t noticed Bruce sitting quietly at Minneapolis’s Grand Hotel bar.
“A good scotch. An expensive scotch,” Bruce said, thinking of his wife sitting on their bed back in Ohio, probably checking her temperature to see if she was ovulating.
The bartender looked over Bruce’s business attire and nodded. “A pre-celebratory scotch coming up.” He reached up three shelves and grabbed Macallan 25. He poured it neat and slid it forward. Bruce had never had an expensive scotch, but he’d always been curious about the difference in taste compared to a Glenlivit or a Dewars. It tasted the same at first. Then its smoothness pushed down his throat, warming him, offering no biting aftertaste. The bartender acknowledged the pleasant surprise on Bruce’s face with a thumbs-up. He took another sip. It was just as smooth and powerful. He had assumed overpriced scotch was just a status thing, a way to show a portfolio without exchanging routing numbers, a pricey pretention, but it was so much more.
“Want to see a menu?” the bartender asked a bit later.
“I’m waiting for someone, but I’ll take one more of these.” Bruce tapped the glass, getting comfortable on the barstool. It was white leather with a hollow space in the middle of the back, just big enough to fit a fist through it. As the bartender turned to pour the drink, Bruce unfolded a newspaper clipping from his suit pocket. Let Chad Fix You was in bold next to the picture of a shirtless, blonde man. A trail of hair under his belly button—where the photo was cropped—pointed towards his crotch. His chin dipped, showing a strong, angular jaw, accentuating his cheekbones. Bruce slid the ad back into his pocket and looked around as if he were a spy waiting for his mark.
After the last negative pregnancy test, his wife had cried and cried and told him life wouldn’t make sense without a baby. The very next day, he called Chad from the ad. He answered after five rings. His voice was low and hoarse, like he was just waking up. He coughed up phlegm before asking for Bruce’s name. “Todd,” Bruce said. Todd was an office intern. Once at Karaoke happy hour, Todd sang “Sex Bomb” by Tom Jones. His playful pelvic thrusts and his white-toothed, full-lipped smile endangered Bruce’s practiced reticence as Todd’s hips rotated and bated him. Bruce wanted to throw Todd down on the small stage, obliterating all social civility, growl in his ear, and rage behind him until he found an aggressive calm. “So what do you like?” Chad asked. Bruce didn’t know how to answer. He’d only kissed a man once, and he found it more haunting than pleasurable. After a long silence, Chad answered for him.
The bartender put another Macallan 25 in front of him.
“How much is it?”
“Does it matter?”
“I guess not,” Bruce said, taking a sip. “Mind if I close out? If my friend doesn’t show, this will be my last drink.” He looked at the entrance.
The bartender left the bill in an empty shot glass. The Macallans were fifty bucks each. Bruce slid six twenties under the shot glass and moved across the room to a couch that faced the doorway. He twirled his wedding band as a group of attractive twenty-somethings on the opposite end of the room laughed and hollered and laughed some more. They appeared too young to be in a place with these prices: Family money? Credit card debt? Trust funds? Bruce guessed. He shifted his weight. Something in the couch seemed to be sticking in his back. Above him, an androgynous face with donkey-like ears protruding through curly, sculpted hair stared at him. If he left now, he could still catch a flight back home. Karen would hug him and light scented candles and put on sexy lingerie. She’d kiss his neck. She’d do that thing he liked to get him to perform as if he were some sort of machine only she knew how to operate.
Chad stood before Bruce. He was much shorter than Bruce imagined. Maybe 5’8’’ with cowboy boots. Bruce was 6’2’’ without shoes. Chad hadn’t shaved in a few days. His facial hair matched his salt and pepper chest hair that popped from under his wrinkled black V-neck. His hair was dark, not blonde at all, with bad highlights. He must have been in his early forties. He rubbed his chin as he looked around the bar. Stubble scraped against his knuckles.
“You’re Todd, yeah? No one else is wearing a solid red tie.” He gave two violent sniffs. Bruce said nothing, and Chad took his silence as an admission. “I’m Chad. You drink beer? Yeah?”
Chad’s jeans were faded, but not a stylish faded, more of a “these are the only jeans I own” faded. A back pocket was missing. His legs looked tight and muscular in his compact form. A brown belt clashed with the black tee but matched his leather cowboy boots. His arms were slender, like wire, no mass, but toned from his natural musculature, which was easy to see as he reached towards the bar. Why wasn’t he wearing a coat? After all, it was late December. He held his fingers up like a peace sign and was given two pints. Chad put a dark lager in front of Bruce and took a gulp from his glass.
“Barkeep says that you closed your tab, so that’ll be twenty bucks, yeah?”
He sat down across from Bruce and smiled like one might do to be polite on public transportation. Bruce twirled his wedding band and said that he only had a fifty. Chad smirked and told him to consider it a down payment.
“You’re a big one,” Chad said. He waved his hand dramatically in front of Bruce like a magician before the big reveal. “Let me guess. You played football. Star athlete. Yeah? Testosterone fueled existence kinda trapped you into thinking you’re something that you’re not? That it? Yeah?”
“You try to psychoanalyze all your…” Bruce stopped himself before he said clients and looked at the green exit sign on the other side of the room.
Chad smiled. His teeth were sharp and yellowish. “I see all kinds,” Chad said, crossing his leg, showing the heel of his boot to be three inches. “This is why I picked my slogan. Part of you is broken. I will fix that part. Guar-un-teed!” He flashed a grin.
Bruce tried not to think about how many times Chad had done this. “So, um, Chad, tell me something about yourself.” Bruce took a sip of his beer and winced. It wasn’t something he would’ve ordered.
Chad balanced his elbows on his open legs, the foam of his beer hugging the rim. “Does it matter?”
“Sure,” Bruce said, knowing it didn’t. “Sure it does.”
Chad laughed and put his beer down. “Okay, big boy. Here goes.” He clapped, rolled up his sleeves and leaned forward, never losing eye contact with Bruce. “I’m a college dropout, even though I had an academic scholarship to Central Michigan. Go Chippewas! My dad has a patent on a piece of the artificial heart. My mom taught Sunday Bible study. My brother was killed in Iraq—first war, not the second—I prefer McDonald’s coffee to any a café in Paris, and my favorite movie is The Fox and the Hound.”
“Is any of that true?” Bruce said.
Chad slapped his thigh then brought his hands together with one loud clap.
“Got me a mom and a pop. They could have done those things. And my brother could be dead in Iraq. Haven’t talked to any of them in decades. They were Republicans.”
“Nope. Just talked to my mom this morning. She’s raising money for Hilary Clinton. Plus, sometimes she needs help with the New York Times crossword puzzle. I’m good with words.” Chad sipped his beer, never taking his eyes off of Bruce, never blinking. “What is it you do wearing a suit like that? Wait! Wait-a-sec-wait-a-sec-wait-a-sec. Let me guess. A lawyer. Private sector. I’m guessing…probate.”
“I’m an efficiency expert. I help companies run more smoothly.”
“You fire people. I can dig it.” He smiled proudly as he poured the rest of his beer down his throat. He headed to the bar. He did a shot of something and came back with a fresh beer. His snout stuck in the foam as he slurped.
“What’s her name?” he asked, eyes on Bruce’s fingers twirling his wedding band.
Chad clapped his hands and brought his right hand to his mouth as if he were holding a microphone. “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille. With four hungry children and a crop in the field.” Chad stood and continued to belt out a terrible version of Kenny Rogers’ song as if he’d been waiting for his cue. The bartender looked over, and after seeing that Chad was the friend Bruce had been waiting for, smiled. Bruce sank down in his seat. He felt the patrons’ judgmental stares, waiting for him to exhibit all those clichés portrayed in a terrible network sitcom—which wasn’t any different than the guessing stares of suburbia—or as Bruce had read it referred to in the chat room—a dormant wasps nest.
“You suck,” someone yelled.
“You know I do,” Chad yelled back, winking at Bruce. “God damn! I love me some Kenny Rogers. So, how long you been married, Toddy?”
Bruce twirled his ring. Chad moved over and sat down next to him. He snorted as he adjusted himself. Bruce couldn’t help but notice the bulge in his pants, thinking it had to be a sock or some prop.
“I love her,” Bruce said. “That’s all you need to know.”
Chad smiled. The bar buzzed with the rhythm of a static radio. Then the twenty-somethings shared a guttural laugh. Chad smirked in their direction and raised his glass. “To the mysteries of the night.” He chugged what was left of Bruce’s beer and took the empty glasses to the bar. He came back with shots. “Since when did Southern Comfort ever let anyone down?” He said and took the shot. Bruce followed his lead, wanting to cough after swallowing, feeling a burn in his throat as water crept into his eyes.
“Did you get a room?” Chad asked.
Bruce nodded as if a policeman just asked him if he knew how fast he was going.
“Go there. Order a bottle of wine or champagne or whatever. I do it all.” He winked and made a “click-click” sound with his mouth before disappearing as quickly as he appeared. Bruce stood and was eye to eye with the donkey-eared bust. The face seemed angular now, sharp in its features, and he could’ve sworn, just before he moved towards the exit, that its eyes moved, opening even wider, followed by a wink.
AFTER ORDERING ROOM SERVICE, Bruce sat on a light blue loveseat facing the gas fireplace in the living room of the suite. The coffee table had a gold finish with carvings along its legs. It looked like an artifact from a time when its precision was requested by a king, but here, now, it was just a gaudy addition to an overpriced hotel room ready to witness an act of prostitution.
Suddenly, his suit felt heavy, as if it were one of those lead vests they strapped on you at the dentist before x-rays. Sucking on the peppermint he’d found on his pillow, he stripped to his boxer-briefs. He studied himself in the full-length, oak-trimmed mirror. Weird patches of hair sprouted all over, as if his testosterone dispersed unevenly, colonizing in random spots: his back, his shoulders, the back part of his upper left arm. His nipples were a bright pink and too large for his chest. His arms and legs hadn’t filled out with the rest of him over time, making them look scrawny, as if they were on the wrong body. Maybe a good winter tan would fix everything. He’d schedule something when he got home. He put on the white terrycloth complimentary robe. It smelled like a hospital. Suddenly, he slipped off his white boxer-briefs and tossed them on top of his suit, which he had placed carefully over the brown leather couch.
He looked down to the street where people were walking and talking and panhandling and passing out flyers and fighting traffic. He wondered if anyone could see him standing in front of a lighted window at night. Back home, Bruce had set a telescope in the bedroom that had been designated as the nursery. Karen didn’t go in there after they lost the baby; she refused. A few decorations still lingered on the walls, making it look abandoned. Sometimes, at night, after Karen’s sadness had forced her to sleep, Bruce slipped into the nursery and watched the neighbor—some college kid—live his life.
Room service brought a bottle of Shiraz. Bruce opened it to let it breathe. He tried not to think about Chad. He read the headlines of the Columbus Dispatch on his phone: new red light camera at another intersection, house in Dublin burnt down—foul play suspected—a woman robbed in the Short North at knife point, gas prices soared to a record high, the 670 exchange construction behind schedule, Columbus school district being investigated for student attendance tampering. They were all recycled or on-going stories. The weather did say there was a winter storm front approaching, a possibility of six to eight inches. He wondered if it would delay his flight.
The knock was playful like it was a code they’d created long ago. Bruce looked into the mirror one last time and ran his hands through his hair. Before answering the door, he retied the robe with a double loop and cinched it tight.
Bubble gum popped as Chad’s jaw tore away at it. He smiled as he passed Bruce, reeking of cigarette smoke and Hubba-Bubba. His arms were red. He dropped a brown bag on the bed and scanned the room.
“I’m impressed, Toddy. You live good.”
“What’s in the bag?”
“Props,” he said, and blew a bubble. It exploded over his face. He peeled it off like it was some sort of skin, then dangled it over his mouth, his tongue flicking it as it entered. He clapped his hands together as he looked over the décor of the room.
“Things certainly seem to be inevitable, so, time for the rules, yeah?” Chad said. “Rule number one: I’ll fuck you in the ass, but you can’t fuck me in the ass. The opposite goes for licking it. Ooo. Wine.” He poured himself a glass, swirled it, then sniffed it as if he were Prince William dressed as Urban Cowboy. He licked his lips, grinning like he’d just solved a puzzle. “Like the faintest hint of blueberry in there, yeah?” Chad reached for Bruce, but Bruce circled around the coffee table, asking if they could just talk for a bit. Chad eyed Bruce’s suit folded over the light blue love seat in the corner. He picked up Bruce’s balled-up underwear and inspected the tag.
“I’m a Hanes man too.” He checked his watch. “Talk? Sure, sure, we can talk for a bit.”
“Where are you from?” Bruce asked.
“Where do you want me to be from?” Chad said, pulling back the red satin draperies. He waved like he was part of a parade. He turned around and took a sip of wine. “Usually, you guys have a thing, something you’ve already figured out for me.” He cupped his mouth like he was telling a secret. “Actually makes things easier,” he whispered. “Cancels out all that middle school nervous shit, yeah? So. Todd. Toddy. Mr. Todd. Where do you want me to be from?”
“I don’t know.”
Chad laughed as he rubbed his crotch. Bruce was worried it itched him.
“Listen, sweetheart, you’re not my only appointment tonight. I mean, you’re really cute and all, but Chad’s got regulars to attend to, so, can we expedite this transaction, please? Then we can get you back home to Lucille, and you can take your kid to his soccer game, or whatever it is you do in suburbia, yeah?”
Chad set the wine glass on the table beside the couch, but it wasn’t balanced, and it tumbled onto the suit. The dark red bled into the wool and splattered over Bruce’s white JoS A. Bank dress shirt.
“My suit!” Bruce brushed past Chad. He held up the suit to inspect the damage. Furious, he began to pat it down with the bottom of his robe, turning it red as well.
“It’s just a suit, bro.”
Chad’s indifference stirred something in Bruce. He charged past Chad, trying not to notice the firmness of his body. He came back with a wet towel.
“Pat it, Toddy. Just pat it. Rubbing it will just make it worse.”
“What do you know?” he said, aware of the dramatic tension in his voice.
“Here,” Chad said, putting his hand over Bruce’s. “Just pat it.” His calloused, hairy hand brought Bruce’s aggressive movement to a rhythmic bounce. His fingers were big for his size, much stronger and thicker than Bruce’s. He probably couldn’t even get Bruce’s wedding band on the pinky. Bruce turned, smelling Hubba-Bubba and menthol. Chad’s cracked lips were surprisingly soft.
“What’s wrong? Wasn’t that nice?” Chad asked, his voice higher now, softer.
“Sure. Yeah. I guess.” Bruce refilled both wine glasses. “You hot?” He went to the thermostat. He could feel Chad approaching from behind. Something hit the floor. Chad’s arms wrapped around Bruce’s torso, just like Karen’s did in the morning when he made her breakfast. Bruce walked forward, just within reach.
“Is this your game? Playing hard to get? I like it. It’s innocent, yeah? Don’t get a lot of you. Usually someone’s balls deep by now.”
Bruce laughed. It sounded forced, but it wasn’t. “I’ve never done this before.”
“You’re a fag, yeah?”
“I don’t know.”
“You have sex with women?”
“Only my wife.”
“Maybe you’re bi. Maybe you’re just a modern renaissance man. My little Shakesqueer.” Chad stepped closer to Bruce. “Listen,” Chad said, “if it helps, I ain’t no butt pirate. Not really. Always preferred women. Get as lonely as I get, you learn to love everybody, and physical love is the most real love there is.” He laughed then drank his wine like a beer. “Toddy, let’s just do a test. Just a little testy-test. Yeah?”
“Okay.” For some reason, Bruce thought of his first grade teacher holding his hand, leading him out to recess.
Chad put Bruce’s hand on his bare chest. His hair moved between Bruce’s fingers. It was soft. He guided Bruce’s hand down, past his belt, over the teeth of his zipper. He cupped it under his crotch and Bruce massaged him. He felt him under the jeans. He was big. Bigger than Bruce. Chad’s hand wrapped around Bruce’s wrist, guiding him down. A new understanding swelled inside him, ready to burst.
BRUCE WIPED THE FOG from the bathroom mirror. Crows’ feet still surrounded his blue eyes. A dimple still in his chin. His jaw still square. His eyebrows still bushy and dark. His hairline the same as it was at eighteen.
Chad was gone. The only evidence he had been there was the brown bag, but there was nothing in it. He winced at the ruffling sound of the bag as he rolled it up and put it in the trashcan. He traded his towel for flannel pajama bottoms and pulled the sheets on the bed back. He grabbed his cell phone, but assumed Karen was asleep, and put the phone on the nightstand. He spun his wedding band as he lay on his right facing the wall. Pings of ice hit the window. He listened to it scrape the glass, making a splintering sound, as if the window would crack. He thought about comments in the chat room then looked at the loveseat where he had been with Chad only an hour ago. He got the same feeling he got when he watched an old home movie, but he didn’t remember acting the scene. He turned away from the loveseat. Ice continued to skip against the window. He clenched his left fist and closed his eyes and imagined the promised snowfall and how, when he returned home, everything would be blanketed in white.
MICHAEL SHIRE studied creative writing at Miami University and recently received his M.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. He lives in the Midwest with his cat, Mr. Whiskers. “Escort” is his first published story.