Dillon lives in Southern California where he spends most of his time avoiding sunlight. He has attended the University of California, Irvine and the University of Oxford, where he studied English literature. His previous work can be found in New Forum and The Exhibit.
When he’s Aidan
When he’s Aidan, I love him. When he’s Aidan, we watch movies on the couch, we make omelets for dinner, we go shopping for laundry detergent at midnight. When he’s Aidan, he smiles sweetly, his laugh lines wrinkle up at the corners of his bright eyes, he passes a hand through his thick hair. When he’s Aidan, we lay close together, entwined in each other’s arms; I pass my fingers along his skin, I breathe in his warmth. When he’s Aidan, we belong together.
Just two weeks ago we went to a bookstore, an old independent one tucked away Downtown. I was browsing through the shelves, in the mood for Woolf. Aidan moved like a ghost; his body floated, silent, between the stacks, never staying in one place for long. He didn’t get lost like I did, didn’t lose track of time. But he wasn’t impatient, not by any means; he came up behind me, wrapped his arms around my waist, rested his chin on my shoulder. His body is solid, his body is sure: he knows his body, he feels comfortable in his clothes, and I feel comfortable in his arms. I was peeking through a book, but leant my head against his.
“What’re you looking for, Roman?”
“Virginia Woolf. Maybe Mrs. Dalloway. Or To the Lighthouse.”
“You already have To the Lighthouse, babe.”
“I leant it to my sister a year ago. She never gave it back.”
“Everybody reads that one, you know. People think that’s like her only book.”
I set down the book I was reading on a shelf. “Not true—but anyway, I want to float on the language.”
He let go of me and reached for a book on the shelves. “Try Orlando,” he said. “It’s funny.” He handed me the book and smirked. “You’re a nerd, by the way.”
He kissed me, I bought the book, and we left for our apartment. We took the long way back; we stopped for frozen yogurt, we strolled the streets at twilight, watched the signs light up and the people come out, full of color, and we sat on a park bench and watched birds at a fountain. This is what I like to do, this is what we like to do; we like to think this is a movie, a movie in which we’re on our own and no one is looking at us—where no one cares—in which I can feed him a spoonful of strawberry sherbet and kiss the flavor off his lips.
When he’s Aidan, he knows what I like. I can trust Aidan.
We met in a college course on Modernist fiction. He didn’t like the Modernists like I did; he liked classical mythology: Homeric epics, Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus. He liked the gods and the heroes, he liked the monsters; he liked the big questions posed by noble men and women in the inevitability of their downfall. Unlike me, he didn’t revel in half-minded heroes, in wandering subjectivities, in long-winded prose and abstractions of the tangible. I wrote my senior thesis on James Joyce; he preferred The Odyssey.
I remember the first thing he ever said to me was “Hey, do you know when the midterm is?” and I responded with “I don’t know, I think in two weeks or something.” I knew when the midterm was—I had known from the first day of class—but his eyes disarmed me and it was the first time I knew for certain that I was in love. Back then I called it lust: that’s the name my idealistic self gave to intense feelings of the heart—I had the curious notion that we as human beings want nothing more than the body.
We started talking more, we held study sessions between the two of us: I helped him get through Absalom, Absalom! and his smile and his laugh and his eyes wrote my best stories. One of them even managed to get published. We started seeing each other outside of school: for coffee, for dinner, for movies, for parties, and eventually for more. It was then that I knew love could be a real thing: it wasn’t only the body—it couldn’t be.
He then told me about his job—just temporary, to get through school. I laughed and told him that that was great, smart, productive. Who cares? Anything to get through school. And besides, he liked it, he was good at it, and back then it only made me want him more.
He said he only worked at night, which I had known for a while. Some nights of the week he was simply busy, working, and wouldn’t be done until three or four the next morning. I had never thought about where he worked—had never considered that when night fell, when he went off to the job, he wasn’t Aidan anymore, but someone else entirely.
Last week I met Emily for lunch at an organic coffee bar in West Hollywood. She was our roommate in college, an aspiring painter, and currently a high school art teacher. When she came in through the front door she spotted me sitting by the window. I was reading Orlando. She rolled her eyes and seemed to strut toward me in her singular sloping walk. She had cut her hair short in a lazy bob, and wore tight purple leggings and a graphic tee of Batman eating a pink cupcake.
We hugged when she got to the table and she said, “Are you ever not reading a book?”
“Only when I’m trying to write one.”
A young server came by the table and we ordered our coffee and lunch—a caprese sandwich for me and a pasta salad for her—and as we sat back down she got straight to the point.
“So what’s up? Why’d you wanna meet today? Need to consult the great oracle of Emily?”
“Is it such a surprise that I just want to hang out with you? It’s been a while.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “I know when something’s bothering you. You get all serious and polite. What’s wrong, Roman?” She took a long sip of iced mocha and stared at me with her fierce green eyes.
I forced a laugh. “Well, I mean, let’s talk about you first. Normal stuff. How’s life been treating you?”
“I’m teaching art to a bunch of dumbshit cunt-bags who don’t give half a flying fuck. Happy? Now tell me what’s up.”
I smiled. “Is that really the way to talk about your students?”
“I could do worse, if you’d like.”
“No thanks.” I was quiet for a moment, and took a sip of coffee.
I’d known Emily for quite some time now; I knew that the ferocity of her eyes belied their depth, I knew that her sardonic smile was tenderer than a mother’s kiss. She had known Aidan before I knew him; they had been friends in high school and applied to the same college, she had fallen in love with him (though she hated the phrase) only to discover that he didn’t—and couldn’t—return the favor. She knew him, maybe more than I knew him.
“It’s about Aidan, I guess.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “What’s wrong? You guys are perfect for each other. It’s kind of sickening.”
“Yeah, we’re fine, really—it’s just, you know, concern for the future and stuff. I’ve just been thinking about our future together, what we’re going to do, trying to figure that out.”
“You’re not doing so bad yourself. You’re a columnist for the fuckin’ LA Times. What do you mean you’re worried about your future?”
I smiled sardonically. “Emily, I don’t think being a columnist for the Arts and Culture section of the LA Times can be considered job security.”
Emily shrugged a skinny shoulder and took a sip of her coffee. “Regardless, you’re doing fine.”
“But I’m not talking about my future. It’s about Aidan’s future, really.”
“What, you mean his job?” A quirk of a smile appeared at the corner of her mouth. She was catching on. “You mean you don’t like him working at the Acropolis.”
“Yes. Well, no. I mean, it was fine when we were in college, but we graduated almost two years ago.”
The server brought our food before she could respond. She was looking at me with that curious all-knowing look, as if she traced the direction of my thoughts and knew the source of the issue. She was just waiting for me to admit it.
“Roman…you know Aidan likes his job. And he’s fuckin’ good at it, too. I’ve seen him ‘at work.’ Every gay guy in there gets a fuckin’ horse boner and every straight girl has an atomic-bomb ovary explosion.”
I laughed despite myself. “I know. He’s hot as hell.”
“Good, problem solved. Now go enjoy yourselves.”
“But it’s more than that…”
Emily rolled her eyes.
“I mean—he’s so smart, he really is, and he should be doing something with it. He’s a great writer—I remember in college he wanted to go into screenwriting. What happened to that? Shouldn’t he be moving on? You can’t be a stripper forever.”
“Oh, calm down. He’s not a stripper.”
“Close enough. You know people have followed him home? You know I get calls all the time from guys asking for him? People have recognized him before, when we’re out shopping or at the gym. But they don’t even know him, not really.”
She regarded me levelly, holding her fork just above her pasta salad.
“Aidan knows what he’s doing. He’s not dumb, as you know. It’s just a job, Roman. It’s all for the money. None of it means anything.” She paused. “And he loves you.”
I looked down. “I know that.”
“But I get it. I’m sure a job like this grates on both of you. He’s not the same person on the job. And you’re afraid that you don’t know him anymore, don’t trust him, when he’s Matt.”
When he’s Matt—when he is dancing on a tabletop or a raised platform or suspending himself in mid-air on metal bars and twirling above an enraptured crowd—he is a body; no, even more so, he is a machine, perfectly attenuated to sound and light, made up of smiles and seductive words, every ripple of his smooth flesh flashing above the darkness of a gawking carnal mob. He is a body on display, collecting currency about his waistband, a dollar for every hand that he lets travel over his chest and abdomen, his arms and legs and cock, as he whispers sweet goading words into the ears of the desperate. He makes them ache for his body, he makes them smile and laugh, makes them shudder, makes the old feel young and the young feel alive. He is a moving statue, a spectacle.
I first met Matt on a Saturday night in college. Aidan had told me about the Acropolis, a popular gay nightclub in West Hollywood. He said that I should go. It would be fun—it always is. So I went with Emily and few other friends.
The building itself is old brick and stone; from the outside it looks vaguely like an aged church or Palladian temple. The walls (when visible in the daytime) are adorned with faux-paintings of nude gods and frolicking nymphs. The glass bar is lit from within and illuminates outward into the darkness of the dance floor; strobe lights flash from above, a machine blasts the air into a swirl of cold white fog, and standing above the crowd are dancers, male and female, clad in various stages of undress. They all have names, they all have personalities.
Matt wears nothing but shimmering black briefs and boots, with a black baseball cap that shades his eyes in the dark flashing light. Matt is one of the more popular dancers; he takes one of the center tables and dances on his own. He is inviting; he gestures with his finger, his body, his smile. Men and women approach; they hold their hands up to him and if they’re grasping money he’ll let them touch—he’ll bend over, he’ll rub his bulge over their faces, he’ll direct their hands up and down his body and he’ll flirt lascivious nothings.
When I went to the Acropolis on that Saturday night, I watched Matt from afar before ever thinking of approaching. My friends pulled me this way and that—they wanted me to dance and drink, they wanted me to laugh. I watched Matt.
My mind knew that I’d seen that body many times before. I’d held it in my arms, I’d laughed and cried into its shoulder, I’d sighed under its weight. I knew that body’s walk, I knew its odd idiosyncrasies, I knew the growing mole under its left shoulder blade, I knew the calluses on its feet and the birthmark on its inner thigh.
I found myself moving towards it throughout the night, each song bringing me closer and closer until I stood just underneath it, looking up into Matt’s face, into his eyes.
Matt looked down at me from under the brim of his hat, his eyes locked with mine and he smiled, but it was not a smile that I knew. It was a distortion of the familiar, a revelation of the uncanny. I held up my hand up to his body—my free, open hand—and he looked at it. He didn’t lose one step of the beat but he nevertheless paused; I knew what consideration looked like in that face. He bent down, one arm holding up his body as he spread his legs in front of me and thrust ever so softly against the air, offering himself up to my roaming fingers. I moved my hands from his calf to his thigh to his waist (following their accustomed path) and then over his solid abs and chest (I’d gripped those very muscles before, felt their deep contours and chasms), over his arms (that have held me tight) and back up along his neck until I cupped his face in my palms. I felt the stubble along his jaw, felt the muscles clench. I could do this blindfolded, sightless, and know every inch of the body under my touch; could tell a story for every feeling that passed along my fingers. But my eyes were open, and the body before me was unrecognizable.
The whole time he looked at me with playful eyes, his teeth shining white, moaning words in a voice I’d never heard before. “Oh, you’ve done this before. You know how it’s done. Oh yes, you know how’s it’s done. There you go, there you go.”
I tried to keep my hands on his body, but other people saw that I had no money to give and started pushing me away. I looked into Matt’s eyes and I saw only that teasing flicker flash across his face before I was pushed away and a balding portly middle-aged man wielding a ten came up and started cupping Matt’s bulge in his hand while passing the other over his lower back and ass. Matt moved with him, smiling, gyrating his body closer until he and the middle-aged man almost looked to be in some salacious embrace.
I left the club and sat outside on the curb until the club closed and hordes of people came staggering out. I found Emily and the others, and we tried to wait for Matt, but he couldn’t come out—the dancers would stay to talk to patrons or bar staff, then clean up and change. Matt would be home in a few hours, when the sun was up, and by then he wouldn’t be Matt anymore.
“You know I hardly ever see him anymore,” I said. Emily took a small bite of pasta salad. “He gets home when I’m leaving for work and when I get home we only have a few hours before he leaves for the Acropolis. I spend my nights alone.”
“Oh please, tone down the melodrama.”
“We get to go out on his days off—and those are wonderful. But they’re usually on weekdays and I still don’t have that much time with him. He works all weekend and is tired when he comes home.”
“You’re bordering on desperate housewife right now.”
“Emily, really. You know what I mean, right?”
She finished chewing and swallowed. “Look, I get your frustration. Talk to him about it. That’s the one thing couples never do. Talk to each other. Instead they just go complain to their friends.”
“You want my advice? That’s it. Talk to him. Tell him everything that you told me. He’ll understand. And just don’t forget that this is a job.”
“This guy came by our apartment yesterday,” I said. “He asked for Matt, he said that Matt had promised to give him a good fuck like he’d never had before, then took out Matt’s baseball hat and said that it was a gift, a sign of his promise. I said that Matt didn’t live here and that I didn’t know any ‘Matt.’ He persisted for a good ten minutes, saying that he stayed long after the club had closed and followed Matt home, watched which apartment he went into, and he was sure it was this one. He told me his name was Peter, and that Matt would know him. He said he would wait till Matt came back, and I said I would call the police. I almost did. The guy left and hasn’t returned yet. But that was Matt’s hat, Emily. Matt had given it to him.”
Emily was now watching me intently, her fork hovering above her nearly empty plate, and she had a curious look in her eyes.
“He flirts around with everyone,” she finally said. “It’s part of the job.”
“This was more than that. He gave his hat to someone.”
“Don’t make a big deal of this, Roman. The guy probably took it from him when he was crouching low or doing push-ups on the table or something. Or it could have fallen off. The dancers aren’t supposed to give away articles of clothing.”
“This was different. The guy seemed smitten. It was pathetic.”
“They usually are.”
“But do you think Aidan would do something like that? Tell some random guy he’d fuck him like never before?”
She took a last bite of her pasta salad and stood up. “Look, Roman, I have to go. I have a lot of projects to grade. But this was nice. Actually, no, it wasn’t. Stop being a pussy and talk to your boyfriend. Okay?”
We hugged as she left and I watched her walk out. I sat back down and took a small bite of my sandwich, which was largely untouched.
The server came by and gestured to Emily’s plate. “Can I take that?”
He was young, probably early twenties. A nametag said his name was Justin. He had pale skin and large thick-rimmed glasses. He wore his hair swept up in a bun at the top of his head and had a swirling tattoo running the length of his left arm. A bonafide hipster if I ever saw one.
“Yeah, go ahead,” I said.
“And are you finished with your sandwich?”
I looked down at it. “Not yet.”
“Okay, no problem. Let me know if you need anything else.”
He went back to the kitchen with Emily’s plate, a small smile on his face, and I returned to reading Orlando. The words, however much I tried to read them, passed before my uncomprehending eyes, and instead of floating on their melody, I fell flat into my own wandering thoughts.
I eventually finished the sandwich and asked for a refill of coffee. The server brought it back and brought with it a stamp card that would give me a free drink after seven visits. I went back to reading—or not really reading—and watched the server at the counter. He was going through the money at the cash register, taking inventory, peeking at his phone. And, every so often, stealing a glance at me.
When I came home from work the following evening, Aidan was sitting at the kitchen counter sipping a protein shake. He was wearing a tight tank top and exercise shorts, his face was still flushed and his dark hair tousled.
“Hey, babe,” he said as I shut the door. His face brightened with a smile. “Just got back from the gym. How was work?”
“Nothing extraordinary.” He expected me to ask the same question to him, but I already knew the answer.
He held out his hand, I took it and he pulled me close. I don’t know how long we kissed, but we eventually ended up on the couch with my head lying on his warm chest. His breathing was slow, methodic, and I almost fell asleep to the gentle throb of his heart.
“I didn’t see you this morning,” he said, bringing me out of the strange ethereal twilight of my half-sleep.
“Mhmm,” I said. As usual, he had been fast asleep when I woke up this morning, and I didn’t dare to wake him. I usually never did—I would stare at his body lying in the sheets and smell the scent of sweat and alcohol and smoke that perpetually seemed to stain his clothes and skin when he came home from the job. When he’s sleeping, he’s Aidan: he is still, reposed, at rest. There is no trace of Matt in his features; his body is unconscious, he becomes human again.
“I got a text from Emily,” he added. “Said you guys had lunch yesterday.”
I opened my eyes. “Yeah we did.”
“She said you had something to tell me.”
I didn’t move; my head stayed firmly against his chest. His heartbeat stayed the same.
“What do you want to tell me?”
“I’ve just missed you lately. We haven’t seen each other very much.”
“Yeah, I know. I’d like to request some time off but Marco says he needs me six nights a week.”
Aidan smiled. “I guess so.” He was quite for a moment. “Would you like me to take some time off? I’m sure I could manage it with Marco. He’s a hard-ass but he likes me.”
“No,” I said. “It’s okay. It’s what you like to do.”
We stayed in that position a long time, not saying anything. I knew that he had closed his eyes, and could tell by his breathing that he was falling asleep. His head fell back and I turned my head up, looking at the curve of his neck.
“Matt?” I said.
“Hmm?” he answered.
“Do you know someone named Peter?”
“Peter? Do you know him? He goes to the Acropolis.”
He shook his head, his eyes closed, and changed position on the couch. “No,” he said, words slurred. “Never heard of him.”
He dipped back into sleep and I slipped out of his arms. I went to my writing desk, sat for a few moments staring off into nothing, and then began clacking at the keyboard. A few hours later, I went back to the couch and shook him awake.
“Aidan, you’re late for work.”
His eyes snapped open. “Fuck. Shit.” He scrambled into his room and emerged a few minutes later wearing a different set of clothes—casual, easy to change out of. “Sorry, babe, I was really tired. I’ll see you in the morning—I’ll make it up to you, I promise. I’ll ask Marco for some days off next week.”
“Don’t worry about it, Aidan,” I said as he was closing the door. “Don’t worry about it.”
The following week went by in a flurry of creative activity. I had found, in course of the previous days, a new kind of inspiration. I was writing again, making progress, and this time I felt I had found something worth writing about. Aidan would say that I had found my Muse, that I was chasing her along the winding pathways of thought, that I was calling upon her to speak. I would have laughed and said that my Muse was no woman. You see, this kind of inspiration comes in bits and pieces, and the last time I had felt so sure about a work of writing was soon after I had started seeing Aidan.
This new idea was relatively simple: a woman decides to date as many men as she can, and reveal a different part of herself to each of them. I didn’t know where the story was supposed to go; I didn’t know if I wanted it to be a novel, a chronicle, or a single sketch. It might end up being nothing—perhaps the past week would produce fruitless work, perhaps I would throw it away and declare a state of permanent and nonnegotiable writer’s block. Whatever the case, I had an idea, I had a story, and I pursued it with the kind of relish belonging only to the starving.
When my mind would declare a temporary full stop, when I felt that I could write no more, I would work on a piece for the Times, write up a review on the new exhibit at LACMA, visit the office and have a meeting with my editor—all in a kind of daze, a half-hearted attempt at acknowledging real life. I often visited the organic coffee bar where I had met with Emily. I had that stamp card, and, to my surprise, I had come to enjoy the taste of organic coffee. Justin, the barista, eventually knew my order by heart.
I hardly saw Aidan that week. I spent most of the day at the Times or the coffee bar, and when I came home in the evenings he was just heading out. When he asked where I went all day I told him that I had stumbled upon something new. His face lit up, his eyes—brown and bright—seemed to smile, and for a moment I forgot he was ever Matt—Matt, of the night, didn’t exist, and never had.
“A new story?” he asked, kissing my cheek.
“Yes. And you know, I think I was kind of inspired by Orlando.”
“I knew you’d like it, babe.”
“When did you ever read it?” I asked him. He was beginning to pull away; he had to leave. “It’s not really your kind of book.”
“I took another class on the Modernists after the one we had. I knew you liked that kind of stuff and I wanted to impress you.”
I felt like I hadn’t seen that smile on his face in years.
“Well,” I said. “Mission accomplished.”
He leaned in to kiss me again, and I turned so his lips landed on my cheek.
“You doing okay, Roman?” he asked, looking at me.
“I’m doing great.”
He was quiet for a moment before responding. “Good,” he said. “Let’s do something this weekend, yeah? I’ll ask Marco for some time off. Maybe go up to the Bay or something.”
I only nodded and smiled, and he rushed off for the club. Going back to the desk, I sat down in front of my laptop, stared at the wall for a few minutes, and then began typing furiously at the keyboard.
A few days ago I found myself sitting up in bed reading the end of Orlando. It had taken me nearly two weeks to read it—an unusually lengthy amount of time. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the book—in fact, I really enjoyed it—but my new work had demanded the majority of my attention. I wasn’t nearly finished, but I was progressing at a rapid rate with no intention or inclination to stop.
Emily had texted me the previous day asking if I had talked with Aidan. I told her that I had. Which was technically true. She asked if all was well now—if her idea had worked. I told her that it had: I was much happier now. Seeing her that day had been a good idea. ‘Good,’ she had replied. ‘Now go fuck yourselves silly.’
I finished the last page of Orlando, felt that same sense of incompleteness that I feel upon finishing all books, and set the novel down.
“Finished,” I said, then laid a hand on the sheet-covered body lying next to me.
A tattoo-covered arm flipped the sheets off and Justin pulled himself up beside me.
“And how’d you like it?” he said. His hair had come undone and was hanging loosely around his face.
“It was great.”
“I’ve never read that one,” he said. “Well actually I’ve never read Wolf or whatever her name is.”
“Woolf, babe. Virginia.”
“Whatever,” he said, leaning close and forcing his tongue in my mouth. I kissed him back, but he knew I wasn’t in the mood yet. He smiled at me with his smoky eyes. “So what’s Orlando about anyway?” he said, sitting back.
“A man who becomes a woman, and many other things. By the end she doesn’t know who or what she is. But she knows she loves poetry.”
“Fun,” he said. “I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to have a pussy. Might be fun for a while. Much less interesting, though.”
“Hmm, maybe,” I said. “Ask Tiresias, he might know.”
The joke was lost on Justin, but he laughed anyway.
He leaned back in, straddled my waist, and we began to kiss in earnest. I felt my hands move over his skin, felt them trace the contours of his body, and felt him do the same to me. We acted unconsciously, our bodies in rhythm with the strain of our sudden passion, and I felt his warmth envelop me, his weight push upon me, his voice whispering sweet shameless words in my ear.
I didn’t know this body, not yet, but I would soon. And maybe by then I’d even love it.