The glowing ember, flicked from its body by a painted, pointed nail, glides down gracefully towards the cold concrete, landing amongst heeled boots and smart, brown leathers. The murmur of bass subdues the near chatter; strained ears fight for sound, blurred eyes lock to slurred lips. The butt is raised to those lips, and the cheeks draw in with breath as a fresh ember burns anew.
A garden of cliques defensively standing ground, a superior side eye sent to those who encroach; a cacophonous Eden of sweating masses looking for a mate, of wandering hands caressing taut clothes, shoulders bumping for love and space, lips meet and bodies unite.
Aidan stares at it all in longing, his soft cheek pressed against the cold, wood fence. Snatches of conversation drift his way, allowing him to share in the community for just a split second before the words are drowned out in the din. His fingernails mindlessly scrape away splinters, a pile collecting on the floor.
For the other side to see there’s just a floating eye: the voyeur of a dark and silent body. The curious gaze over the caricatures picks out those it deems most interesting, most friendly. It catches sight of a table of young-men: they look about his age, but they must be older: their muscles are more pronounced, their jaws sharp. They stare back at him. They wave; mouth hello. He retreats, saving his anonymity. His face flushes warm with blood as they laugh at him. But though they aren’t laughing at him, and though they don’t know it was him, and even though they’re laughing at the strangeness of it, of his act, it still stings him. The harsh comment of the insider inflicting pain on the interloper.
Backing out of sight of the fence, his mind wanders to their complexions: the masculinity of features: hard lines and marks of shaved stubble; muscles showing through their lean and fat-free arms; leg hair poking out of their ripped jeans. Aidan’s hands run over his body, pinching at everything that isn’t bone, massaging the face that hasn’t caught up with him yet; drawing up a conclusion of comparison, assembling a list of milestones he has yet to reach.
Then he hears something. A soft giggling that creeps out of a dark corner. Caught gasps and a hurried hushing. Aidan’s hand brushes along the fence as he moves tentatively to the source. He stops; he breathes; he peers round and he sees: a man, down on his knees, taking in another. Together they laugh. Perhaps because of some inside joke, perhaps because of their risqué adventure, perhaps both. Looking on at this act of love—the kind of love he has only so far seen online, in the safety of darkened tabs—he smiles alone with them. He takes a mental picture of their bodies, too: chest hair and pecs, beards and bushes. He watches until they come, together and in joy. Aidan backs away.
He circles back to the doors; sits on a brick wall. He swipes through five people on his phone before he’s out of potential matches, again; he switches apps to admire the established men who could be like a father to him; on another he pulls to refresh a list of those in his area, they’re all within three-hundred meters, they’re all inside. He checks his list of messages and finds they’re swamped, as always, with old men unable to accept his silence, the pictures of their dicks unappetising bait. He stares at the unanswered messages he once sent someone who looks vaguely like his age, the “18” on both of their profiles an uncheckable, common lie. They’re both searching for the same thing, but neither want the other.
A sudden drop in air pressure signals the night is over: the music has stopped and the silence of the small hours deafens in its own way. The doors open to spit out the vast array of loud characters once held within; a Queer vomitorium of colour.
Her pink spike of hair compliments the stark leather jacket; his sweat-patched shirt is coming untucked from a revealing pair of skinny-jeans; the remnants of makeup makes that queen look closer to a king
On and on, out come the members of this exclusive club. The groups bump into one another, they merge and mingle; people once lost now reunite; lone men send round one last glance in the hopes of picking up a fellow straggler. The couples get in taxis, the groups in minivans. Talk of an afters at my place spurs on the tired hoard and forges new coalitions.
Aidan stands when sees them. He too is spurred on by the prospect of another, this time unrestricted, event. The merging of separates into a complete whole elates him. There, amongst it all, he feels a part of something. He walks with them, moving in and out and around and through.
He bounces between groups, hovering on the edge of their orbits, but he is ejected from each with rejection after rejection. Can we help you? Does anybody know him? Bet he was the eye.
Laughter again. The humiliating recognition he both does and doesn’t want. Now no longer anonymous the shame bites deep, and with each group he is pushed from it sinks in deeper. He is not one of them. The kind faces he sought out through the fence haven’t lived up to his expectations, their rejection—no, more than that, their disregard for him entirely—hits him harsher than he’d imagined.
He’s backed away, into the dark corner of love and lust. The couple pass by him, coming into the light, greeted by friends with knowing looks. Aidan finds himself, again, laughing with them. Like everyone else, they move on, too. Chasing the dwindling night.
He distracts himself. He scrolls through the list of faces on his phone, comparing them to the few people left. So he’s top now, ok and he’s masc4masc. I like the look of hung4bttm, I guess.
He taps like. A phone pulled from a pocket, a face glowing, a blank stare at a profile presented to him: a carefully selected picture that doesn’t show a face, a picture with just enough invitation that it barely gets through the nudity filter; Slim and Twink and Bottom the chosen, empty adjectives.
Hung4bttm’s expression doesn’t change as he taps out a message. He taps send. Aidan’s phone doesn’t buzz. He pulls to refresh. He checks to see who’s view his profile: Hung4bttm has. He refreshes and refreshes. Still, nothing. You can’t like this profile for another 24 hours.
Hung4bttm sends out another message. From the depths of a pocket—or maybe through the flesh of a supporting finger, Aidan can’t tell—comes that telling, suggestive wooden click. Is that twink21? It is, and he’s looking at his phone with a smile, and he’s typing another message back. Back and forth this game of tennis happens in-between words said to friends.
No one else knows this is happening and yet it always is.
The friends depart, the pair meet. They smile and go off together, making idle conversation that fills the time until no words need be spoken anymore.
Aidan checks the winning profile, examining the prized characteristics. He edits an adjective on his profile. He tries again. And again. And again and again and again.
There’s a green tree hanging from the rear-view mirror. The advertised scent of pine is clearly past its sell-by date: the musky smell of damp radiates off the footwell mats all too strongly. The dim yellow light illuminates only the center stereo; though it isn’t actually there, Aidan notices. There’s a gap where one should be.
How old is this car?
The landscape outside the window doesn’t offer much solace. He wishes he could roll it down and breath in the fresh air. The cityscape slowly comes to life and the sun promises an appearance over the horizon, though not for some time. There is still one more thing, one more vow, that needs to be fulfilled; then he can move on.
Adjacent, his course hands grip onto the steering wheel, the hairs on them stood up, the thumbs stroking the pleather. His breath is deep and laboured, the chest rising and falling out of pattern. The half-unbuttoned shirt reveals a thick forest beneath.
It’s awfully hot in here isn’t it?
And, though it’s autumn, Aidan had agreed. His shirt is now on the back seat, just out of reach. His mind keeps check on its position, judging the distance.
So you’re 18, yeah? You look younger. Not that I mind.
Aidan’s thumbs stroke each other. His hands are clasped together, his knees tight against the door. He’s itching for the handle. He holds a stinging shiver inside.
So, what do you want to do?
One of his hands descends to his lap, he lets out a tense laugh. The other goes to Aidan’s right leg, ripping it towards him, swivelling him round to face front.
It’s ok, I know you like it rough.
Where had he read that? Perhaps hidden amongst those words: that arbitrarily chosen collection of metadata that conveys his identity. A reduction of himself, dividing him further and further, down into a collection of unrecognisable pieces. His whole collecting now in a pile of himself on the floor.
The fingers inch delicately up the inside of his thigh. Their shy tips brush against his balls.
Aidan breathes deeply, in and out. He faces the figure, the day not arrived sufficiently to reveal who it is in front of him. How funny that the faceless profile should be faceless in life, too.
The hand retreats. They turn eager, hungry. The pair of them fumble at a belt, a fly, a pair of loose pants. They’re pulled down and his cock flops out.
God I want you.
Spittle jumps across the boundary.
This is what he wants.
He bows and commits to the oath.
Eyes closed. Mouth open. Clothes off. A moaning perfomance by someone he doesn’t know. He’s watching it all happen. The pain isn’t felt by him. The discomfort is outsourced to another. His disgust is cut short to save himself, or to save the embarrassment of the man. Or perhaps both.
Get off me!
He hears someone choke the words out.
He feels someone’s tears fall.
He claws at the back of the shadow atop him.
Oh yeah you like it rough, don’t you. You dirty fuck. You love this. The stench of mint on his breath is nauseating.
Aidan retches, body convulsing.
He grabs at the man but he comes away with fists of body hair, ripped from cries of pain.
What the fuck, you freak.
He’s left alone.
Naked, he sits out on the grass. Clothes had been thrown at him now lay in his bare lap. Tire marks betray the fast retreat of the man with the car.
He bled. The only emotion left.
Then came the sun. A welcomed warmth on his soft cheeks.