The summer thunderstorm rolled over Manhattan like an invading army. It had been sunny all day, the air thick with smog and heat. Then the high hammerhead clouds rose like tanks on the horizon, the wind picked up, fat drops of rain fell like bullets. I watched from my office window as the clouds calmed into the stillness of a June night, as the air took on a new, dry clarity. As I walked to the bar to meet Hugh, little piles of sticks and fallen leaves littered the street, puddles mirrored the fading sky. Inside, the thumpawhump of Kylie Minogue and a wash of green and red light over the sticky tables and stools. Hugh sat texting as I walked in. I gave a limp-wristed wave, he looked up at me through tortoiseshell glasses and smiled.
“Hi, stranger,” he said, standing to hug me. I'd forgotten the distinctive quality of his voice, like paint on glass — quiet, blurred, tinged with a barely-audible accent. His short tan coat still had a couple drops of water snaking down the treated cotton. A thin mustache sat on his upper lip. His face was round and his head was square; bright pupils glinted out from droopy eyes.
"I need a drink," I said, smoothing down my hair, almost out of breath from his sudden presence, the quick walk. At the bar, leaning in to flirt with the guy pouring my beer, I cocked my head around and watched him text. We'd met at a party, become friends, gone out a few times: to an Almodòvar movie and some bookstores and a piece of performance art in a loft in Queens where a whippet-thin woman rolled on the floor groaning and smoking cigarettes and changing the radio station. Then, we'd drifted apart. Now, he was moving back to Korea. His work visa was expiring. He’d quit his job, and couldn't or wouldn't find another within the scope of his field of study: geography.
I grabbed the beer and went back to the table, perching on the high stool, splaying my legs out in front of me, trying not to pose. "So what's new," I asked.
"Well," he said, "I've been seeing someone. An art student, lives in Hong Kong. Younger than me.”
“Fantastic! How much younger?" I laughed.
"Well, pedophilia is the next frontier of social activism." He waited a moment, let the joke land. "No, he's 22. But he looks 16.”
"What's that? Six years? Seven?"
"Seven, yeah.” We were the same age.
The song changed to some vintage Britney; absurdly, a pack of bears at the next table argued about whether it was from Blackout or Circus. "It's funny," he said. “Until now I’ve always had crushes on people who are older but not too much — maybe three or four years? This other guy Mike was my biggest crush of the last year. He's 32. Moved from Korea the same time I did, is a photographer like I am."
"Dating a mirror," I said. "Boyfriend twins."
"Anyway," he said, "it never worked out. Does that make it less gross?"
"Marginally," I said. "Or grosser, if you want to go the unrequited-love-of-my-life route."
He smiled. "Harry's helping with that."
"Oh," I said. "The magical boyfriend has a name." I didn’t realize it was catty until I heard it.
"Yeah," he said. "Let me show you." He felt in his pocket for his phone. As he flipped through pictures I stared into my drink, little Britneys dancing on my ice cubes, reflections from the screen above our table.
"Here he is," he said, pushing his phone across. In the photo, Hugh sat on a bed looking dolefully out from underneath the brim of a baseball cap. Harry leaned cockeyed into the frame. He was slim, young-looking, had bleached hair.
"Cute," I said, and imagined the scene after the photo. The phone tossed aside, Harry pushing Hugh down onto the bed.
He took the phone back. "And you said you've been seeing someone too?"
"Yeah," I said. "This furniture maker, Zachary. It's been really great." I took out my phone and showed him a picture.
"Awwww," Hugh said. “He looks sweet. I feel like furniture makers can't be evil."
"I try not to date evil people," I said.
“It’s not always possible,” he said, handing me back my phone. "So how'd you two meet?"
I looked up sheepishly. "On Grindr," I said.
"Same," he said, and we both laughed. "But it's different in Korea."
"Oh sure," I said. “Yeah. I guess in Korea it's mostly people looking for deep intellectual connections, a few dozen red roses, and long walks on the beach."
He winced. ”It's just that most Korean gays are on Jack'd. Grindr is mostly expats. Hooking up with expats in Korea makes me feel more at home.”
"So you're going for long-distance?” I asked.
"We're being realistic. Keeping it open. But we're exclusive on the highest level." Hugh's idiomatic quirks enhanced meaning rather than obscuring it.
“It’s weird,” I said, “that we’ve both somehow found these people who can embrace us with the whole bag of shit on the side."
"I like to tell myself I don't have the bag of shit even as I spend my life ruffling through it and showing off its contents."
"The power of denial.” Seeing Hugh again I remembered how still he always sat and envied his calmness. I constantly tap my feet, splay myself across chairs, expand inelegantly to fit available space. Sitting on the bar stool, I crossed and uncrossed my legs, watched as some drag queens in half-makeup carried bulging gym bags behind the bar to the dressing rooms.
"Cheap thrills," he said, "but fun, isn't it? I have to piss.” He got up, I pulled out my phone and flipped through the few pictures I had of Zachary. There he was in his shop, there he was on the street posing with his truck. I found my favorite photo, one I'd taken surreptitiously when he was nestled into my lap on the couch. He sat in profile, looking into the light from an out-of-frame window, his hair grazing the skin under his ears. He said he was trying to grow it long enough to have a top-knot, just for one day.
Hugh sat down again, tripping a little on the descent. "Can't go ten minutes without looking at lover boy?" The music stopped. A drag queen – 7 feet and 300 pounds in heels and wig –walked regally towards a mic and announced the start of bingo to groans and cheers. I motioned at the door. Hugh nodded, we grabbed our bags and went for the exit.
It was last light. The wind had picked up, high clouds blew past quickly, not too many people were out. We turned right down Sixth, mourning a departed Mexican restaurant we’d gone to as students where you could drink with over-the-hill drag queens until five in the morning. At a red light, I dashed across and Hugh stayed on the other side.
"Why'd you wait?" I asked a few seconds later, after the light had changed and he'd joined me.
"I'm saving these little leaps so I can take a big one."
"Like what?” I asked.
“Like getting married or something."
I'd been to three weddings in the past year, there were two invites awaiting RSVP. "What's 'married?'" I asked. "I heard it's something lesbians do involving golden retrievers and imported babies."
"It's like driving, I think," he said. "You take lessons and then get a permit of some kind."
Some cabs went streaking by. I looked down at the new World Trade Center. All the lights were on: you could see which floors were already divided into offices and which were still empty.
“I can’t imagine being married," I said. "Maybe ever."
"I can," said Hugh, staring up at the building too. He had a way of knowing where you were looking, and looking there. "I guess I think it's a useful lie?"
We found ourselves stopped at a red light on the corner of Canal and 6th next to a little triangular park carved out between intersecting street grids. I gestured at a bench. "Let's sit for a while," I said. His subway entrance was approaching, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. "I like the wind."
"So do I," he said, sitting down. "I love this area." He gestured at the vacant buildings, the cars streaming from wide avenues into the Holland Tunnel.
We were facing a tall tower hotel across the street. About ten floors up, in the last of a horizontal strip of windows, a light went on and the shades opened.
"Oh," said Hugh. "This is interesting."
It was a man: young, slim, close-cropped brown hair, wearing only pajama bottoms tied at the waist. He yawned, stretched his arms up revealing little tufts of hair underneath, ran his hands over his smooth chest.
"He's in good shape!" said Hugh.
The man picked up a cell phone and dialed.
"Whither goest thou, America," I said, "in thy shiny car in the night."
"You prick," said Hugh, and punched me lightly on the left shoulder. I felt the weight of his fist there, the warmth it left.
The man turned and leaned his back against the window, holding the phone with his left arm and gesturing with his right. Then he walked back into the hidden recesses of the room.
"Booo," I said. "Come ba-ack."
The park was spotlit. I looked behind us, out of our pool of light and into the darkness. I realized I'd put my arm across the back of the bench, almost around Hugh's shoulders, without thinking. I didn't pull it back.
"Is he coming back?" Hugh asked. "Probably not.”
Then the man was there again, running his hands across his waist, still talking on the phone, staring out over us towards the Hudson.
"We should go up there," Hugh said. "Count the floors, find the room." A couple of women passed by, one clutching at the hem of her skirt in the wind. "I wonder which one of us he'd kill first?”
I thought about it for a minute. "Well," I said, "Is it before or after we all have sex?"
"After, after, of course," Hugh said. "He's got to get rid of his shame by killing one of us, because he didn't know he was even a faggot until we came along."
I laughed. "The conversion team."
"So who would he kill first?"
The man stretched again, stomach flat and taut as a snare drum. My belly spilled forward a bit as I sat, so did Hugh's. "I'm not sure," I said. "Depends on who's faster to the door to call for help after he brings out the meat cleaver.”
"He'd kill me first," said Hugh, “I just decided that I'd let him, to let you go."
"A noble act!" I said, laughing.
"A hypothetical one," he said. "This dream is the only time I'd be nice." A pause as a plastic bag blew by beneath our feet. "Plus, I'd be ready to die after sex with him, in that hotel room. That's all I need from life." I felt him settle into me, his side pressing into mine and then quickly pulling back.
I looked up at the window. The man had gone and the shade was pulled down.
"Maybe he saw us," said Hugh.
"There's lots of reasons we could be here. Just enjoying the night."
"The hell there are," he said. "Poor guy's just trying to finish a phone call.”
We sat there watching windows in the wind for another minute. I realized Hugh was leaving in three weeks, then he'd be in Korea until who knows when.
"I should go home," I said, and stood up. "I'm cold."
"Yeah," he said. "This is too Rear Window." He stood and stretched in an imitation of the man. I poked his stomach through his coat, he doubled forward and danced back a couple steps.
"Does that make you Grace Kelly, or is that me?" I smiled.
"Neither," he said. "Neither, you bastard. Don't touch me again." He laughed. "We’re both Jimmy Stewart. Grace Kelly…that's what Harry and – what's his name?"
"Zachary," I said. "Zach." I hadn't yet decided what to call him.
"That's what they're for. Left to our own devices, this is where we end up."
Saying goodbye at the top of the stairs to the subway, he turned and came in for a hug. We held on for a long time, when he pulled away he put his hands on my arms and rubbed them quickly. “You're cold," he said. I looked through his glasses into his small brown eyes. He leaned in, smiling, then let go of my arms and pushed me back with a light tap. "This is my stop," he said. “I’m going home.”
A few months later, his forced departure seemed like good luck. There had been a mass shooting at a gay bar, an election, some riots, some violent suppressions of the riots. I kept trying to stay in touch with Hugh, but it was difficult. I’d write, he’d answer weeks later, then I’d forget. One day, waiting for Zachary to get home so we could make dinner, I went to Hugh’s blog and started reading, hoping I’d learn something to ask about in an email. It was all in Korean; I had to Google translate as I read, knowing how much he’d hate having his carefully-chosen words mutilated. One post was about Korean radical feminists hoping men’s dicks would get waxed off with their pubic hair. Another, about what was going on in my country. This was the last thing that I read before the door opened: “The United States for me was savior and conqueror, ESL teacher and fagbasher, luxury product and Marxist seminar. How do you keep the United States straight in your mind? The United States was a gay bar for me, and at the same time it was a gun that killed everyone inside.”
to Keith S. Kim.
Ben Miller is a writer and researcher in Berlin, at work on new fiction and a history of queer identity formation between interwar Germany and postwar California. Fiction, essays, and criticism have recently been published in Slate, Jacobin, The Open Bar at Tin House, Pelican Bomb, Lambda Literary, and OutHistory. He tweets @benwritesthings, www.benwritesthings.com/.