Joe was helping his ex-girlfriend Claire move out of her apartment (“the apartment where I grew as a person more than my previous four apartments”) while simultaneously helping his recycled girlfriend Lori move into the same apartment. (“Fucking creepy, I’m disinfecting this place when she’s gone.”) The apartment was a one-bedroom in trashy-trendy North Cumminsville, a blighted warehouse district in one of the mid-sized Ohio cities beginning with the letter C (not Canton, not Chillicothe, not Coshocton). Claire could no longer afford the rent in NC due to unpaid bills and the troubles they bring, and middleman Joe, a friend of the landlord, cluelessly arranged for Lori to meet the owner and win first right of refusal, without thinking that they might cross paths during the move. Joe chose to ignore any emotional discomfort this scenario caused by not thinking about it, and not thinking about “emotional-type things,” as Joe referred to them, was something he saw as an asset. His job, he told himself, was laborer; he was a packhorse helping one person move out and another move in. His secondary job, after the heavy lifting, was to stay out of the way, not make eye contact, and speak only when spoken to. His third job, if necessary, was peacekeeper, because the two women were no longer friends, all because of Joe. First, Joe dated Lori, then cheated on Lori by sleeping with her friend Claire, without Lori’s knowledge of course and without Joe’s knowledge that they were friends. Nor did Claire know that Joe was dating Lori until the two women were at a bar discussing the wonderful man they’d been seeing, who they discovered was the same man when they held up their phones and showed each other pictures of their beloved. Their smiles turned to eye-bulging disbelief, then mutual inquisition and accusation that launched a feud conducted in-person, via text, email, social media, and phone when they learned of each other’s “betrayal” (Lori’s term), an accusation Claire took issue with, because she didn’t know Lori was seeing Joe and said ignorance was the more accurate word to describe her part, the mutual recriminations and accusations causing them to distrust each other more than they distrusted Joe, who, because they adored him, and because he was the type of man in short supply—he had enough brains that he wouldn’t be called stupid, but not enough brains that he was smarter than either woman, who thought themselves alpha females. And he was so attractive it was like he was covered with chocolate syrup they wanted to lick off: 6’ 1,” 200 lbs., tousled brown hair, naturally muscular—“work muscles, not gym muscles,” Claire said—he worked in a lumber yard and could carry eight 2 x 8s stacked on each shoulder up a flight of twenty steps—with a strong upper body, and well-proportioned in all other areas, which was everywhere.
An impartial observer, however, may have cited Joe for unethical boundary crossing, breaking of trust, psychological damage inflicted on both women, with no certainty that even more damage wouldn’t be inflicted on them or on other women Lori and Claire were unaware of. Joe skated happily along, as another of his assets was his lack of introspection, although he wasn’t introspective enough to know this was an asset until his ex-lover Bruce Ford (he, him)—with whom Joe had his first, longest, deepest, and most intense sexual and romantic relationship (although Joe never thought of it that way)—told Joe, “Your gift is your lack of self-awareness regarding the negative impact you have on people—which self-knowledge would destroy anyone with scruples—while simultaneously you inflate the positive impact you have on others, so that you see yourself not as the pariah you should see yourself as, and should be seen as by others, but as a savior to anyone you love, is how you see yourself, a benefactor or kindly bestower of yourself onto others,” said Bruce Ford when Joe left him to date Lori. “Borderline sociopath in other words is how I would describe you, although your love is indeed the most wonderful gift I’ve ever received, so I’m not faulting you for your flaws, just pointing them out, and any time you want to come over for a back rub or foot massage—platonic, of course, I’m a one-man kind of guy, I don’t share—please, don’t hesitate.”
“Cool,” Joe said on his way out the door for the last time, then, “Well, I’ll see you around dude.”
Lori was parked in Bruce’s driveway honking the horn for Joe to hurry up.
“What did you see in him anyhow?” she asked as they drove away.
“See in him? Like, why did I hang out with him?”
“You know? That’s a good question. We’ve known each other forever—we were born on the same day, same year, same hospital, we lived three doors apart—”
“Ok, I understand. It’s not really important, as long as you keep getting tested once a week for the next six months.”
“Right on,” Joe said, sitting in the passenger seat, strumming an acoustic guitar left-handed, the fretboard sticking out the window.
While Bruce Ford was correct that Joe lacked introspection, it was not true that he lacked compassion, empathy, tolerance, and a natural ability to forgive and forget, so intrinsic to his nature that he was unaware he possessed these gifts and didn’t understand that others often lacked them. The emotional upheavals Joe caused always surprised him, as probably his deepest philosophical approach to life came from a cereal box interview with a surfer he read when he was a kid, something to the effect that life is calm seas and life is waves, and how you ride the waves determines whether or not you survive, it’s nothing personal the ocean has against you, it’s just something you put up with and try not to go under, and when he read this at age twelve, Joe internalized it and transmogrified it into an all-encompassing worldview that could be summarized as “go with the flow and don’t worry about things beyond your control,” and Joe would tell his friends, after the emotional devastations he caused, that his “victims” were fighting forces beyond their control (i.e., his behavior) and they should accept his actions, not fight them or question them, just go with the flow and you’ll be fine. This is how he explained his behavior to Lori and Claire, who were appalled at his brazen stupidity, but also fascinated that a beautiful grown man could have such a simple way of looking at things. They then thought maybe it wasn’t simple, that perhaps Joe was a savant, or Buddhist, maybe, not through studying but by natural disposition, he had, they reasoned, an advanced, sophisticated understanding of life and they were the dumb ones for not comprehending his God-given enlightenment, and all he was trying to do was share his wisdom with them.
After Claire was fully moved out (“eradicated” was Lori’s term) and psychically removed with three days of continual sage-burning that created an odor that permeated the entire 1920s apartment building where she lived, Joe moved his things back in because Claire had thrown them out the windows.
While the sage was still burning, and Joe had brought in his last bundle of clothes, Lori closed the door of the apartment, stood with her back against it so Joe couldn’t leave, and told him to take off his clothes. Joe was happy to comply, because he believed nudity, for him, at least, was the ideal state, and also because women, and men, liked looking at him, and because Joe was a people-pleaser more than anything, he was happy to give them something to look at. Only this time Lori told him to kneel on all fours and “stick your ass up high.” She removed her leather belt, doubled it in two, and slapped his ass so hard he howled in pain. Before he was able to ask what she was doing, she spanked him again. The belt left red marks on Joe’s rear, and when he saw Lori pull her arm back for another spank, he crawled to her and bit her between the legs. She was wearing jeans, and it wasn’t a ferocious bite, so she didn’t feel much, but seeing Joe’s beautiful face at her crotch inspired her to wrap the leather belt around his neck and tighten it like a leash that she used to pull Joe around the apartment. Joe played along, because Joe loved to play, even though this particular game was new to him. Little did he know it was also new to Lori, but she was assertive in a way that made Joe think this was something she’d wanted as soon as they had the chance. She pulled him into the kitchen and placed him in the corner--naked, leashed and collared. She removed a large plastic mixing bowl from a cabinet, filled it with water, and set it in front of Joe. She then took a drinking glass from the cabinet, wrapped it in a dish towel, and pounded the towel-wrapped glass with a hammer until it was broken into hundreds of shards that she sprinkled on the kitchen floor so that if Joe tried to crawl or walk out of the kitchen, he would cut his hands, feet, or knees.
“Don’t move,” Lori said.
“What the hell, babe? I thought we were cool.”
“Yeah, we’re cool. But do me a favor and get on all fours and start drinking from the bowl.”
Joe plunged his face into the bowl and suctioned water into his mouth.
“Not like that. Lap it. Lap it like a dog!” she said, and barked.
Joe started lapping the water, and that’s when she grabbed her phone off the kitchen table and photographed a naked Joe drinking water like a dog from a mixing bowl.
An hour later, after they made love, Joe asked Lori if she would put him on the leash again or if it was a one-time thing.
“I’m pretty sure it’ll happen again,” was her answer, as she massaged between his legs and coaxed another erection that she used to get herself off one more time.
Little did they know that before Claire moved out, she installed three surveillance cameras in strategic spots throughout the apartment so she could perhaps blackmail Lori, or at least embarrass her. One of the cameras was in a ceiling fan over the dining room table, angled toward the kitchen, providing a perfect shot of Joe’s slave-dog performance. Another camera was in the bedroom, and one was in the living room. Claire watched the tapes when she got home at 3:30 a.m. after tending bar for eight hours and getting stoned with a coworker. She was appalled at what she saw and then so aroused that she masturbated four times before falling asleep around 5:00.
Not much changed over the next month. Lori and Joe spent almost every night together, and almost every night, Claire came home and masturbated watching them. A routine had developed. Claire fell asleep blissed out and woke up anticipating the following night’s debauchery. She remembered that she had installed the cameras for purposes of blackmail, but she discovered instead that she was a voyeur, and this discovery lowered her self-esteem a bit, but not enough to stop her from watching. But her subterfuge made her paranoid. What if someone was watching her? She began thinking that perhaps her pot-bellied landlord—whose T-shirt always rode an inch above his beltline, revealing pale skin barely visible through a jungle of pubic hair that seemingly went from his crotch up to his neck, for more of the same hair sprouted from his shirt collar—installed cameras when Claire was at work, and while she masturbated to tapes of Joe and Lori, he masturbated to tapes of her.
“Does weed cause paranoia?” Claire asked Google, and Google said yes, around ten million different articles said yes, depending on what strain of bud was smoked, and what the smoker’s pre-buzz state of mind was, yes, paranoia was possible. Also, a tendency toward feeling guilty in general could be exacerbated by the herb. Claire decided she would drink more whiskey and smoke less dope, but whiskey made her angry, so she went back to weed.
“Does weed make women horny?” was the next thing Claire asked Google, and the answer, repeated ten million times, was that a woman’s horniness while elevated depended on what strain of bud was smoked, what time of month it was, the smoker’s level of fatigue before lighting up, and also, any pre-buzz anticipation of impending sex might intensify the desire for carnal annihilation.
Bruce Ford meanwhile was pining for Joe-Dog. Although he’d had a few lovers in the two years after Joe left, it was Joe he remembered most. He devised a plan: He would contact Claire and suggest she invite Joe over for a friendly chat. Bruce would already be in Claire’s apartment—in fact, he and Claire would be in bed, under the blankets, fully clothed of course because Bruce had only seen two women naked. (One was his mother [trauma!] and the other was a new-in-the-neighborhood fourteen--year-old named Brandy Sinclair, who had volunteered to be gangbanged by five boys of her choosing, two of them Bruce and Joe, but he was overcome with nausea when he saw her lying naked on the bed, her skin a sickly white, surrounded by the boys, touching and squeezing her until she took Kenny Listerman’s hand and put it between her legs. Bruce wanted to stay and watch the boys undress, but Brandy’s nakedness was a shock so troubling that he had to leave, and Joe followed.) Bruce hoped that, assuming Claire went along with the plan, Joe would see his two exes in bed and feel the whammo! of karmic devastation when he realized that what goes around comes around. Or something like that, is how Bruce Ford envisioned his destabilization of Joe-Dog, an emotional destruction he hoped would be so severe that Joe would plead with Bruce to come to his senses and “leave that woman and come with me.” Bruce then thought this scenario mightn’t happen. Perhaps Joe would get in bed with them, only to find they were clothed.
Bruce went to the Corner Pub, where Claire tended bar, a cinder-block hellhole as drab as its name might suggest. Upon entering, one noticed the low, drop ceiling, the absence of windows, wobbly tables surrounded by mismatching chairs, and almost no lighting except for the minimum the bartender needed to pour drinks and count change. In years past, the pub had featured non-nude dancers on a stage the size of a ping pong table, now home to the establishment’s lone pinball machine. Bruce had been there a few times with Joe and feared for his safety—bathroom graffiti included the message “if you’re reading this, you’re a fag”—so he dressed as straight as he knew how (which to Bruce meant cowboy attire) and practiced talking without the effeminate lisp he knew he talked with ever since recording himself saying the Pledge of Allegiance as a fourteen-year-old to see how obvious it was he was gay. (“I pledge allegiance to the fag—flag!—I pledge allegiance to the fag, oh god, the flag the flag…the flaggots…” and he stopped there because he knew he was doomed to announcing his gayness every time he spoke.)
Bruce came in and sat two seats away from a man somewhere in his sixties, who looked at him and said “Jesus Christ” and moved to the other end of the bar.
“What are you doing here?” Claire asked when she came over. “Are you trying to get killed?”
“Is it obvious?”
“No one dresses like that anymore.”
“It’s not macho?”
“It’s ridiculous. Gay men haven’t dressed like that since the ‘70s. You could at least have worn a shirt under your vest. And take that bandana off your neck!”
Bruce removed the bandana, eyeing the old drunk at the end of the bar, who, Bruce noticed, was staring at him with either hatred or lust.
“I think your other customer rather likes my attire.”
“Don’t. Ex-cop. Hates gays. Hates everyone except other ex-cops. Look at me.” Bruce looked at her. “Ignore him.”
“Okay, I’ll ignore him. But to answer your question why I’m here, I’m here because I have a proposition.”
Claire said his idea was silly and that he should forget about Joe and find someone else.
That night at 4 a.m., Bruce’s phone rang.
“Let’s do it,” an intoxicated Claire said. “I think it can work. But we have to invite Lori. I’ll set it up. I’ll propose a make-up party. I’ll invite both of them, and you’ll already be here in bed and I’ll get up to use the bathroom and I’ll get in bed with you and invite them into the bedroom.”
“Then what happens?”
“Then what happens? How should I know? We haven’t done this yet. I can’t predict the future.”
“What are you doing? You’re all huffy and puffy like you want to have phone sex but as you know, I do not lean in that direction.”
“I’m watching a…tape…..oh fuck! Oh fuck ohfuckinggod…”
“What sort of tape are you watching?”
“It’s…oh god…oh god…it’s Joe and—Joe and Lori!”
“What are you talking about? You have a tape of them fucking?”
“Hundreds. Every night. Before I moved out I installed cameras.”
“Oh. My. God. Can I come over? I need to see this. I mean, I’ll put my hand over Lori or something because that would ruin it, but if I can see Joe…”
“Hurry. Bring weed.”
“Girl, I am walking out the door.”
They fell asleep at six and Bruce woke at eight with an erection poking Claire’s lower back. It woke her up too, and she reached behind her and began massaging it. Bruce was aghast, but it felt so good that he came two minutes later, breathing heavily into the back of Claire’s head and noting with surprise the pleasant aromas coming from her hair.
“Mmmm…” Claire said. “Feel better?”
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” Bruce said, but Claire’s hand was still holding his spent but semi-hard penis, and he didn’t tell her to let go. Her hair smelled so floral, and the skin on her hand was a little rough—sandpapery, almost—like Joe’s hands—probably from twisting off thousands of bottle caps the last few years.
“Back to sleep now,” she said and took her hand away.
Bruce rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. He was overcome with self-loathing for betraying the cause, as he now thought of his queerness, a politically and socially revolutionary lifestyle that threatened the status quo and rejected everything it stood for, meaning all of the insipid love songs and commercials and TV shows and movies and billboards that glamorized straight life by showing happy couples and unhappy couples and their children and cheerful dogs and that congratulated itself when, once every five years, they sort of got it right in a movie or TV show regarding what it was like to be a real man, which is how Bruce thought of himself every time he made love with a man. But this episode with Claire? He was confused. He stopped thinking about it, got dressed, and went home.
As the make-up party approached, the women no longer felt threatened by each other, but they didn’t know this because their friendship hadn’t recovered to the point where they shared secrets or exposed vulnerability. Lori walked with what she imagined was a triumphant air—regal, actually, because she possessed the man everyone wanted. She was victrix. She pictured herself a mythical Roman empress, a goddess of beauty and war who inspired her men to kill barbarians in every corner of the empire. She would exalt herself by ordering the Senate to proclaim her “eternal wife of Jupiter,” reassigning Juno as wet nurse to their sucklings. Claire’s satisfaction, on the other hand, came from her deepening attraction to Bruce, who was the second most beautiful man she’d slept with, after Joe.
The men were less enthused with the make-up party. Joe’s usual go-with-the-flow attitude was slightly disturbed at the thought of being in the same room with three people he’d had sex with. And although the gathering was Bruce’s idea, he too was confused, because for the first time ever, he was attracted to a woman. He was so upset he consulted a psychologist to see if he was either insane or a degenerate, but the shrink, who seldom made eye contact during the session, said that as long as he was engaging in consensual and legal behavior, there was nothing wrong. “The guilt, or shame, you feel toward this woman…Betsy?...Let me make an analogy: All your life, you hated watermelon. Didn’t matter if you put ice cream on it or brown sugar or deep fried it. Point is, you never liked watermelon. And then one day you’re at a picnic, and people are eating watermelon, and you get a craving for watermelon. Who knows why? So you get a slice of watermelon and take a bite. You slowly chew it into a pulp and swallow. You don’t throw up. You end up eating five slices, and on the way home, you stop and buy a twenty-pounder that you eat within a day.”
The make-up party happened on a Saturday night, two months after Bruce suggested it to Claire. He arrived early to help prepare the snacks and tidy up. But they scratched the idea of getting in bed together and somehow using a façade of intimacy to hurt Joe and Lori, because they’d developed a true intimacy over the last two months that would be damaged if they used it to play a joke on their guests. Bruce was now thinking of himself as bisexual, and Claire was wondering why she was only attracted to bi-guys—first Joe, now Bruce. But what really complicated things was their curiosity: Bruce was now thinking about Lori’s shiny blonde hair, and Claire had never forgotten certain looks Lori gave her during their three-year friendship: penetrating, lingering looks when it seemed Lori’s eyes throbbed, or pulsed, as they stared at each other. She’d never had any serious lesbian fantasies besides the daydream of making out with a beautiful woman, preferably on the beach at full moon. And the other fantasy of being caressed and catered to by three or four naked sorority girls. And also the fantasy of cuddling with a lovely but tragic divorced woman, giving each other the healing love they needed before finding another man to wreck their lives. But Claire had neglected to watch tapes of Joe and Lori when they weren’t having sex. If she had, she might not have been surprised when she opened the door at 8:00 to see Lori dressed as some sort of Roman goddess, wearing a sheer toga-thing, and Joe dressed as a shirtless gladiator.
Claire and Bruce were gollywomped with lust when the Romans walked into their apartment, but Bruce recovered quickly.
“Joe, are you one of those Roman slaves who gets crucified for having a bad attitude?”
“Hey Bruce,” he said and hugged his former lover. Bruce lost all motor control and would have collapsed if Joe hadn’t held him tight.
Claire had lost fifteen pounds since Lori last saw her, and had dyed her hair a deep auburn with a jawline bob that framed her face like the Sutton Hoo helmet. Two inches taller than herself, Lori’s feeling of superiority diminished somewhat looking up into Claire’s dark eyes ringed with black eyeliner. “My god, she’s turned goth,” Lori thought, looking at Claire, who she only ever befriended in the first place because she liked to be out in public with prettier women, as a way of attracting the men the pretty girls didn’t want.“Are you two”— she nodded at Bruce, who had recovered enough strength to stand on his own “—a couple?”Claire scratched her nails through Bruce’s thick black hair.“Is that what we are, darling?”
“Well, I’ve never been one for labels,” he said, Claire’s nails sending sparks through his body. “Are you two a couple or just…friends?”
“It’s too soon to call us a couple because there’s a trust issue”—and she shot a hateful look at Claire that softened into fascination with her makeover, “but uh,” looking from Claire to Bruce—“things are going well.”
The evening passed pleasantly at first, everyone slightly guarded until the marijuana was passed around. Within minutes, it seemed more than four people were in Claire’s apartment, as the volume of conversation, music, and laughter increased two-fold, then three-fold. A connective warmth passed through all four as their social armor fell off, replaced by a renewed trust and mutual interest that wasn’t a bogus effect of the herb, rather, the bud seemed to have breathed life into their former selves—spontaneous and trusting, everyone abuzz with the feeling (not yet knowledge) that they were still friends, instinctively drawn to each other, just like old times, which for Joe and Bruce was twenty-four years. Claire and Lori had known each other just three years, but they got along so well (before the rupture) that they felt like they would be lifelong friends.
As the evening wore on, Joe and Bruce ended up in the kitchen, drinking beer and getting reacquainted. Joe had put on one of Bruce’s white t-shirts, a bit small but better for the way it clung to his torso and exposed enough bicep that every time Joe raised his beer bottle, a hump of muscle formed that Bruce wanted to kiss, lick, bite, caress, slap his cock against. Claire and Lori sat on the couch, near enough that their knees could have touched if one had leaned toward the other. It’s possible that Bruce backed Joe against the refrigerator and leaned in close to kiss him, but instead rubbed his face against Joe’s to feel his stubble. It’s possible that Joe placed his hand on Bruce’s chest, either to back him off or because the adventurous boy in Joe was still alive to Bruce, and holding his hand there was like a magnet that kept Bruce near. None of this was seen by the women in the living room, who now had relaxed enough that their knees were resting against each other’s. Lori looked at Claire’s black-stockinged legs and told herself she needed black stockings…but would she look as slutty-hot as Claire? And what Claire could see of Lori’s legs, from mid-thigh down to sandaled feet, caused her to lose track of their conversation about work as she daydreamed about rubbing lotion on her friend’s thighs.
Joe and Bruce came in from the kitchen and sat next to the person they began the night with, but there’s no reason to believe that in the coming weeks alliances and attractions wouldn’t shift, in a less bruising way than before. With the good feelings and restored trust flowing in every direction, it’s best to think that, whatever the outcome of the renewed affection, the foursome’s friendship had entered a new phase that would see the bed-hopping and eavesdropping recede. Although it’s too early to predict who will end up with whom, the fact that friendship is being restored might be seen as a sign of emotional growth. And Joe, who had never thought of himself as the center of attention (because he seldom thought of himself at all), was relieved that his friends weren’t fussing over him. He could relax and go with this new flow and see where it took him.