This is the last in a series of prequels I’ve been writing this spring. The idea has been to give people a little preview of If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, and also to return for a time to these stories and these characters?some of whom I first wrote more than twelve years ago. This one is a prequel to the tenth story in the collection, “We All Have Difficult Jobs”. Thanks to everyone for reading.
Victor had IBS. Also, he hated his body. That this feeling had anything to do with his illness wasn?t something he let himself consider. Life for him was like walking home in a mascot costume of himself. When he sat it was like a dog was on his lap. A dog made of gutfat. Candid photos and peripheral mirrors revealed to him a gawp-mouthed doofus with sagging chinskin and the posture of a treebranch overladen with rotted fruit. Infamously, he?d coughfarted in every space he spent any time inside. He was, as of last week, just 38.
Also, he was gay. It had more than once occurred to him that this was a convenience. Had he lived in a large, coastal city he would be far too ugly to fuck, and so, living in Omaha, where the pickings were slim enough for Plains gays, despite being somehow both twig-thin and pouchy he could stand charitably in ?wouldn?t kick him out of bed? territory. He was assless. Gnarl-kneed. His skin looked like a wet porcelain sink someone had failed to clean their shaved hair out of. Manny, though, was a baby-faced bruiser with even brown skin whose Blutonian chest was coated with hair like a shampooed pelt. Standing, he looked trussed and supported by iron beams, as though placed on life?s board game by the very hand of God. He was uncut and wrote novels for a living.
Which was why he didn?t have an answer for him. Maybe Victor was on a prank show. Maybe this proposal was some form of community service. Or a dare. They were lying in Memorial Park, after all, with any number of single men on blankets in the vicinity who could be observing this scene. Recording it to laugh at later.
?We can?t get married here,? he said. The sun sat low near the ground. Their shadows long. Their day almost over.
?I?ll take you anywhere we can,? Manny said. And then he pulled Victor on top of him.
He never got a solid answer from Manny on the question of What Exactly Do You See In Me?, but then again he never solidly asked the question. Instead it?d been a series of Are You Sure?s and Is It Too Soon?s that?d he presumed Manny would understand were expressions of his own bodily insecurities. It was different at work. At the Marquis he could say, ?Listen to me, just because Warren Buffet eats at Gorat?s doesn?t mean you have to,? or tell Arturo that the baggage cart would cause more problems for him than just carrying a guest?s matched set in both hands. At work he only had to be a large brain, and a brain wasn?t a body. Why did he hate his body?
Once, he bought six sessions with a personal trainer at Gould?s Gym out on West Dodge. His name was Staden and he looked like an ostrich someone had dressed for the beach. Like Victor, basically. ?I want to fill out more,? he told Staden, ?here, here, and here.? He pointed to the sunken parts of his oldman body. His ass and et cetera. ?And I want to lose all this,? he said, pointing at his gut. ?And if you have anything that helps with IBS I?ll do it.?
Staden stood on one leg, scratching at his calf. ?What?s IBS??
?Just make me look like the two of us put together,? Victor said, and soon he was squatting more than a woman in a hip-hop video. He pushed and pulled dumbbells in all manner of moves. Staden had trained him on the barbell racks but who had time for all that loading and unloading? Try as he might, he couldn?t do a single pullup, and after two weeks of trying, he gave up.
?How many pullups can you do?? he asked Manny one night at Jojo?s.
?Why would I know that?? he said. Manny swam. It was all he had to do.
?I can only do three,? Victor said. Then: ?I?m starting to feel stronger.? He flexed his whole torso there at their two-top, like an action figure. ?Do I look any different??
?You sound less interesting,? Manny said. ?Why are you all of a sudden going to the gym all the time??
He sounded angry, and Victor couldn?t figure out the best way to answer. He I-dunno?d to buy some time. All he could think to say was that he didn?t like what he saw in the mirror. Not that he hated what he saw, just that didn?t like it. He would never click on it, should he come across his body online in naked thumbnail. He would never linger over his own pinup.
He wanted Manny to see in him what he saw in Manny. He said, ?Just trying to be more healthy.?
Manny swallowed the potato he was chewing. ?You should swim with me sometime.?
Wouldn?t that be a sight, he and Manny side-by-side in Speedos, like a boy and his swim coach. Except Victor was four years older than Manny. He was four years older and had acted from their first date like a younger brother. Clueless about the world. Eager for any whiff of approval from the strong guy he shared a bedroom with. Before Manny had come to that Oscars party a coworker had thrown, Victor had seriously considered going to a butler academy, living out the rest of his years in some rich family?s employ. He was so ready to be loved by someone he?d have settled even for a child pornographer. That he got Manny?s attention had been like winning a lottery. Don?t jinx it, he thought, and so for three years now he?d never once said anything that might rock the boat.
?What is it?? Manny said. ?You?ve stopped talking.?
The waiter would arrive soon with their gratis desserts. Maybe Victor could say he was thinking of that. Or of the new manager at the Marquis. Anything but the question at hand, because what if the question at hand led to an unhappy answer? What if what Manny liked about Victor was his apartment? Or what if he didn?t respect him so much as humor him? Maybe that could be enough. But how would he ever know? He could get all the answers he needed if only he had the courage to ask. He wanted it. He wanted to be daring, but instead he was Victor. He would always be Victor.
?It?s nothing,? Victor said.
You can get a copy of If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.
Come see me read from one or two stories on IYNMIBOT?s Midwest Summer Tour.