Paul was on the couch, tuning my guitar. He doesn’t know how to tune a guitar, so he was just tightening the E-string. I had already told him to stop once. The string was making that high pitched crackling noise, then it snapped. So I slapped him across the face. For a moment, it was funny—the way he gasped and cupped his reddening cheek with his palm. Then he stood up. I ran into my room, forgetting to turn the lights on. He came in and punched me in the stomach. So I put my hands around his neck. Then he put his around mine. We were on the bed, doing that to each other. I could still kind of breathe. I knew he could, too, because he said okay turn on the lights turn on the lights turn on the lights.
We were fighting because three months earlier, Paul mounted a camera on my dashboard. He said it was just an experiment—it was art, he said. We were on our way to Seaside for a camping trip. But then I went to one of his art shows at the graduate school and there were five car simulators with fake steering wheels, speakers, and TV screens. And people were sitting there, driving fake cars, watching the Oregon coast go by on their screens, and listening to me talk about masturbation routines and why I’m afraid of earthquakes.
That was Paul. He neglected important details. Sometimes it made him look cavalier. Other times, like controlling our intimacy got him off.
So that’s why I was mad. When I confronted him, he just said the exhibit was well received. That I could try to be more supportive. Art does not apologize, he said. Then he broke my guitar string. And we fought. And I actually felt a little better—I don’t know why.
Two months later, I was part of one of his projects again. He was making a plaster mold of his dick, and he needed to suck me off to stay hard long enough. When the plaster dried, he’d slide out and there’d be a cast of his hard-on. He was going to make a mold of his face later, maybe attach one of the cocks to his forehead like some kind of dick-face-unicorn-mask.
I knew at the beginning that I wouldn’t feel comfortable with it, but I agreed anyways. I didn’t say anything until three of Paul’s attempts were clustered on his drafting table like beer bottles, and he was beneath me, struggling to make a better version.
So I told him to stop. I said I didn’t want to be involved anymore. I said that although the molds were of his dick, I was the one making him hard—so they were kind of not his dicks.
He stood up and asked what the hell he was supposed to do now. He pointed at the dicks. He grabbed one and threw it at me. Then he grabbed another and broke it over his knee. He was still naked, holding each end of the broken mold like the opposite ends of nunchucks.
When I said his project probably wouldn’t sound so smart once he blew his load anyways, I knew what would happen. If Paul was a bull, he’d be the type that sprints past the matador and lunges into the bleachers. He lacked focus. He fought for the sake of it. But me, I knew I wasn’t going to fight back that time, and things were going to be different afterwards.
After we broke up, we tried to keep in touch. I even went to his next art opening. Walking up, I could see there would be tons and tons of dicks. Hung up like wind chimes. Like Christmas lights. There were even a few of the masks he told me about. People were trying them on.
When I saw Paul, he had another guy following him around. The guy was young, probably an undergrad like me. A camera dangled around his neck. When Paul introduced the two of us, he only gave the guy’s name. Didn’t say where they met, what the guy did. Didn’t say who I was, either. I could almost feel the two of us trying to be who we were and not being that.
When I left the gallery and I drove home, I remember looking past my empty passenger seat to Puget Sound, where the water was black and empty against the fog. And I started thinking about Seaside—about the exhibition Paul made out of our trip. I thought about how it must have felt for strangers to sit in those car seats and watch the scraggly pixelated shrubs and the cliffs dropping off into the blue ocean, to listen to some guy talk to his boyfriend. It must have felt special, like being told a secret and being able to exist in the space that secret creates. It must have felt like I felt then. It must have felt pretty good.
John Englehardt’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Sycamore Review, The Stranger, Monkeybicycle, Furlough Magazine, and The Monarch Review. He won the 2014 Wabash Prize in fiction, as well as The Stranger’s A&P fiction contest. He received an MFA in fiction from the University of Arkansas, where he also taught creative writing. Currently, he lives and works in Seattle. Selected by Erin Sroka.