The Hazards of Carpooling

This was a real friend. Like old times—better times. When your chip bags spilled over and your idols reeked and all your friends tried to kill you.

Ainslie Hogarth is the author of The Lonely and The Boy Meets Girl Massacre (...

Follow @AinslieEm
 

“I found one,” Rory said, rubbing soft, grey pills of skin up from between her eyebrows, loading them against her thumb pad and flicking them into oblivion. She looked younger in the glow of the computer screen, sweetened by absolute trust in the machine.

“Can you not please?” Simon asked, nodding at her projectiles. It didn’t actually bother him, but he was feeling particularly clean and self-righteous tonight, freshly showered, good, tight socks on his feet.

“It’s Korean,” she said in defense. “Look,” she squirted a jewel of product into her palm from a small white tube. “You rub it on your face like this.” She unhinged her jaw, skin stretched tight as canvas over her cheekbones, and rubbed firm circles just below her eye. “And it pulls up all the dead skin, see?” She launched another pebble into the air.

“No, I get it, I get what you’re doing. That’s exactly why I’m asking you to stop. It’s gross. Can’t you just sprinkle them into a tissue or something? It’s like flinging your toe nails around.”

“Okay it is not like toe nails.”

“It’s close.”

“If you got down on your hands and knees you’d find a toenail, probably one of your toenails, way before you’d find any of my little pods. It’s dead skin, Simon, it’s already everywhere, it’s like being annoyed by the air.”

“Fine,” he said, “just shower our whole house in it then.”

“I will. And you will too. And so will Audrey because it’s just what bodies do.”

Simon pinched the bridge of his nose, amazed at Rory’s ability to be defensive about something so objectively foul. He’d always found her physical habits disgusting: the way she zoned out on the couch and futzed with her body hair; how she let her razors decompose in the shower, scummy heads bristling with quills, constantly in the way, demanding to be handled. When she was younger it struck Simon as good disgusting: bohemian, radical, defiantly unfeminine. Now it was just regular disgusting.

“All right, show me what you found,” he exhaled.

“This guy, Ben, works in in the same office park as you. He lives a few blocks away, leaves at seven in the morning every weekday.”

Simon crouched into the aureole of Ben’s profile. The light flung a shadow of false rage from his glasses. He and Ben were the same age. Both of them married with young daughters. Ben worked in sales at some kind of environmental start-up. Simon worked in legal at a bank, proofing the deliberately boring documents people sign without reading. “I don’t know,” said Simon, standing up. The shadows retreated back into his eyewear. “I don’t want to make small talk.”

“Talk isn’t small forever. It gets bigger.”

“I still don’t know.”

“Why don’t you just try it? What’s the alternative, you drive an hour and a half each way on your own? Every day? It’s bad for the environment, first of all, and secondly, this’ll be nice. Imagine we make a new friend out of it. Just down the street, too, someone to check on the house if we ever go on vacation again, someone to watch Audrey or pick her up from school if we need it.”

After over a decade in The City, Audrey’s birth and all of its demands on their money and space and time finally expelled them to The Burbs. They’d said goodbye to their friends, swearing they’d be back in town often, making them all promise to come visit, seducing them with vast yardage, for bocce ball and barbecues and margaritas, hanging by their pits over the plastic lip of a modest aboveground pool eventually, once Audrey learned to swim. But of course everyone is busy and everyone understands and the threads of a relationship over text are just strong enough to get you through weeks and then months of not seeing someone’s face or hearing their voice and it’ll always be the same when you see each other because you get hammered and it’s fine. But it would be nice to have friends here in town, Simon agreed, so he clicked the blue message box just below Ben’s profile picture: smiling, holding a beer at the end of a long dock over some glittering northern lake. Simon’s picture was almost identical, but his was staged, modelled secretly, shamefully, after a Bud Light ad. Ben is the un-staged version of me, Simon thought, and he turned the pulsing cursor into a friendly introduction.

They scheduled their first carpool for Monday morning. Ben said he’d be by at 7:15. Simon had been ready since 7, nose pressed to his front door’s decorative glass insert. He could hear Rory upstairs, singing to Audrey, blowing raspberries into her unfathomable softness.

He and Rory had bickered this morning. Simon had locked the bathroom door so he could masturbate in the shower, exorcize a few gobs of nervous energy before sitting in a car with a perfect stranger for an hour and a half and as a result she’d missed her only opportunity to take a shit all day. Usually he left the door unlocked so she could go while he showered, a routine he loathed but couldn’t really argue with. Rory, bunged up and furious, tried to make him late with her arguing, but he’d refused to engage. Imagine being late for a carpool. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself. If this all worked out, it would be proof that people really were decent, that they could do nice things for one another, work together towards a greater good, maybe even fix the planet. This drop of positivity rippled across his face and down through his body, spine straight, stomach firm. A climate change hero. An action figure in fashionably plain frames and a Banana Republic pea coat.

At exactly 7:15, Ben pulled up in a sensible grey hybrid. He rolled down the passenger side window as he slowed to a stop, smiling as he had in his picture, wide and genuine. Simon was impressed he could summon that same summer day smile on a Monday morning in February. It was infectious. Made Simon feel satisfied. Mighty. A trace of the warmth he felt on his first day back at work after Audrey was born, happy to be able to provide for his small family.

“Howdy,” said Ben, and pushed open the passenger side door.

“Hi,” said Simon. The car was comfortable inside. Warm. Fabric interiors, heated seats, the dashboard a crown of interlocking rings and neon data. It wasn’t a fancy car, but it was tasteful. Simon began to dread next week when Ben would be seated in the 2006 Ford Escape he’d moved himself to The City in way back when, which had, since Audrey, always smelled slightly like a refrigerator’s crisper drawer. He’d tidy it up before next Monday, vacuum the creases, spray the seats with air freshener. “I call it The Italian Job,” he’d joke on Monday when Ben sat down into the unmistakable fug of a frenzied, half-assed cleaning—a mostly self-deprecating, slightly racist reference to a generational touchstone (an Italian shower… for your car), and Ben would find it funny because Simon found it funny, because weren’t they, profile-wise, basically the same person?

“Wasn’t sure what you took in your coffee,” Ben gestured at the cup holder with his elbow as he turned right toward the main road. A take-out coffee cup, waxy brown bag of cream and sugar on top.

“Oh wow, thanks. You really didn’t have to do that.”

“Happy to. You have no idea how glad I am to finally have some company for this drive.”

“I have some idea,” Simon laughed.

“Oh right, ha, you’ve been doing it too. It’s a fucking bummer, right?” For some reason Simon found himself thrilled by the curse word, not that he cared one way or the other about swearing, he and Rory did their fair share, but to drop it so immediately. Thrilling was the only word for it. He noticed too that Ben was a very good driver. Confident. Intentional. Clear, without being pushy or aggressive. His fists travelled the wheel easily, his foot fluid on the gas. Simon felt momentarily overcome with the sensation that the road was moving beneath them as opposed to the other way around.

“I don’t think I’ve ever said this to anyone before, but you’re a very fine driver.”

“Stingy with compliments, are you?”

“What? No!” This was something Rory had accused him of, trying to appear more competent by withholding praise.

“I’m just kidding,” said Ben. “Thank you. I’m glad you feel that way. Because I was actually going to say, I really don’t mind driving every day. In fact, I’d prefer it if it’s all the same to you.”

“No, really? I couldn’t—”

“Really. I would prefer it,” he glanced at Simon. “I’m just looking for the company. You don’t even have to kick in for gas if you don’t want.”

“Well I’m going to kick in for gas.”

“Honestly, I’m heading in this direction anyway.”

“Your profile really should have just said, free ride with coffee, just, you know, from an advertising standpoint. You wouldn’t have had to wait so long for a response.”

“That’s true. Except maybe that sounds too good to be true.”

“Well I’ll supply the coffee. Then it’s just good enough.”

“Deal,” Ben grinned.

“So you just don’t like being a passenger?” Simon snapped the tab back on his coffee, blew a buxom swirl of steam to smithereens and took a sip. It was too hot, too bitter. He normally took it with cream and sugar but he was nervous to perform such a dexterous operation in the car.

“Nah, not really. My dad and I got into an accident when I was a kid. I was fine and everything, but his back was destroyed. Three operations, then he got hooked on painkillers. It was ugly. Anyway, now I get really agitated when other people are driving. I hope that’s okay.”

“Shit, of course. I’m so sorry.”

“Ah it’s okay, didn’t mean to bring all of this up,” he laughed, sipped from his coffee. “I usually don’t. Guess it might be too early in the morning for company after all.”

“The hazards of carpooling. How is your dad now?”

“Oh he’s a mess. Still an addict. Qualifies for disability at least.”

“Shit. I’ve never met an addict before.”

“You may have. A lot of them are good at hiding it. Not my dad of course. He looks like he haunts fucking bridges.”

Simon snorted. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay,” said Ben. “It’s funny. He’s fucked.” Ben merged into the left lane to pass a pickup truck loaded with dubiously secured wood. “I still see him sometimes. Because it’s not their fault, right? That’s what they say.”

“That is what they say.”

“And it’s not their fault. I can see now that it’s not. It’s a disease. I acted like I believed that before, just because, you know, it’s the kind of thing someone like me believes: addiction is a disease, corporations are a scourge, immigration will save the post-industrial world. But I could just never really wrap my head around it, that you could choose your disease every day, that you could cure yourself by just not choosing the disease. But it’s not like that, I know that now, I see the way it gets its hooks in people, the exact same way a virus gets its hooks in your cells.”

“I know what you mean.” Simon realized he was about to open up to Ben, reveal a way in which his personal experience conflicted with the way he presented politically, or, more accurately, he was ashamed to admit, the way he presented aesthetically. He didn’t even do this with Rory, in front of whom he was an aggressive and unwavering liberal: wiry, bespectacled, armored in raw denim, leather boots, lavish perversions of iconic labor-wear. The way he policed her innocent slips of ignorance so mercilessly, knowing deep down he was punishing her, jealously, for a year off work with Audrey. The price she’d pay on the other side of her mat leave would be a feeling of total alienation from the civilized world. “My mom’s ex-husband, before I was born, I never met him, apparently he was addicted to gambling. He spent all of their money, every last dime and then some. It took my mother half a decade to crawl out from under the debt, then he left her. But the way she talks about him, it’s like, he’s the victim. Like he was sick. And I would agree with her, the way she explained it to me, it did make sense, and I know I’m supposed to feel that way, but I still can’t help hating the fucking prick. And I could never really understand how she didn’t hate him too.”

Ben nodded as he merged onto the next highway and settled safely into the center lane. “People are complicated animals,” he said, and Simon hummed in agreement. They enjoyed a miraculously comfortable silence, considering they’d just met, sipping their coffees, knocking knuckles when they both went to deposit their cups into their holders at the same time, which kick-started the next conversation, about how things used to be. Roomier. Better. When chips overflowed from bags and rock stars never showered. Ben recalled an incident from those days, a time he’d forgotten a freshman in the shower after force-feeding him Jell-O shots till he shit himself. The next morning the kid emerged from the bathroom pale as chalk, curled beneath a crusty towel. I could have died, he said to Ben, and then the two of them laughed till they cried. Still friends today. Ben spoke warmly, awed by the strangeness of hazing: humiliations executed carefully as spells, with the promise of being made real. Bona fide. Part of something. Unless it killed you instead. Simon admitted he didn’t have much experience with things like that, but he was sure Ben did. Ben shrugged, confessed, jokingly, to having the perfect physique for all sports, to being on every team, including debate, because even his brain was ripped.

Simon watched Ben’s car pull out of his office parking lot. A connection. The kind he used to make easily as a child: 4 a.m., bloated and delirious at a sleepover, laughing hysterically, relieving yourself of yourself, easily, into someone else. A friend. Which he realized now he didn’t actually have anymore. He had people he’d known in The City, those people he got blind drunk with then didn’t see again for months. He had people he texted with a lot but never saw. He had people he cared about but couldn’t stand; people he wished he saw more but didn’t. This was a real friend. Like old times—better times. When your chip bags spilled over and your idols reeked and all your friends tried to kill you.

*

At 5:09 Simon stared out at the office parking lot, his breath appearing and disappearing with increasing frequency on the glass. Hadn’t they planned to meet here at exactly 5 p.m.? Simon checked his phone, refreshed his inbox, thumb triggered tic-like, involuntarily, he confirmed, re-confirmed, 5 p.m. was the plan, in writing, in the carpool app’s message center. The thicknesses of his chest and throat merging, manic, resisting the pacifying effects of his shallow breaths. His cheeks, he could see in the glass, were red. Rosy, for Christ’s sake.

And then there he was, Ben and his car, one sleek entity prowling the lot for a spot.

Simon exited the building, gulping cold air. As he got closer to the car Ben honked the horn, launching Simon in a spasm of terror which, once done, left him completely calm, as though it had ejected every bit of built-up cortisol from his body. Ben was laughing as he opened the door. “The look on your face,” he managed to spit. And Simon, depleted, rubbery, burst out laughing too.

“You asshole,” he said, and Ben shrugged, thumbed a tear from his eye, and entered the rush hour crawl from the lot. On the long ride home, they talked about their firsts: drinking and drugs and sex, details Simon hadn’t thought about in a long time. The slope of his high school girlfriend’s breasts, her tough grip on his penis, smooth, dry, because neither of them really understood or could commit to the true mess of good sex in their parent’s basement or pressed against the laundry room door while a party thumped in the background (though Simon had made that last one up—he was rarely invited to parties in high school and wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving the nucleus of one for sex in one of its furthest rings of energy). Ben had alcohol poisoning twice in college. He’d loved mushrooms, ate them constantly, preferably laced with MDMA when he could get it: a hippie flip, he called it. “Remember that?” Simon admitted he’d never tried it before. Ben said, “We’ll have to fix that.”

When Simon walked through the front door, Rory shoved a soft, sweet potato encrusted Audrey in his face. “Take her,” she demanded, and ran up the stairs. He heard the thud and spatter of the shower and to the empty room he said, “Well, hello to you too.” Audrey looked at him, smiling, slow, probing starfish fists along his cheek and he was overcome with a painful, breathtaking love for her, buried his face in the pressed flesh that hid her neck to her wild, screaming delight. He ran a cloth under hot water, rubbed the sweet potato from her skin, changed her diaper, buttoned her into a striped onesie. Rory didn’t like the button-up onesies because they were harder to fight with during middle-of-the-night diaper changes. Simon didn’t care. This one was his favorite and today he’d been reminded that he was still a human being.

Rory trotted back down the steps, soaked strips of hair leaking into a towel over her shoulders. She’d restored to her wardrobe a particularly unsightly nursing nightie that he hoped he’d seen the last of when Audrey tagged it in a spray of seedy, yellow feces.

“Thought that one was trashed.”

“Nah. Somehow the gross stuff that comes out of babies doesn’t really stain.”

“Small miracles.”

“You hungry?”

“Yeah.”

“There’s Kraft Dinner in the cupboard. We ate…” she hunched forward, stared at Audrey, infecting her with wide-eyed anticipation, then swooped in and stole her from Simon’s arms, “… sweet potatoes!” Audrey, grinning, flung her arms above her head.

“That’s it? You’re just gonna eat sweet potatoes for dinner?” He felt Audrey’s sudden departure from his arms as plainly as a burn.

“I had some other stuff too.”

Simon nodded.

“What is it, Simon.” Exasperated. Annoyed already.

“Nothing, just, I don’t know. Don’t really feel like Kraft Dinner.”

“Right,” she replied. “Well, I’m sure you can figure something out. How was the guy? Ben?”

“Yeah, Ben. He was really cool actually. Sort of excited to see him again tomorrow.”

“That’s great! What’s his wife’s name?”

“He didn’t mention.”

“His kid?”

“Didn’t mention her either.”

“Did you talk about us?”

“I don’t remember, Rory, Jesus.”

“I’m just asking.”

“Yeah, I think I did—I think I mentioned that Audrey’s made our whole car smell like a refrigerator drawer.”

“She haaaaaas,” said Rory, kissing Audrey’s nose. “Somehow she really has. All right, well, I’m going to put her to bed and hit the sack myself.”

“Already?”

“Yeah, I’m tired.”

“Night.”

“Night Simon. Love you.”

And she padded off to bed, up the stairs, Audrey’s face over her shoulder staring into Simon’s eyes till she disappeared into the ceiling. I’m sure you can figure something out. As though he’d been asking for her help. As though he were a child. As though he’d starve to death without her. As though she were the only one who did anything around here. How far that was from reality, but of course this is the way it is in a marriage, the way it’d been in his parents’ marriage too: shared delusion the key to co-existence, destroyed when exposed to the cruel light of truth. Babies brought light. Truth. And sometimes it was wonderful but other times it was very bad. Right now things were very bad. Rory and Audrey retreating into dark delusion together, leaving Simon out in the light. Suddenly it was 11:30 and Simon was staring into the patchy dregs of an empty wine bottle, too drunk from forgetting to have fixed himself dinner.

*

The next morning Simon waited, hands full with steaming travel mugs, while Ben once again pushed open the door from the driver’s seat. He deposited the mugs in the holders, relieved that they fit.

“Thanks man! That smells fucking great.” Ben lifted the travel mug to his lips, sucked steam into his nose and took a sip.

“It’s pretty good stuff,” bragged Simon, rubbing his coffee-warm hands into his thighs. He cleared his throat, shivered.

“What’s wrong,” asked Ben.

“What? Nothing’s wrong.”

“I can tell something’s wrong,” said Ben, pulling out into the street.

Simon and Rory had bickered again that morning, more or less a continuation of the fight from yesterday. It was annoying of course, got his blood boiling, but he didn’t think it’d had such an obvious effect on him.

“Rory and I got into it this morning. Usual stuff.”

“What’s your usual stuff?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Who does what, I guess, who’s more tired, whose back is more fucked up.”

“Sounds like me and Paige.”

“Does it?”

“Oh yeah. Kids, man, you’re just so beat, so frustrated sometimes, the work never ends. It gets better though, they say, when they’re older. And if it doesn’t then you get a heater for the garage.”

Simon laughed. “Right.” He’d never imagined himself as one of those guys. One of those man-cave guys. One of those bloated sacks of loneliness, pacing the perimeters of their yards and basements and garages, moaning about everyone else’s incompetence until they fell asleep in a sopping easy chair, haunting their families like some ogling ghost, dispensing twenty-dollar bills, occasionally used for heavy lifting (but not too heavy) or running errands (so long as they weren’t too complicated). But right now he couldn’t deny the allure of a warm garage, a man-cave, so like a womb. So like the womb he’d found for himself in Rory, if you believed that kind of thing, evicted from it by Audrey, which was fine, but of course now he had to figure something else out and maybe that would be the shoddily heated garage. Nothing wrong with that, really. A womb of one’s own.

“I found this playlist last night,” said Simon, scrolling through his phone at a red light, Eddie Vedder beginning to bray from the speakers.

Simon smiled. “I haven’t heard this in forever.”

“Now this man never showered.”

“Hell no.” Simon closed his eyes, pictured the walls of his warmed garage, plastered in posters. Eddie Vedder crouched in work boots, spray of hair, cut off at the ends by the paper’s edge; Chris Cornell, may he rest, staring into a fisheye lens. A Clerks poster. A still from Pulp Fiction: Jules and Vincent, side-by-side, guns drawn. His heater, bright orange, sitting on top of a mini-fridge next to that greasy old easy chair. A vision both nightmare and salve. The heater spits a wayward ember, the chair goes up in flames with him in it. He opened his eyes. Distance from Rory, even though it brought him closer to work, felt good. More than that, though, it was this good conversation with Ben. Simon had to remember that he was entitled to this kind of connection, a perk of the species, to really connect with another human being. Like your life depended on it. Because your life did depend on it, relationships proving time and time again to be the key to a long and healthy existence. And Simon had never really had this before. He’d belonged to a group of friends in college, but he was more a peripheral character. He had a way of simply being around, like a vine, careful to look enough like them, speak enough like them, move enough like them, but never actually be close with any of them. With Ben it was different. With Ben he was alive. Alive. And he carried this beating, bloody feeling with him into work, which, despite its excruciating dullness, seemed briefly as though it mattered. For the first time in god knows how long the morning flew by. He looked up at the clock only when his stomach rumbled. One o’ clock, a late lunch! Usually he was counting down the minutes till he could sit quietly with a sandwich in another, slightly less depressing setting.

At 5 p.m. Ben was waiting. Simon opened the car door, got in, a flash of something in Ben’s lap, formless, aquatic. It took Simon a moment to realize it was his nut sack oozing from his unzipped pants.

“Jesus!” Simon shrieked, pinning himself against the door.

Ben burst out laughing and Simon did too, the both of them in tears, wheezing, a brief lull to catch their breath until eye contract triggered another eruption.

“What the hell is the matter with you?” Simon finally managed.

“Thought it would make you feel better. Worked didn’t it?”

“You’re fucking sick.”

“I know.” He hit play on his phone, resumed the playlist from this morning. “I used to know what all my friends’ dicks looked like. Remember that?”

Simon couldn’t fathom why he’d know what anyone else’s dick looked like, but didn’t want to seem prudish or as though he hadn’t had a full and enriching childhood full of casual nudity. He opened his mouth to say something like, “Oh yeah,” but was saved when Ben continued talking.

“We really grew up in the sack whapping renaissance, wouldn’t you say? With Jackass and all that. It’s nice to whap another man’s sack, to know that he’s your friend, you know what I mean? Nowadays I don’t know whose sack I could whap. I don’t think anybody’s.”

“You could whap my sack, if you wanted. I mean, don’t. But you could.”

“Well, thanks buddy. You’re gonna regret that.”

“Your balls are a deathly white, did you realize that? They look terrified.”

“Your balls aren’t that white?”

“Not even close.”

“Really? Let’s see.”

“I’m not gonna show you my balls.”

“Why not? I showed you my balls.”

Simon was silent for a minute, and then surprised himself by saying, “Honestly, I hate my balls.” He gulped and glanced over at Ben.

“Well I’m sorry to hear that. Balls are a very special part of the male anatomy.”

“Mine are too coarse. Like avocados,” he pulled off his glasses, cleaned them with the bottom of his shirt to avoid eye contact.

“Lots of balls look like avocados. See, if you knew what all your friends’ junk looked like, you wouldn’t be worried about your avocado nuts.”

“That’s true.”

“Simon, nothing about men’s bodies is supposed to be beautiful. This is why we’re so fucking lucky.”

Simon nodded. Thought of bones. Perfect bones. Heaped in so much nastiness. He often wished he were just a skeleton. A nice, simple, nut sack-less skeleton.

Ben reached over, touched his arm. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” said Simon.

“Listen, those avocado balls produced a beautiful baby girl, didn’t they? Can’t be too mad at them.” And just then a pregnant woman walked in front of the car, arched and waddling, hands flat against her lower back.

“Can you imagine having that happen to your body? And then, not only that, being told that it’s beautiful?”

Simon laughed.

“Honestly, you saw it. It’s not beautiful. It’s fucking animal. It’s insane. But they have to walk around with this idea that what’s happening to them is some gorgeous miracle. We’re lucky to have our ugly nut sacks and our hideous dicks.”

“It would be nice though, wouldn’t it? To have the reproductive biological function of your body be praised instead of shamed?”

“Please, give up your seat for this masturbating man.”

“Make way, man masturbating here, hold the door for the masturbating man.”

“Look at him,” Simon pulled his chin into his chest. “He’s glowing.”

*

That night after Rory and Audrey were asleep, Simon dug one of the Polaroid cameras out of the crawl space. Rory’s friends had bought them for her baby shower, the idea being that people could take pictures, tape them into an oversized scrapbook alongside well wishes and words of wisdom.

When he got home that night he and Rory hadn’t fought, but they hadn’t really spoken either, handing Audrey off to one another while they finished up the myriad chores and duties of home ownership, readying the space for the next day’s chaos.

This disinterest, it was worse than a fight, Simon knew, but he hustled it out of his mind, removed the shade from a bright desk lamp in the basement, and took a photograph of his dick. He waited patiently as the black square became his soft, squidgy mass. The angle was all wrong, it seemed too small, more coral than penis and balls. He pulled it out more, didn’t want it to seem hard or anything, this wasn’t sexual, but it could use a little something. He tried his methods of bringing it to attention, only just, so it knew it was being photographed. Consent. He wanted it to look as though it was giving consent to this. He took another photo. Better, but still not perfect. Another. Good. Funny. Made you want to rest a pair of sunglasses on top. This might be the one. Another and another and another until the camera wheezed, empty. He inspected the photos, found the one he liked, and buried the rest in the crawl space with the empty camera.

The next morning when Ben came to pick him up, Simon said, “Oh, I got you something,” and very casually handed him the best dick pic.

“Jesus Christ!” Ben shrieked, laughing, but Simon could hear it, unmistakable: confusion, disgust. It seemed so obvious now: showing your friend your balls was funny, but taking a picture of your dick and giving it to your friend was not. Something he would have known if he’d ever had any real goddamn friends.

“Oh fuck, is this fucking weird? It’s weird isn’t it.” Simon reached over to pluck the picture from Ben’s hands, but Ben pulled it away.

“Listen,” Ben said solemnly. “Those avocados have gone bad.” He flung the picture back at Simon, who fumbled it to his chest, then bent over and growled, his embarrassment physically painful.

“Okay thanks yes, I get it, I’m going to kill myself now.”

Ben laughed as he made his way to the highway. “Don’t do that. It was funny!”

Simon’s face red. Rosy: “You’re lying, you thought it was fucking weird.”

“Well it was fucking weird. Doesn’t mean it’s not funny.” Ben leaned over and turned the music up, exactly too loud to keep talking. Simon winced at the familiar riffs, lyrics as intimate to his mouth as a prayer, knowing that in this moment Ben was quietly processing his complete and irreparable revulsion; formulating strategies for ridding himself of the rosy-cheeked pervert squirming in his passenger seat. Ben would endure one last ride with him after work, get Simon home safe because that’s the kind of guy he was, then later, after dinner, he’d send a text, saying simply that this wasn’t working out, or more likely make up a lie, his hours are changing, he’s switching jobs. He’s accepted a carpool companion who specifically does not hand him dick pics at 7 a.m.

At the end of the day Simon swayed forlornly in his office window, his mood black and dangerously low. When he saw Ben’s car he swallowed a deep, steadying breath, stepped outside, and got in. To his shocked delight, Ben immediately asked him whether he had any plans tonight, being as it was Friday and all.

“No!” said Simon, too loud. “Never,” he added, and wished he hadn’t.

Ben grinned, glanced down into his lap where just yesterday his deathly white balls had pooled. Now there was a brown bag, paper, what Ben might pack Audrey’s lunches in one day.

“What’s that?” asked Simon.

“See for yourself,” said Ben, leaning back.

Simon cocked an eyebrow, reached into the bag, felt something smooth, squeaky between his fingers. Plastic. A Ziploc bag. He pulled it out. Squeezed its contents. A substance both dry and pulpy, shavings and knobs; the inside of the bag coated in brown dust. “What’s this?” he asked.

“Keep digging,” said Ben. “All shall be revealed.”

Simon laughed and reached in again. Something warm, pliable, alive.

“Oh my GOD,” Simon shrieked, realizing what it was. He yanked his hand back, held it out as though it were coated in Anthrax. “You fucking sicko! You fucked up fucking sicko!” Laughing, exhilarated, pranked back by Ben, his friend, the fucking asshole! And this meant that the dick pic wasn’t too much, it was bang on, the exact right thing to do, because here Ben was fucking with him back, upping the ante like friends, real friends, do. It’s nice to whap another man’s sack, Ben had said, to know that he’s your friend. Back when you knew what all your friends’ junk looked like. A better time. One that Simon had missed once but wouldn’t again, because he’d been lucky enough to answer a random carpool query late one night. Life, man. You had to laugh. That’s what people said, and it was true.

Ben, laughing, muttering, “Ah, you dummy,” plucked the bag off his pants, offered Simon a glimpse as to how he’d altered it, and zipped back up. “Those,” he said, nodding at the Ziploc, “are for hippie flipping.”

“What? No. I can’t do that,” said Simon. He tried to force the Ziploc back into Ben’s lap but was deftly blocked.

“Sure you can. You know how to eat, don’t you? It’s the same idea. Put them in your mouth. Chew. You’ll figure it out.” Simon started to drive out of the parking lot.

“Ha, ha. No. I seriously can’t. Rory will murder me.”

“So don’t tell her.”

“I think she might know if I walk in high on mushrooms.”

“And MDMA, don’t forget. That’s the dust. But it’s cool, we’re gonna go to the park first, we’re gonna hang out. You’ll be fine by the time you get home.”

“I can’t. I’m sorry.”

“Simon, come on.”

“What?”

“Live a little, you ever hear that expression?”

“Of course.”

“Honestly, I like you, I think you’re cool as hell. I want us to get fucked up together and have a kick-ass fucking Friday night, don’t you?”

Desperately. More than anything. There was nothing Simon wanted more in the world than to be hippie flipping in the park with Ben. “Fuck it,” he said. “She’s not going to divorce me.”

“Probably not.”

“I’ll just text her. I’ll text her and tell her we’re hanging out. I’m sure she’ll be happy to have the house to herself.”

“Of course she will. Dig in,” said Ben, nodding at the mushrooms.

Simon reached into the bag, procured a fat pinch of damp, sickening softness, shoved it in his mouth and gagged. “These taste,” he gagged again, eyes watering, “worse than actual shit.”

“I know,” said Ben, procuring his own wad, chewing and swallowing easily. “They’re really good. Eat more.”

So Simon did, shoveled gobs of rancid organics into his mouth and smiled. I’ll get you back, Ben, he thought to himself. Just you wait.

*

An empty lot, the car parked in a dark hourglass between two pools of light. Ben’s dick in Simon’s mouth, and he’s sucking him off exactly the way he always wished Rory would suck him off, really huge mouthfuls of dick, really soaking wet, and he’s got both hands going too, a real performance, the drugs have him firing on all cylinders so it’s as though his mouth and each hand are being operated by totally separate brains, like getting a blow job from three different people at once, and Ben is fucking loving it, moaning till his lungs empty and only groans are left. Simon’s brain functions in flashes: his high school girlfriend, her body, his own body. Ben’s body, the coolest fucking guy he’s ever met in his life, standing at the end of that dock like a beer ad come to life, and Rory smiling, when they first met, adventurous and hilarious and adorable and he’s fucking alive again, the meaning of prime finally clear to him, he’s in his PRIME and this is how it feels to be in your fucking prime, this dick in his mouth and these hands going and this is so fucked and incredible and he’s not gay of course he’s not gay but he’s alive and open to everything. Experiences. These are experiences, THIS IS FUCKING LIFE RIGHT NOW. And Audrey little Audrey with her perfect chin and cheeks and gums, her smile, her soft fleshy face, a whole lifetime of experiences ahead of her to mar it. To mar it. Tomarit. And then everything turned: he was nauseous, tangled up, his hands and brain, not working the same way they just had, he’d lost it. He didn’t want to be sucking a dick. Sucking Ben’s dick in this park, he didn’t want this, he didn’t want this, he never wanted this, “Don’t stop,” Ben muttered, “I’m close,” and so Simon, despite desperately wanting to stop, needing to stop, didn’t stop, he kept going. But this wasn’t his idea, none of this had been his idea: you know, men don’t really get to have self-esteem problems. Not like that. You can’t sort of, wallow in it. Or feel bad for yourself. Or even really talk about it. Because if you do you’re a pussy and you should feel like shit, you know, for being a pussy. The world thinks that’s a good reason to punish you. Pussies get punished. But maybe they shouldn’t. I don’t know. What’s wrong with being a pussy, you know? It would feel good to be a pussy I think, to just let go and be a fucking pussy and do all that pussy shit and not give a shit. It’s like, this is the perk of getting older right? You stop giving a shit, you just do what you want to do. Simon’s head, rhythmic, the hair on Ben’s stomach crawling like bugs until he wailed, filling Simon’s mouth with a piping hot gush and Simon jumped, startled, and spat it into his travel mug.

“That was fucking, holy shit Simon, that was the best blow job I’ve ever had in my fucking life, that was incredible, honestly, holy shit.” Ben yanked on his seat lever and fell backwards, staring through the sun roof at the stars. He started to laugh. “Look,” he said. “They’re screaming.”

Simon looked up, adjusted his crooked glasses and launched his own seat back. “They are screaming,” he whispered. Like machinery. Like lice. Like people trapped in a burning house. His eyes filled with tears. “They are screaming, Ben, so why are you laughing?”

*

He finally got home at 3 a.m., hours after he’d promised Rory, who, asleep now upstairs, had left several of his penis portraits strewn across the kitchen table. Simon’s eyes and mouth went wide, the mushrooms making it difficult for him to process what he was seeing. His own dick. Looking like a monkey wearing board shorts; like a Groucho Marx mask on a dead body; like a senile old man caught shitting in a centerpiece; like an adult who needs help getting off a horse. The mushrooms were poison, they were killing him, and the sight of his own dick, captured within the four white walls of the Polaroid, that was killing him too. His pubic hair, thick and serious. Orthodox somehow. A laugh hijacked his chest. Look what you’ve done to your poor, serious dick, Simon. And he laughed again. This was funny, he’d been right, this picture was fucking hilarious. No wonder Ben liked him so much, how well he’d fit in. Because he’s doing it right, the whole thing, a real hazing! Ben getting him to suck his dick, the ultimate, what a legend! And now they were friends, best friends. He’d just one-upped him, that motherfucker. This is just how it was done among men. He’s testing you, Simon, challenging you for maybe the first time in your life, to step up, to rise to the occasion, to get him back and be a man. He got you good, he got you so fucking good, you should be grateful to have found such a gladiator to spar with.

He opened his laptop, which was vibrating irresistibly, hot whirring breath somehow mirroring his own, the mushrooms, he kept forgetting that this wasn’t real, none of this was real life. So bright. Too bright. He opened the carpool site. Good one, he was going to write. Ha ha ha. He clicked the search field, typed in Ben’s name, but nothing came up. Mushrooms. He steadied his fingers, checked every letter before hitting enter. NO RESULTS. Which wasn’t true, stupid fucking website. He checked the message center, where they’d first exchanged information, where that picture of beer ad Ben in front of the glittering lake would have the most calming, perfect effect on him, if he were any man at all, it would, and he was, so it would. But the space where their exchange had been now said USER REMOVED. Ha ha he typed into nothing. Ha ha ha. Hilarious prank Ben, so funny, hazed, me, Simon, a hazed person! Hazed so hard! And he laughed some more, out loud this time. The sound hollow. Strange. A cadaver whose joy synapse was being stimulated by an electric prod.

Audrey whimpered upstairs. Simon pulled his head into his shoulders, stared up at the ceiling in hallucinogen-amplified alarm. He carefully placed his laptop on the floor, pulled his knees into his chest, listened to the hallway wince beneath Rory’s tired feet. And with absolute horror it dawned on him: tomorrow, on top of everything else, he’d have to tell her that he lost their two best travel mugs.

Next

The Keeper of the Bees
I followed a desire to witness, but not control, the inner workings of living things.

Previous

‘I Don’t Think the Artist Longs For the Emergency’: An Interview with Olivia Laing
The author of Funny Weather on publishing a book during a global pandemic, the eternal appeal of outsider artists, and…