A few weeks after I lost the admin gig at NASA, I pulled a job at the men’s sauna downtown. The building was nondescript: gray, with a gravel parking lot, snuggled between the lofts beside Toyota Stadium and Chinatown. Inside, you took one flight of steps after another, passing white signs on black walls in dim lighting leaping out at your face: VIAGRA AND POPPERS ARE A DEADLY COMBINATION; IF YOU ARE DRUNK, WE WILL NOT ADMIT YOU; NO MEANS NO, EVERY TIME; ASK ME ABOUT PrEP. By the time I made it to the register—this glass window in front of a padded black door, behind which stood the locker room, which led to the baths themselves—I’d almost psyched myself out. But I’d already made it farther than I thought I would.
This short Latino guy squinted at me from behind the counter. Dude had round cheeks behind rounder glasses. Soft voice. Sleepy eyes. His nametag said Eduardo, but the letters were crossed out, with Eddy scribbled in Sharpie above them. I asked him for an application, and then I asked if the place was hiring, or if I should make an appointment, or if I should just leave.
Eddy blinked twice. Shook his head. Buzzed me in.
We sat under a wall of keys, numbered from one to infinity. Another guy, muscled and Vietnamese, stood beside us folding towels.
Eddy asked about my experience, scratching at his armpits. So I started in on college, and then grad school, and I stopped when Eddy yawned.
Guess that wasn’t what you meant, I said.
No, said Eddy. But you have a lovely voice. You ever even been to a gay sauna before?
You’d be surprised.
Of course I have, I said.
This wasn’t a lie. On a work trip to Dallas, like four years ago, I’d slipped into an oversized locker room on the edge of the business district. I paid in cash. Gave no I.D. After a few minutes of tiptoeing around, an older black dude touched my shoulder. He led me to a room, where he kissed me, gently, and then he sucked me off, gently, and when I did the same to him, or when I tried to, he moaned, gently, and then not so gently, as if he were singing to me, fondling my earlobes, pinching my neck. He tried fucking me, but I was entirely too tight, so he grinded in my mouth until he came. When he’d finished, and I stood up to leave him, he grabbed me, again, kissing me on the lips.
Then he smiled. That confused me. I grabbed my shit and ghosted.
Once, I told Eddy.
And that made you want to work at one, said Eddy.
I still think about it, I said.
Eddy looked me up and down. There was something boyish in his face, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. That only made it stronger.
Don’t take this wrong, he said, but you don’t look cut out for this.
No one’s cut out for anything when they start, I said.
That’s fair, said Eddy. But you still don’t.
I just want to be around men, I said, surprising myself. Men like this.
At that, Eddy smiled. It completely distorted his face.
Like what, he said.
You know, I said.
I want you to say it.
I’m looking for something, I said. I think I’m looking for something and I think that this is where I can find it.
Eddy blinked at me. He laughed in my face.
You and everyone else, he said.
I worked every night but Tuesdays, from eight to four in the morning. After you’d made it inside, past the walk-up, the sauna had four floors. Every room was dim, and stocked with condoms and lube, from the lobby to the hot tub to the showers to the dry saunas. The second and third floors were mazes, both flanked by padded rooms with double-lockable doors. The fourth floor was where men went to sleep, with a mini-bar, vending machines, sofas, and an STI clinic.
Mostly, at first, I plodded around the building in flip-flops. Picking up towels and wiping down mats and snatching up used paper towels and slipping on lube. Some nights, the tile stayed immaculate. Other nights, it was dotted with semen. Sometimes, I’d wake up guys who’d fallen asleep in their towels on the floor.
Eventually, Eddy had me working the front counter, too. Logging I.D.s, checking dudes in.
Most people quit within a week or two, he said.
It’s been three, I said.
Give it another three, said Eddy.
The rules for employees were simple: no drugs. No photos. No phone calls. You could use the sauna whenever, but you couldn’t fuck on the clock.
But I wouldn’t recommend fucking here at all, said Leo.
He was other guy who manned the counter with me, with the biceps. His were thrice the size of mine.
I’ve had experiences, he said. Trust me.
I will, I said.
Great, said Eddy, slipping between us for a key. But most people do.
And the guys that come here, said Eddy, they aren’t your friends.
Okay, I said.
Really. They aren’t here for you.
He heard you, said Leo.
Of course he did, said Eddy. Most people say that, too.
There was, I thought, a type of man who’d frequent a bathhouse. This turned out to be ignorance. I saw guys in three-piece suits. I saw guys in tracksuits. I saw frat kids. I saw fathers. I saw doctors. I saw chefs. I saw family men. I saw car dealers. I saw pastors. I saw teachers. I saw burnouts. I saw guys visiting relatives for the holidays. I saw guys visiting relatives in the Medical District. I saw guys entirely too fucked up from clubbing. Once, I recognized a gaggle of football players in town for a playoff game, and when I told Eddy, he only glanced at their driver’s licenses, which were fake, and shrugged. Later, Leo told me that this happened all the time.
Nearly everyone wore the same smile. A tight pinch of the lips. Shoulders tensed. I’d pass them their towels and their keys and they’d shuffle through the door. Most guys stayed at least an hour. Some stayed eight or nine. Some guys sprinted right back through the entrance minutes later. But once they’d made it through the doors, most of these men were very different.
They were stupid. They were goofy. They very deliberate, or not. Some of the men ignored me, but most of them at least nodded, and every race and ethnicity passed through those fucking doors, although of course most patrons would follow a single whiteboy around the sauna for hours. The handful of black men I saw in the building held eye contact with me like a grip, literally shaking it.
A few months in, some of the regulars made it a point to chat. One of them, a young Chinese guy, took to hanging around the lobby in the evenings. He’d stay past sunrise, sipping Powerade and tapping on the counter and chewing chips and scrolling through Instagram.
One night, I asked him why he didn’t just pay for an annual membership.
It’s not that simple, he said. I just can’t go home at the moment.
Fuck, I said. I’m so sorry.
No no no, he said, smirking. Calm down. I mean I missed the bus. So I’m stuck.
I literally can’t get home most nights.
Mm, I said, and I turned away, but he didn’t.
You don’t look like you should be working here, he said.
What does that mean?
You look smart enough to know exactly what I mean.
You don’t look like you should have an Australian accent, I said. But here we are.
You’re funny, said the guy. But maybe not as smart as I thought.
He said his name was John. He was a student, he told me, in the States on scholarship. Said he was smart enough not to show the university how smart he was, so he kept getting funding because it always looked like he was improving.
Another guy named Arash leaned on the other side of the counter. He said he’d thought I was Sri Lankan.
That’s what Leo told me, he said. When I first saw you working here, I was happy. I thought—finally.
Leo’s a liar, I said.
We’re all liars, said Arash.
But this one’s too good, said John, nodding at me. He won’t even kiss me.
Not even a kiss, said Arash. Impressive.
I’m not here for you, I said.
You’re only here for me, said John. I pay your salary.
You’re talking like a colonizer, said Arash.
Of course you’d say that, said John.
You’re saying that because I’m Indian.
He’s saying that because he’s an idiot, I said.
I’m saying that because I can, said John, scratching at his hip, eyeing a whiteboy who’d been lingering behind him—and, without a word, John gave us a look, before he followed the guy upstairs, slapping his heels on the steps.
Arash was a nurse who lived out in Bellaire. He slept at the sauna four nights a week. It was cheaper than paying rent. He sent most of his checks to a sister overseas, although he wasn’t sure that it wasn’t really going to her husband’s family. He’d been in Houston for ten years. He’d worked at the hospital for seven.
They love me because I work holidays, he said. Never took a sick day. Not one. One morning I broke my toe and the next hour I was at work. But I never see any of the money.
You think you’ll go back?
Your answer’s in the question, said Arash. Ten years here, what can I do?
I rarely ever saw Arash pair off with anyone, but it happened from time to time. Burly brown dudes stuck in the city on layovers. Sometimes whiteboys, too. Mostly, he slept on the third floor, watching men walk up and down the stairs. And John was his polar opposite, talking entirely too loudly at the counter before disappearing for hours at a time.
But at some point or another most evenings, both men lingered in front of me. Toying with their phones, pulling crumbs from the same bag of chips.
Men are disgusting, said John, adjusting his towel, scratching his belly.
You only say that after they’ve fucked you, said Arash.
You’re assuming I’m bottoming, said John. And I say that because it’s true. They’re foul. We’re foul.
You sound like every spurned lover there’s ever been, said Arash.
Shut up, said John, and he threw chunks of a cookie at him.
I told them both to stop fucking around.
I forget, said John. You’re working.
I am working, I said. For you, as you’d say.
You’re learning, said John. But you’re here for the same reason as everyone else.
I’m not here to fuck.
Fucking has nothing to do with it. I thought you said you had a Master’s.
You have a Master’s? said Arash, gurgling a chocolate chip.
It doesn’t matter, I said.
I’m curious, said Arash, what brings us here, if not fucking?
Of course you know why, said John.
I don’t, said Arash. Enlighten me.
Enlighten me, mimicked John, in a voice four octaves higher, tossing another cookie into his mouth.
Some mornings after my shift I’d walk from the sauna’s lobby to the upper levels, sweeping up stray condoms but mostly listening. Loose moans oozed from closed doors. Yelps popped from the mazes. That smacking sound followed me from staircase to staircase. And porn—skinny white guys fucking each other senseless—played from the televisions above. These were just the sounds of the workday. In a way, none of this felt too different from the old office: coffee dripping, hushed conversations. There, I wore something like a suit. Here, I had a different uniform: a black t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. I wore a name tag for a minute, until I realized that nobody cared. Some days, I changed the name, just to see what would happen. Around the sauna, men leaned over others having sex, like they were watching sports, just snorting at the score. They hunched on one another in benches by the stairs, laughing or whispering or just rubbing their eyes, staving off sleep, biding their time.
Eddy called the sauna a sort of purgatory.
But a good one, he said.
I’ve never heard of a good purgatory, said Leo, folding towels. I was raised in the church. I heard everything.
So you think it’s like a break from life, I said.
It is life, said Leo. But distilled.
Like mezcal, I said.
Sure, said Leo.
Now you’re just naming liquors.
But there’s a point, I said. Drink too much and it’ll kill you.
The only point here is time, said Eddy. If these guys wait long enough, they’ll get what they’re looking for.
Maybe, I said.
Now you’re the expert, said Eddy.
He’s right, said Leo. Some people have to wait quite a while.
But they wait regardless, said Eddy. And they pay to do that. What it comes down to is who can afford to wait. Who has that kind of time. Who can spend it.
Or who can spend it because they don’t have shit else to do, said Leo.
They’re still spending something, said Eddy, picking his ear, twirling a set of keys.
I pitched the thesis to Arash and John later that evening. They leaned on the counter, sweating and sticky, working through a bag of spicy Cheetos.
I’m not saying I agree with it, I said.
Then why even tell us, said Arash.
Because he’s an idiot, said John. And he’s wrong. You know what this place is really like?
Educate us, said Arash.
A bottle of Pop Rocks, said John.
I don’t know what your brown man’s equivalent would be, said John. Put one Pop Rock in a water bottle, and that shit explodes on contact. But fill an entire bottle with Rocks, and none of them move. They have nowhere to go.
That’s what everyone’s doing here, said John. We’re all waiting for someone to free up some space. So one of us can move. Some days, there’s a whole reaction.
Like an orgy, I said.
Obviously, said John.
You told us you study at a university, said Arash. What I could do with the money they use to teach you these things.
Capitalist, said John. You’re finally an American.
I will never be an American, said Arash, smiling, examining a Cheeto.
They aren’t even that hot, said Arash. You people will call anything spicy.
In the mornings after my shifts, I’d drive back to my place just north of downtown. Grab a few tacos. Sleep for a few hours. Fuck around on the internet for two or three more. The panic attacks had mostly subsided, they weren’t nearly as bad as they’d been, but there was, in those months, a sort of fretting that was going on in my life.
My parents were bereft. They’d heard that I’d lost my last gig. They were both West Indian; they’d grown up in the mountains; they’d found cushy middle-class gigs in the States. When I’d told my mother about losing the job, she’d sobbed on the phone, intermittently, for thirty minutes, just wailing. My father just shook his head. I’d been their hope for new money. After I came out, they’d mostly stopped asked questions, and we’d mostly lost our points of connection—but this they could understand. Aimless young men are like roaches. We exist in every pocket of the world.
I told them I’d figure it out. They asked if I could do it at home, back in the suburbs. I declined without declining every time, steering the conversation to relatives who couldn’t have given a fuck about me.
There was the ex, too. We’d met on the apps. He was a bear-ish white guy, the kind that always happened to me. For a while, I thought he was with me because he was just into black guys, and I still don’t think I was wrong about that. But he was nice. I was old enough to know that niceness is a rare, fleeting thing. And he was rough when we fucked, a bit like a savage pillow, and the loudest noises he ever made around me were when he came. Afterwards, he’d become himself again, and I’d set my head on his stomach, and that’s exactly how we were when I told him I’d lost the gig. And it’s exactly how we were when he broke it off, a few days later, in a whisper: he didn’t come from money, but he’d never known anything but middle-class. Losing my job wasn’t the only catalyst, I don’t think. But it didn’t help.
Six months in, the sauna’s internal rhythms gelled with mine.
Eddy was big on theme nights. We held them pretty often. Foam parties on Wednesdays. Black-Outs! on weekends. The spa kept Happy Hour prices at lunchtime, and we’d hit up to 250 men in the building. Locker keys appeared and disappeared and reappeared, creating a fucked-up Rorschach behind the counter. Leo called it our little exhibit, curated by heathens.
These were the days that our building was the loudest. Everyone fucked everywhere but the spa, and only because of a large, laminated sign that said NO FUCKING, PLEASE. Every few days, Eddy drove it to midtown for relamination. Someone would’ve inevitably pulled it from the wall, blurring the print in the steam, and we’d find condoms in the hot tub hours later.
One day I asked Eddy how he fell into his job. He looked at me a long time and then he looked away.
We were smoking on the roof. We’d made it a point to check the balcony twice a night. Sometimes we found stashes of pot, pipes, and spent condoms; Eddy said no one had ever jumped, but that didn’t mean no one ever would. A few weeks back, I’d asked John and Arash about the roof, and Arash had simply shaken his head, muttering about idiot Americans looking for new ways to die.
John had clicked his teeth. He’d been up there once or twice.
Why, I said.
Drugs, said Arash.
Fuck off, said John.
I thought he asked a question, said Arash. I thought you’re supposed to answer questions.
It was a long time ago, said John. The view up there is unreal. But it was too tempting to jump. So I came back down.
And we’re grateful, said Arash.
Shithead, said John.
It was obvious that drugs flowed through the building, but Leo and I didn’t go out of our way to search for them. Eddy didn’t either. When I asked him why, and if checking bags might stop people from coming, Eddy looked at me and he smiled and said that people would never stop coming.
But the last thing the sauna needed was a police presence. Eddy called that a death blow for business.
And now, he stood beside me, leaning on the railing, exhaling smoke.
I used to work in an office, too, he said. For a politician. Local government.
Fun, I said.
A very Christian, wholesome man, said Eddy. I was his assistant. But that only meant scheduling his girlfriends’ calendars around his wife’s. I was good at that.
Sounds like perfect training for this job.
No, said Eddy. It’s completely different.
A few days later, we had an incident. A bigger whiteboy had been chasing this Latino kid around the building. After a third rejection, he’d decided to put his hands on him, and one of the younger guy’s friends called for help from the staircase.
I yelled Eddy’s name and sprinted up. Some other men had separated the two of them, holding the whiteboy by the arms. The younger one was crying, cradling his friend. The whiteboy asked what our fucking problem was, why anyone was here if not to fuck, and why he couldn’t fuck, and it took a moment for me to realize that he was on something. His eyes were beet red. No one answered him, but they didn’t let him go, either.
When Eddy made his way upstairs, he told the man to leave. He didn’t raise his voice. He kept it cool. We were pulling the man’s membership, he said, a lifetime ban.
The whiteboy called Eddy a wetback and a faggot and a dog. He yelled something about reporting the sauna. Eddy told him that was fine, but it also meant he’d be outing himself.
The whiteboy said that was okay. But from his tone of voice it didn’t sound that way.
By then, the crowd had dissipated. The Latino boys had disappeared. The incident had become significantly less interesting than whatever sex could be found.
Afterwards, I asked Eddy what I should’ve done. I told him that he’d handled it so calmly. This was an event, and he’d defused it seamlessly.
Eddy widened his eyes at me. But then that dissolved into a grin.
This is work, he said. This is a job. It’ll become boring for you like everything else.
When Arash and John were at the counter later, Arash wore the biggest smirk, the first time I’d ever seen him smile.
You got rid of him, said Arash. Good. He was an animal and a predator. All of the white men here are.
I don’t know if that’s true, I said.
All of them, said Arash. You did the right thing. Good.
I don’t mind white people, said John.
Of course you don’t, said Arash.
They don’t mind me, said John.
Of course they don’t.
You’re just mad because they won’t fuck you, said John.
You should listen to yourself, said Arash. Imagine what your grandparents would think. Their distant descendant, in Texas, chasing after white dick.
They did too, said John. How do you think they ended up in Sydney.
Then I guess you’re making them proud.
Guys, I said. You’re dropping crumbs all over the floor.
All I’m saying is that you did the right thing, said Arash.
Eddy got rid of him, I said.
Of course, said John. You never do anything.
I talk to you, I said. I clean up shit and cum and the rest of it. I keep you from slipping and busting your fucking forehead open on the tile.
Sure, said John, but by then he’d lost interest, crushing more cookies in his palm.
The three of us stood at the counter. The door buzzed open behind us, revealing another man. We looked up, glazing over him, and he looked up, too. But then he finally smiled just before he turned away.
My parents never asked about my employment, but at some point they became aware that I was working. They’d heard about my breakdown because everyone had heard about it. A friend of a family friend at the office had told them. It’d been a subject of discussion at the West Indian Foundation meetings my folks attended—that was their attempt to stay plugged into the community. Everyone met in the back of a library downtown. Fifty parents, a handful of toddlers, and even fewer of their grown children thumbing through Twitter in the back rows.
Everyone mostly ignored me. One lady said she’d heard I was unemployed, smiling. I usually spent the time opening and closing apps, scanning faceless profiles, attaching them to bodies in the room.
These were the only times I saw my parents, really. Probably because the meetings convened halfway between the city and the suburbs. Afterwards, the three of us would go out for dim sum, where we’d talk about nothing. My father ordered one of everything. My mother smiled politely at everyone wheeling their carts.
One day, out of nowhere, after my father had stepped in his car, my mother asked if I worked at that gym downtown.
What, I said.
It’s okay, said my mother.
It’s not fucking okay, I said. Why are we talking about this? Who did you even hear that from?
I’m not saying you shouldn’t work there.
Of course you are. Isn’t that why you brought it up?
I asked a question. You said everything else. All of this aggression is yours.
So calm down.
Alright, I said. Who told you?
You ask too many questions, said my mother.
God, I said.
I just want you to be safe.
I’m working there. Not fucking.
Sorry, I said. It’s just a job.
Fine, said my mother. But it’s not sustainable. Surely you don’t think it’s sustainable?
I think it’s a job. I think I’m making money.
Honey, said my mother, and my father blared his horn from the truck behind us.
My mother and I just looked at each other. A handful of bystanders walked around us. I wondered what we looked like to them, talking too loud in front of Ocean Palace.
I want you to take care of yourself, said my mother. We can find you another job. That’s why we come to these stupid meetings.
I thought you came to see people, I said.
I can see them on Facebook, said my mother. Let me find you a job.
I don’t need you to do that.
No child needs their mother to do anything. They don’t even know what they need.
And my mother started to say something else, but then my father honked again, longer, so that two men smoking on a stool beside us looked up, along with everyone else. My mother smiled at me. She mouthed, Text me, and set her hand on my shoulder.
I walked back to my own car across the lot, glancing at the smoking men. One of them turned to the concrete. The other guy smiled, like we shared a secret. And maybe we did.
That evening, the sauna was dead.
Arash played synthy K-Pop on his phone. John kicked at the counter. They had sadly, inevitably, become my only confidants.
I told them about the dinner, and the meeting, and my mother.
You care too much, said John. Try not caring. It’ll clear up your skin.
Everyone cares, I said. Stop kicking the door.
You asked for advice. This is the weight of knowledge.
If that door dents, you’re paying for it.
And everyone cares, I said. Even the ones who say they don’t care end up caring about caring.
That’s some grad school word game bullshit, said John.
Arash opened his mouth to say something, but then he didn’t. He closed it, chewing at his cinnamon bun. And then he reopened it, singing along to the song’s chorus, some beautiful thing we couldn’t understand.
One night I was off and the ex hit me up. We’d been texting here and there. Mostly boring shit, how was your day have you eaten lunch what does your weekend look like and so on. But we’d spent the week building up to something, a tangible thing, and it surfaced when he asked if I’d see him for dinner. The question preceded a gang of eggplant emojis. I replied with the nerd face, which I thought said a lot. And also, worst-case, nothing much at all.
The ex lived in the same apartment. He’d kept all of our nice guy apartment things. We pretended to sit down for dinner, with the rice and noodles he’d ordered from up the block, and while he unfolded the napkins, unsheathing the chopsticks, the ex told me he missed me, and that he missed this, gesturing amorphously toward the wall. I said that I did, too, waving in that same popping-your-wrist way. And then the ex leaned over to kiss me, and I kissed him back, and then our shirts were gone, and then our shorts. At some point, I was sucking him off. At some point, I climbed onto his lap. At some point, I took him into me, but then I changed my mind, and I lifted his legs, instead, and after a chuckle and some throat clearing he made a sound I hadn’t heard before. Then he made more of those, like he was running through scales.
A few minutes later he yelled, Stop.
Shit, I said. Sorry. Am I hurting you?
No, said the ex, you’re good. I’m alright.
Was that too fast?
No. This is fine.
It’s not fine. You said, Stop.
Not in that tone.
That’s exactly how you said it.
Alright, said the ex. It’s just that what you’re doing is a lot?
Okay, I said. No worries. I’ll try something else.
Cool, said the ex, but something we’ve done before?
Something we’ve done before, I said.
Yeah. Something normal.
What we were doing is normal.
No, said the ex. I mean, I just hadn’t expected it. I don’t know if that’s what I wanted.
What you wanted, I said.
Like you’d ordered me off of Prime.
Wait, said the ex. What? That’s not what I meant.
You called me, I said.
Listen, man. You’re overreacting. You know what I meant.
I do, I said. Fuck. Next time, just order your fucking takeout.
I didn’t expect the ex to stop me from leaving and he didn’t surprise me. I drove to Whataburger. I drove to work. Eddy wasn’t around, but Leo stood by the counter. He raised his eyebrows at me, but he didn’t make any faces, and I told him that I just wanted to sit in the sauna, and he nodded, smiling. But I couldn’t read the bend of his cheeks.
Play safe, he said, handing me a key, buzzing me in.
The building was mostly dead. I sat in the water for an hour. Re-showered. Went back in. After a while, I drifted from floor to floor, plodding around with half-moist heels. Every now and again a guy would look me over twice. There wasn’t anyone I recognized. I’d nod, briskly, settling my fingers on stray hands, tapping them gently until they loosened their grip. At some point, I bumped into one guy in the dark maze, a little shorter than me, and he caught me, or I collapsed onto him. He laughed. And that had me laughing. And then we were both laughing. And then I saw that he was a little lighter than me, and that he had a bit of a belly, and it sat on his towel. He touched my shoulder. And I—just reacting—touched his. We held each other, briefly, and then the guy toed open a door behind us, lined with a padded floor.
We fucked for two hours. I did the thing I’d tried earlier. This guy whispered, Fuck, once, but he didn’t ask me to stop. It took entirely too long for me to find my way inside of him, and then I just stayed. Every now and again, he’d stand to lather more lube on himself. We finished at the same time, which had never happened to me before.
I was exhausted, wheezing. He was, too. He lay on his back, and I set an elbow on his belly, and then he began to chuckle, a slow laugh, and that was it, we were both laughing again.
He asked what my name was and I told him. He said that his was Selly. Or Zelly. He’d come to Houston from Malaysia to fix cars. I asked if he liked Texas, and Selly or Zelly frowned.
The food is not so good, he said.
It’s not that bad, I said.
Yes, he said, rubbing my shoulder. But not so good.
We stayed that way, toasting, sweating beyond belief. I imagined, for thirty minutes, for an hour, what our life together might look like. We’d fall into various degrees of trouble. We’d never buy, we’d only rent. We’d both be broke for the rest of our lives, probably, but we’d travel from time to time. Selly or Zelly would cook dinner. I would cook breakfast. We’d smile at our neighbors in Alief, transplants from all over the world. Neither of us would meet one another’s families. Neither of us would much care. Neither of us would ever be upset about anything ever again.
Eventually Selly or Zelly sat up. He was sleepy, he said, and sore.
Sounds like you need a shower, I said.
A shower would be nice, he said.
We both smiled, a little sadly. Then Selly or Zelly asked which one of us should leave the room first.
John saw me walk out of the room. There was no reason for him to be on that floor. He sat on a bench behind the dark maze, fiddling with a bottle against his nose. I recognized it, immediately, and he recognized that I recognized it.
It was almost comical how guilty he looked—how guilty we both looked. I almost laughed.
What, I said.
Nothing, said John, blinking.
Why are you here, I said.
I’m always here.
And what are you doing?
I could ask you the same thing, said John.
You’re following my schedule?
Don’t be fucking daft.
The two of us stared at each other. John lowered his arm, swinging his feet. He set the bottle on the bench.
Look, I said, are you good?
Yeah, said John, after a pause.
Or I thought so, he said. Until you asked me. But I think I’m okay.
And you, he said. Are you okay?
I’m fine, I said.
Three-hundred percent, sir.
Then we’re both good, said John. So there’s absolutely nothing to talk about.
And he stood, tightening the towel around his waist, snatching his little bottle, whistling and turning the corner.
One morning my mother called to tell me she may have found something for me. An actual job. Through the West Indian church diaspora network, probably.
I’m not looking for anything, I said.
It’s not in finance, said my mother. You probably wouldn’t be using your degree.
Ma, I have a job.
You’ll have to drive out to Memorial. It’s this office on Eldridge Parkway. Your father can give you the car in the garage, yours has too many miles.
You aren’t listening, Ma.
You’re not saying anything.
I said I’m employed.
I mean gainful employment.
I am gainfully employed.
You are working at a sex club.
Ma, I said, and she probably heard me bounce my palm on my forehead
Okay, said my mother, but it’s still a job that’s there. You can’t be making enough money right now.
I make money, I said.
Okay, said my mother. But not enough. Let me know when you want the number.
The next evening Eddy glanced at me when I buzzed in, but he didn’t say a word afterwards. I folded towels beside him, signing men in and signing them out. When he took off for dinner at Mai’s, he asked Leo what he wanted and disappeared.
As soon as he left, I looked at Leo.
I don’t know, he said. He’s just been like that.
Did you do something?
Have I ever done anything?
Did I do something?
I don’t know, said Leo. Maybe. He’s probably got trouble at home, with his guy.
That shut me up, because I’d never thought of Eddy that way. As someone with a lawn out in Montrose. Plants around the house. A dinner table with two busted chairs and a bookshelf and shows to watch on Tuesday evenings. When Eddy made it back, already chewing at an eggroll, I asked if he wanted a cigarette. He blinked at me. Then he glanced at Leo, setting the bag on the counter.
When we made it to the roof, fumbling with lighters, I turned to Eddy and just said it.
I fucked someone here.
What, said Eddy.
I wasn’t working, I said. And I didn’t mean to. It just happened. I don’t know why.
Eddy took a long drag on his cigarette. He exhaled way too quickly.
Do you want me to congratulate you, he said.
I just wanted to put it out there, I said. I didn’t want someone else to tell you.
Why in the fuck would anyone tell me about that, said Eddy.
You still don’t get it, he said. Most guys your age get it too quickly, and that’s their problem. But it hasn’t clicked for you. No one cares what you do here. This is a place where you aren’t the main character. That’s why these guys come here. No babies or boyfriends or wives or anything to make them feel special, like they matter. At all. They’re just here, and that’s it.
Eddy leaned on the railing, turning his back to me. I looked him over, his ass and his back. Then I stooped beside him.
That’s very zen, I said.
Shut up, said Eddy. I didn’t say I wasn’t mad at you.
But you aren’t mad at me, I said, and Eddy coughed, slapping at his chest.
Disappointed then, he said.
So what does that make us if we work here, I said, and Eddy laughed.
We’re context, he said.
Then he passed me his cigarette.
Okay, I said.
These guys need us to be sustainable, said Eddy. Protagonists come and go. But the details remain the same. Those are the things that last.
A few hours later, back in the lobby, I texted my mother for the number.
Chatting up a new boyfriend? said Arash, cracking his knuckles beside me.
New boyfriends are just old boyfriends in flux, said John.
Shut up, I said. And stop eating up here.
You always say that, said Arash, but you don’t mean it.
Fuck you, I said.
You don’t mean that, said John.
If you meant it then I’d stop, said Arash.
I looked at John. He made a face, shrugging. The sound of something slapping, and a loose moan wafted down from around the hallway.
When my phone dinged, I glanced at the banner. It was my mother, followed by a handful of numbers, a handful of blue hearts.
My breakdown at the admin gig happened during a workday, right before a presentation. I don’t need to tell you what it was about, but this was NASA, so you can guess.
Some coworkers had just made some changes to a plan I was presenting. Pretty major ones. I told them they wouldn’t work, that they were illogical, but nobody cared. And I just felt thirsty the whole time. I hadn’t eaten that afternoon. Or that morning. Or the evening beforehand. The whiteboys I worked with didn’t ask if I was well, although I clearly didn’t look it. They hadn’t asked me anything. Not until just before the presentation, which they’d assumed I’d taken care of. It was our annual review, a year’s worth of work, and now it was changing on the fly.
The whiteboys wanted to add mics to the auditorium. They wanted to add a projector. This was a meeting we’d planned for months—that I’d prepared for for months. I told them that wouldn’t fly, and they asked why I couldn’t make it work, because they’d thought I could handle it and I was being a little bitch. And I didn’t say anything to that. I told myself I would figure things out. But then the room began to fill, people began to take their places. That left me on the stage, alone. Fanning myself. Trying to smile.
They all looked up at me, ready to produce. It wasn’t burnout, exactly. But I was roasting. Squinting.
It started off fine, I guess, but then my throat caught in the middle of speaking. I tried to continue. I couldn’t. I touched my throat. I reached for some water, but it wasn’t there. And the entire time it was happening, I knew what was going on—but there was a disconnect between how I felt on the podium, and how I felt.
I could’ve laughed, watching everyone’s faces. It was like watching a movie. I watched myself leave the podium, loosening my tie. I watched myself drop my jacket. I watched myself parting the crowd, past the whispers, walking out the door. It was warm outside. We weren’t expecting rain for another few weeks. You really felt it on the balcony. You were just grateful for the breeze.
A few nights later, I was folding towels when a young black guy came sprinting past the corner. I’d seen him around. He fanned wildly towards the stairs. Eddy had stepped out for a cigarette, so I glanced at Leo to watch the desk, and when he nodded, I jogged upstairs.
There was already a tiny crowd around the body. It convulsed in the center of the dark maze. My flashlight blinked, and I felt the body’s wrist, and then its thigh, and then its face, which belonged to John. He shivered, tucked into himself. A towel lay damp beside him. Arash held the back of his head, scooping him whenever he jerked, squinting into the light behind me. I gestured to him, and two bigger guys standing beside me, and we lifted John out of the maze, and the guys surrounding us dissolved, slipping back into their usual rhythms.
The body had been moved. They’d finally been un-implicated.
We carried John into the elevator.
What the fuck, I said.
Shit, said Arash.
Do you know how it happened, I said. Do you know what he took?
I don’t, said Arash, looking away.
But he isn’t foaming, said Arash. He’s just dilated. He’s probably tripping.
So we don’t need to call an ambulance?
If you need to ask then you should call.
Don’t, said John, blinking my way, shaking his head.
Is he insured, I asked Arash.
How the fuck would I know?
They’re not too expensive, said one of the men holding John’s thighs.
You’re probably fucking covered, said Arash, and then the elevator doors opened.
We walked John behind the counter. Arash and I supported him. I thanked the other guys, and they nodded, shyly, before they slipped back upstairs.
Eddy leaned on one table, and Leo sat by another, manning the counter. We made eye contact, just for a second.
Was it drugs, said Eddy.
I don’t know, I said.
Of course you know, said Eddy. You’ve gotta get him out of here.
Just drop him outside.
Are you looking at him?
If something happens here, then we’re liable, said Eddy. That’s when the cops come by. And that can’t happen. We make too much noise, and that’s it.
And if something happens to him on the curb?
Then it didn’t happen in here. And we aren’t liable.
That’s fucking bullshit, I said, and Eddy crossed his arms.
He started to say something else, but I grabbed John again, flipping his body with Arash, walking him down the stairs.
There was a chill outside. The three of us stood together, three buildings away from the sauna. It was late enough that there weren’t many people on the street, but a gaggle of white folks passed us in suits and too-tight dresses, smoking and laughing. One of them looked at us, nudging his buddy. They erupted into a laugh. Arash opened his mouth, and I lipped, Don’t, and then he closed it again, rubbing at John’s shoulders.
John shook his head between us, leaning on the two of us.
Fuck, said John.
I know, I said.
Shit, said Arash. Are you okay? Are you fired?
I don’t know, I said. Maybe. It’s okay. Are you okay?
No, said John, blinking.
He glanced at Arash, and then me.
I feel horrible, he said. I feel fucking horrible.
So you’re back to normal, said Arash.
Yeah, said John.
You feel just like us.
And then, he started laughing. And Arash did, too. I laughed, a little bit, and then a lot, and then the three of us were laughing, falling all over each other, damp and cold. I didn’t get the joke then. I couldn’t put it together. But I’ve since realized that it wasn’t the point.