After a year of whatever kind of love affair it would be categorized as, Charlie breaks it off with Marissa at Mighty’s, a bar they’d both frequent often, equal distance from their apartments. Two weeks later, following the breakup, Charlie starts dating Jono. Jono has long hair and alabaster skin. When Charlie tells Marissa, she says she thinks that Charlie dating a white person is weird. Charlie uses no mental energy to think of Marissa’s thoughts about him dating a white person.
Charlie knows Marissa is smarter than he is. Marissa brings up white supremacy. Like, the entirety of it. Charlie finds this to be annoying elitist bullshit, but doesn’t say anything. He just squints a bit, his thick black eyebrows folding over his eyes, a familiar and distinct look that Marissa is used to. He does feel that he’s smart, but Marissa is smarter and it’s not worth the argument. Or the crushing little feeling dripping down his throat into his empty stomach that happens every time Charlie feels he has to put his language to the test. He just shrugs his massive, muscular shoulders, stands to his full height of six feet four inches, and leaves the bar.
The apartment Charlie lives in is small but neatly decorated. Charlie slips into it, making his body fit in places it really doesn’t fit. He places his coat on the coat rack. He takes his shoes off and puts them in an old crate he uses as a shoe bin. He washes his hands twice before slicing an apple.
Charlie stares at himself in the bathroom mirror with an uneasy feeling. An emptiness. He feels less and less each day.
Charlie feels a bit sad about breaking it off with Marissa. They’d started out as decent friends. At first, they were cordial, making small talk in corners of rooms at house parties but keeping distance between them. One night, with the heat of summer beginning to spread its dirty fingers on everything, they hooked up in the bathroom of their mutual friend’s apartment. After, they stayed away from each other for a time. Eventually, they started dating in secret, but were soon outed by Thom during board game night.
Because he feels sad, Charlie has spent the last three months working out incessantly. He receives a warning from his doctor about drinking too much and eating bad foods. Charlie decides to only drink wine, only two glasses if he’s out with friends.
The gym Charlie goes to is very nice. It’s expensive. Everything is sleek and minimalist, gray, fake stone. There is nice shampoo and razors (that Charlie often steals for Jono). And early in the mornings no one is there. Only a few older gay men who nod politely and don’t look too long when he’s drying off from a shower.
Charlie sometimes eats two meals of fried chicken before going to the gym at night. It’s called dirty bulking, he tells Jono on the phone after work. Charlie works out for an hour and half, sometimes longer, taking small breaks to send Jono memes about their favorite shared video game, Final Fantasy XIV.
On Tuesday, the air really starts to heat up. Summer is a bandage for winter’s un-thrilling, dark, cold monotony. Charlie calls Marissa. He’s had three glasses of wine. Jono is out watching a drag competition at Halo’s. Charlie feels a bit intrusive. He doesn’t know if Marissa is still mad at him. Marissa says she isn’t mad that he broke up with her. She’s sad. She had to tell all their friends about it because Charlie felt weird about being the one to tell everyone.
Earlier that morning, Marissa went horseback riding to relieve stress, to feel something wild between her legs, to feel like an animal—the opposite of what she wants people to think of her— it bothered her that people often treated Black women as if they were something inhuman. As she was dismounting, she rolled her ankle. A lean man in tight pants scooped her up and carried her to the area of the equestrian center for injured people to get help.
Marissa listens as Charlie fumbles over his words. She says that he should stop, so he does. Marissa is still fond of Charlie, but now with her physical ailment in addition to the emotional hurt, she feels particularly vulnerable. She spends fifteen minutes berating Charlie. Then she swiftly turns a corner, and says, Well come over, you dummy, we’re still friends. And bring weed.
Charlie rubs softly around her ankle, lower calf, and up her thigh. Marissa says that she can tell he’s happier. She admonishes him about the gym lifestyle that he’s suddenly gravitated toward, but she likes that he has a kind of dedication to something. She says that he has strong fingers. Charlie gets up and does a finger dance, waving his long bony hands in front of his eyes, moving closer to Marissa. They laugh until Charlie is on the floor holding his stomach.
Jono is much shorter than Charlie. His hair somehow makes him look taller, as it puffs up atop his head, a voluminous sack of blonde. When Jono was sixteen years old, his father died in a car accident. His mother was gone. He grew up with his grandmother on a rural farm in Nebraska. At the age of eighteen, Jono moves to the biggest city he knows of. There he meets some new friends and, of course, Charlie. When Jono fell down on the dancefloor at Halo’s, Charlie picked him up with one singular motion that was uniquely romantic. Charlie bought Jono a drink and they stared at each other, the music pulsating.
They spend almost every hour together. Jono works from home. Charlie is currently unemployed; he’d gotten mad at someone for implying that he was straight, so he filed a report with HR and then quit. Jono spends the night and then sets up his computer on the coffee table in the morning. He thinks it’s probably a bad idea but Charlie says it’s fine and makes him feel safe. Also, Charlie needs to make sure the landlord doesn’t put a lock on the door when he’s gone to the gym. Jono thinks that he should just adopt a black cat. Charlie thinks that’s even stranger than living with a brand-new boyfriend and tries to explain to Jono that black people don’t have cats.
They spend all afternoon arguing about cats. And then dogs. And then other pets. Charlie goes outside and jumps rope. Jono pretends to not be angry at Charlie. He types quickly and stays busy on his computer. Emails. Slack. Buying pants from Levi’s.
When it gets dark outside, Charlie comes back inside and apologizes. Cries a little onto his sweaty shirt. He’s also cut his hand and is holding it up like a four-year-old, stomping his feet on the rug. Jono smiles, rolls his eyes, and then goes to get a band aid and some alcohol.
Later that evening, Charlie gets a phone call from Marissa while out on a jog. He answers, his breath working overtime to speak. She says that she misses him and he should come over for the two glasses of wine he’s allotted in the evening. Charlie feels a pull from inside of the phone, inside of her voice. He wants to go, looks down at his bandaged hand, stops running.
Hello, hello? Marissa hears nothing.
Charlie says, Sure. And he runs up a small hill to where Marissa lives.
In the backyard, Marissa has several citronella candles going. She has a misting fan blowing. And glasses of wine, ready, slick with condensation. She smiles and throws her head to the side as if she’s just seen him at a party full of people, letting her black curly hair bounce on her neck. She doesn’t say anything. And neither does Charlie.
Last week, Jono asked Charlie if he still loved Marissa. Charlie said he was never in love with Marissa, that it was more of a strong liking. Jono pretends that what he professes doesn’t really mean the same thing. Jono lets it alone, even though it starts to bore a little hole in his heart.
Marissa says, You’re all wet.
Charlie tells her about his run. Four miles. The air is tight and every now and then a breeze shifts through. Soon it will be a cooler. The night pulling itself along. Marissa is wearing a tank top and Charlie is now shirtless. Marissa sprays him with bug repellent, even before he asks her to. Charlie takes his glass of wine and purposefully sits far away from Marissa. She looks down, demurely.
Charlie says, I should let Jono know that I’m here.
Marissa says, Of course you should, he’s your boyfriend.
Charlie doesn’t reach for his phone.
Charlie stands up quickly, chugs his glass of wine and goes to get another. He chugs that one. He looks at Marissa, her brown lips, a curl falling in front of her eye; he stares at her in an angry way. He pours another glass of wine.
I do not love you anymore, he screams. Okay?
She looks shocked, but then she smiles, shaking her head.
Yes, yes of course I know that. It’s just fun to flirt. She pours herself more wine. It’s hot, it’s the heat, she says. Calm down.
The next weekend, Shauna throws a party in her backyard. She has a small swimming pool that was installed in the late 80s and hasn’t been redone since, making it essentially a small pond, unclear water and leaves lining the cracked cement bottom. Shauna is friends with everyone in town. When Charlie arrives only a few people have shown up.
Shauna slaps him on the butt and kisses his cheek, says, Oh my god, I could be fired for that.
Charlie shakes his head, tells her that Jono’s coming when he’s done with work. I was instructed to come ahead and entertain you.
Shauna shows him her pointer and index finger and says, I can entertain myself.
Charlie has grown bigger, his muscles gaining mass, his neck even looks thicker. His tank top and shorts are tighter than they should be but still look nice wrapped around his toned body. Charlie values aesthetic. He doesn’t really care what he looks like, but he’s aware of the social capital he’ll gain; he’s been looking into steroid options. Shauna would kill him. Marissa would also kill him. And Jono probably would say they support whatever decisions that Charlie wants to make.
More people arrive. Shauna turns on the water hose to refill the pool with colder, less brown water. Charlie is in the corner talking to Rick about Rick moving to New York City with his rich programmer boyfriend. They’re going to live in Greenpoint. Charlie puts his head on Rick’s shoulder and tells him that he’s going to miss him a lot. They used to hang out and play video games before getting absolutely wasted at the gay bars.
When Marissa walks in Charlie pretends that he doesn’t see her. And Marissa knows that he’s pretending not to see her, so she goes to the rickety wooden folding table where there’s an assortment of cheap liquor and mixers, half-squeezed limes, and a birthday cake from last week missing most of its letters. She fashions something resembling a cocktail.
The night moves like the wind, swiftly forward. The heat relaxes. Marissa and Charlie have spent all night ignoring each other. Jono finally arrives and makes his way towards Marissa, introduces himself, shaking her hand vigorously. She studies his face.
Do you need a drink? Marissa asks, her eyes small and sly.
Yes, I would like that very much. I don’t really know anyone here.
Marissa finds a stash of good alcohol in Shauna’s kitchen. Jono stands closer than he should to Marissa and, having breached the physical plane, thinks it best not to give any doubts to a potential friendship with Marissa, his current boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. He watches her make their gin and tonics.
I think that we should be friends, Marissa says, her lips curled in a half smile, mischievous and calculating. The air in the room shifts, turns light pink. Marissa gestures toward an empty room and Jono goes in. He swipes his hair behind his ear and sits on the low bed full of jackets.
Marissa lights a joint. Hands it over without asking.
I don’t want to, like, warn you about Charlie. There’s nothing to warn against. But he can be difficult sometimes. And that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t love him. I almost loved him. Marissa pauses, holding her hand out for the joint.
Jono coughs and says, You’re just going right for it.
She nods. He seems hard. He treats other people very differently than he’ll treat you. Which is actually good. But like when you look at his face, you’ll think, oh god, if I say this or that, he’ll get angry and it’ll be a fight. And he’s good at fighting. He’s good at talking and making his point clear. Because he’s had lots of practice. I’m not actually sure where he practiced it but he practiced. And he’s good. He’s very smart. He doesn’t think he’s smart. So maybe that’s where that comes from. I’m not, like, whatever, pathologizing him. But he’s a cagey little fucker. He’s tough but if you turn your lip up, if you look him in the eyes, if you touch his arm right above the elbow, he’ll fall apart. He’ll soften. Which, like, makes him seem a little bad. He’s not bad. He might love you. I think he loves you. We met the other night. I know, he didn’t tell you. Sometimes he lies. He’s a bit of a liar. Whatever, he’ll say that he protects parts of his life, his body, his personality for the good of everyone around him—and that’s not true. He’s scared you’ll judge him. And you won’t. I saw your eye go straight to him when you arrived and then you looked away to pretend, maybe, I don’t know, that you didn’t see him and didn’t want to bee-line towards him. Maybe to soften the immense love you have for him. I admire that. I don’t think that can be sustainable though. You have to give in a little more. More and more each time you see him. And he’ll give in too. It’ll work, trust me. You should trust me. Anyway, Charlie is nice. You think he’s nice.
I can tell. I mean I can tell when two people are in love.
Were you in love with him?
I said almost, but I really meant yes.
Are you mad at me for… Jono trails off. The room tilts a bit, the question unfinished, lingering in the air. Jono takes a sip of his drink. He smiles at Marissa.
She shakes her head and puts out the joint.
Are you mad that he’s with a guy now?
Oh, no no no no. The curious nature of the bisexual—is all that is really.
They both laugh.
I didn’t plan on liking him so much, Jono says, finishing his drink and heading into the kitchen to make another one. Marissa follows, kind of skipping along, hands against the white walls.
Jono finishes pouring a drink and turns and looks at Marissa like he’s going to cry. Marissa puts her hand on his hand. The room is bright red. She grabs his shoulders and spins him around with his drink, splashing it on the kitchen floor. They hear people cheering, laughter.
When Jono and Marissa step outside, Charlie is in the pool, fully clothed, half of his body out of the water, having just been baptized on his own accord, his neck bent back towards the sky as he chugs a beer.
Jono and Marissa are hand in hand, transferring an energy back and forth, a little spectral of light, a becoming love. They watch as Charlie pulls himself out of the water, his toned body dripping water.
Charlie smiles at them.
The night has started a kind of shifting, the untenable mystic charm of what is coming, unhinged.
About the Author:
travis tate (they/them) is a queer, Black playwright, poet and performer living in Brooklyn. Their poetry has appeared in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Underblong, Southern Humanities Review, Vassar Review, The Broiler and Cosmonaut Avenue, among other journals. Their debut poetry collection, MAIDEN, was published on Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in June 2020. The world premiere of Queen of The Night happened at Dorset Theatre Festival in August 2021 and began its second production at Victory Gardens Theatre January 2022. They earned an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. You can find more about them at travisltate.com. Twitter: @arealtravistea. Instagram: @thetravistate
Feature image by Repic Studio/Pixabay