There were two RVs parked in a wide L, one pearl gray, the other black. A fire crackled between them in a brick pit. As if the light from the flames weren’t enough, spotlights nested in the trees flung the trailers into pale relief against the dark of the campsite. The gray one showed a stubble of glitter.
“This is Mickey and Minnie’s place,” Clark told me.
“Both. The gray one is where they sleep. This one,” he nodded toward the black RV, into which the men ahead of us were piling, “is the play trailer.”
“Mickey and Minnie?”
“They’re kind of infamous here,” said the boy from Fort Worth, his arm around Clark’s waist. “They have all the latest toys and like to show them off.”
I was about to ask what this meant, but we’d come to the front of the line, and I had to squeeze ahead of them to climb the narrow steps.
It had been Clark’s idea to take me here, to the gay men’s retreat at Lake Limestone Ranch fifty miles east of Waco. I had just moved to Texas after finishing college in Mississippi and was rooming with Clark, whom I’d known peripherally at school. For a year now he’d been writing code for a security company in Austin.
“You’ll love the ranch,” he said this afternoon on the drive up. “I’ve found some great community there.”
“The music downshifted from ‘Bad Romance’ to ‘Walkin’ After Midnight.’ As if scripted, the men paired off and glided into a box step. I smiled and thought, ‘This is Texas.’” ”
We arrived just in time for the welcome dance, on a pavilion overlooking Lake Limestone. Someone rigged up a smoke machine and laser lights that raked the smoke with purple tines. A projector dropped down one wall and played music videos: Madonna, Selena, Shania. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been around so many men, gay or not. Two hundred of us, from Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, places that in their size and arrogance seemed to me more like Greek city-states than neighbors under the same flag. Clark and the boy from Fort Worth remembered one another from last year’s retreat and started to dance. I leaned against a railing and watched. Unlike some of the other guys, who arched their backs and beat their groins avidly together, Clark and the boy were not interested in courting attention. They slid up against one another with a slow purpose, their arms and hips kindling a private fire in public. The music downshifted from “Bad Romance” to “Walkin’ After Midnight.” As if scripted, the men paired off and glided into a box step. I smiled and thought, “This is Texas.” But this was half a charade. It was easier to smile at this pageant than to approach it, to find the seam shaped like the pose I was meant to strike. I got flushed and peeled off my tank top. I willed my skin to pull glances, while sifting out the ones I didn’t want. But no one seemed to be looking at all.
I remembered Clark as a quiet, sweet kid, self-protective in baggy hoodies and sweats, with a round face and a monk’s tonsure of dark curls. Like me he’d made no secret of being gay, but hadn’t worn it comfortably. One year in Austin and he’d slimmed out, bulked up, pierced his left nipple, started an ink sleeve, and shaved off the last of his hair. He looked happier than I’d ever seen him. Now he and the boy kissed foreheads; the boy’s nails raked the fur of Clark’s chest. Their belt buckles clacked, and though I didn’t want either of them I felt rage stroke me somewhere I couldn’t place, an itch in my teeth.
When the music stopped, those of us who hadn’t crept back to our tents started moving, for reasons unknown to me, toward the adjoining RV park.
The play trailer was dimly lit and packed with bodies. A knot of men crowded the entrance, red Solo cups in their hands. Some stood facing the opposite wall, where porn played mutely on two mounted TVs. On one screen a pair of fit blondes tussled on white sheets; on the other, a group of men in leather chaps pinned a cop to the floor of a public bathroom. Subtitles flashed in a language I couldn’t make out as, one by one, the men pulled out their cocks and began to piss on the cop.
Clark led me toward the kitchenette, where two men stood behind a marble-topped bar. These must be Mickey and Minnie. Each had a druggy, preserved look, a pickled quality in the cheeks. One was tall and starved-looking, a Tom of Finland tank hanging from his clavicles. His partner was squat and shirtless; a pelt of salt-and-pepper fur coated him evenly from shoulders to gut. They could not have been less alike, but their smile was the same, a circus-master’s smile of invested voyeurism.
“Clarkette,” said the tall one as we neared the bar. Clark leaned over to have his cheeks pecked. “Lovely of you to make it.” The boy from Fort Worth leaned over and received the same blessing.
“And who is this?” said the hairy one in a tone of mock offense. His eyes goggled at me, this stranger to his kingdom.
“This is Eric,” said Clark. “He’s new in Texas, so be sweet.”
The hairy one’s eyes popped even wider. “As if the good Lord made me any other way!” He reached under the bar. “May I get you a refreshment, Eric?”
I felt hot all over. It was something about the sound of my name in both their voices. “A shot of tequila, please.”
The shot smoldered in my throat and face. I felt branded—that was it, my name in their voices, a kind of brand, as if I were something entirely new, unknown to myself. The skinny one cracked open a Shiner and poured it into a Solo cup. “You’ll wanna chase that shot, honey, before it runs away with you.”
I was a lightweight even for my small frame. With the first bready sip, I promised myself to make the beer last the rest of the night.
Heads were turning in our direction, but past us, to the far end of the trailer. There a leather sling hung from a steel frame, draped in light from a pink bulb in the ceiling. Three boys crowded in front of it. They looked about my age, probably undergrads at UT Austin or Dallas. They were the kind of gay boys I’d known in college who wore the fraternity costume as fetish gear—the spray of bangs tucked through the slot in the backwards cap, the thigh-baring khaki shorts—and were seen in photos either surrounded by a pack of identical boys or with beautiful girls hanging on their arms. You could sleep with them—when they weren’t sleeping with each other—but in daylight, passing you on the town square, they wouldn’t acknowledge you, not if you didn’t look like that, act like that.
Now two of the boys were starting to strip the third, until he stood between them in nothing but a pair of red briefs. Someone behind me whistled. All three boys were drunk, but the one in red was visibly drunker than the others. His movements were languid as he allowed himself to be pulled from his clothes. His curly head drooped when the shirt came off; he shimmied his hips to clamber out from the puddle of his shorts. Even when they had finished he didn’t stand quite still but rocked on his feet, his long torso swaying in the pink light.
I took compulsive sips of my beer. The first few always went down thick and heavy; after that it was like water, hard to remember to slow down. The crowd flowed around me, pressing closer to the spectacle. The boy’s friends had begun to hoist him astride the sling. Their eyes looked manic as they guided his wrists and ankles into the leather stirrups. Strapped in, he rocked a moment back and forth; then the sling gained equilibrium. He skimmed the crowd. A smug look mottled his handsome face. His eyes were opaque, but something flickered behind them, like a figure stepping past a steamed mirror. I was staring openly now. We all were—Clark, the boy from Fort Worth, Mickey and Minnie. He didn’t see any of us, just the image of himself splayed across our faces.
A kind of alarm pulsed in my ears. But the harder it pounded, the more fixed I became, as if it were hammering my eyes to the spot. He hung there a moment in the pink light, only moving when a twitch of his arm or leg made the sling tremble. Then his friends moved to either side of him, one at each ankle. “A toast!” shouted the one on the left. “To the birthday boy!”
Birthday. It made sense now, the boy so much drunker than his friends, the same state of limp adoration in which I’d seen countless tiara-crowned women in bars. The sound in my ears abated a little. This was all normal, it had only taken a different form. Then, as the toasting boy lifted his beer, his comrade reached beneath the boy’s briefs and peeled back the waistband, exposing the seam of his parted ass.
“To the birthday boy!” someone barked. Others began to take up the refrain. Solo cups lifted; heads tilted back to drink. I pried my gaze from the birthday boy and looked around me. Clark and the boy from Fort Worth shared a naughty grin and clacked their cups together. Mickey and Minnie were still flashing their ringmaster smiles. Stranger after stranger, ugly or just old, eyes and lips wet with alcohol, glaring and grinning.
A face met mine through the crowd. He wasn’t looking at the boy, he was looking at me. The face was thin and wiry, with a gladiator haircut, black commas stitched across the brow, and a mustache like a stain. He got up from his spot by the wall and wedged in beside me. “Pretty hot, isn’t it?” he said, nodding toward the sling.
I realized I could no longer find Clark in the crowd. “Yeah,” I said, from what sounded like the base of my throat.
He grinned. “What are you thinking about?”
I took a sip of my beer to think; I didn’t know what to say.
“You look like you want it,” he pressed.
What was he accusing me of wanting? The possibilities split in my mind. I was standing over the birthday boy, his waistband in my fist, his eyes full of me. I was stretched in the sling, open to the room, all those cheers pelting my body.
“I wonder,” I said, “what it’s like. To be up there.”
His grin bent into a smirk; crow’s-feet flared from the corners of his eyes. “That could be arranged.”
By the time I opened my mouth again he’d moved on through the crowd.
“‘I wonder what it’s like. To be up there.’
His grin bent into a smirk; crow’s-feet flared from the corners of his eyes. ‘That could be arranged.’”
I found Clark and the boy from Fort Worth in a circle of men around the fire pit. Mickey and Minnie had retired to the black trailer. The itch I’d felt at the dance passed from face to face, burrowed under the warmth of sweatshirts. Everyone was fidgeting and glancing around and wondering what to do next.
“I’ll go wherever the birthday boy’s going,” said a barrel-chested guy in cowboy boots.
“The birthday boy is well secured,” said a guy in a deerskin vest and no shirt. “He’s not going anywhere anytime soon.”
The boy from Fort Worth rested his head on Clark’s shoulder. Clark nuzzled his hair, then caught me looking. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Fine.”
“I say we go down to the stabbin’ cabin,” someone said. Assent crackled through the ranks. I looked back at Clark. For once he wasn’t smiling.
“I don’t know about a stabbin’ cabin,” he said.
“That’s quite a hike,” said the boy from Fort Worth, popping his head up. “An hour’s walk maybe.”
“Y’all could take the golf carts,” said the guy with the gladiator haircut. He’d pushed into the circle, a few heads down from me. The firelight gouged out his concave cheeks. An embarrassed hush fell. Everyone seemed to notice him for the first time. If he perceived this, it only seemed to amuse him.
“I take care of the grounds here. I can take y’all to where we keep the carts.”
On the way, Clark hung back with the boy from Fort Worth. The groundskeeper sidled up beside me.
“So, you like being tied up? Or just being watched?”
It took me a moment to realize he was continuing our talk in the trailer. Again I didn’t know what to say. It had been the first time I’d seen a sling outside of porn, and I was intrigued almost to the point of panic. But it seemed a moment that called for something other than simple honesty.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” I said, jerking my shoulders up and down. “You know. I’m open.”
He wasn’t handsome, but he put off a lot of heat, as if he’d smuggled a generator under his hoodie. What I said seemed to please him. His hand cupped my ass; I felt it shift against his palm as we walked. Belatedly I found I’d been getting hard each time he spoke.
The carts were parked on a dirt patch at the edge of the RV camp, beside a row of single-wide trailers. The groundskeeper let himself inside one of the trailers and came out with the hem of his sweatshirt turned up and full of keys. Men lined up like trick-or-treaters to take them, then started piling onto carts and assigning drivers. On one cart I saw the boy from Fort Worth slide into the second-last seat, and knew Clark would scramble up after him. When he did, his eyes met mine, then cast about the cart, as if a space might magically open up for me. As the cart bucked forward onto the trail he gave me the goofiest look—aw, shucks—and called out, “See you down there!”
I shivered a little. “You’re freezing,” said the groundskeeper. He might have been counting my bare ribs.
“This is me,” he said, nodding to the trailer he’d just left. “Wanna come in, grab a sweatshirt before we go?”
Up the metal steps we seemed to step back thirty years. In the center of the hall was a Formica card table stacked with Vienna sausage cans, a carton of Marlboro Reds, a handle of Burnett’s vodka, a silty-looking bong. The only other furniture was a striped loveseat, one leg lacerated by a prior owner’s cat and spewing fuzz. Along a counter were framed pictures I didn’t want to look at.
“One sweatshirt coming up,” he said, vanishing through a doorway. “Need anything else?”
I thought of Clark whizzing off into the dark in only a tank and shorts. “Could I have one for my friend too?”
He ducked his head back into view, grinned. “Sweet boy.”
I smiled weakly back. While the groundskeeper rummaged through another room I went over to the card table and took a slug off the Burnett’s. I wondered if he would try to fuck me while he had me here in his sad domain, and whether I was drunk enough to let him. Before I could make up my mind, he came back in with two hoodies draped over his arm.
“Hands up,” he said a little sternly.
The others had left us a cart, a two-seater. The groundskeeper gunned the engine and pulled off onto a trail to our right, not straight, the way everyone else had gone.
“Shortcut,” he told me. “I know these trails like,” he laid his non-driving hand across my lap to show me the back. His fingers curled. “Well, well.”
My cock was hard, but he seemed less surprised by this than I was.
He drove fast. The trail was pocked and ridged and kept lifting us out of the seat. The dark spat shapes into range of the low beams—a tree root, a cluster of mushrooms, a spooked armadillo. We jolted over a pothole and he took his hand off my lap to grip the wheel. I saw no lights in the distance, heard nothing but the creak we made going over the ruts. Maybe we weren’t heading for the stabbin’ cabin after all. The thought mixed with the helium lift of booze in my blood. I felt boneless and pliant. I thought of the birthday boy placidly offering up his hands and feet to the stirrups.
“He pried his face out of me. ‘I want your come,’ he said. My cock was still hard, mashed against the seat and wetting the plastic, but suddenly my own orgasm seemed a last desperate source of light and heat. When he flipped me back around and bent his face toward my cock, I covered it with my freed hands. He looked up at me, flustered and hurt. In the end I finished him off with my hand, watched him splatter the dry dirt.”
“So,” I said, “how long have you been keeping the grounds here?”
“Two years. Just in the fall. Summers I work an oil rig off Galveston.” He looked over at me. “I’m more interested in you.”
In what certain parts of me look and feel like. I grinned stupidly at the thought. But I took his lead, started slurring away about my café job in Austin, my unpaid nonprofit internship.
“I’m,” I said with a hand flourish, “figuring myself out.”
“Mhm, mhm,” he kept saying, nodding along to the rhythm of my voice. Our lights sketched a left turn in the trail. “What do you say we check this out?”
“I thought you knew these trails like,” I said with a gamesomeness that surprised me, and prodded the back of his hand.
He winked. “You got me.” He took the turn and pulled under the spiny cover of a pine tree.
Whatever momentum I’d built up inside me abruptly died with the engine. The lights went out, and all I could see were the dusty brown outlines of the pine and the long weeds beside the cart. The groundskeeper slid toward me. Reflexively I scooted back to the edge of the seat.
“You’re a slippery thing. You must like being chased.”
I shrugged. “I guess I’m still deciding what I like.”
He laughed. “What else are these weekends for?”
He pushed up against me, took one of my wrists in each hand, and bound them together behind my back.
“There. I caught you.”
My eyes were starting to adjust. I noticed for the first time that his brows sprouted together in the middle, lending a deranged shadow to the look he was giving me. His mouth already hung open with a sloppy hunger. I opened mine. His tongue was coated in a metallic char of cigarette smoke. He kept wrenching his face off mine with a strangled animal noise, his eyes pallid in the dark, and pushing the pad of his thumb against my lips. As if kissing were an insufficient channel for his lust, as if he had to smudge me out of existence.
“I want to taste you,” he said.
He twisted me around by my trapped wrists and I complied, folding myself over the seat on my stomach. Holding my wrists in place with one hand, with the other he removed my shorts in one swift tug. Cold air washed my ass and legs, then I felt the blunt wedge of his face in me. His hands clamped my wrists behind my back; I couldn’t have moved if I’d wanted to. All I could do was lie there, as the trees separated themselves from the dark, and grope my way along the turns that had led me here. Until I was back in the crowded trailer with the birthday boy suspended in air.
He pried his face out of me. “I want your come,” he said. My cock was still hard, mashed against the seat and wetting the plastic, but suddenly my own orgasm seemed a last desperate source of light and heat. I couldn’t bear to have it snuffed out, to see myself plainly in the dark, slumped over this man’s cart with my shorts around my ankles. When he flipped me back around and bent his face toward my cock, I covered it with my freed hands. He looked up at me, flustered and hurt, a clear strand of something–his spit, mine?–looping from lip to chin. In the end I finished him off with my hand, watched him splatter the dry dirt.
We pulled back onto the main trail. Soon the trees opened up around us and the other carts appeared, parked at sloppy angles all over a field. Far from the smoking campfires, the sky was clear and loaded with stars. Among the carts, flashlights licked the boards of a tin-roofed shack.
“You were delicious,” the groundskeeper said. I smiled thinly at him and stumbled out, scooping up the sweatshirt I’d saved for Clark. I headed toward the cabin. Stars had weight out here; they pressed me into the earth. Through the corner of my eye I saw the groundskeeper slouch down in his seat and light a cigarette.
The door to the cabin hung ajar on rotten hinges. Inside I could hear the hushed commingling of bodies, sounds that were never as obvious as they were in porn—the actorly moan, the slurp and pop of a cock in a hand or mouth—because they weren’t made for you at all, except that you were welcome to pick up the scraps that carried on the air. Clark and his boy were probably in there somewhere, bodies doubled against a wall. I looked down at the sweatshirt in my hands; it suddenly seemed a pathetic, motherly gesture. I stalled in the doorway. I thought with an ache of the birthday boy.
And there he was. His long body sprawled across the seat of a golf cart parked beside the far wall of the cabin. He was now in a T-shirt and sweats, both of which looked borrowed, baggy on him. Without the pink light on his skin he looked bled of power. His eyes were closed. One of his friends from the trailer, the one who’d pulled down his briefs, sat up in the seat, cradling the boy’s head in his lap.
The friend saw me watching. “Poor baby,” he said to the boy’s placid face. “Tuckered himself out.” His mania in the trailer had cooled. He looked gentle now, like the Virgin in a pieta. Who knew how many shots he and his comrade had fed the boy before exhibiting him to the whole trailer, how many men had fucked him tonight, yet here he was stroking the boy’s curls, as if indulging a naughty child.
“Is he okay?” I asked.
“He’s a little slut is what he is.” The boy’s brow crinkled, but his eyes stayed closed. “Aren’t you a little slut?” The friend jiggled his knees, making the boy’s head loll side to side. The boy reached out an arm to knead the friend’s chest. “Fuck off,” he said through barely parted lips.
My face felt hot as the fire pit at Mickey and Minnie’s, hours, a lifetime ago. I felt the extremes of hot and cold meet without reducing either to a bearable warmth. The boy stretched himself longer on the seat. His shirt rode up toward his ribs, exposing the strip of dark, springy fur that ran into his sweats. I watched it arch slightly with his shallow breaths. Neither the friend nor I spoke a word. I took slow steps toward the cart, until I was standing over the boy. Each step reminded me of where I was still wet. Dew had begun to dampen the grass. I dropped Clark’s sweatshirt at my feet, got down and knelt on it. My face was level with that stretch of bare skin.
I reached out a hand and pinched the seam of the boy’s T-shirt. The friend watched me with glazed amusement. I knew he wouldn’t stop anything I might do—not even if I pulled the boy’s shorts down and took him in my mouth; not if, somehow managing to get him hard, I climbed onto the cart and tried to ride him. The warmth of his skin kissed my wrist. With my other hand I hooked two fingers around the waistband of his sweats, lifted it. He wasn’t wearing the red briefs now; his cock lay flaccid but thick in its nest of pubic hair. Fingers shaking, I pulled the shirt hem down low and released the waistband to tuck it.
The snap of the band was like coming out of a dream. I stumbled to my feet. My hands burned in the dark. The boy’s eyes flicked open and saw me. The dark swirled around his pupils like water in a drain. I looked back.