Before time began, somebody must have told the first boyfriend he looked good in a tank top.

On the first date, the first boyfriend took Dean to the bowling alley on the edge of town. He reached over Dean to the glove compartment and offered Dean his flask, because weren’t they too old and too bad at bowling to do it sober? The first boyfriend’s gold watch flashed moonlight back at Dean when he unscrewed the cap and gulped the whiskey. The watch was broken, stuck on three-thirty, but it was so flashy and expensive the first boyfriend wore it anyway. He’d always intended it as a conversation piece.

The night was sweaty with sugar on the breeze. On the sign by the highway, a bowling ball glowed neon pink and knocked over three light-up pins over and over again. Their cartoon faces registered surprise every time.

“Let’s not do gutter guards,” the first boyfriend said, gesturing for Dean to open the door for him. “Maybe we’re not buff athletes, but we’ve got self-respect.”

Every ball was either too heavy for the first boyfriend or the finger holes were too small. Dean would settle for whatever, a snot-green fourteen-pound ball was just fine with him, but no. “Have some backbone,” said the first boyfriend. The groovy purple carpet conveyor-belted them to the front desk, where the first boyfriend asked the lady with the beehive hairdo for a ten-pound ball that wasn’t child-sized. She had only one. Well, Dean and the first boyfriend would share.

“People think,” the first boyfriend told the beehive, “that a heavier ball knocks over more pins, but the small ones are actually the safer bet. You can really give it some force.”

The first boyfriend’s ball landed thomp on the lane and promptly rolled into the gutter. “Let them think they’re safe,” he said, “then get them when they aren’t expecting it.” He compared it to hunting quail.

The name he’d taken five whole minutes to think up flashed on the monitor—Sensei—above a bowling ball that sprouted arms and legs and looked out at the first boyfriend, annoyed. The first boyfriend crossed his arms waiting by the ball return and missed every pin again on his second throw.

“Maybe the physics is broken,” he said. “We need to dial a physicist.”

Dean hit nine pins, but he couldn’t get the last one.

“There’s a guy under the floor holding that one pin so it doesn’t fall,” Dean said. He could joke, too.

“I don’t like it when people make excuses,” the first boyfriend said. He reached into the ball return. “I want the ball to be warm when it comes out of here. Like it’s a little oven.” When the machine spat out their ball, he looked disappointed picking it up. He spun it in his hand like a classroom globe. “Well, maybe I don’t want it,” he said, “but I expect it.”

The first boyfriend landed in the gutter again. He slunk back and waited for his ball on the polished wood. Two lanes down, a mom helped her toddler bowl a spare. “Look at that,” the first boyfriend said. “That’s not fair. She should be helping me.”

Dean fed a couple of dollars to the jukebox while the first boyfriend pouted his way through his second frame. When Dean came back to their lane—Red red wiiiine over the loudspeaker—the first boyfriend was looking up at the scores on the monitor. Gimpy Wrist: 9. Sensei: 0. “Mind if we take a break?” the first boyfriend said. “Maybe check out the arcade? They’ve got Ms. Pac-Man. I can get a high score on Ms. Pac-Man.”

The first boyfriend loaded up on tokens. Money was no object. The first boyfriend’s father was the sixth or seventh richest man in the state of Alabama, the head of an energy drink empire. “But I try to live modestly,” the first boyfriend said. “I’m not spoiled or anything.” Gold coins clinked against each other in the token tray as he fed the machine another five dollars.

Dean let the first boyfriend win at Skee-ball. The first boyfriend said, “You weren’t even trying.” As the machine spewed tickets, Dean said, “What? No, you won. I don’t let people win.”

They’d already won enough tickets for a mood ring, which Dean squeezed onto the wrong finger. Within seconds, it turned bright pink. The slip of paper that came with the ring said this meant Curious. The first boyfriend, having lost interest in the prize cabinet, wandered over to the Ms. Pac-Man machine.

Usually, he had one of his father’s employees watch over his shoulder and alert him to any ghosts exploiting the wraparound screen, so he asked for Dean’s help. “Blinky!” Dean shouted. The first boyfriend took an alternate route and quickly found a cherry, which turned the ghosts blue and left them vulnerable to Ms. Pac-Man’s gaping maw. The first boyfriend worked the joystick in his grip.

Dean was the first boyfriend’s boy, and he was overcome by boyish impulses. He was no match for the suggestive power of a simple and relatively common shape. Dean tugged the first boyfriend’s tank top untucked and steered him out of the arcade. They latched themselves into a bathroom stall, the floor sticky with piss or spilled beer, and pressed themselves against each other mouth on mouth until Dean could feel the first boyfriend pop a semi in his jeans. If u chodes could see urselves right now, someone had Sharpied onto the toilet paper dispenser, the thought unfinished.

The first boyfriend peeled himself off Dean like a sticker.

“Not on the first date,” the first boyfriend said. “Right? Because where’s the mystery?”

The first boyfriend knew best. He asked Dean to look away while he unzipped and took a piss. “Don’t listen, either,” the first boyfriend said. Dean tried to think unsexy thoughts: plumbing, Faberge eggs, musty dictionaries. Outside, their game was still waiting for them, but two men wearing hockey jerseys in the next lane were now using their special ball.

“Hey,” the first boyfriend said. “Get your own, assholes.”

“From where?” said one of the hockey jerseys. “The asshole store?”

The first boyfriend looked ready to punch somebody before he burst out laughing. “Pretty good,” he said. “Pretty funny.”

The hockey jerseys handed over the ten-pound ball. While Dean took the ball and bowled a strike, the hockey jerseys asked the first boyfriend if he’d watch their beers while they stepped outside for a cigarette.

Dean victory danced his way to the plastic chairs.

“Two strikes to a turkey,” he said.

The first boyfriend shushed him. “I’m watching their beers,” he whispered. He mimed a pair of binoculars at his eyes. “Don’t want to spook them,” he said.
Dean said, “I think you’re drunk.”

“Nah.” The first boyfriend picked up one of the beers and flicked his tongue into its foam. “Not yet,” he said. “Here.” He shoved the beer in Dean’s direction. “Drink this.”

Dean stared down at his bowling shoes.

“They’re dicks,” the first boyfriend said.

“You can’t afford to buy your own?”

“I don’t want to buy one. I want an experience. This,” the first boyfriend said, reaching for the second beer, gulping it down, “is an experience.”

Dean chugged his stolen beer. He and the first boyfriend exited through the back, got the hell out of there.

*

The second date was a movie. The third date: drinks, dancing, drinks. How many whiskeys had they drunk, between the two of them, by the time Dean flooded the bathroom trying to flush a T-shirt and the bar had to prematurely end its dance party? The first boyfriend insisted that sips from his flask didn’t count toward their total. “As for us,” the first boyfriend said, “we should consciously take this slow,” before peeling off Dean’s corduroys in the backseat of his Ferrari and fucking him on the pull-out couch in his duplex. The first boyfriend’s penis was prickly. The first boyfriend insisted on waiting, but the first boyfriend’s penis subscribed to a logic all its own.

*

Before time began, the first boyfriend must have been dreamed up by a minor deity, the small god of something like yield signs. The first boyfriend must have been Frankensteined out of:

• an orphaned mannequin
• combat boots crusted with vomit
• jeans—distressed
• snips, snails, topsoil
• militant agnosticism, but “you know, you do you”
• a faded T-shirt for a church fundraiser

At the dumpster behind the Goodwill, the Small God of Yield Signs saw what he’d made and said, “Fuck it, I’m out,” before he would’ve added the part where the first boyfriend could admit when he was wrong. This was a minor curse compared to the one the first boyfriend passed on to each of his lovers.

*

The first boyfriend’s landlady had him evicted. He’d taken a croquet mallet to a whole twelve-pack of Zap! Energy, slicing each can into the other tenants’ windows thwack-thwack-thwack. The first boyfriend would have to move into his father’s model home in Avondale Heights, a five-story that had been on the market for years. He announced this to Dean with the severity of a death sentence. Alone in the model home, the first boyfriend would camp out in the basement bonus room. He was otherwise forbidden from touching anything—every other room was set up for tours.

“Mrs. Asshat told me she was a big believer in second chances,” said the first boyfriend, “but then she doesn’t practice what she preaches?” He put a curse on the landscaping in her courtyard and watched her azaleas wilt in real time. After Dean helped him pack up his U-Haul, he put a curse on his empty condo so that it would smell like fish and maybe nobody would want to rent it.

“I’m not vindictive,” the first boyfriend said. “It’s not like I hold grudges or anything. I just—I don’t let people screw with me.”

A part of Dean wanted to object, but by this point, the boyfriend curse had taken hold. They fucked on a pile of packing blankets in the back of the first boyfriend’s U-Haul. They fucked until a cardboard box spilled and a spelling bee trophy rolled to a stop against Dean’s hip.

“Yeah,” the first boyfriend said. “I can’t throw that one out. I won regional semis.”

*

The second boyfriend was too tall. The third boyfriend only looked good in candlelight. The fourth boyfriend reeked of virginity. The fifth boyfriend had broad quarterback shoulders and was doughy in a way that humanized him, but Dean got sick in the fifth boyfriend’s toilet every time they made out.

The sixth boyfriend had the blank geniality of a game show host. He was on loan from China, attending the business school, which required him to wear suits with shoulder pads. English wasn’t the sixth boyfriend’s first language. Vague feelings sometimes passed through the sixth boyfriend’s head, but he could click away from them like they were TV channels. Finally, here was the right boyfriend for Dean, an empty container that he could pour himself into, plus the sixth boyfriend had maybe two moves in bed and seemed utterly amazed by anything Dean tried that was the slightest bit non-vanilla.

Dean told the sixth boyfriend he could stay over. Like, for the night: they’d each eaten an entire pizza and washed it down with a handle of tequila. But the sixth boyfriend camped out at Dean’s duplex for a whole week. He skipped his classes. He didn’t put on a shirt. He ordered in meals and paid for them with Dean’s credit card. After the sixth boyfriend had been there for a week, sweaty little spoon Dean detached himself under the quilt and made the sixth boyfriend take a cab home at three in the morning. “I don’t know what it’s like in China,” Dean said, “but over here, you can only stretch someone’s hospitality so far.”

The next day, Dean texted the sixth boyfriend, Last night was fun. He never got a response, which he thought was outrageous, so he found a seventh boyfriend in the sixth boyfriend’s marketing class to make the sixth boyfriend jealous.

The seventh boyfriend was all stubble and useless facts, such as: it was statistically more likely we’d be killed by a falling vending machine than a hungry shark. Alcohol, he said, stirring the ice in his drink until it melted, is treated as poison by our bodies when we first drink it. We think we can live forever if we religiously avoid cigarettes and red meat, but the truth is that if we live long enough, every one of us will get cancer. Did Dean know that?

“Are you even listening?” the seventh boyfriend said.

“That depends,” said Dean. “Are you done?” He called over the bartender to close his tab.

The seventh boyfriend deflated. “Hey,” he said. “Would you give me a shot? I like things. I’m interesting.”

Dean said, “I’ve got an early morning.” He didn’t tip the bartender.

*

The first boyfriend threw a housewarming party at the model home that got the attention of the cops and ended in at least one overnight stay in a holding cell at the county jail. The first boyfriend’s dad punished him by locking the keys to his Ferrari and his Vespa in his gun safe. The first boyfriend was twenty-six years old.

“It’s ridiculous,” the first boyfriend said, searching for a bottle opener in the kitchen of Dean’s duplex. “He treats me like a fucking child.”

“You could get a job,” Dean said.

“That seems like a lot of work,” the first boyfriend said. Half of his beer was already gone. The first boyfriend joked that he was an alcoholic, but he was stumbling over the legs of Dean’s furniture.

Dean asked, “Should I be worried?”

The first boyfriend said, “Fuck you,” and walked all the way home in the rain.

Dean called later. “Why don’t you come over?”

The first boyfriend said, “I’m feeling hermity. I’d better stay in.”

Dean said, “I’ll come to your place.”

“No.”

“I’m sorry I said anything.”

“Good,” the first boyfriend said.

“I was really hoping you’d come watch a movie,” Dean said, trying to sound sincere.

“You shouldn’t have gotten your hopes up,” the first boyfriend said. “I’m allowed to stay home if I want to.”

“I know,” Dean said. “But you’re not allowed to touch anything.”

*

Dean wanted to go out, and he didn’t want to feel bad for staring at other guys’ asses. He called the first boyfriend and said, “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”

“Do what?” said the first boyfriend. “Over the phone? Really? You’re not allowed.”

“Fine, you want to meet? When’s convenient for you?”

“This week’s tough. But definitely sometime after that, probably.”

“Right. I should get—”

“You know what this tells me?” said the first boyfriend. “That you’re immature. You were never even attractive. The only attractive thing about you was how much you were fawning over me.”

Dean hung up.

*

“If there’s anything you want to try,” the first boyfriend said. He kneaded Dean’s penis like Play-Doh in his hand. “I can do the sexy voice,” the first boyfriend said. “Growl at you some more.”

“No,” Dean said. He’d been rehearsing what he said next: “I have feelings for somebody else.” He wished it were true.

“Who?”

“You don’t know him.”

“Who do you know that I don’t know?”

“Lots of people,” Dean said.

“Bullshit,” the first boyfriend said.

The first boyfriend suggested a change of scenery, a different room. In the shower, Dean blamed the water pressure. In the billiards room, it was all the green velvet. Dean thought the color was unsexy. At the sushi-go-round on the third floor, the first boyfriend pointed with a chopstick at a beige and jellylike blob on an orange-rimmed plate in front of him. It was scallop sperm. “Go ahead and eat it,” Dean said from the doorway. “I want to watch you,” he said.

The first boyfriend tried, but the chopsticks kept slipping out of his fingers. “I don’t actually know how to use these,” he said.

“Just eat it. With your hands.”

The first boyfriend held up the scallop sperm and mama-birded it to himself.

“Good?” Dean said.

“Good,” the first boyfriend said.

“What’s it taste like?”

“Sweet. Subtle notes of nutmeg.” He smacked his lips. “But the aftertaste is sort of earthwormy.”

The first boyfriend forced a smile. Nobody was enjoying this. “It just isn’t going to happen for me tonight,” Dean decided. As he drove home, he thought, no wonder that model home wouldn’t sell. It came with all these rooms nobody would ever need.

*

Dean decided he should still go to the Halloween party that the first boyfriend’s best friend was hosting. She was still his friend, too. He was still invited. He dressed up as a character from a ‘90s sitcom that he’d never seen because he thought people would like the costume. He filled a flask with bourbon and slid it into the oversize pocket of his overalls.

The theme was heaven and hell. Heaven was the marble kitchen—the first boyfriend’s best friend was just as rich as he was. To get to the kitchen, you had to suffer through Hell first. In Hell, formerly the living room, all the lamps had red lightbulbs. Devil horns had been attached to the antique sofa. A man who said he’d just gotten out of prison taught Dean to take a proper tequila shot. Salt. Lime. The man was dressed in a beige prison jumpsuit, and Dean couldn’t tell whether this was a costume.

After taking four shots, Dean had enough holes punched on his punch card to proceed to Purgatory, which was once the dining room with the high ceilings. Here, amid the strobing gray lights and the fog machine, Dean had to sit through a three-song set by the first boyfriend’s best friend’s punk band, who were so bad, so amateur, that Dean had to sneak sips from his flask to bear it. Why did he come to this party, anyway? Where was the first boyfriend? By this point, Dean was so drunk that he come-hithered the man in the Guy Fawkes mask sitting closest to him and initiated an enthusiastic makeout session, but Dean’s mouth was on the mask’s mouth.

“You wanna take this off for me?” the man said.

“Why are you making me do all the work?” said Dean.

The thing of lube in my sock drawer exploded when it thought of you, the first boyfriend’s best friend shout-sang into her microphone.

Dean wasn’t sure he’d ever make it to Heaven by following the rules, so he snuck in. What kind of party had rules, anyway? The first boyfriend was there, in the white light, on the checkered tile. He was drinking quickly and talking to nobody. “When I lived in Spain for a summer,” he was saying, “I thought it was beautiful. I’d live there, but my family’s here, and I couldn’t bear being away from them.” His eyes were puffy and red. Dean couldn’t tell what his costume was supposed to be, but it involved another tank top. Also, cutoff shorts.

Dean strode across the kitchen, saying, “I’d hardly call six weeks of study abroad living there.” He picked up a halo headband from the kitchen table and lowered it onto his head.

“No new angels,” said the girl pouring the drinks. “The set’s not over yet.”

“It’s just a party,” Dean said. “Chill.” He clicked his tongue and unloaded a finger-gun in the first boyfriend’s direction. “This guy will vouch for me. I belong here.”

The first boyfriend’s best friend marched into the kitchen before Dean could say anything else. She’d abandoned her bass guitar. “Stop talking to him,” she said.

“Why don’t you stay out of it?” Dean said. “It has nothing to do with you.”

“He doesn’t want to talk to you, Dean.”

“He’s an adult. He can stop talking to me anytime.”

The best friend said, “Why don’t I call you a cab?”

“Don’t need it. If nobody wants me here, fine. But I’ll drive myself.”

“You’re trashed. You’re not doing that.”

“Watch me,” Dean said. “You probably hope I crash my car and die, anyway.”

*

Dean knew he was drunk, but he knew what he was doing. He wasn’t too blackout to drive himself home. On the highway, he could feel the car naturally tugging left, so he steered it right, hugged the dividing line between lanes. His boot hovered over the brake pedal. A car roared past him in the right lane, but he swore the woman driving offered him an enthusiastic thumbs-up when their eyes met. Maybe his luck had turned.

The dashboard chimed that he needed gas, so Dean responsibly flicked his turn signal for the nearest service station and found a vacant pump. Inside, Dean paid a dollar for a scratch-off. He used a coin from the Take-a-Penny dish to find out, right there at the counter, what kind of ticket he’d bought. He started scratching off the prize square first. He wanted to know how high his hopes should be.

“Can’t do that here,” said the cashier. “You have to leave the store with it.”

“That’s a dumb rule,” Dean said. He blew the gray shavings in the direction of the cashier to reveal the value of his prize. A dollar. He scratched off a match on the ticket and cashed it in. The cashier huffed and handed Dean a crisp dollar bill, which Dean handed right back to him.

“Let me try another one,” Dean said.

This time the prize was a hundred dollars. This time he lost.

*

At least fourteen other boyfriends now, and each had a favorite bar that blacklisted Dean after, inevitably, he ended things. These boyfriends, Dean guessed, were loyal customers, and he was better off staying home—that was obvious. But he wanted to try the first boyfriend’s bar again, the one where they’d danced until the place flooded. He remembered cute boys there.

The first boyfriend was there with a new boyfriend. He was throwing popcorn kernels in the direction of his new boyfriend’s mouth and missing every time, making a mess on the concrete floor between them. Why was Dean here, if not to catch a glimpse of the first boyfriend? Dean asked the bartender for three tequila shots. The bartender poured them, lined them up in a neat row for Dean and two friends, but Dean was alone. He downed the shots and declined the bartender’s offer of a lime. “I like feeling the sting,” he said. He left his tab open.

The first boyfriend’s new boyfriend wore the kind of fur-lined coat that meant money. The DJ played songs that were older than anybody in the bar, but everybody—including the new boyfriend—danced as if these songs brought back memories of first dances, first kisses. The new boyfriend knew how to dance. Clearly, he was working with a whole playbook of moves. He could wiggle, he could ballroom, he could shake his body onto the first boyfriend’s ass.

Dean could feel their shared body heat from the steps that led up and outside. He knew there was another bar on 7th and Washington where the bouncer wouldn’t turn him away at the door. The song ended and bled into one that was too new to be any good, and before Dean could see himself out, the first boyfriend and the new boyfriend spotted him looking. They were walking over. It was too late for Dean to sneak away without looking like a dick.

They stood on the bottom step. The first boyfriend had a big dumb grin on his face. “Been a while,” he said. He was wearing a tank top under his leather jacket. Dean had never seen this jacket before. The new boyfriend looked stupidly eager, his fur collar popped.

“Great coat,” Dean said. He wasn’t sure which one of them he was talking to, but it didn’t matter, because he didn’t mean it.

“Goodwill,” the new boyfriend said, claiming the compliment as his. “Women’s section.”

“Headed off somewhere?” the first boyfriend said.

“There’s a better party out there,” Dean said. “I’m absolutely sure.” His palms were on the door, ready to push.
 
 
Photo by ginnerobot

Scott Fenton

SCOTT FENTON earned his MFA in fiction at Indiana University. His work has appeared in Hobart, Ninth Letter Online, and SmokeLong Quarterly.

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