At least he wasn’t drinking too much. I set the plate of mini-pizzas on the coffee table. It was only his second rum and Coke, a huge improvement over last time. My husband and I earlier passed the bong with him. Getting stoned dulled Cullen’s agitation.
His last visit was a disaster. Billy and I exchanged helpless looks as Cullen sobbed behind the door of the guest room. My husband asked if we should call someone, but there was no one to call. What was the man’s name that time? Daniel? Darren? I knew it didn’t matter, but I felt guilty not remembering. I did recall some things. The college boy in Commerce filed a restraining order. The man in Corsicana blocked Cullen from his Facebook profile. A man in Louisiana threatened to bash his skull. But tonight—no tears yet. The three of us graduated from college nearly a decade ago. I missed the witty, fearless Cullen who wrote scathing film reviews and knew where to find the best weed. Lately, he seemed to be…regressing…
“So are you still talking to that guy? You mentioned him the last few times. He lives here in Dallas, right?”
“Carson?” he said, never glancing away from the television. I loved watching TV with Cullen. Sometimes he explained the subtle jokes I missed.
“Yes, that’s it.”
I’d waited until Billy was gone to ask about Carson. If the news was bad — and it was always bad — I didn’t want to embarrass Cullen in front of him. My husband didn’t understand repeated romantic failure. I was only the second woman he dated seriously.
“We don’t talk anymore,” he said, his voice flat and quick. He wanted me to think the subject bored him. He stifled his usual firecracker speech and busy hands.
“It sounded like you two hit it off.”
“A bunch of crazy shit happened.”
“Did you ever actually meet him? Or was it just online?”
“Yeah, we met. Totally wild coincidence.”
“You never told me that.”
“It’s kinda sleazy.”
“I used to be pretty wild myself, if you’ll remember.”
“We were fucking kids.”
“I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to meet a man.”
“Only gay men go here.”
“You mean a gay bar?”
“A little more sleazy.” He shook his head. “Skip it. Sanitized for your protection.”
I had other gay friends. I knew their social lives involved activities and places the everyday world wouldn’t condone. But I wished Cullen would trust me with such information. I might learn why he lost men like umbrellas.
“How did that go?” I finally asked. “Meeting him?”
“Oh, Val, he was fucking gorgeous. I couldn’t believe my luck. He wanted me to hook up with him, but I totally flaked.” A tight smile flickered across his face. He shook his head and sipped his drink. He relived the moment, privately.
“You never turn down a good-looking man,” I said.
“I was high and there was this other—well, who gives a shit? I’m a fucktard. End of story.”
I cleared my throat and reached for a mini-pizza. Canned laughter filled the room. I hadn’t caught the joke. “When did you two stop talking?” I asked.
Cullen fixed me with a steady gaze. I knew that look. “You’re really lucky, Val. You and Billy have a lifetime free pass from all the bullshit.”
“All we have is a mortgage and a joint checking account.” I laughed. In truth, I was relieved my life had settled. But it would’ve been heartless to appear so satisfied. Cullen glared at the television. “Think you might speak to him again?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“I wrote him an email a week or so ago. I was fucking high. I never heard back.”
“Maybe you should stop looking for men online.”
“I’m a fag from East Texas. I can’t tart myself up and sit at the coffee house.”
“Maybe you’ll get a good story out of it.”
Cullen wrote short stories, had published quite a few. I once looked him up online and felt a heady mix of envy and pride as the story titles scrolled down the monitor. In college, I designed costumes for the stage, sketched for hours, so delighted to have found my passion.
After marrying Billy, though, I started teaching drama at the junior high. Costume design suddenly seemed acutely foolish. I still showed my new sketches to Billy and blushed when he called them brilliant. Then I stacked them inside my hope chest and resumed my chosen life.
“I can’t wait to find out about this guy,” I said, eager to fill the silence. “Carson, right? Every man is a surprise!”
Cullen gritted his teeth and snorted. He took a long sip from his drink. I chided myself for being so careless. This was always the most delicate time, right after he confessed defeat once again. “Is that the only time you contacted him?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “I was high. You wouldn’t believe some of the shit I wrote. Thank God I don’t remember it.”
“Is that why you two stopped talking?”
“We only knew each other online, really. What do you think?”
Cullen did other drugs besides marijuana. Billy and I kept him at our place a few days after his trip to the emergency room last summer. I hadn’t known he was in Dallas. He said he jumped from a moving car and cracked his hipbone. I tried to follow his account, but I couldn’t imagine him in such a bizarre, desperate situation. Instead, I focused on the billboards zipping past. I knew he didn’t always see me when he visited the city. Cullen refused to share his secrets, assured me I didn’t want to know. My morbid speculation about his private life raged like a bonfire.
“I think we should pass around the bong before bed,” I announced, bolting from the couch. “You like this stuff? I get it from my manicurist.”
“It’s pretty sweet.”
“Billy’s probably glued to the computer,” I said, laughing like a matron over afternoon tea. I used to be a better actress. Trotting out of the living room, I needed to see the man I loved.
At the end of the hall, a door stood open just a crack. Hearing the quick clicking of fingers on a keyboard calmed me. Opening the door slowly so I wouldn’t startle him, I paused to look at my husband. Billy was not the most handsome man I’d lured into bed during college. He was scrawny with stretched limbs, like an abused toy, but the decade since graduation had added substance to his frame. His hair had started to thin.
When we started dating my junior year, Cullen declared I could do better. Billy was a loser, he said. Even if that were true, I didn’t want to do better. Looking at Billy, hunched like a graceless insect before the monitor’s blue glow, I felt safe and wondered if Cullen had ever known that feeling, even briefly.
“You’re being rude to our guest,” I said, as if coaxing a baby.
He jerked his head and flashed a goofy, lopsided grin. It was partly the weed, I knew, but I loved knowing that smile was mine alone.
“You and bipolar boy needed time to powwow,” he said. “Have some girl talk. So I decided to get some research done.”
I crossed the room and stopped behind his swivel chair. I kissed the top of his head. “Thanks, baby. We did need to catch up on things.”
“Did he go bonkers over some guy again?”
“His life belongs in a tabloid.”
I smacked his head lightly. “Don’t be an asshole.”
“Thank Christ he was still a closet case back in school. At least he waited to go apeshit until after graduation.”
“He’s not crazy,” I said sternly. He gazed into the monitor, scrolling through tight lines of text. This was marriage: familiar conversations recited like bedtime prayers.
“What would you call it?” he asked.
I sighed and stared at the wall. “Don’t call it anything, baby.”
Billy clicked his mouse, leaned closer to the screen. I wasn’t sure he’d heard me. Of course, I hadn’t really been speaking to him.
“Let’s smoke another bowl,” I said, rubbing his shoulders.
“Sounds good, babe. Just let me finish this article. I slogged through a dozen links to find it.”
“God, you’re a geek.”
Without looking up, he smirked and said, “Geeks fucking turn you on.”
I rearranged the hairs on his head and waited for him to finish. Feeling so connected to him in that moment, I couldn’t believe my great fortune. He loved me completely. No desperate, mad chase to exhaust and humiliate me. Thinking about my years as his wife, all I’d failed to achieve seemed irrelevant. Sketching was a girl’s dream—I now lived a woman’s life.
Billy and I returned to the living room. He carried the bong by its glass tube. Cullen sprawled on the couch, and I at first thought he’d fallen asleep. When I stepped closer, however, I saw his lids barely open, eyes fixed in a dead stare. On the TV screen, a group of actors in business suits stood gawking at one another in a parking lot. There was no joy in Cullen’s face, no life.
“My geek lover finally stepped away from the Internet,” I declared, parading past Billy toward the couch. I plopped down beside Cullen, reached out to stroke his head but stopped myself. I sometimes forgot he didn’t like to be touched. “Why can’t he download photos of enormous breasts like a real man?” I asked in the slow, friendly voice I typically reserved for the classroom. I needed to hear laughter in my home.
Billy chuckled and sat beside me. He pulled out a pinch of weed and broke it apart to remove the seeds and stems. I felt a sudden anxiety, uncertain how to fill the time until we smoked. No doubt Cullen had been brooding and might not speak at all, unwilling to discuss his latest disaster in front of Billy. I focused on the television. The lead character stomped across the parking lot, barking at the supporting cast. Of course, I thought. We watched this show during school. When Cullen loved a show, he learned everything about it, from the name of each guest star to which writer scripted each episode. Back then, I believed such obsessions harmed no one.
Billy loaded the bong, and we took turns sucking up smoke. Cullen roused himself from the couch. His usual animation returned: darting dark eyes, jittering eyebrows, comic lips. He was handsome, despite his slender build and slight stature. All those men Cullen pursued must’ve been drawn to his vitality, at first. Taking a hit, I observed him focusing on our mundane gestures to keep the bong circulating. Perhaps he wasn’t thinking about that man anymore. What was the name — Clayton?
“So, I heard your flirtation with this Dallas dude hit the skids,” Billy said. Like he wanted Cullen to pass the potatoes. I would’ve shot him a nasty look, but I feared Cullen might deduce we’d spoken about him. He possessed a sharp eye for the ways people betrayed themselves.
Cullen sucked a gulp of dense white smoke and held it a few moments. He never took his eyes off Billy. What was he thinking? After all these years, he still believed Billy wasn’t good enough for me. I knew this with an iron certainty.
The tension, combined with the insidious buzz from the weed, made the moments crawl by like a worm. Cullen exhaled and took a quick breath. I was afraid of how he’d answer Billy. I was afraid he wouldn’t answer at all.
“Yeah, things didn’t work out,” he finally said, his tone flat.
“Too bad. You could’ve brought him here for dinner.”
Cullen grinned like he knew the punch line to a dirty joke. “I’m sure you’d speak highly of me,” he said, brazenly sarcastic.
Panic bloomed within me, my heart thumping.
“Always wanted to meet one of your boyfriends,” Billy said.
“He wasn’t my boyfriend.”
“Whatever you guys call each other. We just wanna know you’re happy.”
Before I could stop myself, I gaped at Billy in shock. He never expressed an interest in Cullen’s men. Indeed, all he cared to know was how long it took Cullen to alienate his latest infatuation. Was Billy trying to embarrass the poor man? Despite how hard I glared at him, he didn’t notice me. He secured another pinch of weed for the bong, keeping his gaze on Cullen.
“Do you think I’m happy?” Cullen finally asked, face blank but eyes blazing.
The question loomed over us. How do you answer such a thing? Was he addressing just Billy or me as well? Cullen glared at my husband.
Billy busied himself loading the bong, ignoring us. The answer was achingly clear, always had been. Of course Cullen wasn’t happy. He had never been happy. But we glossed over that, both now and a decade ago. Seduced by his charm, his wit, his energy, we often forgot a deep hole lurked inside him and unless we stepped with care, we’d plummet to the bottom.
“Do you think I’m happy, Val?” he asked, turning to me with the same chilly tone. “Happy like you and Billy?”
“Your writing career is going well, right? That’s really — “
“It’s a simple question, Val.”
Billy stuffed the pinch of weed into the bowl. He fussed over it, nudging it with his finger. I expected no help from him. Then, without looking up, he said, “We’re happy every time you see us, Cullen. You’ve been our friend for — fuck, ten years? I can’t do math when I’m baked.” He laughed, his head rocking back. Cullen and I didn’t make a sound, waiting for Billy to stop. “Seriously, man,” he continued, “if you want some of our happiness, help yourself.”
Cullen blinked, his lip curling. “What kind of touchy-feely bullshit is that?”
“I’m saying, stop looking so goddamn hard and see what’s right in front of you.”
Cullen shook his head, confused. “You mean you and Val?”
Billy drew a deep breath and gazed at the ceiling as he exhaled. He discarded the bong atop the coffee table. His clenched his jaw and ground his teeth. “This is my house, my weed and my wife. Life fell into place for me so goddamn early, I didn’t have to dream anymore. So when I bring a friend into my home, I make him part of my happiness. I know things suck right now. But when you’re in my home, you better be happy. If I can’t share that with the people I love,
what’s the point? It’s a simple fucking thing, Cullen. Save the bullshit for whoever fucks you next.” Billy stretched his neck, his eyelids fluttering closed. He yawned, arms high and wide above him. After that, he clapped his hands and snapped his head from Cullen to me, as if our presence surprised him. “Okay, let’s smoke another bowl and laugh at stupid shit.”
Billy never spoke that plainly to anyone but me. I patted him on the thigh then glanced at Cullen. The battle occurring on his face struck me. Each emotion announced itself then surrendered to the next. Cullen always tried to keep cool, no matter how humiliating his news.
Of course, the tears always came eventually. I stopped staring, feeling my cheeks warm with shame.
We finished the bowl in silence. We watched the people on television, their heartbreaks played for laughs. Cullen mentioned Billy just once, obliquely, later that night. While Billy was in the bathroom, Cullen motioned me close and whispered, “Men never care if I’m happy.” I waited for more, but he pulled away. He laughed, his body jerking, and I knew we’d never discuss Billy again. When Billy returned, he and I spent the rest of the night watching TV like countless other couples. Cullen passed out, and we watched him sleep until Billy kissed my cheek. The day was done, and I ached for sleep.
Cullen packed his bag the next morning. As always, I wanted to embrace him. Instead, I wrapped my arm around Billy’s waist. Cullen opened the front door and waved one last time.
Billy and I watched the tiny expressions dance across his face, each passing too quickly to read.
He said he loved us. I blurted out that we loved him, too! Had I already said that? I sounded frantic, like Cullen wouldn’t hear me. My love could never travel so far.
The front door closed, and I clutched Billy with a force that made him gasp. He stroked my hair. Cullen would be fine, he said. I didn’t believe him, but I loved him for saying it. As Billy rocked me in his arms, I prayed one day a man would love my dear friend and tell him whatever lie was needed for him to face the day. I started sobbing, and I can’t remember when I stopped.