I met Richard at a local bar. He sat alone in a corner booth and brushed my hand as I walked by, on my way to the restroom.
My friend, Whitney, had gone home for the night. I decided to stay for another drink. Richard offered to pay for it.
“Thanks,” I said, puzzled by his charity. I agreed to sit with Richard, despite the fact that he looked thirty years my senior and was dressed like an old yuppie.
Richard told me that he’d recently moved to Grass Valley; that he’d rented a three bedroom house with a creek that ran through the back yard. He said that he liked the clean air and evergreen trees, and the fact that his money went further in the small town than in New York, where he’d earned his small fortune.
“What about you?” said Richard.
“What about me?”
“Tell me something about yourself.”
“I work at the department store downtown,” I said.
Richard nodded politely. “Do you have any plans for the evening?” he asked.
I laughed and said, “No,” because his question seemed like a joke. It was past midnight. The bar was about to close.
“Why don’t we continue this conversation at my place?” he said.
I stood, unsure of whether I’d accepted Richard’s invitation. But he ordered a taxi. And when he opened the car door for me, I defaulted to get in.
We traveled in silence on our way to his house – a five minute drive.
Richard escorted me inside and asked me to sit at his dining room table. Then he disappeared into his bedroom and returned with a large, shallow box. There was a photo print in the box. An image of tulips that looked, to me, like a painting. Richard told me about the photographic process and how the image had been manipulated in the darkroom to achieve its textural quality.
“It’s a Horst,” said Richard, referring to the artist – a cultural icon who I’d never heard of.
Richard talked about Horst’s career in fashion, and how the work was informed by surrealism and other artistic movements. At the end, he mentioned how much the photo was worth. The price was several times my yearly salary.
I listened intently. Not so much to Richard’s words, as I understood few of the technical terms he used. I enjoyed the deepness of his voice and the clarity of his pronunciation. I hadn’t known so much could be said on the subject of beauty, or that a life could be spent in pursuit of its highest form.
I liked Horst’s Tulips. Mostly the way the flowers cast their shadow. But I couldn’t grasp the photograph’s profundity or comprehend the reason for its monetary value. I only knew that Richard was evidence of a world beyond my reach, and that I had the feeling of peering through a crack in a door and not being able to step through.
In the midst of my confusion and awe, I felt Richard touch me. I looked up at him, my eyes wet and blurry. Richard wiped a tear from my cheek. He said that I was beautiful, and offered me money to be with him.
I pocketed two of Richard’s crisp hundred dollar bills, and followed him to his bedroom, where I disrobed at his request. He turned me over on his bed, and grazed my skin with his lips, and then sucked on my ass. I stroked myself until I was hard. Until Richard begged for me to fuck him.
When we were done, and I’d come in his mouth, Richard lay next to me with his head on my chest.
I felt a moment of relaxation, followed by sickness and horror. It was like a mirror had been held up to my life. I understood – for the first time – how unremarkable it was. What was worse? I had no dreams to pursue. No better future to look upon. If not for Richard’s intervention, I’d have continued towards my death in ordinary squalor.
The night went on. Richard fell asleep. My grief plateaued, and I stayed awake with it a while.
If only I could change my course, I thought, and decided that I would try.
A year of personal failures followed.
I enrolled in the local community college. To better myself. When I sat in the classrooms and listened to each lecture, my mind traveled far away. I distracted myself with thoughts of graduation, my first career-oriented job and subsequent promotion, the purchase of a lavish home, and my inevitable world travels.
In reality, I did little coursework and skipped most of my classes. I dropped out of school before the end of term. To save myself from embarrassment.
My only friend, Whitney, raved to me about a documentary she’d seen on Netflix. The film was about a famous chef. I watched it with her, and felt a glint of inspiration.
“I could cook,” I said to Whitney.
She was stoned, and asked what I planned to make for dinner.
“I mean, professionally,” I said.
Whitney encouraged my delusion. She told me that anything was possible, if only I put my mind to it.
A week later, I quit my job and applied for a position at a local restaurant. The owner hired me, but as a dish washer and for less than minimum wage.
Once or twice a month, Richard would call me and invite me to his house. I’d sit at his table and stare at another piece of art. He’d talk about beauty and form. I’d admire his voice and composure. He’d pull out his wallet and remove two hundred dollar bills, always freshly printed. I’d hold the money to my nose, so that I could breath in the smell.
Then I’d fuck his ass.
Each time, after I’d come, a mournful rage would build inside me. I’d stare at his belongings, like an adulterer lusting for his neighbor’s wife.
Don’t I deserve better on my own? I’d think to myself, as I’d stroke Richard’s hair.
Whitney began a new relationship. I saw less of her. During our infrequent encounters, she mostly talked about her boyfriend, Steve.
“Can I tell you a secret?” she said, one morning over coffee.
“Sort of,” she said. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I guess it’s because of Steve. But I’m not sure it’s real, because…” Whitney bit her lip, like she was about to confess to something wrong. “Steve’s under a spell. A spell I put on him.”
“L-O-L,” I said, deadpan.
“I’m serious,” said Whitney. “I met this guy, Jared, who’s into magick.”
“Magick?” I laughed for real.
“I thought it was funny too,” said Whitney. “At first. Then I kept hearing about him from friends and acquaintances.”
“What friends and acquaintances?” I asked.
“People you don’t know,” said Whitney, which made me feel isolated and alone, like she’d always kept something from me and I was just finding out. “Anyway, Jared’s immortal. He got shot in the face and stood back up. People vouch for him. If you do what he says, well…”
“Well, what?” I said.
“I just know that Steve loves me,” said Whitney. “And that a few months ago, he didn’t. A few months ago, I’d look at him and he’d stare back, like I didn’t exist.”
I pestered Whitney until she gave me Jared’s number. Then I called him, and did my best to clean the desperation from my voice.
“You’ll need blood and cum,” said Jared. “Not yours, though.” The contemporary magician wore long, greasy hair and a faded heavy metal t-shirt. His voice was grave and slurred, like he’d had too much to drink.
“That’s it?” I asked, as I stood in Jared’s studio apartment. The ugliness of his home felt invasive. It was as if a cloud of dirt moved about the room and waited for me to let my guard down, so that it could enter my pores and fill me up.
“No.” Jared put aside his Xbox gamepad and removed his eyes from the television. “I need to know you’re serious before I tell you the rest. This shit’s no joke. There are consequences.”
“What consequences?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” said Jared. “I mean, probably not. But…”
“I told you I’m not interested in money,” said Jared. “That’s your thing.”
“I meant, how much blood? How much cum?”
Jared looked away from me, back to his paused video game. “The text isn’t specific about stuff like that.” By text, he meant the crumbling book he’d supposedly found buried in the forest. The one he refused to show me. “How much do you think is enough?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you.”
Jared shrugged. “When you feel you have enough, you probably do. Just make sure it doesn’t coagulate or dry. Some crusty underwear? A cum rag? Doesn’t count.”
I nodded, like I understood.
“That doesn’t count either.” Jared pointed to a brown stain on the wall behind his couch. It looked like someone had thrown a bowl of spaghetti and never bothered to clean it up.
“It’s blood,” he said. “Mine.” Jared sounded like he was bragging. “See the hole in the plaster there?”
I wasn’t sure, but said, “Yes.”
“Come here,” said Jared.
I obeyed. He took my hand and placed my fingers to the back of his head.
“Feel that?” said Jared.
I grazed the lump of skin; the rough and hairless scar.
“It’s where the bullet came out.”
I pulled my hand away. “Where’s the entrance wound?”
Jared opened his mouth.
I drove home, shaking.
Most everything about Jared disgusted me. But I felt a sincerity from him and from the way Whitney spoke about his magick. Or I indulged in his deceit, because of the possibilities he offered – the futures I couldn’t see myself without.
What was the worst that could happen? I thought, and allowed my imagination to run its course.
I worked my dishwashing job, spent my nights alone, and waited for a call from Richard. It came two weeks later, and with a promise of a surprise.
“A surprise?” I said into my phone.
“Ever since I met you,” said Richard, “I’ve dreamt of a way to make our lives closer to the way we want.”
“How?” I asked.
“I’ve said too much already. Come by tonight at eight.”
Richard greeted me at his front door and asked me to come inside; to sit at his table, like I’d done so many times before.
“Close your eyes.” Richard’s breath turned loud. I felt his heat against my cheek. There was a sound of carefully rustled paper, which I’d grown accustomed to in his presence. “Now look.”
I obeyed him, and stared at the table where Richard’s palms laid flat against a scroll.
“What is it?” I asked. The piece of art was unlike any he’d shown me before. It looked like a technical sketch. There were lines and numbers drawn on faded graphs.
“Blueprints for a house,” said Richard. “The one we’ll build and live in together. The one we’ll call our home.”
“Together,” I said, as if the word was foreign and I’d struggled with its meaning.
“You’ve enriched my life more than I can say.” Richard described me in a number of flattering ways, never once mentioning my cock, mouth, or ass – the parts of me I thought he cared about distinctly. He said that he admired my patience, thirst for knowledge, and steadfast pursuit of truth and self-fulfillment.
“How could you say that?” I asked, after listening to his praise.
Richard squinted his eyes and quivered his mouth, like he’d suffered a small injury. “I don’t understand. Are you upset with me?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “But…my pursuit of truth, as you put it. What does that even mean?”
“Don’t think I’m chastising you,” said Richard. “It’s quite the opposite.”
“Okay,” said Richard, still unsure of how he’d faltered. “Remember when you told me that you’d enrolled in some college courses? How excited you were?”’
I nodded, despite my lapse in memory. It was possible that I’d mentioned my schooling to Richard. To what extent, I wasn’t sure.
“And later,” said Richard, “how you talked of your dissatisfaction with the curriculum. How its lack of rigor bored you. You said that you wanted to study at a real university or not at all.”
A pang of sympathy struck my chest. Had Richard turned senile in his old age? Had he confused my past with that of a collegiate friend?
“You toyed with the possibility of art school,” said Richard. “It was, I think, right after I showed you my Herb Ritts collection.”
My mind strained to align itself with his reality.
I remembered complaining to Richard shortly after I’d dropped out of community college. Maybe I’d changed a few details; exaggerated my distress; removed the parts that made it seem my fault – my laziness, for example, and inability to see things through. The story I’d given him, both real and imagined, was lost to me just as quickly as I’d told it.
“I know I’ve bored you with my own fantasies,” said Richard. “Of companionship and comfort. Of how I’d like to live out the last years of my life.”
No, I thought, but then felt a bout of deja vu, or else a past suppressed and bursting from its cellar.
“The house I mentioned on our first night together,” said Richard. “The one in my hometown, outside of Louisville, Kentucky. The one I’d dreamed of owning, as a child. These are the floor plans.”
Richard took my hand and placed it on the blueprints. My vision of the paper blurred. I could only see the point where he touched me. Where our skin overlapped. Richard’s hand was white and nearly translucent. His veins bulged and twisted within, like a swarm of delicate snakes. I imagined the blood inside him, thin and pumping slow.
“We can build it anywhere,” said Richard. “Near the best art school we can find, or…” He let go of his voice and used his mouth to taste me. I froze as he kissed his way down to my groin.
Richard groaned as my cock thickened between his cheeks.
I grasped for excitement at the thought of Richard’s plan. But he appeared like a stranger, in the moment, slurping between my thighs.
How had we come to such a misunderstanding?
I looked across the table. There was a glass of whiskey within reach. It was more than adequate to hold a bit of Richard’s seed.
“Would you come for me?” I asked.
“Always,” said Richard.
“In this cup,” I said, and spilled the whiskey on the floor.
Richard swooned at my carelessness. He tugged at his zipper, pulled his cock out, and began jerking.
I stood and backed away from him. “I want to watch,” I said. Though, in fact, I meant to escape his touch and search the room for a container suitable for his blood.
Richard stared at me while he masturbated. I told him to look at the floor; to look anywhere but at my face and body.
“I’ve never heard you give direction before,” said Richard. “I like it. Very dominant.”
I imagined his throat, impaled by a blade. His good fortune flowing from the wound. A transfer of everything I’d coveted in his life.
“This is embarrassing,” said Richard, after several minutes. “But I’m feeling self-conscious. It’s hard for me to ejaculate under pressure.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I could do it if you helped me,” said Richard.
I began to walk towards him, but knew what it would mean. Within a certain proximity, I’d be forced to reconsider. I’d be reminded of his kindness and conscious of his pain. His desires would swell, and I’d fall victim to their pressure. Maybe I’d be swayed to live inside his house.
“Or if I could at least sit down,” said Richard. “My knees are beginning to hurt.”
I swung my hand along a nearby shelf and grabbed a framed photo; smashed the glass and held a piece of shrapnel between my fingers.
The noise startled Richard. He broke from my direction, and looked at me. “What are you doing?” Then, as he saw the glass and picture in my hand, he said, “Enough. This game is over.”
I tightened my grip on both the photo and my weapon.
“Be careful.” Richard stood and moved towards me. “That means a great deal to me.”
I looked at the photo. It showed Richard, decades younger, standing next to a man of similar age. They had their arms around each other. The grins on their faces were like those I’d seen in movies about people in love.
“This man…” I meant to ask about the picture.
“His name is Jonathan,” said Richard. “You know that.”
I didn’t. And I wondered what else I should have gleaned from Richard’s speech.
“Why are you acting like this?” he said.
Richard came close, so that I was forced to smell him. His face and its expression eclipsed my view. He was both unrecognizable, as I’d never seen him weep in such a manner, and familiar in the way that every anguished man could be. He seemed honest: terrified, unfulfilled, and wanting. I hoped that he could see the same qualities in me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, unable to stick him with the piece of glass. “I have to go.”
A week later, I had coffee with Whitney. She asked if I’d gone to see Jared.
“The dirty magician?” I asked.
“That’s one way to describe him.”
I told her that I had.
“Did you do what he said?”
“I’m still working on it,” I said.
“You must have wanted something big,” said Whitney. “My thing only took a night.”
“Whose cum did you use?” I asked. “Whose blood?”
She rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to be so crass; so mean about everything I do.”
I considered explaining, but apologized instead.
“It’s okay,” said Whitney. “I just hoped that you’d gone through with it, so I could ask…”
“Never mind,” said Whitney.
“Now I’m curious,” I said.
Whitney’s phone vibrated on the table. The screen lit up with a text notification. A message from Steve.
She picked up her phone. The skin on her face appeared to sag.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“If you’d done your spell,” said Whitney, “I would have asked if your dreams came true. And if so, whether they still seemed, somehow, out of reach.”