Joe Marten is trying to get a good selfie in before he heads out for the night, but it’s not going too well. The light in the hotel room is too yellow; it accentuates the last few pimples left remaining of a particularly spotty adolescence.
The room is quite nice, considering what he paid. Peppermint and beige stripes colour the wall, there are a few nostalgic sepia-toned pictures of Melbourne above the bed-end.
Joe winces at the image of himself on the screen of his Kodak. Whatever, it’s fine. He can get a new profile picture elsewhere. He places the camera next to his other one, his chunky white Polaroid (Technically it’s a Fujifilm, but that’s not how he thinks of it), on the wood of the desk. He takes his coat from the back of the desk’s chair and puts it on. Is it too much, too faggy? He shakes his head, decides Brandon doesn’t give a damn about that sort of thing anyway.
He puts on a bit of cologne, looks again at his reflection in the mirror on the door of the closet, feels a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction with his body and the clothes that cover it, again. Pokes his soft chest and thinks that maybe he could’ve lost a bit of weight, for Brandon.
The key to avoiding disappointment, reads one of his mother’s fridge magnets, is to manage expectation. Brandon and Joe are to head to a bar, have a nice chat, maybe go clubbing, but they would definitely not leave it there. We’ll come back here, Joe thinks. He’ll catch his flight home tomorrow evening.
He’s decided on leaving and then his phone rings. It’s his mother.
“Hello, Joe,” she says.
He stares out the window, out to the backlot of the hotel and the cars parked there, some of them slowly accumulating a cover of palm fronds from the trees above them. The sky is golden, the skyline in the distance fast becoming a silhouette. “How are you going?” His mother asks.
“Yeah, not too bad.” Joe says. “Pretty chill.”
“What’d you get up to today?”
“Not much. I went to the Photography Museum, that was good. And then I went and saw a movie.” He says. Bullshit, all of it. He stayed in the hotel’s bar on the free wi-fi, drinking coffee, and trying to find the determination to do something. The nerves at tonight made it too hard to leave. Noon came around, and he realised he wasn’t going to be doing much else, so he bought a ham sandwich for lunch, returned to his room, and finished off the second bottle of wine he’d bought on the way here from the airport.
“Oh, what movie?”
He hadn’t thought to think of that. “Oh, some horror one. You wouldn’t have heard of it. It’s about this guy who’s haunted by the ghost of his dead lover. It’s French.”
“Oh, jeez, I can’t imagine Brandon liking that very much,” she says, and Joe smiles.
“What? No, I haven’t seen him today. He’s been busy working.”
“Aw what, he couldn’t have got the day off for his best mate?”
“I’m just about to go see him now, actually.” Joe says.
“So you’ve just been on your own?”
“Yeah, it’s been fine.” Joe says. He had a quick look over Grindr once he was in, but was too shy to respond to the few men who’d been interested.
“Oh. Heard from Eric?”
“Nah, can’t be bothered. We’ve moved on. It’s been long enough.”
“Okay. It’s just terrible that he’s left you to go to there by your own.”
“It’s fine, trust me.”
“Well, okay. Enjoy your night.”
“Thanks. You too.”
“Okay. Be safe,” she says, and he hangs up.
She’s worried about him, travelling alone, even with the lie that Eric and him had bought tickets to Melbourne way back when they were together and booked a hotel for the weekend, before the breakup. “Don’t do that sort of thing, planning something so far in advance,” she had said.
“I needed something for his birthday, and it was the next time we were both free,” Joe had said.
It made him feel guilty, but he didn’t want to answer any questions. What sort of nineteen-year-old went to another state by himself? What could make someone spend this amount of their pay from their casual job at the campus convenience store on a trip? Maybe it didn’t really matter that much From fifteen to about seventeen he’d reflexively lie to his mother about what he was doing on his weekends, and who he was doing it with. He’d been out to his friends for ages by then but kept putting off telling his mother. By the time he finally did it he’d fallen into the habit of lying to her, of covering up complexities. Maybe she knew, was indulging him in his protection of her.
Joe steps outdoors, to the walkway, and takes the stairs to the lobby, smiling at the receptionist on the way out. Outside, he traverses a narrow footpath with heavy greenery, passing quaint old-fashioned homes with little front fences of wrought-iron or hedge. He takes a cigarette from the pack in his pocket on the journey and smokes it. Directed to a tram stop by his phone, he messages Brandon to tell him he’s coming. He looks over their conversation, scrolls upwards and begins to see the big blue rectangles that denote his own messages, unpunctuated by any replies from Brandon for the period right after he’d left Sydney. Then Joe goes to Brandon’s profile page. His profile photo is one Joe took, he notices with pride. From that party last year, Brandon staring at the camera, cider bottle in hand. So many nights out and so much nightclub photography and he still hadn’t changed it. But, then again, Brandon had never really liked Facebook.
Joe pockets his phone, and blinks. There is a moment of disorientation, as it sinks in for the millionth time today what he’s here for, who he is off to meet.
A little more than nine months ago, Brandon and Joe sat in the backyard with a glass-topped table between them. Brandon was giving him a look, through the smoke of the cigarette between Joe’s fingers. It was both teasing and desperate and Joe had seen it before. Joe ashed into an empty beer bottle on the table and took another sip of his cider. It had been a relaxed party, only attended by about half the regulars, and the pain of having to put up with the boys of his high school year was lessened by the knowing that this would be the last time he’d have to deal with the machismo, the subtle digs at the way he dressed, the sense he was only being put up with because Brandon liked him, had liked him since before he’d been friends with any of them. Brandon and Joe met one another on the first day of Year Seven when they were both geeky misfits, which was the commonly held explanation of their enduring friendship. Anyway, it was coming to the close of 2013; university would start in a few months. Joe would be studying a Bachelor of Media.
Joe went through his camera, going over the photos: Connor Bloom posing with Verity Tong on the couch outside the back door, Rachel Green, cheeks alight with alcohol as she carried a bottle of Passion Pop to her chest like a newborn, standing alongside Gabriel Jacobs, or Rory Saunders, or one of a million people Joe wouldn’t contact after the party.
Then there the one of Brandon, staring into space with the Strongbow in hand. Something unsettled about him, Joe thought, on inspection. Restless.
“Good party, hey?” Brandon asked.
“Yeah, wasn’t too bad. No-one died.”
“Pass us a smoke?”
Joe nodded, got up, and took the packet from his pocket. Brandon smiled and poked at the duct tape he’d placed on it, to cover the picture of the warning label’s gangrenous foot. “Nice.”
“Yeah. Don’t like looking at it.”
Brandon took a cigarette out and put it in his mouth, looked at Joe for a lighter. Brandon’s lips curled into a smile when he lit the end of it. “I’m so fucked,” he said.
“You’re gone,” Joe concurred.
Their smoke splayed out in the illumination from the backyard floodlight. Brandon got up, unable to be still while smoking, and walked crossing the orange brick pavement to the grass. His thick leg hair, exposed by his shorts, caught the light as he surveyed the aftermath of the party, the beer cans and bottles and cigarette butts on the table, across the brick, lying in between the end of the tile and the dark green fence.
Joe lifted himself up, all woozy in his chest. “So. End of an era.” He said.
“Yeah.” He said. “I mean, you’ll still hang with me, right?” Brandon had known then he was taking the year off. He had vague plans of working and saving but also he said if he had to do any more study without a real break his head would burst.
“Of course.” Joe put his cigarette in the beer bottle. “I’ll be back in a second.”
“Okay, have fun.”
On Joe’s way in Brandon caught his arm and said, “Joe.”
“You gonna walk home or are you going to…You know, stay here?”
Joe stepped back, brushed off Brandon’s arm reflexively and regretted it. “I don’t know.” Joe said. “I guess I’m pretty drunk.”
He stumbled to the bathroom, in the dark, mainly navigating on memory alone. In the triple-panelled mirror in the bathroom, Joe stared at himself. He was fucked. He managed to undo his belt, lower his pants, and pee with fairly minimal difficulty. Jesus. Brandon. What was he doing?
Back at Joe’s, Blu-Tacked to his bedroom wall, there was a set of Polaroid photographs. One of them — maybe his favourite one of Brandon, which said a lot — was the one from the day Keira, Brandon, and himself caught a train from Hornsby to Woy Woy to go to the beach with a few of Keira’s school friends. In it, Keira and Brandon were standing in the water, their lips locked in a kiss. He was lithe, hairy, and beautiful, she was smaller, doughy, and cute. The ocean gleamed around their bodies. The photo came unbidden to his head and he felt a stab of guilt, and also mourning, for the couple that had not lasted.
Don’t get ahead of yourself, Joe thought at his reflection.
Brandon was gone by the time Joe got back to the backyard. He went back inside to the living room couch and took his shoes and socks off. The timber of the floor chilled his feet.
Joe found Brandon in his bedroom, noticed he’d turned the light on from the kitchen. Something was wrong: Brandon stared straight ahead, almost as if through Joe. The walls were decorated with band posters he’d accumulated from concerts. Singlets, shirts, and skinny jeans were strewn on the floor. Brandon’s guitar case leaned upon the wall, underneath the trophy he got for coming first in Music 2 last year. “Brandon?”
He blinked, tightened his jaw. “Oh. Joe.”
“You alright, bud?” Asked Joe, sitting beside him.
Joe waited on him, quiet. “Okay. I think I might be a little messed up.” Brandon said.
“I think I might be having some sort of crisis.”
Their knees were touching. Brandon smelled of sweat, beer, and cigarettes. “Oh?” Joe asked. He turned around, to look at him in the face. He lifted his hand and stroked the back of Joe’s head. “Brandon…”
He kissed Joe.
Brandon’s lips pushed Joe’s, too quickly, Joe was too surprised to feel anything. Then, he began to savour it, as Brandon’s hands crept up his side. For a time that could’ve been eternity and could’ve be a nanosecond, he left himself coast on a wave of dumb null bliss, before awareness pricked and Joe followed the intuition to thrust Brandon away from him. “Brandon.” This was not what Brandon is for. Brandon was for companionship, for safe intimacy, for having someone who Joe knew he could talk to about things.
“What? Come on. You can’t say you didn’t see this coming,” he slurred. “After what happened…You know.”
“No, no, it’s just…this really what you want?” Joe said. He got off the bed, wondering if he could still get home. He’d been in a comfortable numb state for the last hour or so but now he was all fired up again and too drunk to deal with it.
“It’s what you want, isn’t it?”
Joe said nothing.
He put his camera and his glasses on Brandon’s office desk. When Joe came back Brandon held him. The pair kissed, Joe undid Brandon’s belt and his own, and then Brandon was unbuttoning Joe’s shirt and Joe was pulling down Brandon’s jeans, then his boxers, and Brandon’s hand was through his hair, down his shoulders. Joe with his mouth around Brandon heard his name being called into the dark: “Joe, Joe, Joe…You’re so great. You’re so hot, fuck.”
A few minutes later, Joe’s jeans were now around his ankles, and his shirt on the ground. He finished himself off. After, now they were both done, there was a beautiful set of moments where Joe just lay there, watching Brandon’s chest rising and falling
“I’m going out for a smoke.” Joe said.
He threw on his shirt without buttoning it before he left the room. He didn’t want to fall asleep just yet, he wanted to milk this odd calm as long as he could.
Outside, on the front verandah, Joe lit his cigarette. A car droned past, illuminating leafy suburbia for a moment. His eyes followed it past front gardens and sparse streetlights to the intersection down the road, which it zoomed past, alone.
Back in the bedroom, Brandon laid on his side. Joe locked the door behind him, let his shirt fall to the floor, and re-entered the bed.
“So. What happens now?” Joe asked.
There was no answer. Joe sat up, in the bed. Brandon’s smell was all over him and the disbelief at what’d happened occurred to Joe as a series of tremors. Joe kissed Brandon on the cheek, rested his head on Brandon’s chest felt his heartbeat and wondered if his own was synchronising to it. He tightened his grip on Brandon’s shoulder. What he wanted was everything to remain as it was, right now, in this moment. What he wanted was total stillness.
Joe gets off the tram at Bourke Street. It’s evening and he’s anxious, caught in the momentum of the group of people leaving the vehicle, walking for a while, dazed by the sheer mass of the people and the sound of traffic and the array of shining names from the stores he faces. He texts Brandon: “My tram’s arrived, you near?” His eyes catch on a pair of men with linked hands, leaving the MYER building. He forgets not to stare. Not used to seeing that kind of thing.
He looks away, hope he doesn’t come across as a potential threat. Looks down at the pristine white button-up he’d ironed today and his coat and smiles to himself at the notion.
“Yeah, coming up now.” Brandon texts.
Joe’s guts are seizing up. What to say to Brandon, what to tell him? Did he bother mentioning anything significant to him tonight, or should he keep it light? He wonders at the chances of there being no mention of Eric, for instance, or Brandon’s coming out, or his mother, just small talk for the rest of his time here. But their friendship hadn’t been like that, had it? Brandon told Joe once he liked hanging with him because he could be real with him in a way he couldn’t be real with his mates. Could they go back, to that?
“Hey,” Brandon says.
Joe turns around and then he’s here. It takes Joe’s head a moment to accept that this is Brandon Wolfe, in the flesh. It’s been four months but Brandon’s posted no new photos and he’s changed. His weight’s fallen away, there is a certain new hollowness around his eyes.
“Hey, Brandon.” Joe is unsure how to greet him, but Brandon doesn’t go in for a hug or anything so he stands there, feeling awkward. Brandon’s dressed in his tight blue jeans and a red zip-up hoodie with one of the sleeves frayed at its end.
“Been a while.” He says. “You’re dressed nice. Seeing someone special or something?”
“Nah, not particularly.” Joe says.
Brandon smirks again. “Suppose you want to get a drink somewhere.”
“That would be nice.” Joe says. “I was thinking dinner, too, if you want.”
“Okay — I haven’t eaten, let’s get dumplings. I know this place that does $6 beers.”
“Cool. Do we walk there?”
“Um, we could, but there’s a tram which takes us right near it.”
“Okay.” Joe says. “How was work?”
“Work? Work was…work.” Brandon says. He’d managed to get a job at the same franchise of electronics stores he had worked at before. “Same as back from when I was in Sydney.”
“Yeah, nah, it’s about the same, except there’s more of them, like I said.” He says.
“Yeah. Not that bad.”
Joe works at maintaining the conversation, sort of stunned that Brandon is here, listening talk to him talk about the house he lives in and where he eats during his lunch breaks and recent films he’s liked, the conversation only broken by the tourist who asks Brandon which tram to take to get to Brunswick. Joe keeps noticing Brandon’s looking at a space a little above his shoulder, like maybe he’s looking for a more exciting acquaintance to pass by. What to say, to get his total attention?
The tram comes before the answer does. It’s absolutely packed with people, Brandon and Joe just squeeze in. Joe reaches for the last free handle attached to the ceiling to keep him from falling over and so does Brandon, and then his hand brushes Joe’s. Both pull away. “Bit intimate,” he says, leaning in.
When they leave the tram, Brandon lets out a yawn. Joe notices his posture’s been tensed into a rigid stooped position and relaxes his shoulders. They head into a laneway. On either side of the two blue and pink graffiti flames on the walls. “Have you been alright?” Brandon asks.
“Yeah, not too bad.”
“Not too bad?”
“Well, you know. Uni and work are most of what I do.” Joe says. “I got a few photos in the student magazine, though.”
“Oh, really? What of?”
“Just the sculptures on campus. I did a bit of research into a few of them, nothing too exciting.”
“I’m sure it was great,” he says.
“Yeah, they wanted to have something a first-year could do and talk about the uni. They’re pretty…I don’t know, about community spirit and being PR for the uni.”
“Right-o,” he says. “You should do some more music photography, that could be fun.”
Last year Brandon had spent some time playing guitar for a hardcore band an older friend of his had been involved in. In a record store Brandon played a show, and Joe was paid to do photos. It didn’t go too well. He’d spent a fair bit of the pay in advance to buy clothes that’d make him as straight-looking as possible, and afterwards the drummer had complained that Joe had taken too many photos of Brandon, which wasn’t fair cos Brandon was really the only good-looking member. Brandon had gone back to his usual indie-folk sound right after the band had broken up, not long after that. His only explicit comment about the time was that he felt his voice had been wasted.
“Maybe, I don’t know.” Joe says. “Shows are very loud, there’s lots of people there. Anyway, are you writing any songs, or anything?”
Brandon’s grin falls away the moment he realises he’s been asked about his music. “No.”
Joe and Brandon walk under red paper lanterns and glowing hànzì symbols in the quiet for a time before he speaks again. “I haven’t had the energy for music. I think…I need to be in the right head-space.” He says.
“Fair,” Joe says. “Um, do you want a cig?”
“Oh? Yeah, heaps.” Brandon says. “I was going to ask you, actually…Didn’t you quit, before I left?”
“I caved,” Joe says, shrugging.
The pair get a table for two on the second storey of a dumpling restaurant. The waitress at the front seems to recognise Brandon and they chat a bit before he and Joe are seated in a booth. After they’ve ordered, Brandon rests his elbow on the black wood of the table and looks at Joe, his hand supporting his head. “What did you get up to today, all by yourself?”
“I went to the Contemporary Photography Museum, that was good. After I went and saw a movie.”
“Oh, yeah? Where at?”
“Just in the CBD.”
He nods. “I can’t stand films by myself.” He says. “Shame Eric couldn’t just come with you, as friends. You guys are still good, aren’t you?” Joe had told him the same lie about Eric and hoped he hadn’t asked the other boy about it.
“We gave friendship a go for a while, but it didn’t really last.”
“I still can’t believe you booked a holiday together three months in advance.” Brandon says, the way he’s looking at Joe now suggesting he’s being literal.
“Well, I don’t know. We were young and dumb, I suppose.”
“And now you’re all old and wise?”
“Older, wiser, I suppose.”
Between the two of them, the silence begins to develop an alarming thickness.
Joe’s relationship with Eric Andrada took root in the university bar when he entered the cycle of twice-weekly drinks with a new set of friends, but it soon happened that they’d be the last ones left, talking for hours, before they began to meet at the smoking spot, before a nervous proposal found Joe in a cinema, watching Eric’s face react to the film rather than the film and feeling overwhelmed with the intensity of his own affection. He couldn’t believe that when he was not scanning social media in lectures or having paroxysms of anxiety over rapidly approaching due dates, he got to be with someone like Eric. There’s a photo that he would look at in the gloomy, wayward days right after the break-up: Eric cross-legged on the patchy grass of the university’s smoker’s spot, long brown fingers around the end of his cigarette, each filament of his glossy dark hair more lifelike than life. “I like that you’re a photographer,” he’d said once, his eyes glimmering with the patient indulgence he always looked at Joe with. “I’ve never gotten more Facebook profile picture likes than I have lately.”
He’d never felt this way about anyone before, not since…, except for…But those memories he’d locked up. He did mention Brandon, in a bedside discussion about his sexual history, but only as ‘a straight boy,’ deliberately making it sound like something that was resolved. Joe spent most of his free time with Eric on campus and on Fridays they’d go out together, either out to Oxford Street or the parties that he had with his friends. Another new thing: gay friends! He preferred it, did not have to scan sentences in his head before he said them as often he’d done in high school. The only way he felt different from the rest were that they all had the same ectomorphic twink build. Occasionally, at the oddest times, he would feel a burst of self-consciousness at the feel of his gut, or his inability to look good in a singlet.
There’d been no word from Brandon since the hook-up.
One night at Stonewall, Joe left a bathroom and saw Brandon at the other end of the bar. If he’d seen Joe, he didn’t react. He felt an urge to run up and announce himself, but kept still instead. While Joe stared and wondered what to do (what to say?) Brandon grinned as someone approached him: a muscular dark-haired boy with a wide-jawed Disney Prince handsomeness.
He grabbed Brandon by the waist and kissed him, drinking in Brandon. Jealousy churned in Joe’s gut.
Joe waded through the crowd toward Brandon, unsure of his own motivations — Why pick that scab again?
Brandon’s features lit up with terror at the sight of Joe. “Hi.” Joe said. “Brandon. What’re you doing here?”
“What — What’re you doing here?”
“I’m with friends, they’re on the next level.”
Brandon’s eyes darted about the place, like he was looking for an exit. Joe didn’t know what he expected. Not this, not silence. “It’s been a while.” He said.
Brandon shook his head. “Piss off, Joe.” He said. Hurt splintered in Joe’s chest.
Brandon held the arm of the guy he was with and headed out onto the street. Joe watched, feeling, for a few moments, as though he was above his own head and watching a film. This docile, distanced state lasted a few moments before he remembered he had a hand in the course of things and followed after, down to the ground floor. The street was a relief. It was cooler and more quiet.
“What, Joe?” He asked, turning around. “What do you want?”
“Where’ve you been?” Joe asked. “I’ve missed you.”
Brandon shook his head, smirking. “What do you want me to say to that? After the party?”
“Well, I don’t know. I thought maybe we could talk about it.” He said.
“Joe, listen. You don’t know anything, okay? It was nothing. Just a hook-up, I don’t — fuck, don’t fuck up something by overthinking. You always do this.”
“Brandon.” Joe said. “What if Keira was here? How do you think she’d take it, if she knew what you were up to? I mean, are you gay, or bisexual, or are you just using…Whoever this is.”
Brandon was about to respond when his man took his arm, and said something inaudible into his ear. Brandon nodded. “Piss off, Joe. I’m headed home. Don’t follow me unless you wanna get hit.”
Joe’s throat seized up, he was scared if he kept talking he’d cry. Instead, he nodded. Brandon headed down the road, soon disappearing in the bustle of the street.
Joe was hollowed out. Someone from the queue outside the door yelled out something about drama and he just stood there for a while, frozen again. Sunk, still, caught like an insect in resin in the helplessness of this moment. There had to be a way to keep Brandon.
There was a hand on his arm. Eric’s. “You okay?” He asked. “Was that him?”
“It was.” Joe said.
“Okay.” He said. “Seemed pretty dramatic. Do you wanna head back in, or to another bar, or…”
Joe pulled back.
“Nah, I think I’ll head home. I don’t know. I’m kinda feeling messy. It’s been months.”
“Well, I mean, you don’t have to go home. We could go back to mine. If you want…” Eric moved out when he finished school, he lived in a little share-house in Ryde, a few suburbs away from the uni.
“Oh, uh, sure, yeah…Fine, let’s do that.”
Brandon blocked Joe on Facebook. He noticed on the trip to Eric’s place.
One night, about a week later, Joe was in his bedroom browsing through Tumblr at about 11:30 when he got the text message. He saw Brandon’s name and wondered if it’d be like how when Brandon first got his P’s. Brandon would text him at times like this and then they’d generally go for a ride around the suburbs, eventually ending up at somewhere for dinner. Joe read the message: “Hey, I’m outside yours. Wanna go for a trip?”
Fuck him, Joe thought, lacing up his Vans, and again when he put on his hoodie, and then for the third time when Joe saw Brandon’s Mazda beyond the fly-screen of his front door. “Hey,” Brandon said, when Joe got into the passenger seat.
He steered his car onto the road. “I guess I should apologise, hey?”
“That would be good.” Joe said.
“I’m sorry,” he said, coming to a red light by the train station. “I kinda freaked out at Stonewall that time. I was…I don’t know. Paranoid.”
“Okay,” Joe said. The lights changed, they were moving again. “Who was the guy?”
Brandon shook his head. “Ugh some fag — ugh, shit, sorry.”
Joe laughed. “I mean, aren’t you allowed to say it now? I mean. Now you’re…whatever you are.”
Brandon blinked and leaned forward, like he was concentrating extra-hard on the empty bridge over the railway. “Yeah, I get ya.” He said. “Um, I won’t be too angry if you did, but you haven’t told anyone about what we did?”
“You mean at yours?”
“Yes.” He answered.
“Nah, Brandon. Oh. Um, I mean. I told someone but you don’t know him. Uni friend.” Joe said.
“Oh, um, why?”
“We’re sorta a thing and we were just talking about that kind of stuff and it came up.”
Brandon turned into the car-park of a McDonald’s, a little fast over the speed-bump by the entrance. The pair got out together and Brandon lit up before he fully left the vehicle. “Can I…?” Joe asked. His cigs were in his backpack, by his desk at home.
“Yeah.” He said. “Um, I’m gay.”
“Oh.” Joe said. blowing out smoke. “Fuck. Shit — I mean, you know, I knew, but…”
“Yeah.” Brandon said, grinning. “Feels good to say it.”
“You realise you don’t have to be, right? Just cos you like guys? You could be bi, you know…”
Brandon shook his head. “It’s guys.” He said. “If it was girls and guys I’d keep quiet about it.”
“…Am I the first person you’ve said it to?”
“Nah. Told Clara the night after what happened between us.” Clara, his sister who flew off to Melbourne as soon as she graduated high school. Joe remembered punky variations on their school uniform, constantly shifting hair colour, and the surprise that a brother and a sister could get along as well as she and Brandon did. “Well, I didn’t tell her about that, but I did tell her, you know. About my situation.”
“Was she fine with it?”
“Yeah, totally. Said it was a good thing there was one less straight man in her life than she’d thought.”
“Well, that’s good.”
There were a bunch of teens hanging out on the wooden tables outside and Brandon stopped when he saw, squinting. “Just checking it’s nobody we know.”
The pair walked in, ordered, chatted a fair bit. Only when they put their brown paper bags down and Joe noticed how close their hands fell on the top of the table did he feel guilty about Eric. “So…How long have you known?” He asked.
Over that meal Joe learned that Brandon had been suspecting since they’d been about sixteen, but he’d gotten months in with Keira before he’d known for sure. Nobody in particular had triggered it, if Joe had an impact Brandon did not want to discuss it. This, despite the time Brandon came in after one of their pre-Keira drives and he was really upset by losing another girl and they’d talked about it in Joe’s room for a while and then they got drunk on a bottle of Wild Turkey Joe got for his sixteenth birthday from his father and they’d ended up making out on Joe’s bed for a while. Neither of them even took their shirts off or anything, when Brandon and Joe hooked up there, but it still seemed to mean more than anything else Joe had done with a boy up till then. They’d never talked about it, but then their continued friendship was built on a lot of things they didn’t talk about. Joe remembered these things, these apparently mutually agreed points of non-discussion, and knew they had a basis in reality: little touches, glances, the occasional reaching of Brandon’s hand to Joe’s thigh, as he drove the two of them to school. He did not have to keep doubting their reality. Joe would sit alone in his room sometimes and just stare at the photos on his wall, the ones of Brandon, wondering what lay beneath that cool deflective smirk. He wanted Brandon. Also he wanted to be Brandon: near-universally liked, confident, uncomplicated.
But it was over, he was dating Eric. Brandon started to come out with them. Joe watched across the strobe-lit dance-floors of Oxford Street clubs, as Brandon drank and kissed boys and drank and kissed boys and drank and kissed boys.
The conflict in wanting Brandon and continuing to date Eric was one that only vaguely occurred to Joe as a sort of odd guilt. Him and Eric hadn’t even confirmed they were boyfriends, in fact he’d seen Eric sneak a few casual kisses with the other guys, here and there, but Eric would assure him later it was nothing, it was casual. So Joe walked between clubs with his hand in Eric’s hand and stared at Brandon, in the lines for drinks, in cages on dance-floors, being taken home by other men. They barely talked properly between the drinking and the dancing and the banter at parties. During the times they were smoking together, in an alley behind a club or a balcony of one of Eric’s friend’s apartments, words got caught in Joe’s throat and never found their way out. What to say, he’d wonder. What to say?
The tan of Brandon’s cheeks start to flush up. He yawns and checks his phone while Joe eats his dumplings. The conversation is casual, like one of the two is leaving in a moment and therefore does not have the time to discuss anything important, or interesting. Casually, Brandon glances at him and asks: “Have you been seeing anyone?” Joe had gone out on one date since he and Eric finished. He was a guy from Tinder, another student, but in the third or fourth year of his degree, cynical and sort of condescending. Their dinner in Newtown before an indie film and a brief encounter that never went past head in his sharehouse had no sequel, because he blocked Joe on everything the next day.
“Nah.” Joe said. “I got ghosted, that sucked.”
“So you’re single.”
“Why the interest?”
“…Okay. And you?”
“Oh, well, you know,” he says. That dumb smirk.
Brandon fiddles with his chop-sticks for a moment before he says. “Yeah. There’s been guys. Whole stack of them. But, you know, nothing permanent.” He says. “Another thing I’m not in the right head-space for.”
“Fair.” Joe says. The place is starting to fill up, there’s a couple sitting next to them and discussing moving out together — “I know it’ll be a pain to get the commute, but it’s what we can afford” — On one side and another on their left, but Joe’s thinking they’re breaking up — “This is so painful for me, too, don’t you realise?”
“When you talk about your head-space, are you talking about the depression?” Joe asks. He feels the alcohol as a warmth in his extremities.
Brandon smirks and sips at his beer. “Right for the throat.” He says. Joe says nothing. “Yeah, it’s the depression.”
“And it’s been like that since you’ve come here?”
“Well, you know.”
Joe doesn’t reply. He just watches, and waits.
Brandon sighs and says, “Well, when I left home, I realised there were a lot of things I hadn’t been dealing with well, as you might’ve noticed. So once Clara let me stay in her spare room. I didn’t have parties or clubbing or work to go to, I kinda just collapsed. And I’m not there yet. I haven’t gotten over it yet.” Brandon says. “I know it’s been months and I know I should be getting over things but…there’s a lot. There’s a lot to think about.” He takes another mouthful of beer and looks at Joe like it’s time for him to change the subject. More waiting, more watching. Brandon starts again. “To tell you the truth it sucks. I didn’t used to think about shit, but now every day I’m just scared, you know? I never used to question what I was doing and now I do. And Mum keeps calling, every moment she could once she first started regretting it, but most days after a few weeks.”
“And you don’t pick up?”
“No. I don’t pick up.”
Brandon had come out to his mother via letter before he went to work one day. He’d come home to find her livid and horrified. Joe had heard quoted bits of what she’d said, that it was disgusting he’d been lying to her about where he went and who he was with, that Joe had influenced him into thinking it was cool and he’d get out of it, that his father would not have wanted it for him if he’d been alive, that it was gross, a phase, a sad and lonely life full of heartbreak and disappointment.
Brandon sighs. “There was other shit, too. We’d been growing sick of each other for ages. She’s not a well woman. Maybe I got it from Dad and her. This mental illness bullshit.”
“How is living with your sister?”
“Well, I mean, she looks after me. I wake up, go to work, come home and spend my evenings doing nothing on the internet.” Brandon says. “If I don’t have work, I just sort of stay in bed.”
“Brandon…I didn’t realise.” Joe says.
Brandon grins at him. “Turns out years-long repression isn’t good for the mind. Who’d’ve thought it, hey?” He says. He blinks, and looks away, like he’s remembered something. Like maybe there’s a space the two of them have been edging towards this whole evening and they’ve gotten too close and it’s gotten too real and now there is a need to shrink away. “But don’t let me just sit here and talk about my problems all night.”
“Okay,” Joe says. “These dumplings are good, how are yours?”
“Yeah, they don’t go too bad.”
The pair pay and leave through the front. Joe pulls his pack of cigarettes from his pocket and offers one to Brandon, who takes it wordlessly and waits for Joe to finish lighting up. He walks away, towards a rubbish bin in which to ash, and the red neon signage of the restaurant finds his features. There is a moment of recognition. Joe feels on a night like this not long ago on another street Brandon looked just like he does now, with the light on his face, standing in that slightly stooped way of his. Holding his cigarette in his mouth, Joe reaches for his bag, then his camera case, and he takes out his Polaroid.
Joe takes the cigarette from his mouth after pulling the lanyard over his neck. “Really, Joe?” Brandon asks, taking a drag.
“I haven’t taken any photos all day. “
“I haven’t seen anything worth keeping. Come on. Stay still.”
Through the viewfinder Brandon’s looking at Joe in his usual half-embarrassed, half pleased-to-be-noticed way. Afterwards Joe returns his camera to its case, and then, once it’s come out, he puts the film in his wallet.
“I want to go somewhere,” Brandon says, lighting up.
“We could go to a bar, or something,” Joe suggests.
Brandon considers it. “I don’t really know anywhere, except for where I’ve been for work drinks.” He says. “Maybe I’ll go home.” Is this all tonight is? No, no, Joe has to stop it, Joe has to. He does not know what it was he was seeking, only that he had yet to get it.
“Um, there’s a place I saw, near where I’m staying. Nothing special, just a normal pub, but if you wanted to go back to mine, afterwards…”
Brandon looks at Joe very seriously for a moment before his lip curls into a grin. “Are you asking me back to your place?”
“I might be, yeah,” Joe said.
“Why don’t we just head back there, then? Get something to drink on the way?”
“That sounds nice.”
“But don’t think I’m going with anything in particular in mind.”
“I live without expectation,” Joe says. He puts the photo in his wallet.
The night before Brandon left, he was smashed, half-coherent, making out with strangers at a rate even faster than usual. Joe was already in a bad mood: Eric and him had had their first argument that afternoon, because apparently Joe hadn’t been making an effort to spend enough one-on-one time with him. “It’s always with our friends, or always you, me, and Brandon. Can we just hang out by ourselves tonight, instead of going out?” Joe told him he wanted to go out, but they could spend the next day together. While they danced in the club Joe’s phone began to vibrate in his pocket. He snuck up to the stairwell to answer it.
“Joe…Joe, baby, they kicked me out. I need you. I need your help.”
“What? Where are you?”
“I went to the park. I’m really sick. Joe. Can you come? I’m just in the bit past where you walk in.”
Joe tore out of whatever nightclub it was, mouthed quick goodbyes to whoever he was with. He found Brandon, in Hyde Park, drunk on a park bench with his hand rigid over the bench’s arm like he might fall off. He was staring off at something Joe couldn’t see. “Brandon?” He asked.
“Got sick. Drank too much,” he said. “They kicked me out, from the club. I was throwing up in the bathroom.”
“Oh, shit. I didn’t know you were that bad.”
He shook his head. “I’m a mess.” He said.
“Do you wanna go somewhere else? You don’t seem that bad now.”
He shook his head again. “I don’t want to go back there.” He said.
“Did you want me to walk you to the bus-stop, or…?”
“I can’t go home,” Brandon said. “Mum doesn’t want me there.”
Brandon told Joe the story about how he’d come out, got in a screaming match with his mother, and things had been fucked between them ever since.
Afterwards, he was quiet for a while. Possums tittered above them, in the fig trees. “I called Clara today.” Brandon said. “She said I’m welcome to come down anytime I want.”
“Yeah, but, obviously you can’t do that.”
“How would you get there?” Joe asked. “For one.”
“I’d drive.” He said. “She has a room, she’s offered it to me before, whenever it’s been free. And it is at the moment.”
Melbourne had been a possibility for Brandon for years, one that he had discussed, but Joe had never thought he was serious about it. At one point he and Keira’s plan was to move down there the moment he finished school — Keira had dropped out when she was seventeen. “Do you want to stay at mine, for tonight? Mum loves you, she’ll be fine with it for sure.”
“Okay,” Brandon said. “Yeah, that’d be good.”
Joe’s phone began to ring. He picked up Eric’s call. “Hey, Joe, where are you?”
“Um, I went to the park. I’m with Brandon. He got kicked out…He’s pretty smashed.”
Eric sighed on the other end. “Is he going home?”
“Well, I think he’s gonna stay at mine. So I’ll be leaving.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Joe.” He said. “Fine, do that.”
“No, don’t, I can’t…Come on. I’ll come up to yours tomorrow, okay?”
“…Okay. Sorry I swore.”
“That’s okay. I’ll hang out tomorrow. Promise.”
Brandon and Joe caught a train together, packed and full of drunken conversation. Together they slipped through the middle of a carriage and found two empty seats. Brandon watched the stations pass through the window, not talking. Joe wondered what Brandon was thinking about as he stared at the smear of lights the outside world was becoming. Then, Brandon did something incredible: he leaned his head on Joe’s shoulder. He stayed still for the rest of the trip, supporting that weight, smelling Brandon’s hair gel, shocked at the closeness. When Brandon woke, near the station near Joe’s place, he grinned at him. Joe thought about getting a clear answer here, he thought about ending the mess in him and finding out what Brandon really felt. The moment stretched on, as the train slowed down to a stop.
Joe didn’t do it, didn’t get past his fear in the forty-fiveish minutes between Town Hall and his local station.
The walk took fifteen minutes and Brandon said he felt sober by the time they got to Joe’s.
When Joe got home, Brandon walked into his room and kicked off his shoes onto the floor and sat on his bed. “You don’t mind sharing, do you?” He asked.
“Nah.” Joe said. “So you’re going? Like, it’s confirmed?”
“Yeah,” Brandon said.
“What about the group? They’ll miss you.”
He shook his head. “They only like me cos I’m hot. The moment I start to talk about any of my shit they tune out.” He said. “I mean, it’s like in high school. They’re still guys, except the banter’s different.” Joe wanted to disagree but found he couldn’t tell him he was wrong.
“Do you remember that night, I came here?” Brandon asked. He was looking at the photos on the wall. Parties, formals, casual trips to the city, all of them encapsulated, all of them containing Joe and Brandon.
“You’ve been here before Bran.”
Brandon rolled his eyes. “The night after I went on a second date with Sophie and she was really into it and I…was not.” He said. Joe hadn’t known the details of that evening, till now.
“Oh.” He said.
“I think knew I was gay then. I dated Keira after and I know it’s shit but that was the night I first really knew. I denied it later but I knew. Because of you. That was the worst. I thought about…I was in a really dark place.”
Joe put his best sympathetic face on but inside he was glowing. Brandon had pointed at the past and declared, “There, it all happened. It was special. It mattered.” Joe turned his head, slightly, and Brandon pulled Joe toward him, then he was over Joe’s body, supporting himself with either hand on the sheets. He put his hands underneath Joe’s shirt and let them ride his skin, kissing him, now he was taking off Joe’s shirt, Joe let himself kiss him, felt him, came close to him, for just a second longer, just a second longer, just a second…
Joe broke away from him, clambered off the bed, grabbed his t-shirt and put it back on. “Nervous?” Brandon asked.
“No, no.” Joe said. “It’s not that.”
Brandon presented himself, his chest thrust forward while he supported himself with his hands. “What is it?” He asked. “What’s wrong?”
“If we keep going, I won’t be able to stop.”
“What? That’s okay. I was thinking we’d finally fuck.”
“No, Brandon, I didn’t mean stopping the sex.”
“Well, what’d you mean?”
“I didn’t mean sex, I meant…Whatever. It doesn’t matter.” Joe said. “But I don’t know…Eric and I haven’t established any rules, or anything, but if it’s you…Maybe not.”
“Right.” Brandon said. “But come on. It’s just a fuck. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Maybe not to you.”
Brandon frowned, sighed, and pulled his jeans up. Both Joe and Brandon dressed themselves. “Can we cuddle, at least?”
“Sure.” Joe said. He went for a piss, came back, found that Brandon turned the light off. Joe sank into a moody, fumbling darkness, let Brandon’s hands over him but recoiled when he touched his lips to his neck. He laid in his bed and he watched and he waited for an end to longing.
Brandon left the next morning. The night, the fact that Joe had lost Brandon, that he’d had a chance and missed it, haunted him. He ran over and over the period after the hook-up after Brandon’s party again and again, and felt himself falter. There was little physical withdrawal from life, nor tears, just a certain slowness that accompanied each of his actions, an inability to convince himself he was having fun at parties and at clubs, an aura of indifference that permeated his every interaction. He submitted assessments only a day or two late and attended his classes but only put in what he could, which was just enough to get by.
The only person who knew the depth of his ailment was Eric. He copped the semi-ironic mentions of despair and the murmured complaints that Joe missed his friend and was sympathetic the first time Joe admitted he couldn’t fuck because he was too sad, but by the second time it happened, he wore a barely disguised look of irritation that suggested something along the lines of, ‘I knew he was a little weird, but this is not what I signed up for.’
After a party one night, which he watched through the fog of his mood from the corner, speaking only when spoken to, Eric went silent on him. No replies to his Facebook messages, and no returned texts. Three days of this passed before Joe got a call from his boyfriend, telling him to meet him at the university bar. There was a bit of chatting when he sat down, but both knew why Eric had called. “You’re too distant for me.” Eric said. “I can’t keep being your emotional crutch, or whatever. I need someone who’s fun, and outgoing, who’s not waiting around for something better. You’re depressing me. I’m sorry.”
On the way back to the hotel, Joe and Brandon duck into a liquor store and buy a bottle of Wild Turkey, and one of Coke to mix it with. It’s quiet between the two of them, their conversation murmured and sporadic, but it’s less weighty than the previous silence. Joe just watches Brandon, unable to stop staring. He feels a little like if he doesn’t Brandon might vanish, into the ether. Once they’re away from the shopping strip, Brandon lowers his hand and takes Joe’s.
“You know,” Brandon says, when they arrive at the hotel, “Most of the men who take me to hotels like this are a lot older than you. Some of them are married, even.”
Joe smiles at Brandon and does not want to ask if he’s joking. Joe pours them both drinks while Brandon lounges on the bed, before taking a spot on the chair. Brandon’s taken his hoodie off, is stretching his arms across the bedhead. His t-shirt’s exposing the bottom of his chest. He gives a groan as he stretches. Joe clenches his glass, hard.
“Fuck, nice bed,” Brandon says. He kicks off his shoes, takes his socks off. Joe offers him his drink from the glasses he found under the sink when he got here.
“Can I ask you something, Bran?” He asks, as he’s undoing his shoelaces.
“Sure, what is it?”
Joe looks out the window. Melbourne’s skyline glitters in the distance. “Do you ever, you know, uh…do stuff with guys when you’re sober?”
Brandon’s grin disappears, like he’s disappointed in Joe’s seriousness. “Well, I was drunk all the time after I started sleeping with guys back in Sydney, so…nah. Never been sober with guys. Why does it matter?”
“I don’t know. I was just asking.”
Brandon grins again and sips at his bourbon. “This is the first night I’ve really had a lot to drink in Melbourne, actually.” He says. “I’ve missed it.”
“Glad you’re enjoying it.”
Joe would like to say something lovely. He would like to say something true and clear. He just keeps watching Brandon instead, watching him sitting on the corner of the bed, undoing his belt. Is he imagining the slight longing in the glances he’s receiving in return?
He sits on the bed, feels Brandon’s arm against his. What to say? No answer presents itself. He leans in for a kiss, instead.
Brandon’s hand thrusts his chest. There’s a laugh. “Wait,” Brandon says. Joe’s panicking — did he misinterpret the signs? No, no…Brandon picks up his drink and sculls the rest of it, before he returns it to the carpet. “Just needed to finish it.”
Then Brandon leans down over him and oh God, his breath is hot, his hands are so warm, he’s on the bed now and they’re together, they’re kissing, just like he’d dreamed it. Here, again. “Wait, wait!” Brandon says. Joe withdraws his hand from Brandon’s jeans.
“Can we just…go slow?”
“Yeah.” Joe says. He’s surprised, but complies. A few minutes later, Brandon stops, pulls away. His eyes are red and wet. Joe doesn’t know what to make of it so he just follows his instincts and holds him. Brandon’s head is against his shoulder.
“You didn’t need to come here, did you?” Brandon asks.
“No. No, I chose to. I missed you. I wanted to see you again.” Joe says.
“I love you. Fuck I love you.” Brandon says. Joe holds him tighter. “Shit. I didn’t wanna cry like a bitch.”
“Are you okay? Want me to get dressed?”
Brandon backs off and wipes his eyes. “Fuck. Fuck. No, no, don’t do that. Come on. Fuck me. I don’t wanna think about it. I don’t wanna think about anything. Chrissake.”
Joe does as Brandon says. He lifts the rest of Brandon’s clothes off, takes the lube from his bag and a condom from his wallet, lays Brandon on the bed, head on the pillow, fucks Brandon, his hand tight on the side of his chest.
After, depleted, the two lie atop the sheets. Joe thinks of getting up and switching on the lights but doesn’t. It’s a perfect moment. He feels like he could leave here, go home, never trouble himself over Brandon again. And yet. He looks at Brandon and that harsh wanting is still there. Feeling self-conscious, Joe pulls his underwear back on. His shirt’s still on him, unbuttoned. “Um, Brandon…?”
“Do you reckon you’ll move back to Sydney?” He says. There’s a moment of self-targeted revulsion when he realises it sounds just like the time he asked his dad if he’d ever get back with his mother.
Brandon turns around on the sheets. He reaches for his ankles and pulls his boxers up. “No, Joe.” He says. “I’m staying here. I like Melbourne. Better coffee, public transport, live music scene — I mean, you have lock-out laws. All those nice things people talk about when they talk about Melbourne are true… Plus there’s a distinct lack of my mother.”
“Right.” Joe says. “Well. If I ever moved here, do you think…I mean, potentially, um. No. No. Forget I said anything.”
Brandon’s eyes are widening. “Spit it out.” Brandon says. “Whatever it is you’ve been trying to say.”
The words, the bright beautiful words that might make everything perfect, are out of reach, as they always have been. He uses the ones he has. “Okay, fine, I’ll spill. Look. I want to know if we could be together. I’ve thought about you constantly ever since you left, and for ages before that. I couldn’t keep Eric because I was too hung up on you, and it stings knowing we never really got the chance to be together in the first place. Maybe I’ll move, I don’t know. I think maybe you’ve been feeling something similar. Otherwise you wouldn’t have kissed me that time at my place, and you wouldn’t have brought me into your room after your party, and you wouldn’t be here now, either. I just think…Maybe we could be a thing?”
Brandon’s looking through Joe. That look again, that wide-eyed stare into oblivion. What did it mean? Joe feels more naked than he has ever been in his life. Then Brandon shakes his head and Joe’s heart stops cold. “No, no. Joe…No. I knew you liked me, but, fuck, I didn’t know it was that bad. Jesus. Ah, shit. This is awkward.” He says. He shakes his head more and finds his jeans on the floor.
“You said you loved me.” Joe says. “Just before.”
The pair stare at one another as Brandon dresses. “I’m sorry. I’m lonely, I’m out of it. I just wanted some contact. I didn’t know you wanted more than that.”
“I mean, was there ever a chance, if things had been different…”
“Don’t think about it.” Brandon says. He’s dressing himself, again, he’s picking his socks off from the floor. “You’re just drunk. Don’t let it get to you.”
“Can’t you stay here?” Joe asks. “I won’t say another word about it.”
“No, Joe. I’m going home.” Then he glares at Joe. “For fuck’s sake, Joe. You don’t get it. You don’t pick up on anything, do you?”
“I’m sorry, we can — “
“Don’t worry about it. Forget I said anything. Forget any of this shit.” Brandon says. He opens the door, and hesitates. “…Don’t call me, or anything.” Then, he leaves.
Joe waits for a while, then shifts on his jeans, and finds his packet of cigarettes in the pocket. Barefoot, he steps outside, onto the walkway, sighs, lights a cigarette, and smokes, ashing to the car-park.
Brandon is gone.
He wants to go back. He doesn’t know what it is he wants to return to, could not state what halcyon it was he dreamed of if he was asked, only that he has a certainty that the distance between it and him is widening, had been widening, with every moment. He wants to go back. He doesn’t finish the cigarette, he gets sick of it halfway through and lets it fall to the darkness below. In his room, after he’s undressed, he finds his wallet, and takes out the photo of Brandon outside the restaurant, lit up in red. He feels the weight of his lighter in the pocket for a moment, shakes his head, scrunches up the photo. He stands and walks to the bin in the corner of the room, pushes down on its plastic lid and drops the photo inside. He turns off the lights, and moves himself underneath the sheets.
Through the uncertainty of what he’s feeling there comes a painful consciousness of the lack of a body next to his, and a terror strikes through, a dumb but white-hot fear that his aloneness is final, that there will be nobody for him, that this will not be the last time he stares at a ceiling in a dark room, painfully conscious of the lack of a body next to his, but the way he will end each day for the rest of his life.
What is he doing here? Why had he done this?
Joe stares at the ceiling, the darkness broken by a square of silver from the walkway lights. Both neuroses and the last hope that Brandon might come back begin to whirl away like smoke in wind. In the wake of the evening there is a leaden fatigue, a conviction that this is the last time he will hurt himself like this, that never again will he allow himself to feel so vividly, to ache for someone so fiercely.
He wants to go back.