UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 05/2012
SETH S. MARLIN

THE SHAPES OF LOVE

         A man asked you once to go down on his husband while he watched, and this is why now you steal things. Understand, it’s just little things – a magazine here, a monogrammed lighter there. Sometimes it’s not even a thing, but rather a moment: an illicit peek into a client’s cellphone, for example. Fragments of other people’s relationships. The thing to remember is it’s not so much why as in a sense of causation or blame, but rather why does the apple tree bear fruit? It’s just one thing flowing out of another, simple really, and how could it be any other way? It’s not even stealing if you think about it, but rather curiosity. Collection. An archival of the shapes of love.

         They had you over on a night in early December, a good hour outside of the city by train. It was one of those safe upscale neighborhoods – bedroom communities – where so many of your more respectable clients seem to make their homes these days. Bedroom communities, you thought. Such safe irony. You nursed the word unspoken, let it linger like a drop of honey on your tongue, and the old woman across the aisle just sat there snoring. You smiled a bit, smiled in such a way that only your reflection in the window noticed.

         You’ve learned to be surprised by little in your work -- parties, group scenes, fetish work at the downtown clubs. What you didn’t expect was a dinner at home; what you didn’t expect was the client to hug you, introduce you to his husband as though you were some new fiancé, rather than some high-end rent boy in an overpriced suit. The dinner was delicious – penne in vodka-sauce with prawns. The music changed to Sade, then later Badu, and amid much talk and laughter you remember this as the most trouble any client had gone to showing you a good time. The husband didn’t say much, but the client did; he asked about your interests, your tastes in music and film, even – perhaps he caught your grimace as he asked this – your education. The client heard that name, that Ivy-League name, heard the phrases English Literature and minor in Gender Studies, and instead of judging you or asking why, he asked if you’d read the new Vidal letters in last month’s Atlantic. You answered no.

         Hell of a writer, he said. People always bring up Wilde or Capote, but only Vidal had the balls to go up there and shove it in people’s faces. He took a long slow sip of his after-dinner Moscato. The way we needed. I still have the article, actually. I can send it home with you tonight or tomorrow, after we’re done here. You blushed of course, smiled and said thank you. Then he leaned back in his chair, smug, and turned to his husband. What do you think? He asked him. Neil? I think I pick them pretty well, don’t I?

         The husband said nothing. The blood seemed to drain from his face, and he focused on a bit of prawn on his plate. He refused to look up, even as the client glared in his direction. Neil?, the client asked him.

         He’s very lovely, said Neil. Listen, is all this necessary? We could just as easily –

         Yes it is, the client said. The friendliness, the wit suddenly gone, replaced by something hurt and wanting to cause hurt. We had a deal, don’t you remember? You found yourself debating whether to excuse yourself, whether to ask if perhaps they might like to reschedule, but before you could speak the client turned to you, all dapper charm once again and smiled. If you’d like to make yourself comfortable, he said, there’s port up in the master bedroom. Up the stairs, down the hall on the right. Full bath. Take as much time as you need.

         And so you did. The music was still going as you slipped upstairs; you afforded yourself a shower and when you came out the client and his husband were lingering out in the hallway, arguing. They stopped as they saw you; you took advantage of the moment, smiled at them both and said So, gentlemen? What’ll it be?

         The client told you. Everyone has their freak, everyone has their little kink, and even though the husband didn’t seem entirely comfortable, you know just how to make a man comfortable. You set to your work then, you and the husband kissing, guiding him to the bed and undressing him, kneeling, totally wordless as the husband sat over your shoulder.

         It isn’t usually hard for you to work with an audience. This was different. The husband clearly enjoyed your ministrations – they always do – but instead of joining or even touching himself, the client sat, fully dressed, and leaned forward and observed. His breaths were loud and slow, like those of a man performing open-heart surgery, and you could feel the heat, the unspoken desire and rage, pent and roiling. Why deny yourself, you wanted to ask him, but true professionals never question. Instead you paused, wiped your lip to look back and smile at the client fetchingly, but when you did he wasn’t looking at you. This wasn’t about you. He watched with a hunger that no man, anywhere, has ever lavished upon you, and in that moment you realized whatever was going on there had been set in motion long before the call came in to the escort service. A moment was happening, a relationship moment, in the midst of which you were merely a bystander, a conduit, a vessel.

*

        So now you steal. The client sent you home with the Vidal article, after a long night and a shower and coming down to Belgian waffles on the kitchen table. The client was a different man after, smiling and engaged, a man who brushed his husband’s shoulder, kissed his husband’s cheek and ruffled his hair like they were just two undergrads again. Giddy. Hungry. Smelling of each other’s clothes. He hardly looked at you, but the husband surely did. His eyes held yours on the way out the door, and what was there seemed confused, uncomfortable. Lost. You felt the folded bulk of the magazine beneath your coat, felt its warmth and felt the warmth of something distant to you, something unknown. Something that had passed you by.

         What artifacts do we leave in our wakes? What detritus, what wrack for others to pick up and hold? This is the question that troubles you now, with every client. Two weeks ago, you stole a business card – Call me, it said on the back. Dale. The client was supposedly straight and married. Then the week after, it was a cigarette lighter, stamped with the engraving “T.K. + R.D., ‘87.” Your client’s initials didn’t match either of those sets, you knew – was this an heirloom? A relic from another time, another place? Whose were those initials, and what happened? Was this client like you, perhaps, a castoff, searching the beaches of other people’s hearts, collecting up whatever drift he could find and from that mass assembling a shrine?

         This evening a client, a businessman from Denver, went to shower and left his cellphone out on the hotel coffee table. It was late and the phone vibrated; the screen lit up and you couldn’t help leaning over, tilting it to have a little look. Megan, the sender’s name was. Happy Birthday Daddy, she said. I still love you. That word – still – troubled you. What could it mean? you wondered, but you never got to ask. The client came in, toweling his hair, kissed you and asked you What are you doing? And of course you grinned and kissed him and pulled him down on top of you and said You. But the theft had already taken place. Even if it wasn’t tangible, even if you’d broken no law or taken no trinket; the truth was still there. You’d held that truth, held it trembling and warm to your chest, and in that moment you held this client’s heart in your hands, and he yours, like a bird.

Seth Marlin is currently the Assistant Web Editor of Willow Springs magazine, as well as a staff contributor for Bark, the official blog of the Creative Writing MFA at Eastern Washington University. His fiction and poetry have appeared in M-Brane, Short Story America, and Greatest Lakes Review, and his nonfiction is forthcoming in the newly-revised Fourth Edition of Bruce Ballenger's The Curious Writer, due out from Longman Press in summer of 2012. He lives in Spokane, Washington, with his wife.







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