Eric Van Hoose
Before he left the house, Joe fixed a Jack and Coke and put his favorite tape in the VCR. It’s old, one of the first he ever made. Back then, all he had was a cheap handheld and a tripod. The footage is ropey, and pushes across the screen in separate strands before sorting itself clear. In it, two enlisted men he met at a McDonald’s after a night of drinking sit on the edge of a queen-sized bed in a dim motel room. Both have stripped to wife-beaters and boxers—a pattern of green clovers on one, red hearts on the other. Their eyes are locked on a TV off-screen. Four empty Budweiser bottles line the top of the air conditioner. The camera records the creaking and clipping as Joe grips it, mounts it on a tripod, angles it just right. The image steadies, and his voice—shaky, with a hesitance it doesn’t have anymore—asks them to scoot closer.
“I’m gonna get some ice,” he says. “You two enjoy the video.” The men don’t acknowledge him. They stare at the TV. Behind the camera, the door squeals open, then shut.
Both men scoot back on the bed and lie down. The left fluffs the pillow behind his head. The right picks something—maybe a piece of lint—off his thigh. Neither takes his eyes far off the TV: its pulsing light washes over them. A woman moans—a sound that registers as a faint crackle—and the right moves his hand inside his boxers, slowly, like he’s sneaking up on himself. The left points at the TV, asks, “You ever been with a girl like that?”
The right says, “Nope. Not yet, anyway.” They chuckle at that, but they don’t look at each other.
They swig from their Budweiser bottles, and after a while the camera’s red light becomes something they don’t notice anymore. They put on quite a show.
When Joe put it online, it got more attention than he dreamed it would. Around twenty-five thousand views, last he checked. The runtime is seventy-eight minutes, but he doesn’t watch past the first twenty—those minutes when they talk, when they don’t dare move their eyes from the TV. Each sidelong glance they give each other—there are seventeen—is so potent that Joe’s ears get warm. He hits the pause button when the one on the left reaches over, never looking away from the the TV, and settles his hand on the other’s thigh, rubs it like he’s never touched another person in his life. It is the most beautiful thing Joe has ever seen.
He sipped his drink, admiring that paused image. He’d spent years trying, but hadn’t captured anything as fine and as pure as what those two had going.
In the years since, word spread. Of all the amateur, unscripted sites, of all the sites with a focus on men in uniform, his was among the most popular. No more motels. He had a room set up in the house now. He had the right equipment. Money came—a lot of it—and so there were regulars. He had to draw up contracts, hire people. Now, even the first-timers knew what he was expecting, didn’t much need his direction. He knew there wouldn’t be any shoots like those first ones, when it hadn’t been planned and he’d been scared, not yet used to it. It used to be he never knew how the nights would turn out. There wasn’t any routine to stop things from feeling real. Now, it was mostly professional, cold and rehearsed.
He took a last, long look, then turned off the TV. He showered, dressed. He was careful about his clothes when he was scouting. After he settled on jeans, cowboy boots, and a simple grey button-up, he still had an hour before the bars would be going full steam.
The only computer in Curtis’s house was in the half-finished basement. The stairs were just planks, so he could hear his mother coming—to switch out the laundry or empty the litter box—early enough to get himself back in his pants and close what he had on the screen. There had been some close calls, but usually he was alone.
Most of what he found, he didn’t like. The gay sites were filled with boys with wispy blonde hair and arms like string beans, spreading themselves open and doing things he wasn’t sure he wanted to do. But that didn’t stop him from searching. By the time he was fifteen he’d found a site where the men were strong, where their voices were deep. He watched the short, free clips and imagined the rest.
Those videos flickered behind his eyes, repeating all day as he slouched in his desk. Men in uniform—marines, soldiers, sailors—by themselves or in twos or threes, drinking, watching dirty videos, pleasing themselves however they liked. Sometimes there was a woman. Each video started with the same man’s voice, relaxed and sibilant, conducting a short interview, always from behind the camera: “Tell me one of your fantasies.” “What makes you want to do adult videos?” Later, the voice made suggestions, urged the men on. Curtis sat in class chewing his pen, seeing the hungry, happy smiles on the men’s faces, their quick glances at each other.
There were nights when he spent hours without feeling time pass. Afterward, in his bedroom, time slowed. Sleep didn’t come. There was a shame that moved in waves, pulling him with it, a little further out each time. Sometimes it got so strong he moved the covers aside and kneeled on the carpet in the cold, prayed for it to stop. That was all he knew to try. Some nights the praying got him calm enough to sleep, but other nights he stayed awake, listened to the house settling around him.
There were other nights when he rolled on his stomach, propped himself up, and tried picturing Melissa Green underneath him. She was pretty enough. He pretended to stroke her straight blonde hair with one hand, her white teeth visible in the darkness. She was the only girl he’d spent any time with, riding around the back roads in his mother’s Park Avenue the summer he got his license. Dropping her off one night, he parked in front of her house. A thick, awkward silence—the kind he’d feared—covered them like a blanket. He made himself move to kiss her anwway, and even as he was doing it, he knew he wasn’t doing it right, couldn’t do it right. Acid sputtered in his stomach. After that, they’d stopped talking.
The email came around eleven. Joe had the lights off—there was just thin moonlight and the static rumble of the ocean passing through the window. The subject line said, Thanks from Ohio. He opened the message and read:
I’ve been thinking about writing this email for what seems like forever. I just wanted to say I’ve been watching your videos for a long time. They’ve taught me a lot about myself, and they make things not so bad. I don’t know what I’d do without them, so I wanted to say thanks.
A Long Time Viewer
Joe copied and pasted his form reply: Thanks for your interest in MilitaryManeuvers.com. Your feedback helps us continue to deliver the best content possible, and we appreciate your continued support.
But he didn’t send it. He leaned back in his chair, laced his fingers behind his head and read the email again. He made up a voice to go with the words, one that had the slight drawl that comes from some parts of Ohio. He let that voice speak to him. He sat a while longer, letting things settle, then started typing a personal response. It only took a minute.
The streets were empty. The night air boiled through the car and blew through Curtis’s hair. He slowed to turn into the alleyway that ran behind the house. The headlights hit the trashcans and garage doors and shrubs, pushing shadows onto the gravel. He shut them off before turning into the two-car gravel lot, knowing that if he didn’t, they’d shine into his mother’s bedroom window.
At the side door, he worked the knob, felt it turn, the bolt sliding out of the frame, then pushed it open. Inside, he stilled and listened until he was sure he hadn’t woken her. He slid out of his shoes so his socks would be quiet on the steps and went down to the basement. He sat and wiggled the mouse. When the monitor lit up, his e-mail was already open. At the top of his inbox was the subject line: RE: Thanks from Ohio. The message had been marked as read. The realization that his mother had seen it created a painful, sawing sensation in the bottom of his stomach. He read the words as if she were standing behind him:
Dear Long Time Viewer,
I don’t get many e-mails like yours. It’s nice to get some real appreciation. If you’re ever near sunny Sacramento, drop me a line. Maybe we can share a drink, assuming you’re of age and all.
Either way, thanks for the kind words,
He went upstairs to his room, stepping softer than before, holding his breath. After he got in bed, he calmed himself, got his breathing to come slow and easy.
The morning would come, and they’d have to talk. He tried closing his eyes, concentrating on what he’d say. There were so many things he couldn’t tell her—how he locked the bathroom door and studied his face in the mirror, seeing if his lips were too red, too full, if his eyes had that longing in them, how he wondered all the time if there was any way for people to see it in him the way they saw it in Dylan Lamphrey at school. He couldn’t tell her how much he cried, how he felt like he was watching life through a ripped screen door, how the panic came on and made him feel like he was about to float out of himself, into a dark circle that only got thinner.
The darkness let up some, just barely, and the birds started up, their chirps stitching the air—just a few at first, then more, and he fell asleep.
He slept until one. Even after he woke, he stayed in his room, willing himself back to sleep. But the sunlight was pushing through the blinds, gliding in bars across the covers and the carpet, and she was running the vacuum. He opened his door and stepped out, rubbing his eyes with both fists. She was there in the hall, bending down to free the cord from where it was snagged under the base.
“Finally up,” she said, still kneeling by the sweeper.
“You sleep all right?”
“There’s a little OJ left, some cereal. I’m running to Kroger later.” She was standing now, trailing him. He was almost in the kitchen when she asked, “You want to talk?”
“Not really.” He reached to take a bowl from the cabinet. Turned toward the fridge, kept his back to her.
“I saw your e-mail,” she said.
“Well.” She sat down at the kitchen table. “Come sit. You can eat in a minute.” She waited for him to settle in the chair, then started in. “I wasn’t snooping, I swear. You left it up. I only read it since I thought maybe you went out of your mind and were thinking about joining the army.”
“I’m not doing that.” It was all he could think to say. As soon he finished saying it, the silence came in close.
He stayed still as she picked at the edge of the plastic placemat, then put her hand on his forearm. He didn’t look at her.
“Well,” she said.
He looked out the window. Cottonwood fuzz floated through the air, formed a dull, white clump at the bottom of the only tree in their tiny yard.
“It’s nobody’s business but yours.” He felt her eyes on him. “But you know I’ll listen—if you ever want to talk.” A moment passed, and he could tell she was waiting to see if he’d say anything. When he didn’t, she said, “That’s really all I’ve got to say.”
After a while, he didn’t know how long, she said, “Okay, then.”
And he said, “Okay.”
She tapped her hand on the table, three times, then stood and walked to the vacuum.
From the corner of the bar, Joe watched two women on the cramped stage, flailing their arms, making their eyes steely, stumbling their way through a bad version of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” The night was fixing to be a dud. The sky looked like rain and the air had that damp weight, so there weren’t many prospects out. But the two women stepped offstage, clicked their boots back to their table and sat down with two men that were damn fine: soldiers for sure—high-and-tights, muscled, spread out smiles.
He was already thinking about how they’d look on film. He could tell the type that might be interested, see that restlessness in their eyes, in how they cut their bodies through the room. These two looked to have it in them if he could get them away from their dates. He’d had enough to drink to think about trailing one into the bathroom, tilting his head at the urinal, saying something like That thing ought to be on video. He kept an eye out, but they weren’t moving.
Watching them, he felt like he could see all the young men—on the planes, knees against the seatbacks, boots laced tight, coming from Indiana and Louisiana and Dakota and Mississippi and Georgia and Ohio and Arkansas, their uniforms and the soreness from sitting making them walk stiff. They spent their weekends eating at the chain restaurants and shopping at the Wal-Mart and drinking cheap beer at karaoke bars like this one. A lot of them hadn’t been out of their hometowns, and there was a look in their eyes, a glassy surface, some stage of silent crying, that made it clear they were willing to make everything new. They were so wide open and loose, taking everything in, that he could see them shredding to strings in the warm breeze.
It was past one-thirty, and his energy was running low. He ordered another drink—a vodka Red Bull—something he didn’t like but drank anyway, thinking of the Marine kid from Hawaii who’d put him onto it last summer. He watched more people step onstage and make fools of themselves under the cheap red and blue lights.
Before long the bar was nearly empty, and he was at the end of it pushing himself up straight, trying to stay awake. His chin rested on his chest and he stopped picking it up. He focused on the thick, dull thumping of the music, the voices like white noise, and closed his eyes. The sounds lulled him, and he fell asleep on the stool in the corner of the bar.
Some men by the pool table clustered together, grabbed each other’s arms, and pointed in his direction. A woman put her hand to her lips and leaned forward, mouthed Oh my god. She dug her phone out of her purse and held it up, aimed it at him. His head was cocked to the side. Specks of spit had dried in the corners of his mouth. In the dim light, the pictures were grainy, but they showed the ripples of his double chin, the way his breasts sagged under his baggy shirt, his crossed arms rested on his stomach. The woman passed the phone to her girlfriend, who focused her eyes on the screen, then laughed.
The bartender saw, but didn’t nudge him, didn’t ask if he was all right. He looked around the room, made last call, and kept serving drinks, waiting to close.
Home from school, in the basement, Curtis left the lights off. He signed into his e-mail and re-read Joe’s message. He thought about how he’d word a reply, then started typing.
I’m only eighteen so I can’t drink, which sucks. I probably won’t be in California any time soon, either, but if I ever am I’ll definitely send you another e-mail. You never know.
He stopped typing and imagined the possibilities. Him and Joe behind a camera, watching, drinking beers. Maybe they could work together. He realized how it all sounded, but kept writing, more to himself than to Joe.
My name is Curtis, by the way. I feel like you should know that since we’ve been writing like this. You must be easy to talk to in person. Sorry if it seems like too much, but I’ve got a lot of questions, like where do you find the guys for the videos? How do you talk to them? It must take a lot of guts. I haven’t talked to any guys that way. But maybe it’s not so bad. You’ve met so many guys, I bet you could teach me a ton.
Joe never appeared in the clips, but Curtis had heard enough of his voice in the videos to picture him: a heavy man sitting alone in a red, dimpled diner booth, holding a burger with both hands, watching people coming and going.
I can’t imagine meeting a guy, how hard it must be. It probably isn’t that way for you. Your videos are full of amazing guys. There must be so many amazing guys in the world.
Curtis stopped typing and read from the beginning. When he finished, he knew he couldn’t send it. He went to delete it, but couldn’t bring himself to do that, either. He read it again, just to be sure, then saved it as a draft.
There was time, just enough before his mom got home from work, to watch some videos. He found the newest clip, one he hadn’t seen before, and clicked play.
“We got a shy one tonight,” Joe says. The camera is steady, pointed at young man whose legs rest straight out on the bed. “Why don’t you tell everybody where I met you?” Joe asks. His words slide together. The young man glances at Joe, over at his bottle of beer, then at the TV. He doesn’t say anything. “Well, you want me to answer for you?” Joe waits, takes a few wheezy breaths. He coughs, then starts in: “Well, I’m doin’ like I do, doin’ some shopping at the Wal-Mart, and I’m spendin’ a little extra time in the underwear aisle,” he laughs. “And then, I see…” The young man tries not to smile. “Then, I see this…” The camera zooms in, and the young man’s face fills the frame. “This angel.” The shot goes blurry for a moment. The image refocuses, and the camera zooms out. The young man links his hands behind his head and closes his eyes. When he opens them, he looks into the camera and his mouth pops into a big smile. “Look at that smile,” Joe says. He’s not talking the way he usually does, the way he talks to some of the others. “I think I’m in love.” He says it like he means it. He makes a soft moan, from his chest.
The young man takes a sip of beer, undoes his belt buckle and speaks for the first time: “You wanna gimme a hand over here?” But he doesn’t mean it, not really. He already knows the answer. He smiles again, this time a half smile.
The camera zooms out, further still, showing the young man’s full body, the hole in the left knee of his jeans, and when Joe speaks, there’s pain in his voice. “Now you know I can’t do that.” He drags the words out, makes a windy half-whine. “I want to, believe me. But I can’t.” He takes a shallow breath, then says it again. “I can’t.”
Eric Van Hoose lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. His fiction has appeared in Tweed’s, Fiddleblack, Avatar Review, Poydras Review, and elsewhere. Other writing has appeared in The Black Scholar and Salon. He’s a regular contributor at Full Stop.