by Thomas Kearnes
His back to me, Benjamin sits nude at the edge of the bed. I lie on my side a few feet behind him, also naked, as if something still might happen. This isn't the first time he's mentioned his cancer. Three times, he's had it. Survived them all. He's grateful, he says. So grateful.
There are other men in the hotel room. We have an hour or so before Benjamin's boyfriend returns with the dope. My friend, Roman, wants some for the ride home. He and I drove two hours to get naked and listen to our host talk about his disease.
“Where was it?” I ask.
Benjamin twists his neck to face me. Skin sags from his slim jaw and cheekbones. His eyes are bright even in the darkness of the room.
“Which time?” he asks.
I don't know what comes next.
“When you were in the hospital during Christmas,” Roman says.
Benjamin turns to Roman. I fire my friend a look of gratitude. With strangers, he's so much better than me.
“It started out in my stomach,” Benjamin says and points at an incision wound below his sternum. “By the time the doctors found it, it'd spread to my liver, too.” Benjamin continues and Roman takes a seat. He wants to listen.
On the drive here, Roman said men would like me more if I were friendlier. People want to like you, Ash, he said. I don't think friendly was the word he intended. Perhaps he meant to say attentive. When they're spun out and suddenly too exhausted or preoccupied to fuck any longer, some men tell you stories. About their exes, their lousy jobs, the corrosive emptiness at the center of this whole scene. They don't say corrosive emptiness, of course. But that's what they mean.
I look at the other men draped about the room. There are four of them. One emerges from the shower, drying his hair with a towel. Another piddles behind a laptop with one hand while stroking himself with the other. The two remaining men lie naked caressing one another on the twin bed beside mine.
I consider getting dressed.
“My grandmother was my last living relative,” Benjamin says. “She died a month after I got diagnosed again last year. I wasn't worried about money or anything—I had plenty of that. But it was so lonely in there. I felt so alone.”
“But at least you could afford to be sick,” I say. “That's something.”
Benjamin is just as high as the rest of us, so when his head jerks a bit after hearing this, I don't know if what I said has truly registered or if he merely realizes someone else has spoken. While Benjamin is distracted, Roman lifts a finger to his lips and glares at me. I lean over the bed and search for my underwear.
“That must've been awful,” I hear Roman say.
Awful, I think, gathering my clothes. Awful is driving two hours for men who wanted nothing more than an audience while they gave each other the same pleasures they'd give any other man in any other room on any other night. Awful is waiting and listening and the other man knowing you can't leave so you must listen. Awful is this.
“I never think of it that way,” Benjamin says. “It made me strong. It made me believe there's someone up there who's got my back. He doesn't care if I'm gay, he doesn't care about that shit. I was in pain and he knew that and he helped me.”
I pull on my T-shirt over my jeans. I'm grateful no one notices me. I stand and cross the room. I cast a quick glance over to Roman. His face grim, he nods but not to me. The door squeaks when I open it.
“Where are you going?” Roman asks. Benjamin doesn't turn to see where I've gone.
“It's a little smoky in here. I just want some air.”
I can tell by Roman's face that I've put him in an awkward position. I'm always doing this. Saying the wrong thing, drawing the sort of attention no one wants.
“I'll be back,” I say and slip outside.
A few doors down, I sit on the stairwell connecting the first and second floors. I light a cigarette and wrap my arms around myself. It's too chilly to wait outside, but I can't go back. I don't want to hear about Benjamin and what the doctors had to cut out of him or how many times they cut it out or where it had to be cut from. I don't want to hear about what Benjamin found inside himself after all that cutting.
From the top of the stairwell, Roman calls my name.
Dressed, he hurries down the stairs. “What's the matter with you?” he asks.
I hold up my hand and shake my head. Roman sits beside me. When he
puts his hand on my leg, I realize I want it there.
“I'm sorry. I just had to leave.”
“Everyone thinks there's something wrong with you.”
“Maybe there is.”
I can't look away from him. He says my name again, but there's no anger in his voice, no pity. I'm not sure what's there, so I kiss him. I feel his arms encircle me and I reach my hand to his face. As we kiss in the cold dark morning, something foreign and essential multiplies within me, and even if a doctor could cut it out, I wouldn't let him.