“Gloria’s Pet” originally appears in No Contact as a standalone story. Assembled here is a sort of short story diptych. In both “Gloria’s Pet” and “Storyboards,“ I’m interested in how the protagonists interact with (and actualize) their fantasies. This duality seemed to make sense to me for the theme, Naughty or Nice.
Hot Nate brings his Aussie to Gloria’s Pet the same day I bring Trixie in for grooming. We met when all this started. Meagan and I were stuck at home, but Trixie never had to stop visiting the groomer. If anyone would find a way to stay open, it’s Gloria. Hot Nate and I met in line outside. He strolled up behind me. His tank revealed a geometric bird tattoo up his biceps. Even though he’s always just gone running, he never really smells.
“Nice mask,” I said day one. It was a nice mask, tie-dye.
“Thanks,” he said. “Yours too.”
Which it isn’t, but, whatever. Mine are made of blue paper. I pull them by the strings when I get in the car and watch through the windshield as Hot Nate strolls back to his Honda Fit. He bends his head to fit through the door and drives away with one hand out the window.
Meagan and I watch movies every night. She likes to fall asleep on the couch so we don’t have to talk much before bed. Meagan and I met on an app a while ago and came to her parents’ second home when she said we should flee. Meagan describes her subscriptions to the New Yorker as aspirational. Meagan was sleeping with other men and never thought I’d notice. Now we’re stuck here and don’t know what to say. We’ll talk about it one day maybe. Last night she slept through In the Mood for Love, and I thought maybe she was signaling something. I was the partner cheated on.
Which would imply Hot Nate’s the cheated-upon too. Hot Nate must have a boyfriend or husband that works on Wall Street and relocated them here. Hot Nate must be a personal trainer or a yoga teacher relegated to online instruction. Hot Nate makes eye contact with me in line, which is the most contact I’ve gotten in a while.
“Never seen you at Gloria’s until recently,” he says.
“I’m hiding here for now,” I say. I nod at Trixie. She goes all doe-eyed for Nate, humps his Aussie, licks her butt. “Trixie’s high maintenance.”
“A high maintenance pooch,” Hot Nate says.
His must be too. We see each other every two weeks. I call Trixie a high maintenance pooch and Meagan asks why I’m saying that all the time now.
Here’s another thing about Hot Nate: his smoky eyes. I have this thing about eyes. They’re so fragile. I'm afraid of puncturing them, of acid thrown onto corneas, that kind of stuff. Without lips, a nose to watch while we talk, I have to focus on Hot Nate’s eyes, otherwise mine will trail over his arms, the keyboard of his ribs beneath his shirt, the sigh where his shorts cut off above the knee. Hot Nate’s boyfriend must expect things from him. He’ll do the shopping and the dishes and report to Gloria’s. Or maybe Hot Nate chooses to come to Gloria’s too. Besides, an Aussie can’t really need that much grooming. And Gloria isn’t so nice you’d want to see her every two weeks. You check out and she always lodges some complaint about your dog’s behavior, like your dog is this big disappointment. So, I just glare at the fish that swim behind the same glass with no new people to adopt them. Maybe I could bring one to Meagan to broker peace.
Which isn’t really mine to broker. Meagan goes outside to talk on the phone. She has work meetings in the sunroom and slinks out the screen door to the steps when she has a phone call. She says she likes the change of scenery, a break from her room. From her bedroom upstairs, I hear her coo into the microphone. I watch her disappear down the road to talk to her other men. Once she’s gone, I close the blinds. On top of the comforter, I climax seeing Hot Nate, the parking lot, our biweekly rendezvouses come to be.
I wait for him to broach the subject for a few weeks. Meagan says I play games, but so does she. Hot Nate says he works in tech and lives here year round. He mentions a husband, and I think, game on. I start speaking up because we know where this is going.
“How is that?” I ask when he mentions his husband.
His eyes do nothing. They dull. I look for a twitch beneath his mask. He says, “Good,” and goes inside. He shuffles past me without holding the door.
So next time I ask, “How’s your quarantine going?”
He’s terse. He’s cordial. He says, “We’re getting into Ozark,” and I nod and say, “No way, us too.” I pick up Trixie from Gloria and she says in her deadpan, “You missed your friend. He calls you a flirt.”
I chew my lip behind my mask. Trixie sits in the passenger seat and I pet her fluffy hair in the Starbucks drive-through. Home, I hand Meagan her almond milk latte. She says thank you, sips, says, “I like oat milk.” Condensation beads from the cup, and when the ice melts, I watch the liquid separate. My hand presses prints from the puddle on the counter.
I will say something to Hot Nate, will say, I think of you, want to be with you, then will tell Meagan, we’re done, we’re through. We can quarantine together, couple our dogs, save Gloria the trouble of double customers, double transactions. We are in the mood for love.
Hot Nate’s already waiting. I line up behind him and say, “Hey, Nate.”
He waits with his back to me, twirls the leash in his fingers. I watch the mask lift from his face when he opens up to say, “Either say what you want or fuck off.”
But I can’t say any of it, don't know how he expects me to articulate it. So behind his mask, I see him smile. He says, “Great,” and slinks inside.
We'd been dodging it for two weeks. For two weeks, we'd been traveling through India, meeting with high school students to talk about our colleges, and for two weeks we'd avoided the subject. We'd meet in the hotel lobby in the morning, chit-chat in the taxi when the driver brought us to site. We'd take turns presenting our schools. I came to await the soft R's of his Boston accent, how sexy he could make dining plans sound. On the way back, chit-chat of the lighter variety–what we'd drink in the lounge, how we'd put our paws up in no time, whether we’d have dinner together before calling it a night.
Our talks covered everything. Aspirations, college, his life paying ultimate frisbee in Seattle, mine moonlighting as an animator for an insurance agency, illustration the passion I was ignoring for the time being. Most of our talks I lost to the curls of his blond hair, the crinkle of freckles in his smile lines, the veneer where he'd chipped a tooth, frisbee accident.
During free time, we'd lazily squeeze in “cultural visits.” Masala chai whenever possible, the Taj Mahal, a morning walk past Jaipur's Pink Palace. Some days, his largesse surprised me–when he rattled a bag of almonds before my face when I looked frail in two PM heat, when he passed me a cold water bottle, condensation like ice on my forearm with his nonchalant, "Here." Other days, he'd vanish when we returned to the hotel. "Email," he'd offer, or else, “Jetlag.”
But our last night, after dinner in the city, our shoes smacked the hotel's mosaic floor. Fans shifted palm fronds in imaginary breezes. In the morning, we'd board diverging flights, Seattle and Atlanta by way of connections in Europe. With nothing to lose, I asked, "How about a drink?"
He'd had a beer at dinner, then another, both of which I'd matched. We were off the clock. His eyes shimmered, then relaxed. "All right. I can do a drink."
The elevator whooshed to the rooftop. It was a Tuesday, nine PM. An older couple drank globes of red wine at the bar. The host seated us at a table by the glass partition, separating us from open sky. "How's this?'
"Romantic," he said, winked at me.
We'd never talked romance. We'd kept it cordial, light-touch. Our bosses probably had expected we'd break some rules, the young ones set loose with corporate credit cards, necessitating a pre-departure talk about how international travel was a big responsibility. The two of us had unwittingly entered a game of professionalism chicken.
"Have any good books for the flight back?" he asked.
The waiter materialized. I ordered a gin and tonic. He followed suit. Game on.
"I’ll take an Ambien and wake up in Atlanta, " I said. "Presto, change-o."
"You don't mess around," he said. I shifted in my seat. My foot brushed his. He let it sit there, unbuttoned the collar of his linen shirt.
"You're a reader?" I asked, though we both knew I knew the answer. We'd spent two weeks on trains, planes, in airports and stations together. He hid his iciness inside novels while I bought snacks for the journey.
"I read," he said.
We clinked our glasses together. The first sips went down smooth, quicksilver.
Looking back on this night, I’d return to this moment, seeking to sketch each beat of this storyboard, inserting the signs that before I might have missed, imagined. Did his finger stroke a knuckle, two, three? Did he offer a wink, bat his eyelashes, say, I’ve never been with a dude?
He said, "I stay up late before long haul flights."
"Me too," I gasped. I was one for sleeping early, for bracing for the hours awake, wandering shoulder-width aisles when the Ambien failed.
He smacked his corporate card on the steel table. He knew my office had a no alcohol policy. With two weeks alone, we knew everything about the other. He tipped the waiter and in the elevator squeezed my ass. "I brought condoms." His breath coursed static down my neck. We rushed to his room, waiting for the deadbolt to deploy before we kissed. We pulled off shirts, slipped out of loafers, and fell onto his bed to unsnap belt buckles. When we threw down the sheets, he asked, "Are you a top or bottom?" I rewrote my response again and again, layering permutations of desire over one another like tracing paper. A light underneath the stack cast each iteration as one.
Before dawn, before I slid into clothes and hustled to my room to pack, before we kissed goodbye, we watched the planes taking off, red flashes swallowed by nocturnal smog.