(excerpt from And All the Rest Divine)
By Bonny Finberg
Frank takes a selfie, pretending he’s looking at something on the screen rather than recording himself holding a beer alone in an empty bar, pumped up music elevating a mediocre moment into something wild and worth celebrating. He's a kind of celebrity since, now, he uploads it to Facebook, where it will be seen and hopefully liked and commented on by dozens of people. Yes, they're there—faces frozen in profile pictures on pages he's followed—Warcraft, NY Jets, Douglaston H.S.—likes adding up like hits in a pinball game. He’s never met most of them. Some in Santa hats, holding their cat, asleep with their dog, girls in soft-porny poses all slutted up, inebriated, people he doesn’t know or care about.
He checks if anyone liked his selfie.
Some guy, Bobby Blow, they went to the same high school in Douglaston, clicked “like” and wrote “Where you at homie? Let’s get tanked.”
Frank vaguely remembers Bobby. They haven’t seen each other in about fifteen years. He types back, “sure. i’m over at the Flea Bag on ave. A and 7th. i can wait a little longer if you want to meet here or someplace else nearby. DM me with your cell no.”
Bobby Blow was called Bobby Blow in high school because of his bad temper on the football field. Seamlessly, the name stuck, retaining its relevance after high school, when he got into coke. Years later, Bobby had a brief stint selling penny stocks for a bunch of opportunists who set up shop in a strip mall and worked their way up to become a Wall Street phenom worthy of a cover article in Forbes. Once the gravy train became their personal ride, these guys would get so loaded that they’d once or twice given each other blowjobs, adding further, though unacknowledged, relevance to the nickname. He tried to keep that little factoid in the realm of his blackouts. But the truth was, he “liked” giving blow jobs. Without the quotes. Still, his public conviction was that he preferred pussy to cock and even if he did suck the occasional dick it was because he was so smashed that he was out of his mind. That was before his other conviction, for domestic violence and possession of a controlled substance. When his girlfriend called him a low life he punched her, sending her backwards into the glass coffee table. She fell, cracked her head on the edge and knocked over a glass—four lines of coke floating in Bud and blood. Bobby looked down at her. “Yeah? And I have a rockin’ sick sense of humor, too.”
The neighbors were used to the noises coming from their apartment. They usually turned up the TV. No one ever called the cops. More trouble than it’s worth. That stringy-haired junky always shows up again after a couple of weeks. But this time someone did. Busted.
After eight years of a ten year sentence, Bobby was free to keep on doing what he did. But no more shoplifting. That was for kids.
Now, after six months on the outside he was trying to reconnect with the past he knew before all that. He found this dude from high school, Frank, on Facebook and figured they could hang out and see where it went from there. Maybe shoot a few racks of pool, get laid.
They decided on a bar further east, The Monkey’s Claw, on East Fifth and Avenue D.
Adjusting his eyes to the darkness, Bobby scans the room, not even sure he’ll recognize Frank, though there are only three people at the bar. Two of the guys are talking to each other with bursts of loud laughter. Frank must be the skinny one at the end with the smartphone.
Bobby always felt a little sorry for him.
Frank looks up from his phone. “…Oh, hey—I wasn't sure if you’d recognize me or— but… hey…yeah!”
There’s an awkward silence. They grew up not far from each other but, being a couple of years apart, had hung out with different people, had little in common.
Bobby’s not sure where to start. “Lots to catch up on…”
Frank does a mental inventory of his meh-ness. “Yeah.”
“...fill in the blanks... “You look the same...pretty much. Skinnier.”
“Yeah, Lost the baby fat, heh. You look the same. Pretty much.”
“A little more beer weight, I guess.”
“Yeah—Fuckin’ A—Ha ha.” Frank outside his body, watching himself… Stupid—Why’d you say that? So twenty years ago.
They laugh, first one, then the other, alternating, unsure.
Bobby nods toward the bar. “What are you drinking?”
“Rolling Rock,” smiling, a slight tremor in his cheeks from the effort, feeling fake as an emoticon. Maybe he’s made a mistake, meeting this guy. His unemployment check is due in a couple of days—he’ll buy the next round.
“When’s the last time we saw each other?” Frank asked, testing a vague feeling. Maybe it didn’t really happen—even if it did—just kids’ games.
“Wow, seems like a hundred years ago,” Bobby said, looking somewhere past Frank’s ear, which slowly reddened at the vague recollection that, yes, it happened.
Only fragments remain, things they did. They’d known each other well enough to nod in passing, grew up a few streets apart. Frank lived on a cul de sac in the yellow house bordered by red and yellow tulips, set in the center of a perfect circle of lawn, so green, so groomed, that it could have been astroturf. Bobby lived on the other side of the highway behind the strip mall, in a white house bordered by untrimmed hedges whose lives depended on the randomness of rain. They went to the same school, one grade apart, though Frank had skipped a grade. In the cafeteria, Frank usually ate alone, too embarrassed to sit with the seventh graders that he’d known since Kindergarten. The eighth graders were too much of a challenge. An unruly bunch with an excess of aggressive energy and sarcasm. Frank knew he was smarter than most of them, which only made matters worse.
Anyone driving on Main Street at around three-thirty on a given summer afternoon might see Frank riding his bike to the Dairy Queen. Frank’s mother told him he was getting fat and would break out if he didn’t stop with the ice cream, already. The mirror bore this out. His face was filling out, his nose a swollen, shiny bulb with a few red spots here and there. Worse, were his thick eyelashes, too curly for a boy, framing large, blue eyes that screamed “baby”. Even so, his dark hair and pale skin were a source of pride for his mother, who called him “Angel,” which horrified him. When they called him a snot-nosed fag in the schoolyard his eyes watered and his mouth puckered. But it was mostly the tortured attempt at his imagined self, playing out on his face, that amused the snarky boys in the schoolyard, or back of the classroom. Snort-laughing at his ridiculous, pathetic self.
When Frank went from sixth to eighth grade he was chronologically a seventh-grader though the height of a fifth-grader. Too quick to raise his hand with the right answer, he’d have to endure the inevitable “Baby Cheeks” launched from the back of the room. Frank had lately become consumed with the tyranny of his body, weird, unexpected hairs sprouting at the base of his penis, silky threads erupting from his armpits and legs overnight. He’d longed for a sign of impending manhood to rescue him. But, when it finally happened, he felt chained to a speeding train. Most disturbing was his desire to be touched. This was somewhat remedied by his own hands but his insatiability grew, as did shame. He wanted someone else’s hands, to be speeding down the crest of an open road, hands free.
Fifteen years ago, on the fifth of July, Bobby sat on a lawn chair scanning the backyard. The barbecue grill still held greasy ashes from the day before, and spent firecrackers carpeted the lawn. He considered the eight weeks of summer ahead. Weed and beer when he could get it, unpredictable erections for no good reason, with no object for his subject. He had a collection of magazines, naked women slowly vanishing under layers of dried cum.
Bobby’s mother worked at the Walmart, sometimes two shifts. Every summer she’d apologize for not being able to afford summer camp. He told her he didn’t want to go to camp, anyway. It was like school with bugs. He had better things to do.
When he heard his mother’s car sputter out of the driveway, he went to get a beer from his emergency six pack, stashed in an old backpack under his bed. He brought a can into the kitchen, dropped a couple of ice cubes into a glass coffee mug and took it outside with his Walkman. Happy as beer and weed in July, and fuck all you all, having a shit time at camp.
Bobby had a hankering for a Chocolate Dip. He got on his bike and rode down 25A toward the Dairy Queen. He ran into Frank and waved him over. They pulled off the road, leaning their bikes against a flagpole on the American Legion lawn.
“I have a Sega Genesis Mega Drive,” Frank said. “If you come over, we can play Lightening Force.”
“That is so cool. My uncle got me a NES Super Nintendo from a dumpster. It sucks. We could go to your house and…Hey—but guess what—I got some fireworks left over from yesterday. We can set them off at the beach.”
“Fireworks? Like, what, um, what kind? Like, firecrackers?”
“Yeah, that stuff, but I have rockets and cakes, and these ones that are like bombs.”
“Cool…Is it safe?”
“Shit, yeah. No problemo. You won’t get hurt. I’ve been doing it since I was ten. My uncle showed me. They’re back at my house. We can take them to the beach near the preserve. It’s usually empty.”
Frank’s day was looking better.
Frank waited outside while Bobby went into the basement and got the firecrackers. They got on their bikes and rode the fifteen minute drive to the beach. They stopped at a narrow strip of beach covered in smooth pebbles. It was half a mile down shore from a bird sanctuary. The sky was overcast, diffusing the twilight to a silvery blue. Bobby took out a joint and lit it. He took a toke and handed it to Frank. Frank looked at it, not sure whether it was what he thought it was. It smelled pungent and strange. He didn’t want to seem stupid, held it in the middle, not sure how or what would happen.
“Here, like this—don’t squeeze it. Like this.” Bobby drew in the smoke, held it and let it out.
Frank took it, held it to his lips. “I never even smoked a cigarette.” He drew in the smoke, coughed. “Whoa! Haha!”
Bobby took it back. “Joints are better than cigarettes man. I promise,” he said through sucked in breath.
“I don’t feel anything.”
“No? Here—take a deep drag—hold it in as long as you can.”
Frank held his breath. “Oh. Okayyy!”
“Yeah? Are you good? Like it?”
“Uhhh, I think so, yeah—Yeah.”
They got quiet.
Bobby spoke first.
“So you’re good at math or something?”
“Yeah. I guess so. But other things…”
“Like, I know a lot about knights and stuff. I have these metal ones. With horses and jousting lances and armor. I built this amazing Lego castle last year”
Bobby released a gale of laughter.
“You think that’s funny?”
“No, it just made me laugh.”
“Oh, ‘cause these guys in my class, they laugh when I talk sometimes.”
“Yeah? Do they know you like knights and stuff?”
“No way. Do you think it’s…I don’t know…weird?”
“Nah, nah. So what’s up with you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you gay or what?”
“Gay? What? Why?” His eyes got wide.
“I don’t know. I heard some kids in your class. They were saying stuff.”
“They’re dumb. They think they’re funny.”
“Yeah. That’s pretty shitty. And dumb.”
“Hey, lets blow those rockets.”
“Can we do the exploding ones?”
“Oh yeah— but here, look. Here—take it!”
Frank held the rocket in his hand. He’d never held one.
Bobby produced a pack of matches. “Let’s do it!”
Each time they set off a round, they screamed into the darkening blur of water and sky.
When they used up all the fireworks Bobby went over to his bike bag and pulled out a magazine. He flipped to the centerfold. “Look. Check this shit out.”
Frank had never seen a naked woman, except his grandmother when she was sick in the hospital and her gown fell open when they turned her onto her side. He tried to forget that. And he once walked in on his mother when she was getting off the toilet, naked. She hadn’t bothered to lock the door. He’d woken up in the night needing to pee, thinking everyone was asleep. He opened the door and there she was, bent at the knees, her hair all messy, a little unsteady, holding onto the sink. She shrieked when she saw him. He cried and ran back to his room.
The centerfold was a brashly colored photo of a redhead with angry red nipples, a shaved pussy and a bikini line.
“Wow—“ Bobby said, “look at her. I bet she sucks cock like a motherfucker.” He turns the page. “That one’s hot—I’d fuck her ass.”
“You would? In there?”
“Oh baby, yes I would. Shove it right in. Mm, mm, mmm…”
“Did you ever kiss a girl?” Bobby asked. “On the lips? I bet you never did.”
“I kissed my cousin once. We tried it once. I was seven. I think she was nine. She said she wanted to try it because she liked some boy and wanted to try it first before she kissed him. So we did it. It was weird… my cousin.”
“Maybe it’s good to try it out now to see if you still think it’s weird, you know—before you actually kiss a girl. Which will be sooner than you think.”
“What do you mean?”
“Hey, you’re getting to that age…you know. You don’t want the first girl you kiss to think you never kissed a girl before, right? They like experience. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Bobby placed two fingers between their lips so they wouldn’t really be kissing. “Like this.”
“You’re mustache thing…um…this is a little…”
“We’re just playin’ around man. Think of it as an education. All the ass is out of town.”
“I don’t really…”
“Come on…we’re not really doing it. It’s good practice. For the real thing.”
The air is still and heavy, water lapping at the rocks in a lazy rhythm. Bobby guides Frank onto the pebbles so they’re lying down, their nylon shorts sticking to their thighs.
“I think you know what to do now,” Bobby says, his voice splitting against his throat.
Frank has no clue about what to do. “What?”
“This thing,” Bobby says, touching the pen in Frank’s t-shirt pocket. “It’s digging into me.”
Frank takes the pen from his pocket and lays it on the ground. Bobby draws Frank’s head closer, places his two fingers between their mouths again and moves his hand down to Frank’s groin. Frank puts his hand over Bobby’s, thinking to push it away, but leaves it there. Bobby pulls the leg of his shorts out of the way so his hand is touching flesh. He moves his lips across Franks’ face.
Even though it’s happening, here, between their bodies, alone, self-contained, Frank is not in his body: Bobby is pretend-pulling on the elastic of Frank’s shorts, Bobby’s pretend breathing is warm against Frank’s ear, pretend hands are doing pretend things.
Frank tries to quash a rush of gratitude for this unexpected tenderness. Bobby moves his fingers from between their lips to the shaved hair along Frank’s nape. He presses himself against Frank and clutches his ass and they come in tandem. Frank squeezes Bobby’s thigh, surprised by his own muffled sobbing and Bobby’s triumphant grunt. Then everything stops, except for their thoughts, racing to catch up with their pulse. They stay that way for a while, the water tapping a quiet rhythm against the stones.
“Here’s to the new millennium,” Bobby says lifting his beer.
“The new millennium,” Frank repeats.
They clink bottles, avoiding each other’s eyes.