Humberto hadn’t meant to become a faculty wife. He lowered his eyes after he said this, his fingers thrusting a looping straw to his lips, and he sucked up the colorful cocktail with the edible glitter.
It was unclear when we first met at Boots whether it was a friend date or a date-date. Humberto had written on his profile that he and his partner Lenny were open, but that he was also looking for friends. He knew no one in our small college town, and had already had his sickly share of department shindigs. This was before the arrest. And though Humberto didn’t say this explicitly, it seemed to me he had his regrets about the move. He’d left his job at the large, prestigious museum in San Francisco—a job ten years in the making, so close to landing the curatorial duties of his dreams. But he believed in love first. That sounds stupid, doesn’t it? he said.
I licked my lips, my cocktail already drained. I’ve never been in love, I said. I wouldn’t know.
He flicked at the bridge between his eyebrows, buckling his glasses back to place. He had wolfish features—a swollen but snatched nose; when he smiled, his gums showed, his canines always catching the light; and the bottom-half of his face had the general feeling of being on a pedestal, up for show. Taken altogether, the features were pleasant to the eye, if a bit unusual. But you believe in it? he asked. Love.
I really don’t know, I said. My leg was shaking: I wanted him to finish his drink so I could see if he’d order a second. I wanted his permission to do the same.
It’s not so easy to come by a tenure track position, you know? he said. I did know. It was all anyone in grad school talked about. The market. We had no prospects upon graduation, we all knew this, yet we had still signed our lives away to the ivory tower of academia. This was probably why so many of us had our own private addictions.
The lights dimmed. A young squat woman tapped the mic at the back-end of the bar. I told Humberto I was sorry, I didn’t realize it was open mic night. He waved this away with a smile, faintly amused. The woman told jokes about the dating scene in town, which meant she told jokes about being poly, being hung up and flogged, being inspected by a serious array of dildos. The next several people were straight men who told vaguely homophobic jokes about being allies. The last person told a joke about the most recent earthquake that had by then killed nearly twenty-thousand people. Humberto laughed. I think this was a good representation of our small valley, he said. Or am I wrong?
No, that’s what it’s like, I said. And when we walked the vacant blocks of town lit by yellow lamplight, I told him this was what it was like too: not a soul stalking the streets at nine on a weeknight.
Let’s keep walking, he said. It’s nice.
We looped through town, the nip in the air a bitter bite. When we passed the bar again, I told him my apartment was less than a ten minute walk away. His eyes drifted across the desolate intersection at which we’d stopped. I think I’m more interested in making friends, he said. What is it you're looking for?
I could use more friends, I said, though I worried I was unable to mask the small disappointment in my voice. It was true that I could have used more friends. But I wanted the touch of a stranger even more. The last time someone had hugged me was six months prior, when I visited my best friend in New York for her surprise wedding. But she’d sauntered off to London now, work permit secured. Sometimes it felt like I had no one left in this world. Yes, I said, let’s be friends.
It was difficult at first to communicate with Humberto as a friend and not as someone I wanted to fuck. My texts to him could quickly spiral into something sticky and flirtatious—which made me feel silly, and not so unlike a schoolgirl. Curled in bed, we spent hours firing back at each other, the ping of each arriving text flooding my small studio. It was, I thought, no longer an unpleasant sound, but the sound of communion, and possibility. At a certain point, I told him I was sorry. That I was trying not to be flirty, and that we could talk about something serious instead, like George Santos. But he said he didn’t mind.
I made fun of him for multitasking—he was ironing cloth napkins and placemats while watching The Traitors—and he said he liked that. When I told him my love language was French, and could he speak French to me, he said that was a bridge too far. And on Fridays and Saturdays we hardly texted at all. He told me those days were reserved for Lenny. It was part of their arrangement. But where was Lenny during all of the other hours spent texting? Usually at some department meeting, it seemed. Even when we were texting at night, when I’d imagined they’d be propped up beside each other on the couch or in bed, it felt like that was not the case, and that Humberto was all alone. I so badly wanted him to ask me to come over. Or to do something spontaneous like go out drinking, go to karaoke, go to Dia Beacon. But I’d agreed to friendship. This wasn’t, in the end, so different from many of my other friendships with gay men. Sexual tension at first, vaguely charged communications after, sometimes sex that evolves into friendship, sometimes no sex at all. I suppose I wasn’t accustomed to having the boundaries prescribed so early on. I wasn’t one for communication, not in that way, and so this was a welcome change. I felt like an adult.
When I wasn’t texting Humberto, I was ignoring my research and diving into the apps. It was mostly farmers or undergrads, and the few like me, connected to the university but in a way that felt more tenuous than if I were only faculty or only a student. My messages with these men were startling in their dryness. They lacked the spark I had found in my communications with Humberto. The most promising one lived in a motel on one of the strips that plunged through the neighboring town. He trained horses. It was a Friday night when we decided to meet at the local fair. He had tiddly eyes that struck me by their seriousness. Wore heavy boots and stiff blue jeans, a fleshy chest wrapped in thinning flannel. We watched contestants throw up after an antacid eating contest, the dusty floor growing into a white froth.
My eyes drifted across the grove of bumping bodies. I was on the alert: I was looking for either Humberto or Lenny, or both. I didn’t think they were here, but the town was small enough, the event enough of an occasion, that they could just as easily have come out. I knew what Lenny looked like from the German language and literature department’s website. Flaxen hair shorn into a gentleman’s cut. High cheekbones, little buccal fat. Always shaved clean. Even beneath the thin shroud of fog and the dim flashing string lights, I thought I could detect him if he came into my line of sight.
Where did you go? the stranger asked.
I shook my head, said sorry, and my eyes fell back on him. I tracked his rough palms as he picked at sprigs of pink cotton candy. I didn’t notice his slight limp until nearly an hour of wandering the fair. He caught me staring, told me it was from a riding accident several years back. That’s why I don’t ride professionally no more, he said. I told him I was sorry. He said the horse fell on him, how he heard his bones get crushed, how the horse wouldn’t move, how a gun was all that could do it. Was my favorite horse, he said. Second Rascal.
I asked what happened to the first. When a quick darkness fell over him, I waved this away and motioned towards the spinning teacups. We rode them, his palm over mine.
He took me to his room afterwards. It smelled faintly of manure. Fresh leather. I grew light-headed as I brought him to my mouth. Confused the feeling of being overwhelmed to that of love. Or aren’t they the same? He gathered me in his arms after, his chest hot as it went up and down, up and down. I stared at a ceiling spotted with water stains.
I broke the silence when I asked him his name. How had we skipped that part? He said, Call me Rascal. I laughed. Really, he said. He told me that when he was my age he too dated someone older. That’s what he’d call me, he said. Rascal.
I said, Then what shall we call me?
I don’t love you, he said.
The words stung, not because they were hurtful but because they had come out of nowhere. But when I do, he said, I’ll have the perfect name ready. I sank further into his bed, not feeling any better because the words felt false and empty, and I was thinking of Humberto.
I left Rascal’s when he began to snore. Walking down the highway back towards town and the nest of graduate housing, I did what my thumb had learned to do by instinct: I opened the apps. Humberto was online.
This happened from time to time. I’d find him online—sometimes when we were texting, sometimes when we weren’t. I wondered if this meant he was out hunting for someone else to spend his time with. Either an anonymous fuck or another friend. Both scenarios pained me. Somehow, both seemed to bother me even more than the fact that he already had a partner at home. I suppose it was because I understood his home life was not exactly perfect. That Humberto had turned his life inside out all for the pursuit of love. And now that he had it, he was pursuing friendship and body contact. Did he not have that with Lenny? I swiped up and away, closing out of the app before he could see that I was also online. We couldn’t both seem so lonely, I thought. One of us had to be strong—for the other.
It was a wet spring day when we did, finally, go to Dia Beacon. I knew Humberto was craving a return to some kind of normalcy in his life—like art, seeing art, being up and close to the greats. He’d packed along some treats for the drive. I told him I had some treats too. From a Ziplock, I dangled two hunks of heart-shaped chocolate wrapped in pinkish foil. They’re shrooms, I said.
At a museum? Are you kidding?
It’s a super low dose. Good for wanting to feel connected and social. Some euphoria. You could use it.
You’re such a child, he said.
We’re the same age, I said. Loosen up.
I need to do the opposite. I need to figure my life out. Maybe you need to grow up?
I think this will help, I said, and I scratched at the foil, tossing back a small bite that melted at the base of my throat.
No, Humberto said.
In the end I tripped alone. I took nibbles on the pine-strewn drive, and by the time we arrived at the museum, I had found the passing landscapes had absorbed me a little too much. Woah, I said. I didn’t think it would hit so soon.
Humberto blew air past his heat-chapped lips. Are you sure you want to go inside? he asked. I mean, will you do anything that you’ll regret?
I’m not going to embarrass you, I said, and I hopped out of the car and into the museum, where I hobbled from piece to piece. A whole section was on loan from the Chihuly Collection. The sculptures were all made of glass. Some bloomed like the bulbs of some intergalactic flower. Others sat like whopping oysters, with quivering lips hesitant to reveal a full mouth. Yet others hung off the ceiling, thick tentacles stretching across the room’s gray back. There were the ones too that reached the roof in spectacular twists. Rotolo. Italian for coil. The surfaces glistened as if made of marble, sheens of red and orange and pink and blue abounding. I thought of telescopic images of the sun, with its streaks of molten lava erupting in bright bands across the atmosphere. I thought of microscopic images of bacteria too, wooly and festering.
I wasn’t with Humberto, though I could feel him tracking my movements. He was following me at a distance, keeping watch and taking care. I kept some space between the pieces and myself; I was a force of peace and good-will, not destruction. But, at one point, I said that it was all too much. Humberto heard me from several sculptures away. Moisture brimmed from my eyes, and my cheeks had grown hot. I left, walking across the tall grass that slapped the sides of the concrete building. I spread over the ground and closed my eyes.
I think we’re both in recovery, I said to Humberto when his footsteps reached me. Like, friendship recovery.
You haven’t had a friend in a while, he said.
You haven’t either, I said.
I know, he said.
I was in seminar when the flashing lights of a cop car bathed the room in colorful motion. We all turned our heads in interest for a moment, then returned to the text at hand. We’d been reading Coetzee all semester. Though I never said this in class, I didn’t feel so unlike many of his protagonists. Bad men who’d learned their lesson, like in Disgrace. Though I couldn’t pinpoint my crime, my way of living felt criminal. Perhaps that’s just life along the margins, the life of precarity. It wasn’t until I returned to my studio and slumped into my sofa that I saw the news on my phone. A professor had been arrested.
I read the article over and over again, scrolling up and down. Even if life really was stranger than fiction, this story felt too impossible. The headline: Infatuated professor arrested for assaulting colleague. Lenny’s photograph floated between the text that described the uncanny events that had been unfolding since the year before. How Lenny had declared his love to a visiting professor in his department. How he’d been in love with him ever since he’d arrived. How, though flattered, the professor turned down his advances. Lenny, according to the article, proceeded to attack the professor. He used gardening shears to make small slits across his back and thighs. Kept his victim tied up all night. He only stopped once the colleague had convinced him that perhaps they could be together after all. Bumps rose and flared across my skin as I read and re-read article after article. Humberto hadn’t known Lenny at all.
I didn’t hear from Humberto after Lenny’s initial arrest. He was sentenced within months, the evidence abundant and damning. I sent Humberto a message, telling him I’d seen the news and wondering if he was okay. He didn’t respond. I’d begun to cut across faculty housing en route to class to see if I’d bump into him, but this had yet to happen. He was gone.
It was during this interim that I finally responded to Rascal. His texts, which had arrived every other week, had gone unresponded. I was, after all, in the throes of my Humberto obsession; I couldn’t have that distraction. Rascal didn’t seem fazed by this when I crawled into the parking lot of his motel. We sat back on chairs by the fenced-in pool that wouldn’t open for several more months, and we drank beers. When he led me back to his bedroom, I tried leaving Humberto at the door, but I couldn’t, and I felt him there with us, elbows digging into the same mattress from which Rascal groaned, tipping his head back in pleasure, lips jostling, yes, he was there, and I was there, and it felt like everything I had wanted in the first place. It wasn’t so bad, none of it was.
It was during one of my walks to class that I saw him finally. I’d taken my new route past faculty housing, Humberto slowing when he noticed me, and we met at a bench between us, sitting down in some silent agreement.
No one is so shocked, Humberto said. Everyone says Lenny always gave them the creeps. I wish someone had told me that.
I said I was shocked. That I couldn’t believe it still.
You’re being kind, he said.
What will you do?
I’m going back to San Francisco. Hiring a hypnotist to make me forget everything I can of my life with Lenny.
I was joking. But if such a person exists, I’m all ears.
Do you know that I loved you?
I know. I don’t understand why. We only saw each other a couple of times. Is there really no one else out here?
I guess it’s easy to confuse love for infatuation, I said, and Humberto shifted in his seat. I said, I would say obsession but that seems too strong a word.
You need to get out more, he said. You need to leave this place.
You’re probably right.
Humberto cleared his throat. If you’re ever in San Francisco, he said, I’ll show you a proper open mic.
We left it at that. In the end, I did what anyone else in my position would do, and I wrote about it. I hadn’t produced any new pages all semester, but my time with Humberto came flowing out. Though I never met Lenny, it was less about the absurd horror of his actions and more about the other people he’d conned. Mainly, Humberto. This despite the fact that some speculated he was in on it. I couldn’t imagine that—he was an innocent, through and through. Someone who had simply fallen in love. This was not so unlike myself—hadn’t the same happened to me? I loved Humberto, and so I wrote about it.
Joshua Vigil lives in the Pioneer Valley. His work has appeared in Hobart, HAD, Maudlin House, and elsewhere.