Gifford had been attending a management conference out West when he came across the mannequins posing in black leather underpants. As he checked his bag through to Atlanta, he became nervous and imagined overzealous security agents laughing when they plucked the new briefs from his suitcase. He imagined them phoning his wife in Norcross on the landline she insisted on keeping, all because her ancient mother visited often and refused to buy a mobile phone. “We found your husband’s pleasure pants,” he imagined the agents saying. But they weren’t only for pleasure. True, he loved the leather’s stiffness against his pelvis—the ultimate jockstrap—but he also loved the sense of kinsmanship he felt with men like Alexander the Great.
Large hoops nestled his hips and held the seat and bib together. The fly conveniently zipped. He’d yanked them over his own briefs in the store, a disco-infused place with one male clerk sporting a snug tee and skimpy running shorts that rebelled against the dank day outside. Although the shop catered to the sort of men he’d tried to avoid his whole married life, its leather underpants were universal.
July was bearing down on the early evening when he landed in Atlanta and drove to Norcross. A happy sigh parted his lips as he opened the back door to his craftsman-style home and cool air ambushed his face. He stepped past the cherry-red washer/dryer set and a basket of folded clothes and rolled his suitcase into the kitchen.
A note from his wife informed him his mother-in-law was visiting, and they had gone to a monthly Bunko night with four of his wife’s women friends. Gifford clapped his hands. His twenty-something son had recently moved out and his daughter had been grown and living without him for years. Beneath the shaving kit in his luggage, inside the carefully folded blazer where he’d hidden them, the new underpants seemed to be shouting carpe diem!
He seized a pair of black combat boots from the garage that he usually wore when he cut the grass. He undressed but did not carefully fold or hang his clothes. He pulled on the briefs and boots, then marched from the garden-themed bedroom into the beige-walled living room and up the stairs to his office. The squatch, squatch of untested leather punctuated every step.
He laughed aloud when he removed a javelin from his office closet. The javelin, purchased at a Renaissance fair one Saturday when his wife was shopping, had been hidden for months behind red storage bins of Christmas ornaments.
He turned toward his mirrored wall, put there to create the impression of a larger room and perhaps a larger man. For sixty-one, his stomach was small, his torso respectably taut. He’d always shaved the dark brown hair on his chest and wished now he hadn’t. The leather bottoms looked exquisite, even above his shrinking thighs. The scar from his gallbladder surgery and the permanent whelp on his knee from a yard-trimming incident could easily be overlooked. He was Tarzan taming the jungle, Heston reeling through the arena in his chariot, Rock Hudson being Rock Hudson.
He propped his phone on a maple bookshelf beside the mirror and set the timer for the camera in his phone. He offered his left side to the lens to hide the surgical scar and jutted his chin to the right. When it came to images, angles made the man.
His phone flashed. He set the timer again. In seconds, another flash. He repeated these steps more than a dozen times hoping for austere and soldierly shots. Yet the pictures failed to render his vision and captured farther receding hair, a 5’10” body smaller than he remembered and a pair of shrinking buttocks. Photos, he reminded himself, rarely captured the truth and were merely a safety pin for fastening a moment in place. They were never intended to show the intricate stitching of one’s life.
Downstairs, Gifford spotted his wife’s fanny pack slung onto a doorknob. He chuckled thinking of the fanny pack he now wore, which precisely packed his derriere. Not that his wife would care. They hadn’t been interested in each other’s bodies in years, if he’d ever been interested to begin with.
He thought of Jarrod. The impulse to text one of the pictures arose. There’d been no contact in ions, so perhaps Jarrod’s number had changed, but if not, perhaps Jarrod was ready to resume their friendship. It was true the other man had never responded to his many calls or tens of dozens of texts over the last year, but after googling him and driving past his real estate office in Buckhead, Gifford had finally accepted that Jarrod would call when he was ready. He was no doubt still settling into divorcé life. After what happened, Jarrod probably needed time, and anyway, months had passed since Gifford’s last attempt to make contact. He scolded himself for not finding the right words, but here was his chance. Everyone said a picture was thousands of words. Surely among thousands of words would be the right ones to summon Jarrod. The man couldn’t remain silent forever, could he?
Gifford dismissed any doubts and tapped his phone. It took only seconds to send the one photo he liked. In it, his right hand gripped his javelin in the fore, his legs stood apart and only the slightest smile crossed his lips. The pose said strength, the pose said virility, the pose said I miss you. This last thought surprised him. He wasn’t given to emotion, an area altogether too Shakespearean for his taste, too laden with drama and tragedy, but his chest rose and grew warm when he thought of Jarrod, and he had to admit it felt good.
He laid his phone facedown on a shelf and stared once more into the mirror. When a chime rang out from the device, he knew it must be Jarrod.
Be home soon, the text from his wife read.
He grumbled but felt certain Jarrod would respond. Perhaps he was at a movie or had gone to bed early. It was after eight, and Jarrod, who no doubt worked and played hard, was likely exhausted by week’s end.
Gifford abandoned the phone and the javelin on the king-size bed he and his wife shared when his mother-in-law was in town. He started the shower in the master bath without getting in. He liked the water hot and the bathroom steamy before he bathed. You’re wasting water, his wife always said, but he worked hard and felt he could afford to waste a little water. He could afford to waste a little time, too, romping around the house in his leatherwear, if he liked. Bunko night was across town and miles away.
He opened his pajama drawer and scanned the contents for his favorite pair. He picked up the javelin, not sure why he’d carried it downstairs in the first place. He supposed it completed the outfit and made him feel whole. He remembered seeing the pajamas earlier in the laundry room and carried the javelin with him to fetch his clothes. He had every intention of stowing the impressive weapon on his return trip to the shower.
The baby blue pajamas topped a basket of clothes near the dryer. He rolled them newspaper-style and tucked them under his arm. The javelin leaned against him. The heavy lead, cold on his skin, spurred the memory of his children playing war on the lawn. They bombed tiny green soldiers, no taller than toothpicks, with rocks and pinecones. His outfit made it clear he gravitated toward more ancient ways of warfare, but his shoulders relaxed and he smiled at the thought of his son’s explosive sounds and his daughter’s curled hands hurling soldiers into the air.
Gifford gave the back door no thought, had assumed his wife and mother-in-law were still fifteen or twenty or minutes away from home, when the door opened and a hot blast of evening air assaulted him. He dropped the pajamas and pointed the javelin. His wife’s face registered shock, the same shock it had registered when she’d discovered him and their one-time neighbor Jarrod, their shorts around their feet in the master bedroom while other friends and neighbors mingled outside at the annual barbeque.
He couldn’t help feeling guilty upon seeing the look he’d once described in couples’ therapy as constipated rage. She stood in the frame of the back door, her mouth twisted, although she must have been surprised to see how trim he looked for his age. He leaned the javelin against the washing machine. It slid sideways, forcing him to quickly reclaim it.
“Good Lord, Giff,” she finally said. She turned, threw up a hand and told her mother not to look.
He froze as his mother-in-law, never one to listen, craned her neck above his wife’s shoulder. “I thought we might have a costume party for your next birthday,” he replied, “or maybe mine.”
Confronted with this new situation, his wife’s sharp eyes met his. She tucked a fallen strand of her unnaturally blond hair behind one ear. He knew she was completely gray. He knew many things he didn’t say and hoped she would walk away, close the door and return to the garage, allowing him to return to the man she expected, the man he tried to be.
“Our birthdays are months away,” she said.
If only she’d opened the door a few minutes later, he would have been in the shower. He hadn’t meant to upset her. She’d been a good friend, nursed him through several bouts of flu, and carted their children to schools and practices in between doing laundry and managing the reception desk for a busy doctor’s office. She was the kind of wife most men learned to love, and in his own way, he had.
“A fun party couldn’t hurt,” he said.
“You’re kidding, right?”
He felt exposed. Their last party had been the barbeque. He could have refused to follow Jarrod, but he was weak, weaker every month that passed when he thought about Jarrod pulling him close and cupping his groin over his khaki Bermudas. All the while, he told himself it was nothing—locker room antics, boys being boys, or a bit of adventure for two longtime married men—but now was not the time or the place to trod through his field of memories. “The shower’s running,” he said.
“Better go catch it,” his mother-in-law responded. Her lips began to tremble as she gained full view of him and burst into laughter so violent she was forced to take a seat inside.
Gifford wasn’t surprised at the old woman’s reaction. She was prone to making a spectacle, like the way she shouted at the TV during her favorite game shows.
His wife fetched her a glass of water and instructed her to breathe.
Gifford turned coat toward the master bath and left them to their business.
At first light the next day, thankfully a Saturday, he rose and dressed. He hadn’t slept much because of worrying about Jarrod and checking his phone and because his wife insisted he sleep on the couch. “You and your ideas,” she’d said. “I feel sorry for you, but I can’t live in a make-believe world. I thought you’d changed.”
In his office he removed the javelin from the closet and stuffed the briefs into a paper sack. He’d promised to dispose of the “costume.”
He caught sight of his figure in the mirror in its usual summer fare of white polo shirts and khaki shorts. Nothing extraordinary. He was once again the little league coach, the dollhouse maker, and the fetcher of random groceries. He was once again the man who’d driven his family to the Blue Ridge Mountains, Disney World, and D.C.
He couldn’t help replaying the barbeque in his mind as he drove to the nearest shopping center and checked his phone at each stop sign and traffic light. We drank too much, he’d blurted moments after his wife discovered him and Jarrod. The truth was he’d drank a total of one beer and was intoxicated only by the other man. As though offended by his words, Jarrod had flared his nostrils in an unbecoming manner and called him a coward.
Gifford told himself then and now that Jarrod didn’t mean it. People often used words to hide their feelings, and over the last year, he’d come to see Jarrod’s reaction as a kind of adoration. I’m sorry, Jarrod had said when he slipped past Gifford’s wife. She had laughed and cried and laughed and cried as though warming up for an aria. She blamed Gifford for their son’s poor grades, their daughter’s tattoos, her depression, for everything except her mother’s lactose intolerance. The leather briefs and javelin at least proved he was no coward.
He pulled into the shopping center’s smoothly paved parking lot and steered toward the collection bin for household items and gently used clothing. He hesitated when he reached the bin on foot. What if Jarrod responded and wanted to see him wearing the briefs in person?
He held the javelin and paper sack with one hand and snatched his phone from a back pocket with the other. Jarrod had not responded, and it was already after eight. Gifford thought of his wife’s face the evening before. There was no place in his life for leather briefs and javelins, although he felt sure he could find an occasional place for Jarrod.
He lifted the bin’s rubber lid and deposited the paper sack before hefting the javelin. Its tip jutted from one side of the bin like the tusk of a slain mastodon. He returned to his car and deleted the pictures from his phone. He wasn’t Alexander the Great or Tarzan. He was a man who put gas in his wife’s Honda, tidied the garage, and watched football or baseball on Sundays and ballet or PBS on Saturday nights. He’d managed years that way, not knowing how a gladiator felt. Any glory days were gone, and he felt the urge to cry but instead called his son. When no one answered, he called his daughter, equally without response.
In the world on the other side of his windshield was a beautiful morning in Norcross. The leaves of birches almost jingled in the pleasant morning breeze. “Yes!” he shouted when his phone rang out, until he glanced at the unfamiliar number on the screen and realized it was a miscall, likely someone selling a timeshare or faster internet.
He returned his phone to a cup holder. Sometimes he wondered if one of those unknown callers might be his boyfriend from college, the big secret, the one who’d chosen New Orleans and a different life. He imagined his boyfriend’s bomber jacket, its scent of leather and youth. He imagined the boyfriend’s face and thighs, forever silky young, his hazel eyes as brilliant as this day. Sometimes Gifford believed things could have been different had he loved his Baptist parents a little less and himself, their only child, a little more. But this belief erased his children and he’d wanted children; that much was true. Having to choose between two precious desires seemed the crux of life. Maybe both were possible, but at his age, it did no good to wonder.
He was cranking the engine when a truck fitted with industrial arms backed up to the bin. Three parking spaces separated him from the monstrous vehicle plundering his things. Its arms lifted and emptied the contents into the truck’s square metal hull. The javelin escaped, clanking onto the parking lot. He noted the headphoned driver bobbing her pate and probably listening to Rap music as she freed the bin, retracted the great arms, and rumbled out of the lot.
Gifford jumped from the car to reclaim the javelin. Upon rescuing it, he considered driving to the bank and withdrawing half the savings from his joint account. He could make a deposit on a high-rise condo in the Buckhead neighborhood north of downtown where Jarrod now lived; his wife would still have plenty. He envisioned the condo’s row of windows, big as a billboard, and the javelin leaning in one corner of his living room within reach of a life-size portrait of a nude Roman god. The décor would be mid-century modern. A metal tube would arc into a bowl-shaped lamp above a white European sofa—comfortable without being too bulky.
He imagined his days and evenings and smiled when he thought of his life alone, but the more he considered this other life, the more he felt lonely, more lonely than he felt already, and this thought produced mold in the yogurt of his imagination, especially when he thought of his wife, children, business associates and church community rejecting him, leaving him to the care of strange men he met online or in clubs, needy and delusory men past their prime, not younger 40-something men like Jarrod. The men would parade around his apartment in leather, a material that now seemed best for youth: solid, smooth, and stylish. Watching them parade in his mind, he felt dirty and ashamed. He could not avoid them in that other life because he was not a man given to the comforts of his own company, but maybe Jarrod would come around once he was available. Maybe Jarrod would save him from himself.
He abandoned his imagined life and lifted the javelin into the bin for a second time. He slumped his shoulders, feeling wounded, and plodded toward his SUV. His feet seemed heavier when they landed on the floorboard. He reminded himself he’d left nothing of consequence behind, and PBS was airing a series about Prohibition later that evening. He looked forward to losing himself in another time.
He cranked his SUV and left the parking lot. He’d gone only a few blocks when his phone beeped. He glanced at the screen.
He felt his heart rate climbing at the thought of seeing his lovely brown-eyed man once more. Jarrod was tall and lean, had played tennis in college, and Gifford liked to imagine Jarrod’s knit shirt rising at the waistband, his lower abdomen peeking through, when one arm reached to serve.
Gifford pulled into a fast-food restaurant and parked where he could read and savor the message. He read it once, twice, then again. He would read the message for months to make sense of it: You look ridiculous. Not interested. Leave me the hell alone.
Gifford rolled down his window. A line of cars in the drive-thru wound behind him.
“May I take your order,” the burger joint’s employee asked cheerfully through the speaker.
“A do-over,” Gifford answered.
The line of people waiting for waffle fries stretched two lanes deep toward the main road. If people endured for waffle fries, how could there be no one who endured for him? His wife endured, he supposed, but he didn’t think it was for him. She had her own face to save, her own perfect life to play out in public.
He rolled up his window and drove the long way home through Buckhead, which is to say a good fifteen miles out of his way. Jarrod was somewhere in the vicinity, probably still stewing.
The picture he’d sent Jarrod now felt stupid and silly and he wanted to tell him so, to apologize for his misstep. He felt foolish for believing he could be anyone else, for believing a picture could make Jarrod want him. Thank god, he’d convinced his wife not to say anything after the barbeque. It hadn’t been easy, had taken months of therapy and sleeping in the same bed. And now so many young people walked the streets holding hands and getting married as if the whole thing were normal. As if he were the pervert.
He pressed the gas harder when the familiar rhythmic strumming, his wife’s ringtone entered the car. She was probably calling to find out where he was. He felt numb, unable to answer, instead staring at the brick, stucco, or concrete condos he passed. Signs announced starting in the 300s.
He decided he would not drive through Buckhead again. He would avoid distant conferences, Renaissance fairs and any place that promised something out of the ordinary. He could not bear never kissing Jarrod again. He could not bear losing his wife either, or maybe what he could not bear was knowing how happiness felt, never to feel it again.
Ahead, buildings and towers stood erect. He lived in a city of cities, a Southern hub, constructed from the ashes of a civil war that seemed hundreds of lifetimes ago. Rebuilding was not the same as forgetting. He was too old for rebuilding but not too old to wonder what might have been.
He imagined walking hand-in-hand with his college boyfriend along a cobblestone street in the French Quarter. His lover’s bomber jacket puffed in the back but fit snugly across the shoulders. Their intertwined hands freed Gifford in that other life, but if he could not see Jarrod, it was better to avoid such thoughts, if he could avoid such thoughts. Jarrod didn’t need him. His children no longer needed him either, so who was he living for? The question felt dangerous, even life-threatening. Better to lose oneself in a fantasy and own a million costumes than admit he’d lived a lie.
He sat at an intersection. Base notes pounded in the car beside him. A young woman bounced in the passenger’s seat and sang words to a song he didn’t know. He texted his wife he was on his way and turned off his phone. When the light brightened from red to green, he imagined driving toward the airport, not sure if he would stay or go, but at least he would be fixated on something new, perhaps the horizon, and beyond that a tropical forest verdant with Birds of Paradise and beautiful men. So beautiful and magnificent, he could cry.
The signal changed. He moved forward with the mass of other vehicles and felt almost carried with them through the paved ravines, everyone swiftly darting and trying not to crash. His eyes drowning, awash with regret, he pulled over. There was momentary safety, but crashing, it seemed to him now, was inevitable.
Ramona Reeves grew up near Alabama’s Gulf Coast and currently lives with her partner in Texas. Her fiction has appeared in New South, Ninth Letter, The Southampton Review, Pembroke, Jabberwock Review, Yalobusha Review, Gris-Gris and others. She’s won the Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, been runner up for the Barry Hannah Prize in Fiction and received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train. She recently completed a novel told in stories and is working on a second novel.