Finalist in the Saints and Sinners 2022 Short Fiction Contest
The moto-taxi pulled to a sudden halt, and the three men untangled their limbs from the cramped back seat, stepping into the chaos and cacophony of the night market. They performed exaggerated stretches in the attempt to return their arms and legs to normal length, an easier task for Devlin who had just turned twenty than Augie and Ruben who were in their forties. Devlin had been in the middle, of course, and Augie felt dampness trickling down his leg, which had been plastered against Devlin’s bare skin. He swiped his hand over the sweat, and thinking no one was looking, put his fingers under his nose and took a whiff. But Ruben caught him and shook his head in pity.
“Which way?” said Devlin.
“Augie pointed in the direction of the river. “It’s somewhere over there.”
To get there, they had to pass by hundreds of brightly lit stalls selling everything from plastic Santa Clauses and Christmas baubles to virility potions and bundles of socks. Devlin stopped to examine a pile of tie-dyed neck gaiters. He slipped one over his head, wearing it first as a headband, and then he worked the extra fabric of the thick band up over his bushy hair like a scarf.
“How do I look?” he said.
Ruben laid a hand on Devlin’s shoulder. “Aw. It covers your gorgeous hair.” He rolled the headband back down on Devlin’s forehead and fluffed up his hair.
Devlin giggled, took off the band, and dropped it back on the table.
Augie raised his eyebrows at his husband with the clear message that he wasn’t the only pervert and moved on to peruse a pile of woven leather bracelets. He had a momentary flash of genius. He picked up three bracelets with the idea of buying one for each of them as a memento of their night out together. Would Devlin take it the wrong way? And what about Colton, their son back at the hotel? He would have to get one for him as well. In the next moment, things had gotten too complicated in Augie’s head as they often did, and he decided to reject what would have been a sweet but perhaps premature gesture. He dropped the bracelets with a grunt.
“What’s the matter?” said Ruben.
“Nothing. We’ll see the same things all over Thailand. These aren’t that well made.”
Away from the market, the streets were mostly empty, and when they turned down a poorly lit narrow street, eerily quiet, they thought they had mistaken the directions. But halfway down the street they heard the faint beat of disco music and soon observed colorful light spilling onto the pavement. Ram Bar sat on a corner a block from the Ping River, and aside from its out of the way location, there was no attempt to hide the bar. The wall along the side street was open for anyone passing by to gaze in and view the ladyboys who would soon be taking to the stage.
A host with gobs of eyeliner and ridiculously long eyelashes but sporting the famous Thai smile seated them at a high round table near the bar and told them the show wouldn’t start for an hour. Within seconds, another young man with yellow hair showing dark roots rested his hand on Augie’s arm and asked what they wanted to drink in a soft melodic voice.
The unexpected night out had been Joanna’s idea. On an island in the Gulf of Thailand, Augie, Ruben, and their mixed-race son Colton had famously bonded with a British couple and their two children around the swimming pool of the aptly named Paradise Resort. Joanna and Nigel were about the same age as Augie and Ruben, and Nigel played the staid, aloof academic while Joanna, a therapist of Jamaican heritage, was outspoken and free-thinking, leading to an endless stream of clever banter between them. Their daughter, Olivia was a sometimes pouty, sometimes charming fourteen-year-old of uncommon beauty while the stunning Devlin had inherited his father’s bright blue eyes and a lighter version of his mother’s wild hair now tinged with golden highlights from two weeks under the Thai sun. Colton became enamored with Olivia, Augie and Ruben couldn’t keep their eyes off Devlin, who was a shameless flirt, Joanna made no attempt to hide she was of the persuasion that there was no finer company than gay men, and Nigel allowed himself to be dragged into the mix with the hesitancy and good humor of the British.
After five days together, they had said a tearful goodbye, though Nigel stayed in character and stood apart while the rest of them hugged with the promise of joining up in Chiang Mai.
A week later, Joanna, Augie, Ruben, and Devlin were having an after-dinner drink at the hotel bar of their shared hotel in Chiang Mai while Nigel, Olivia, and Colton had gone for a walk. When Ruben mentioned their anniversary was coming up, Joanna insisted they have a night out, offering for Colton to stay with them and promising to keep a keen eye on him and Olivia.
“Where are you planning on going for your big night out?” asked Devlin.
Joanna cast him a warning look.
“We heard about a place called Ram Bar,” said Ruben.
“That sounds awesome. What kind of place is it?”
“Dev, this is their night,” said Joanna.
But Devlin already had his phone out, looking it up. “Cool. They have a show of ladyboys.”
“Ladyboys? That sounds horribly demeaning,” said Joanna. “Not PC at all. I’m surprised you, child of mine, would use a term like that.”
“I agree, Joanna,” said Augie. “But I did a little research, and unfortunately, that’s the term everyone uses here. If Devlin really wants to go, we don’t mind. Right, Ruben?”
“Uh, sure. It’ll be fun.”
After serving up a respectable number of half-hearted protests, Joanna seemed delighted Devlin would be going with them, and they were surprised she had no qualms about throwing her son to the wolves.
It was still early, and the crowd at the bar was sparse, but even full, the venue would probably hold no more than a hundred people. The décor was unabashedly kitsch with sparkly things and colorful fabric in holiday themes, making them feel they had tumbled into one of the snow globes they had seen at the market. Garland hearts hung from the ceiling with disco ball ornaments in the middle, and puffy cotton clouds in netting hung from other parts of the ceiling catching blue spotlights. Behind the bar was a high wall of multiple rectangular niches filled with shiny trinkets, some related to Thailand like elephants and busts with pointed headdresses, while other boxes held miniatures of the Eiffel Tower, the Stature of Liberty, and the Colosseum. Fluorescent paint in pink, purple, yellow and orange throughout the bar was brought to life by black lights. The small stage sat ready, draped in shiny fabrics with a multi-colored beaded curtain at the back. The long bar ran perpendicular to the stage and at one end had a metal stairway descending from a higher level with blinking lights twisted around the railing.
As the bar leisurely filled up with gay men, groups of girls and straight couples, mostly young, mostly tourists, the sounds of tinkling glass and laughter ramped up in anticipation of the show. By showtime, all the tables were full, and many people stood in the back, as well as a few outside, gazing in the large windows.
Devlin turned to his companions and said in a loud voice, “I’m stoked you let me come with you. This is bloody awesome.”
A young woman turned around and smiled at Devlin, a smile that grew as she took in the whole of him. Ana introduced herself and her companions from the hostel where they were all staying, an American girl who lived in Cambodia, and an Asian woman from Hong Kong. She was pretty, Dutch, and wore a nose ring. When everyone had been introduced, they joined glasses and made a toast. The conversation among the six of them fizzled as Devlin and Ana veered into a private back and forth. Ruben shrugged at Augie as if to say, “We should have known.”
The lights went down, and the pulsating opening bars of “It’s Raining Men,” the Geri Halliwell version, sent shouts and screams echoing through the crowd. Devlin was so excited he rose to his feet and puts his hands on the shoulders of Ana in front of him. Stage lights came up and a spot focused on the back of the bar where four male dancers in tights, plastic boots, and stretchy T-shirts clinging to their slender bodies carried clear plastic umbrellas and pranced along the aisle between the bar and the crowd toward the front. As they climbed the steps to the stage, a woman emerged from behind the curtain in a long green hooded raincoat and launched into lip-synching the song. The dancers weaved back and forth across the stage as the music crescendoed to the chorus. Timed with the beginning of the chorus, the singer ripped off the raincoat, revealing a gauzy see-through body suit with a strip of silver sequined material covering her crotch, and two more patches of sequins covering her ample breasts. Screams again rang from the crowd. The number ended with the performer moving off the stage and hoisting herself onto the bar where she continued to gyrate and prance. She grabbed a bottle of soda water, shook it, and sprayed it on the audience. Devlin, who was in the aisle seat closest to the bar, turned his face toward the performer and opened his mouth to receive the holy water.
The fast-paced show included a revolving cast of four ladyboys with shapely bodies and perfect breasts, one older woman who looked like Celia Cruz and sang more traditional torch songs, and the four dancers in a dizzying array of costumes. Most of the songs were in English, including pop songs like “Work Bitch” by Britney Spears, “Telephone” by Lady Gaga, and “I’m Gonna Fly” by Becky Baeling.
About halfway through the show, “Na-na-na, come on” blared from the speakers along with rising synthesizer chords and heavy drums, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Hands rose into the air and many people stood up, including Devlin who drew Augie and Ruben up with him. The sexiest of the performers started down the twinkling stairway in heels and a frilly pink bikini, mouthing the words of Rihanna’s “S&M.” She stepped onto the bar and shimmied her way up and down, then fell to her knees to do a series of pelvic thrusts.
She swung her legs over the edge of the bar and hopped down into the crowd, targeting Devlin, cupping his face in her hands, singing “Come on, come on.” She grabbed his hand and drew him toward the stage. There couldn’t have been a more willing participant, though at one point he did look over his shoulder at Augie with the tinniest hint of trepidation. Once on stage, she sat him in a chair and proceeded to walk around him, running her hands on his shoulders and arms. An assistant brought out a blindfold, and the performer gave him a lap dance as she put the blindfold in place. Then she promptly left the stage, and the crowd gasped when a scantily dressed overweight performer took her place. Her huge belly and buttocks jiggled as she danced around Devlin, caressing his head, shoulders, and arms. He stiffened in the chair, realizing he might be the butt of a joke when peals of laughter rang out. Near the end of the song, they removed his blindfold, and he found the large woman half straddling his lap. The audience roared with applause and Devlin laughed while making his way back to his seat, head down and hand over face in a fake stagger of embarrassment. From what Augie and Ruben had learned of Devlin in the last ten days, they were sure he was walking on clouds, loving the attention.
The night ended with “Hard to Say Goodbye” from Dreamgirls. The complete cast came on stage and the audience stood to give them thunderous applause. Joy reigned on the faces throughout the crowded bar, and many people hugged. A moment later the lights dimmed, and people filed out.
Between the wine they’d had at the celebratory dinner and the several rounds of drinks at the bar, Augie, Ruben, and Devlin were deliciously smashed and happy. They stood in the side street in a drunken trance, staring at the diverse patrons of the bar, from the bland, casual attire of backpackers to the extravagant outfits of those wanting to be seen. Some of the performers came out on the street in costume with elaborate feathery headdresses for photo opts, and Devlin insisted they take photos of him with various members of the cast.
After five minutes, the cast members disappeared as rapidly as they had materialized.
“Where’s Ana?” Augie asked Devlin.
“Haven’t a clue. What? Did you think I was going to hook up with her?”
“Well, she was cute,” said Ruben.
Devlin shook his head and put his arms around the shoulders of Augie and Ruben. “I’m out with my mates. I didn’t come here to meet someone. The show was brilliant and your company awesome.”
Augie cautiously put his arm around Devlin’s waist and squeezed. “Aw, that’s sweet.”
“Not to mention she was a bit daft. She had run out of money and kept asking her friends to buy her drinks.” Devlin took a big gulp of the night air. “Let’s walk back to the old city. I want to drink in the night and the crazy streets of this town. Plus, I need to clear my head. Wouldn’t want to chunder all over the back seat of a taxi?”
The three wove through the narrow streets, at times staggering, holding each other up, laughing at nothing and everything, relishing in the camaraderie of a drunken brotherhood. It was the first time on the trip, Colton wasn’t with them, and Augie would occasionally veer off into the path of a worrisome parent, but promptly reel himself back in, knowing their son was in good hands with Nigel and Joanna.
“Were you just thinking of Colton?” Ruben asked.
“Come on, mates. He’s fine. He gets to hang with Olivia without you looking over his shoulder.”
“When you have kids, you’ll understand.”
“I don’t know. I think I would muck up being a parent.”
“That’s what I always thought. I never imagined I would be a dad. And it’s only because of Ruben.”
“Sweet,” said Devlin. But as if bored with conversation about parenthood, he stopped suddenly and changed the topic. “Would you sleep with a trans woman?”
“No way,” said Ruben.
“Me neither,” said Augie. “Would you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Pre-op or post-op?” said Augie.
“Good question,” said Devlin. “I’m not ruling out either.” He broke away and took two steps ahead of them, extended his hands to stop them, and pointed an index at each of them. “Here’s a good one.” His eyebrows jumped up and down. “What about a trans man?”
“I like men. Period,” said Augie.
“I saw this trans model in a magazine. He was fucking gorgeous. Middle Eastern features. Beard. Ripped body.”
“So, if you’re attracted to him, you must be attracted to men.”
Devlin laughed. “Of course, I am. I had a boyfriend in Secondary for a bit.”
“Your parents said you had a girlfriend.”
“And your point is?”
“So, you’re bisexual?” said Ruben.
“Or trisexual or polysexual. I don’t know.”
“Are you serious or are you only trying to fuck with the old farts?”
“Hmm, fuck with the old farts? Sounds interesting.” He burst into laughter. “I’m talking rubbish. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Ruben, slurring his words. “You should be able to fuck with whoever you want.” Augie couldn’t remember the last time he had seen his husband so plastered. “I’m glad you came with us. It made it extra fun.”
“You know I’m fully aware you guys grew up in a different time and had to go through a lot of shit to be the wonderful people you are, married with a son, and still able to go out and have fun. So incredible. And then, a little shit like me comes along who grew up in a much more accepting world and acts like the world is my oyster. It must sound a bit presumptuous.”
Augie spotted a discarded wooden box, broke away, and jumped on top of it as if to give a speech. “No, no, no. I love it that you can be open and flirtatious and charming and all over the place and not give a shit what people think. If my generation had something to do with that, making it a little easier for you to be who you are, well, I’m proud. You, young man, are the future. And our son is the future. I hope you all do a lot better job than we did. We can’t even fucking vote for a decent person for president anymore. We have a goddamn lunatic. We have failed. But I swear I’m not going to fail at being a father. Sometimes, I don’t know, I don’t feel like I’m doing it right. I want him to be happy and have a good life and be a good man. I don’t know.” He teetered on the edge of the box and looked as if he might start crying. He realized how maudlin he was being. “I’m sorry.”
“You, my friend, are fucking pissed!” said Devlin. “In the British meaning I hope you understand. You aced it, mates, with your son. He’s a proper awesome human being.”
Ruben took Augie’s arm and helped him down from the box. “It’s okay, honey.”
“Come on, Augie,” said Devlin, putting his arm around him.
This time Augie was in the middle with Ruben and Devlin holding him up as they stumbled down the street, drawing stares and giggles from the other late-night revelers. He felt creamy white, as much as a Jewish man can feel white, between two brown boys, taking in the scents of men on a sweaty night, one so familiar, and the other new, exotic, youthful. He felt loved, supported, and relaxed, allowed a few glorious moments when he wasn’t worried about something.
And then his nostrils were filled with the earthy petrichor of rain, followed by a sudden wind rattling the trees above them. The first drops fell, but they saw no need to hurry their pace or find shelter because the rain was good, refreshing, cleansing the air. When they got to the canal surrounding the old city, they stopped to watch the drops fall on the still water, catching the light from nearby signs and streetlights, creating a soothing sound as the surface absorbed the patter and played with the reflections. The three of them stood as a single unit, arms entwined, taking in peaceful breaths, not wanting to move. Augie felt goose bumps and moved his hand to touch Devlin’s neck, playing with the ringlets of his hair.
The lobby of the hotel was brightly lit, but they had to ring to be allowed entrance. As they stood in the hotel air conditioning, waiting for the elevator, a shift in mood pushed them toward reality. “Should we go get Colton?” Augie asked.
“I don’t want to disturb them,” said Ruben.
“He’s in my bed, so I can sleep in his,” Devlin said without hesitation as if he had thought it through. His hair glistened with drops of rain. His mouth hung a little open, accentuating his full lips. His pale blue eyes danced.
“Uh, yeah. Sure. Why not?” said Augie, trying not to stare.
The elevator ride to the room was quiet, each one inhabiting his thoughts, the physical camaraderie of the street mitigated by the harsh light. The awkwardness had a sobering effect on Augie. Perhaps they should have insisted on waking Colton up and bringing him to the room, allowing Devlin to sleep in his own bed. But as the Brits had a suite, it would probably mean waking everyone up. His mind went through its usual twists and turns without resolution. Devlin wore a devilish grin as if enjoying the dilemma of the older men.
The uneasiness increased as they entered the room. “You can go in the bathroom first,” Augie said to Devlin. “Hang your wet clothes in there if you want.”
Devlin pulled off his shirt before he got to the bathroom door, flexing his muscles and the sak yant tattoo of the eight directions in the middle of his back. He didn’t close the door, and they heard him peeing, a loud stream hitting the toilet water.
“Are you okay with this?” Augie whispered to Ruben.
“It’s cool. You worry too much.”
Devlin came out of the bathroom in baby blue tight-fitting boxer briefs. Augie’s eyes went straight to his bulge and then up to his defined abs. “I’m knackered,” said Devlin. “I swam about fifty laps in the pool today and then all that walking.” He looked at the two beds, one king, the other a single. “Which one is Colton’s?”
“Very funny,” said Ruben. “You’re in the corner.”
Devlin hopped in the little bed and let out a sigh of relief.
Augie lay awake long after his husband fell into a gentle snore and Devlin’s guttural breathing indicated his slumber. He couldn’t have imagined that on this trip they would be sharing a room with a brown-skinned Adonis, as playful and sexy as Pan, and as lust-provoking as Eros. He went through the whole panoply of Greek gods, imagining how each would be represented if they were dark skinned, had tight brown curls rather than golden locks. After some time, his fantasies ushered him into a dream.
It was still dark when Augie awoke to a person crawling in bed between them. In his grogginess he assumed it was Colton the way he used to do when he was little. As his mind crept toward wakefulness, it became obvious it wasn’t Colton.
“What are you doing?” Augie whispered, thinking Ruben might still be asleep.
“I was lonely?”
Ruben rolled over and put his arms around Devlin.
“Ruben, what are you doing?” Augie hissed.
Devlin pulled Augie toward him, a three-way spoon. “Resistance is futile.” He played with the hair on Augie’s chest. “You’re hairy. I like it.”
Augie was suspicious. It seemed part of a seducer’s MO to focus on something a person doesn’t like about himself and say you like it in the same way a lover might run a finger along a nasty scar.
“Oh, look what I found here.” Devlin began lightly pinching Augie’s nipple, and Augie shuddered. “I had a feeling you might be a nipple man.”
“Stop. Just stop.” Augie slid his feet out and sat on the edge of the bed but couldn’t stand up without poking through his underwear. Devlin turned his attention to Ruben, and though Augie didn’t know exactly what was happening under the covers, they giggled like teenagers. He felt a draft of cool air from the air conditioning, rendering him completely sober and a little bit angry that Ruben could be so easily seduced. Seventeen years was a long time for two men to be together. Augie had fallen into a couple of dalliances while out of town for conferences, and he knew of at least one instance Ruben had strayed when he had a weekend away with old college buddies. In the stressful time leading to and during Joy’s pregnancy with Colton, they had tried a couple of three-ways though neither of them had enjoyed the awkward feeling afterwards. But being in bed with a man half their age, the son of a couple they had in a short time come to be quite fond of, seemed a transgression far outweighing the temporary pleasure of a brief high.
“I can’t do this,” said Augie.
“Do what?” said Ruben, his head surfacing from under the covers. “I thought it was what you wanted.”
“Look, Augie,” said Devlin, rolling over to face Augie again. “It’s play. It’s affection. And more than likely a one-off. Relax. Be in the moment. I’m completely cool with cuddling if that’s all you want. Anyway, it’s what I like best with my mates. My boyfriend couldn’t understand that.”
Augie fell back on the pillow and allowed Devlin to pull him into an embrace. “Stay away from the nipples.”
Devlin laughed. “As you wish.”
Augie woke up to a knock on the door. He looked down and saw a smooth brown arm across his chest that wasn’t his husband’s. He had a splitting headache, blossoming and blurring his vision as the night out at the club came back to him.
He nudged Devlin. “Hey, everybody up. It’s probably Colton.”
Ruben and Devlin scrambled while Augie answered the door. “Hi there, stranger. Did you miss us?”
“Of course, I did,” said Colton.
“You did not.”
Colton gave his dad a hug and walked in the room, staring at his empty bed. “Where’s Devlin?”
“He’s in the bathroom getting dressed.”
Ruben sat on the edge of the big bed with his head in his hands. “Hey, Colie. You’re up early.”
“What’s the matter, Papi?”
“A little headache.”
“We played Uno until after midnight,” said Colton. “It was hella fun.”
Devlin emerged from the bathroom. “Hey, little bro.”
“See you guys at breakfast. I’m going to take a shower.”
Augie made an exaggerated move out of Devlin’s path to the door as if he was afraid Devlin might try to kiss him.
After he left, Colton sat on the bed next to Ruben and put his arm around him. “If Olivia and I got married, Joanna would be like my mom, right?”
“You’re thirteen!” said Augie. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Very hypothetical,” said Ruben. “Technically, she’d be your mother-in-law.”
Augie considered where the conversation was going and realized any movement away from his obsession about meeting his birth mother was a positive step.
“And Dev would be like my big brother.”
“Uh-huh. Brother-in-law. But you’ve got a lot of growing up to do before you think about marriage or even dating.”
“I know. It’s just that Joanna is such a cool lady and Dev is like super cool.”
“I thought Olivia was the one you were interested in,” Augie teased.
“Duh. She’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”
Augie sat down on the other side of Colton. “Does she like you?”
“I don’t know. She says she has a boyfriend at home, but it’s not serious.”
“When we go home, you can keep in touch like on Facebook.”
“Facebook? That’s for old people. We’re on Instagram. We’ve already exchanged photos and stuff.”
“Well, this old person needs coffee. Let’s go down to breakfast.”
While Augie and Ruben got ready, Colton paced the room, opening and closing drawers, fiddling with the remote. “Don’t turn on the TV right now,” said Augie. He pulled a tank top over his head and stood in front of the mirror, grimacing at how much chest hair it showed and remembering Devlin plucking at the hairs and pinching his nipples.
“I talked to Joanna this morning. Olivia and Nigel were still sleeping.”
“What did you talk about?” He removed the tank top and returned to the T-shirt he had started with.
“I told her about wanting to meet my mom. She said she hoped it would happen one day, but I shouldn’t worry about it too much.”
Augie turned to his son and saw an expression he had more to say but was hesitant. “Anything else?”
“She said I was really lucky to have two dads like you guys and she was sure that when my mom was ready, you would make it happen. Boy, would I like a mom like Joanna.”
“We can’t choose our parents, but sometimes we get lucky.” Augie removed the T-shirt and put the tank top back on.
“I got lucky.”
“So did we,” said Ruben. “Don’t you want to change your clothes?”
Augie moved closer to his son, embraced him, and turned up his nose. “Did you take a shower this morning? Brush your teeth?”
Colton groaned. “Maybe not so lucky,” he mumbled.
Augie swatted his butt. “At least brush your teeth.”
“Okay, I’ll take a shower later out by the pool.”
“Just hurry. I need coffee.”
Colton separated from his dad, picked up the remote again, and tapped it against his palm. “How come Dev stayed in your room?”
Ruben turned his throbbing head to look at Augie.
“We got back late,” said Augie. “And you were in his bed. At least, that’s where I hope you were.”