Instinctual

by Will McMillan

I didn’t know better because I didn’t know anything. That’s why I went out with him. Thirty-five is so late to come out of the closet, so late to begin that awkward, sweaty procedure of dating. Especially internet dating. Especially gay internet dating. From the filtered profile pics of tanned faces I’ve encountered so far, I’m beginning to suspect I’ve blown past my gay prime. My hair is thinning and underwhelmingly styled. I’m fit, but not remarkably so, and it’s been years since a bartender demanded to inspect my ID. As I scroll from one profile to the next, seeds of “no one will want you” sink deep into the soil of my mind, their roots constructing a network of doubt. And because I grew up religious, dating was never a casual thing. Dating was a series of Bible-based steps, clearly outlined: the boy on the left, the girl on the right, and God in between, the three of you walking a straight, righteous path that leads unto marriage. That’s what I was taught, it’s what I believed, and since I never liked girls, I never bothered myself with the effort. So, I have no experience, no instincts to speak of, no road map to guide me as I fumble my way into this strange, foreign landscape. And that’s why I went out with him.

He sent me a message and seemed nice enough. He’s older, taller, and wealthier than I am, and has a screen name that’s pleasantly silly. Kindred spirits, I think, since my screen name is deliberately stupid. He has a job with the city, and he lives by the waterfront in a townhouse I assume I could never afford. He always sends winks and smileys when he messages. I allow myself to be charmed by his actions, inebriated by this sudden swell of attention. He’s into fitness, like me.

“Hey handsome. You want to go jogging sometime?” he asks. I reply.

We meet up at the waterfront. We exchange our real names, and I’m surprised his name is the same as my older brother’s. It suddenly feels as if we’re slightly related, as if somehow, I should already know things about him. As we jog together, whatever fledgling attraction I have begins to erode, rust blossoming around the shiny chrome of my interest. It isn’t so much to do with his looks, though certainly the pictures I’ve seen must have been taken several years prior. He’s noticeably heavier and his hair is much thinner, the remnants glued down in an obvious comb-over. It’s more to do with how he engages, how he makes subtle digs, how he brags about his money, his prowess, his many and unparalleled successes in life.

“I’m in charge of the water for the city, so any construction anyone wants to do has to go through me first. Every building needs water, so they have to ask me. No one makes a move unless I give them the say-so. No permission, no water. And man, it pays well. I’ve made more money in the last year than most people make in a decade. A lot of gay guys just want a rich man to date, they don’t really care about me . . .”

As if convinced there’s nothing worthwhile to learn about me, he settles for teaching me all about him. Again, he shares an aspect with my brother, who, as a teen, would brag and boast in an attempt to outpace me. He stops jogging mid-stride and points out toward the river at a cluster of lights too far off to see clearly.

“I live over there,” he remarks, putting a hand on my shoulder. He squeezes. I don’t enjoy the pressure. “Newest building in the city. Way nicer than anything you’ll see in this area.”

I shrug the date off once I get home. We ran, we talked. Nothing else happened. That squeeze was off-putting, as was the bragging, but so what? I calculate every stupid joke that I made, every time I broadcasted my natural awkwardness. No wonder he engaged with me so little, with my odd, clumsy humor and sweat-stained armpits. Scrolling through profiles once more, I wonder if our date would have been better if I’d been something like the men in these pictures, with their front-facing selfies and confrontational smirks. A handful of them have even reached out, enticing me with a flurry of “heys” and “whats ups?” I consider the best way to reply, what I might say that could land me a date. Should I respond with a simple “hey” of my own? Or maybe a “hey man” to show that I’m clever? My temples throb as I work out the best way to seem like a catch.

Then, he messages. He had a good time after all. He liked the way I looked when I jogged. Another emoji, smiling and winking, followed by a series of swelling, red hearts. “How about dinner tomorrow?” he asks. I look at that clot of shiny red hearts and yellow smooch faces. I remind myself I have no instincts to speak of. “Let me take you out for a good time, handsome?” He still thinks that I’m handsome. I reply.

The next night we meet up for dinner. I’m careful with everything I order, keeping in mind that he’s paying the bill and how all gay men are awful and only use him for money. I don’t know if adding dessert makes me an awful gay man.

“You don’t want a beer? Nothing? You don’t drink during dinner? Not even mixed drinks? Just a lean protein kind of guy, huh? Don’t you ever cut loose?” He orders the steak and a handful of single malt whiskeys. Another sign of his wealth, I assume. After, he wants to show me his town house, which I’m assured is a quick, easy walk from where we are now. I figure it’s the least I can do since he paid for my meal. Declining would make me seem like an asshole, and again I worry about what kind of gay man I might be. The sky is lit by countless burning pinpricks of starlight. I’m sure I could use a nice, easy walk.

His town house seems fine from the outside, though certainly not the newest. Not even new. The inside is even worse, with paneled wood walls and soil-hued carpets. I can hear his neighbors inside their homes, can make out whole chunks of their conversations. I figured “way nicer” would include something more than paper-thin walls and ugly brown carpet, but I don’t bother to comment. I had a good dinner, but seeing his home is like that odd shoulder squeeze, an unsettling pressure, and so I say my goodnight.

“You’re not leaving yet.”

He pushes me down. My head hits the floor hard. A dull, lazy thud that explodes my vision into a great mass of white. He’s bigger than I am, and he towers above me. Somehow he’s able to pull down my pants. No instincts to speak of, I find myself frozen. That brown carpet that I’d criticized mentally is now mere inches away from my nose. It smells as bad as the dirt it resembles. He’s moving himself onto me, into me, unconcerned about the pain that he’s causing, and it’s the pain that breaks through my freezing. He’s bigger than me, but so was my brother. He doesn’t know how often the two of us fought, doesn’t know I grew up a scrapper, doesn’t know how, as a child, pain felt like the ultimate unfairness. And for pain, I have instincts. I dig my nails into his arms and drag my hands upward. He screams. Perhaps from surprise. Definitely from pain. My fingers fold into fists, and with them, I punch. And keep punching.

“I was playing! I was playing!” he shouts. He stumbles, flinging back, caught up in a tangle of his pants and surprise. He bangs against his living room wall just as hard as my head banged against his carpet. On his arms I see where my fingers left gouges, where blood’s beginning to rise, tiny rivers of scarlet against the pale of his skin. I can hear him attempting to take it all back, to pass it all off as some great misunderstanding. “I was playing, just playing!” Mostly, I see him sometime in the near future, attempting to explain away the wounds I inflicted to his friends, to his family. An animal? Assault by a thorn bush? What in the world did that to you? And finally, I know he sees me, which is why he’s trying so hard to defuse this bomb that’s in the midst of exploding. “Hey man, I was just playing!”

“Okay,” I mutter. “Okay . . . okay . . .” In the moment, it’s all I can say. Gravity’s crashing over me in sickening waves, one after another, so I’m unable to question his notions of what it means to be playful. Hands up, he takes a step forward, but I shake my head at what I assume is his attempt to be helpful. His eyes flick over the length of my body as if I’m not a person at all anymore but rather a rabid, snarling, wild animal. Silence spreads like a shadow between us, consuming everything inside of his town house, and I notice his neighbors seem silent as well. Not a peep from those walls, his chattering neighbors, and it occurs to me that if I could hear them, they could certainly hear us.

“So, look . . .I just . . .” he begins, but he’s too late. My pants are back up and the door slams behind me, cutting off his attempt to explain once and forever.

I start heading home. His weight still lingers through the core of my chest; his scent (or his carpet’s) is trapped in my nose. The sound my head made when it slammed on the floor wasn’t a good one; I’m thinking that’s why my thoughts feel so untethered right now. And I’m thinking I should have eaten much more during dinner, that I should have ordered all the sides that I wanted, double or even triple desserts, because fuck him. I’m thinking about dating and the importance of instincts when I get a message and an emoji. A sad, frowning face.

“What was that? Are you okay?” A line of yellow, sad teary faces.

Starlight is burning above me. I have better things to look at than emojis.

“Just fine,” my reply message begins. Then I delete it. “What do you think?” And then I delete that. “Maybe you should . . .” And then I stop trying to come up with comebacks. I watch as his messages flash on my screen, stacking up on each other, before I switch my phone off and shove it into my coat. For now, that’s comeback enough.

I keep the lights off as I walk through my front door. Keep them off as I walk to my bedroom, as I strip off my clothes, as I crawl into bed and under my covers. It’s good for my head, I think, this encompassing darkness. The thudding at the base of my skull has begun to subside, like grumbling thunderclouds passing across the horizon, and the darkness feels like a balm. But the darkness also seems good for the whole of my body, another layer of covers to surround myself in, to shield myself under. The weight of the darkness begins to displace the weight of the evening, the weight of him, but not the weight of the messages he’s most likely still sending. My phone’s just an arm’s length away. It powers on in a moment, an electronic flare piercing the darkness. His messages, once more, erupt to the surface.

“Hey man . . .”

“Hey are you . . .”

“Are you mad about . . .”

“Why won’t you tell me . . .”

Message after message. So many I don’t bother to count them. I pick the best one to reply to, the one I feel I can use as a siphon to channel my outrage: “Think maybe we could try it again?” he asks.

With shaking fingers I begin my reply. “Try it again? Try whet against? Who the duck would wand to . . .” My fury is forcing me to make typos, and I’m furious that still, after all that has happened, on some level, I still care what he thinks. Typos, I worry, might make me look stupid. I go back, rewrite, type some more, go back, rewrite and rewrite. But nothing I write seems like enough. No collection of words, no matter how forceful, can accommodate the hatred I want them to carry. I undo what I’ve written completely, letting my anger marinate for a moment, focusing on the last message he sent.

Think maybe we could try it again?

I read it over and over. As I read, the words in the message begin to transform, change shape, until they’re not words at all anymore but rather an image hanging before me. It’s him, his hands out in front, taking a few careful steps toward me on smelly brown carpet, trying to make peace. I was just playing! Asking me now if we can try it again is just another attempt to undo the damage he’s done, another attempt to come ambling toward me, his hands masquerading as objects of peace.

There isn’t enough insult within me. Some instincts now, just a little to speak of, insisting there was nothing I ever needed to say, no insult I need to concern myself with. I back out to the front of his profile. His misleading pictures. His misleading kindness. His misleading screen name that made me think we were of the same kind. There’s a symbol at the bottom of his profile. Even with trembling fingers I can tap on that symbol, and in one simple movement, in one single moment, I answer him once and for all.

His profile deleted, I scroll through the messages from other profiles, the “heys” and “whats ups.” I gaze at the selfies attached to each half-hearted dispatch, striking me yesterday as sincere curiosity, as friendly handshakes from welcoming strangers, striking me now like lures in a fishpond. I’m all alone in my bed but these messages surround me, make me feel crowded. The symbol is just one click away. In the dark, in my bed, I delete every message, delete every profile, until there’s nothing left to crowd or surround me. As I delete my last message, another message appears, from a user I’ve never seen or heard from before. I click on the message.

“Hello. You look like Egon from Ghostbusters.”

In my bed, now finally, wonderfully, gratefully alone, I laugh. I read the message again and continue to laugh. Another speckle of light, another jab at the darkness. Still caught up in laughter, I click on the profile.

I reply.

Will McMillan was born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon. His work has been featured in The Sun, Hobart, Pidgeonholes, Citron Review, and Hippocampus literary journals, among others. He is a die-hard, true blue Pacific Northwesterner and as such, prefers the outdoors to the indoors and has no use for umbrellas.