by Jonathan Herzog
“Look, Gavin, the era of semen-as-lethal-weapon is over. And you can either get on the bandwagon and embrace PrEP, or you can continue living life as a 42 year-old Judgey Judy.” That’s Troy, who decided to wear his Truvada Whore t-shirt to brunch today.
“No one likes a Judgey Judy, Gavin!” That’s Bryan, teasing Gavin in a sing-song voice.
“I’m serious about this, guys,” says Troy. “We have the ability to wipe out HIV in one generation with a single pill—”
“—A generation of upper-class white men—”
“—But we have people like Gavin standing in the way of progress by calling it a ‘party drug.’”
“Whoa, I did not say that,” says Gavin.
“And don’t try to throw race at me, queen!”
“I’m sorry,” Gavin says sincerely, and all is forgiven. “I just think that some people are using the drug irresponsibly. It’s a great drug, but it doesn’t mean you just stop using condoms. There are other STDs in the world besides HIV.”
“Yeah, but none of them are gonna kill me,” says Bryan.
“All of them could kill you,” says Gavin.
“Oh, please, how many gonorrhea and chlamydia deaths were recorded in the US in the last 10 years, Gavin?”
“Those two diseases have already developed antibiotic-resistant—my point is how many of you guys stopped using condoms now that you’re on PrEP?”
“Gavin, that’s really none of your business,” I chime in.
“It would prove my point.”
“I’m not using condoms anymore,” says Troy, pointing to the words on his shirt. “I’m a Truvada Whore, and proud to take a load from a hot stranger on a Saturday night.”
Bryan holds up four fingers with with one hand and points to Troy with the other. Troy sees my eyes dart over to Bryan, sees what he’s doing and grabs one of Bryan’s fingers and twists it. Bryan jumps up squealing in pain, bumps into the table, and nearly knocks over all of our mimosas.
“If you think that hurt, next time it’ll be one of your balls, queen.”
“I’d like that too much,” says Bryan, and gives Troy a peck on the cheek before resuming his seat.
Everyone is smiling and enjoying themselves. I put my lips up to your ear and whisper, “Welcome to Sunday brunch with my friends.” You smile, taking in the moment, and it levels me. I smile back, you give me a peck on the lips and dive back into your eggs florentine.
“Sunday Funday!” cries Troy, donning his sunglasses and triumphantly raising his arms as we step out of the restaurant and into the warm summer air. “Where are we going next?”
“Did you guys want to go to Stephen’s rooftop for a bit before we head back uptown?”
“Which Stephen with a rooftop?”
“‘Stephen-with-a-P-H,’” I say, because that’s how Stephen-with-a-P-H introduces himself to everyone: restaurant hosts, Grindr tricks, coworkers, randos at the bar, friends’ parents. For whatever reason, it’s vitally important that upon first meeting Stephen-with-a-P-H that everyone understands he does not have an offending V in his first name.
“Oh yeah, he’s right up here on Hudson, yeah?”
“Yeah, let’s do that.”
I let you walk ahead with Troy, who I know is going to start a probing boyfriend-interview to get to know you better so he can give you the Troy Seal of Approval before the day is done. The Troy Seal of Approval is way more important to him than it is to me, though if he likes you, it just makes my life easier. Troy can be a huge fucking bitch for a best friend.
Gavin hasn’t said anything and hangs at the back of our group, looking fabulous in his mint green heather tank. We all know Gavin’s history with Stephen-with-a-P-H, so Troy and I have had to stage our little impromptu decision-making chat.
I sidle up alongside Gavin and say in a low voice, “This gonna be okay with you?”
“Yeah, whatever,” he says, sounding mopey. “We’re not gonna hang there all day, right?”
Before we head over to Stephen-with-a-P-H’s place, we grab provisions at a liquor store. We’d never be those faggots who show up to a house party empty-handed, so I grab a bottle of vodka for you and I, while everyone else grabs bottles of rosé or prosecco.
Stephen lives in the top two floors of a West Village building purchased thanks to approximately twenty years’ worth of selling his soul to the financial services’ industry. Now he hosts a Sunday afternoon rooftop party almost every week from mid-May until October.
When we reach the landing outside his apartment, we see him standing in the open door with a wide smile that falters slightly when he sees Gavin bringing up the rear of our party. “I’m not sure we have room at the inn for your whole flock here, Paul, you may have to thin the herd.”
“Shove it, Stephen,” I say, then introduce him to you.
“Pleased to meet you indeed,” he says, and I’m not at all surprised that he’s met you for literally seconds and is already leering at you. Anything for a piece of fresh meat. If his parties weren’t so much fun, I’d never get past how insufferable he is.
He ushers us each in and says loud enough for all of us to hear, “I’m surprised at you, Gavin, bringing cheap booze over to my place.”
“I brought a perfectly suitable rosé for a Sunday afternoon rooftop party, Stephen. Besides, it’s the exact same bottle as Bryan’s.”
“Well, I know how much money you make, don’t I?”
“We’ll just deposit these on the counter then?” I offer.
“I usually only reserve this word for that blonde Fox News bitch, but goddammit he can be a cunt,” says Troy, once we’ve grabbed drinks and all safely navigated our way to a corner of the rooftop out of earshot of the other partygoers.
Bryan lights a joint and takes a hit.
“Is he always like that?”
“Around me? Yes, he usually is,” says Gavin. “Though he’s in rare form for sure today. Who knows.”
Bryan lets out a huge whoosh of air. “I can’t believe you were engaged to him.”
“You were engaged to him?” you ask Gavin, talking over my admonishment of Bryan. This is not a subject we bring up if it can be avoided.
“Dodged a bullet,” Gavin says. “Trust me.”
The silence grows between us as the joint travels around the circle. Gavin turns the joint down and excuses himself to the restroom.
“Did I say something wrong?” you ask.
“No, babe, you didn’t. Bryan’s the asshat who brought it up. Nice, by the way.”
“What? I was being encouraging, wasn’t I?”
“No,” says Troy. “The rest of us were doing everything possible to avoid the subject and you just walked smack into it.”
“I’m sorry! I thought it was okay.”
“Bryan, don’t worry about it. Gavin will be fine.”
“Guys, I’m sorry,” Bryan pleads.
“Gurl, stop apologizing,” insists Troy. “There’s a reason we call you the pretty one,” he adds, then taps Bryan on the chin. “Gavin’s a big girl. She’ll be okay.”
“Do you guys come up here a lot?” you ask, then take the joint from me.
“These rooftop parties are a bit of a throwback,” offers Troy. “The West Village isn’t the gayborhood that it used to be because all the queens live up in HK these days.”
“Don’t you all live in Hell’s Kitchen?” you ask.
“Ob-vee, gurl,” replies Troy.
“No it’s just from the way you said that — never mind, sorry. I get it. This is good shit!”
Our laughter gets cut short as Gavin comes stomping towards us, the front of his tank top wet and stained pinkish over its normal green color.
“The motherfucker just threw a glass of my ‘cheap’ rosé at me. We’re leaving.”
Troy opens his mouth to protest, but I silence him with a look.
“I have an extra tank top with me in my bag,” you say, digging into your adorable canvas tote. “Sometimes I get sweaty when I day-drink, so I like to have a spare on hand.”
I kiss you on your cheek and say, “You’re a fucking angel. Gavin, take the tank and let’s bounce, kay? Fuck Stephen. You don’t need that nonsense.”
“Thank you,” he says to me, clearly irritated. He takes a breath and turns to you. “Thank you,” he says, calmer and more genuine. “I mean it, thank you.”
“It’s nothing,” you say, and Troy gives me a look of approval over the top of his sunglasses.
As we head towards the subway, I’m eavesdropping on your conversation with Troy from a few steps behind, my arm circled through Gavin’s arm in a show of support. Gavin went from a pink-stained green tank to your completely pink spare tank, and he looks cuter now than he did before. He seems in better spirits, but I can tell he can’t wait for us to get to our next location so he can unload everything he hates about Stephen-with-a-P-H once another drink starts coursing through his veins.
“You guys all seem to say whatever you’re thinking, like no filter. I’ve never met anyone quite like you guys,” you say to Troy.
“Well, you have to tell me how you two met,” Troy says to you.
You seem to know I’m eavesdropping, because you throw a questioning look over your shoulder, as if asking for permission. I smile and shrug — it’s up to you.
“Well,” you say, “We met on Grindr.”
“Of course you did.”
“I was traveling here for work, Paul messaged me, I was into him, and that was that.”
“No, uh-uh, you did not just skip over all of the gory details like that, bitch! Show me the receipts!” You look questioningly at Troy. “Tell me everything!”
You glance over your shoulder again, I smile and shrug again.
“So Paul was pretty drunk and I was looking for a hook-up. He messaged me ‘Hey’ and then sent me a picture of his dick.”
“I KNEW IT!! Paul, you’re such trash!”
“What?” I say, coyly. “It’s a 21st Century meet-cute.”
“Well, it worked,” I say. “He’s still coming back, isn’t he?”
“Is his dick really that pretty?”
You look Troy dead in the face and just smile. He explodes in a fit of cackling laughter that fills the whole street. I can feel myself blush slightly, but I’m really just sinking deeper into my love for you with each passing moment.
We ride uptown to Chelsea to meet some of Bryan’s friends from his gay kickball league at a gay sports bar because the very existence of those two things are completely novel to you, and you’re actually interested. To all of us who live in Manhattan, living life in a city where both of those things are completely commonplace is requisite, though when given similar invitations by Bryan, we generally tend to meet them with contempt. Unless, of course, there’s a particular guy who will be present that any of us is particularly interested in.
The gay sports bar is like most straight sports bars: a few old timers and regulars are camped out on stools at the bar, a rough-looking pool table sits in the back of the room, where the only women in the room — a cadre of lesbians — looks intently down their pool cues as they focus on making shots. The only thing that separates a gay sports bar from a straight sports bar is that the clientele is generally more handsome and better-dressed; also the bartenders are shirtless and look like fitness models.
The gay kickball league is just like a straight kickball league: a ragtag group of people loosely bonded together by similarly colored shirts and socks. The things that separate them are more numerous: gay kickball means sparkles and short-shorts, and pretty much everyone looks fit enough to be an olympic-level athlete; straight kickball leagues are often the refuge of straight men who are long past their physical primes though looking to appear active to attract a mate, or trying new things to keep one.
Predictably, Gavin had spent the entire subway ride to the gay sports bar in silence while I chatted with Bryan, and Troy continued to bend your ear, eager to find out as many of our secrets as you were willing to spill during the ten minute trip.
Now that we’re at the bar, I keep catching him staring at me looking like a cat who has caught the proverbial canary. You, however, are being dragged around by Bryan — ever the social butterfly at these engagements — meeting everyone and discussing everything. Gavin is almost done unloading to me everything he hates about Stephen-with-a-P-H after downing his second whiskey-ginger. I’m keeping the straw of my second in my mouth in order to hold my tongue, which is only causing me to drink it ever-the-more quickly. I’ve heard all of it about a thousand times from Gavin.
“And you know what really pisses me off? Do you?”
I shake my head.
“He has the fucking gall, the fucking balls — I fucking supported him when he was unemployed. I fucking fed his overly-worked-out ass for 4 months so he didn’t have default on his fucking mortgage because of course his only savings were tied up in his fucking 401k. And he wants to call me out for being cheap? I can’t fucking even, Paul. Don’t ever drag me back there. Never-fucking-again.”
“I promise,” I say, crossing all of my fingers and toes.
We’re leaving the gay sports bar, on our way to our next bar when Gavin says, “Hey guys, do you think we could swing by my place before we head to the next bar? I wanna put on my own shirt and give this one back.”
“Ugh, but it’s like an extra block out of the way, Gavin,” whines Bryan, semi-mockingly.
“Sunday Funday!” yells Troy, then links his arm with you and pulls you into more conspiratorial conversation. I really feel like he’s been hogging you from me all day, but it’s fine. My life will be easier once he decides he likes you.
“Let’s do it,” I say, and off we go.
When we walk into Gavin’s place, I am immediately embarrassed. I forget how his apartment is decorated half like a sex dungeon and half like the bedroom of a teenager obsessed with superheroes. The walls of his entryway are lined with giant wallpaper black-and-white photographs that Gavin had specially commissioned. The right side shows a pair of twinky-looking guys on leashes walking on their hands and knees in front of their leather-daddy. All three of them are naked and the leather daddy is so well-hung, it looks like his penis must be digitally altered, but Gavin swears it isn’t. The left side shows a gorgeous naked man laying facedown in bed. His feet are near the entryway and his head at the end of the hallway, so as you walk past his slightly hairy legs and butt, his smooth muscled back and shoulders — admiring everything you’re seeing — you just have to comment on the fact that when you see his face, it’s clearly a mid-twenties version of the apartment’s owner.
Right on cue, you say, “Oh my God, Gavin! This is you! You were so hot — when was this taken?” The rest of us roll our eyes because we’ve heard it all before and it strokes Gavin’s ego exactly in the way he wants it to be done.
“I’m making a drink,” says Troy, who helps himself to Gavin’s booze, followed by Bryan.
Gavin, who had been in the bedroom picking out a shirt, comes out shirtless — of course — and tosses your shirt back to you, saying, “What do you mean ‘were so hot?’ I still am.”
“Go put a fucking shirt on, old man,” I say to Gavin, who smiles, flexes his pecs, and disappears again.
Alone in the entryway, you grab me by the back of the head and pull me in for an extremely passionate kiss. We finish and I pull back. “Thank you. What was that for?”
“Nothing. I’m just having a great time and enjoying meeting your friends.”
“Before I started traveling here for work, I had this idea in my mind that New York was like this insane, drug-fueled, sex-crazed hellhole where all of the gay guys did drugs openly at the bar and fucked each other at the club without bothering to exchange names or numbers.”
“Not since like 1977.”
You laugh. “I love your sense of humor.”
“Who’s making a joke?” I say, winking and then allowing myself to get pulled into another passionate kiss.
“Ew,” says Bryan, appearing from the kitchen with drinks in hand. “You faggots are gross.”
“We beat up faggots around here,” says Troy. “And then tie them to fences as a warning to other faggots that we don’t like faggots. Faggots.”
“I really don’t like that word,” you say, somewhat softly. “I used to get called that in high school.”
“Well, get over it, hunty,” says Troy. “You need to reclaim the words that hurt you in the past. You can’t let them have power over you. Drink your juice and see the rest of Gavin’s ugly-ass apartment.”
“I heard that, bitch!” Gavin calls out from the other room.
“That’s because I said it loud enough to make sure you did,” Troy calls back. “Get your ass out here and drink your liquor with us. Faggot!”
I see you wince again and I squeeze your hand lightly in support. I see you smile, then follow you through the kitchen into the living room.
All of Gavin’s furniture is ultra-modern steel and black leather. In one corner, he has a sex swing hanging from the ceiling that supposedly he’s never used. He put it up as a conversation piece that people occasionally climb into at parties for a laugh. In another corner is a small bookshelf with a collection of photo books, mostly male nudes. And in another is the pièce de résistance: a life-sized replication of Ben Affleck as Batman inside his metal armor suit from that Batman/Superman movie.
“Whoa,” you say, when your eyes settle on Batman.
“I know,” Gavin says, stepping out from his bedroom. “Isn’t it awesome?”
“Yeah,” you say, clearly being polite.
“I’m a really big Batman fan,” he says, oblivious.
“What?” Gavin asks.
“It’s an … interesting design choice,” you say, and flash him a very fake half-smile.
Bryan, Troy and I all burst out laughing. Gavin looks crestfallen.
“Let’s head to the bar, drink up!” I say and shoot you a smile.
Troy puts his arm around you. “Congratulations. You’re one of us now.”
Jonathan Herzog is currently at work on a collection of short stories examining the lives of gay men living in present-day New York.
.gif art by Yeiry Guevara