by, Hantian Zhang
In WeHo, in the gym, a jogging shoe breaks loose from its meshwork of laces, launches from a treadmill amidst the cacophonous footfalls, and draws a hyperbola in the sweat-scented air. I am running on a treadmill just one row back at speed five, eyes glued to a gay pageant on the tiny screen. The shoe’s impingement on my forehead knocks stars out of my vision and balance out of my body, and before I know it, I am already on the floor, palms, elbows, and knees all numb, my mind efforting to grasp the what and the why.
The shoe’s owner rushes to my side, a lanky man with tribal tattoos on his forearms. Apologies pour out of his mouth; care wells up in his eyes. He must have been sprinting, so his arteries are budging on his neck, and instantly I read their diameter is at least 7.7 millimeters, just like those of top fashion models. When he helps me up, I take advantage of my fingers’ haphazard touch with his side abdomen, pressing to feel the rim of his liver. That brief contact is all it takes to confirm the perfect shape of that vital organ, a piece of knowledge ushering in my imagination of his gruff diaphragm, the lure of his wide lungs and thick guts.
My anger melts at all these signs of inner beauty, and I wash it all down with a sallow of saliva when he offers to buy me a drink. I thank him and twist my wrists and ankles to show that I am alright, but give in after another round of insistence and feigned decline. After the shower, back in our regular shoes, the shoe owner Danny and I discover we have a lot in common. We both frequent the gym to keep our circulatory systems in shape, and we both hanker for more massive, powerful hearts. At happy hour, when I tell him that my right kidney is measured to be an exact mirror image of my left and see his eyes flare, I know he is a renal fanatic, and I am his type. He has already shared that he works as a data scientist, so I ask for his brain statistics. When the numbers come back, I let his hairy hand fall on mine. His thumb starts to caress the back of my hand, checking the network of veins underneath with gentle strokes.
“Hey,” he says with a sly smile, “do you want to come to my place”?
The prospect is enticing enough for me to say yes, but my sense gets the better of me, so I say I need to check first instead.
“Check what”? His fingers stop their caressing motion. “And with whom”?
“With my boyfriend,” I explain, “to inform him that I’ve met you.”
“You have a boyfriend”? He withdraws his hand to pick up his tumbler glass.
“Yes,” I say, “but our relationship is an open one.”
“Oh, ok,” he says and then takes a swallow of his Moscow Mule. “Cool, cool.”
I signal him to wait at the counter while I step aside to call my boyfriend. I tell Matt that I’ve met a guy at the gym, and after a happy hour he now invites me to his place. This Danny is very beautiful, with a burly liver and a hunky brain. I ignore the background noise seeping from Matt’s end and share all this with excitement, probably too much because before I even finish, Matt cuts me off.
“Louis,” he says with some anger, “this is only the fifteenth of the month, and you’re already hitting your limit.” Matt is referring to the deal we struck when we made open our relationship half a year ago, that one must inform the other if he was to have sex with somebody else. Each month, either one of us is only entitled to three such chances.
“Oh,” I murmur, “that’s right.” I feel a bout of powerlessness, the reluctance of letting Danny go overwhelmed by my promise to Matt.
But at that moment, another man’s small voice leaks from the phone, saying he has a question regarding the menu.
“Where are you”? I raise my voice.
It is now Matt’s turn to speak in a small voice. “I am at Soulmate and on a date,” he admits, then explains that since there are no signs yet to hint sex, he judges he doesn’t yet need to inform me about it.
“Bullshit, Matt,” I say, suddenly angry. “We both know that your date dinners invariably lead to bedside desserts. If you can go out on a date without informing me, I can go to Danny’s home as long as I don’t have sex.”
I hang up and beetle back into the bar. “Let’s go,” I say to Danny, pulling out a smile to cover my upset.
We make out on the red leather sofa in his living room, Danny's hand immediately under my shirt over where my kidneys are, mine running over his skull back and forth out of its own volition. He puts on an x-ray goggle and plants his head on my waist, moaning approvingly every so often and then trying to unbutton my shirt. I stop him, diverting his plan by asking to borrow his goggle. I hold him tighter as I scan one gyrus of his after another, until a perfect sulcus gives me so much excitement that all the hairs on my forearms stand up. Another part of my body also stands up at this point, of course, and even though I am still angry at Matt, I know for his sake I must pull out before it is too late.
My phone rings at that moment, a deus ex machina prompting me out of Danny's embrace and away from the sofa. Matt's name flashes on the screen, so I step into the kitchen to listen to his voice. He apologizes for not informing me before his date, and says that to show his regret, he has ended the dinner early and is now home.
“And as for you, babe,” he continues after a silence in which I ponder how to reveal the Danny situation I had been in. “Listen, we can modify our system to allow deficit. You know, if you have reached your monthly limit, you are allowed to run a deficit as long as you balance your book next month.”
“Ok,” I reply right away, “and I want to use it for tonight.” After this burst, I realize my appreciation for Matt has ballooned, so high that I almost tell him I’d retract what I’ve just said, and that I’d cut short my date and head home instead. But the image of Danny’s perfect sulcus flashes in my mind at that moment, all its hunky turns and twists, as if cut directly out of the same golden standards of the ancient Greeks. It feels too much to let all that simply pass.
“Enjoy, then,” Matt says, filling the dead air. “I love you,” I say in response, as I genuinely feel the tender emotion welling up in my heart. “I love you too,” I hear him saying, but he hangs up right after that.
I return to Danny and find the light already dimmed, and I let him hold my hand and lead me into his bedroom. He pulls out a new x-ray goggle from the nightstand drawer for me, and we kiss as we adorn each other’s inner beauty. There is so much to appreciate, so we disrobe and start to rub each other.
After, Danny tosses the condom on the floor and throws himself onto the pile of pillows, removing his goggles and panting with satisfaction. “That’s wonderful, isn’t it, Damien”? he says as he lifts his arms and crosses them under his head, exposing his hairy armpit.
“Who’s Damien”? I support myself up on my elbows, looking at him with wonder.
“Oh, sorry, I meant you, Louis.” Danny chuckles embarrassingly, pulling out more affected genuineness from his ventricles. “It’s wonderful, Louis, isn’t it”?
But anger wells up in me, and the decision of not letting him off so easily floats on it. “What’s this,” I remove my goggle and sit up. “I am just a type to you? All renal men are the same”?
“No, no,” Danny also sits up, attempting to give me a hug and smother his Freudian slip with it. Typical brain man, smart alecks never fault.
I reject Danny’s offer to drive me and walk ten blocks to get home. Matt is already in bed. The quilt is pulled up to beneath his shoulder, and his arms are resting on top of it. I turn up the dimmed light and see a golden shine reflecting along the bulge of his deltoids and biceps. A rush of tender feeling washes me back to when I first fell in love with him, all the superficial qualities accorded so well with the old standards of male beauty. I thought I had changed since then, a deeper person now who values the inner beauty more than the outer aesthetic. But men with inner beauty can also be freaks, as Danny tonight has perfectly demonstrated.
“You are back,” Matt says as he opens his eyes a little, squinting in my direction.
I do not say a word but insert myself under the quilt and lie next to him. He doesn’t move, and I extend my arm toward him, then rest it over his bristly chest.
“We are all good”? I ask, running my index finger along the contours of his pecs.
“We are all good,” he says, giving my hand a kiss without looking into my eyes.
Hantian Zhang is a writer living in San Francisco, with work published in Eclectica Magazine, The Offing, Manifest-Station, and elsewhere. He is a data scientist by day.