In the Land of Sony Ericsonn, Still
The girl from online was going to meet him at the Japanese steakhouse with the Wagyu. Her 4:3 bust was very pretty in an anodyne way that James could stomach right now, and, coincidentally with regards to the restaurant, she was entirely Japanese by birth.
She’d grown up near here, in a suburb of Québec, but her bio contained only a single French phrase: de race, which translated, ridiculously, to “purebred.” A joke, maybe about the website, which did resemble those used for kennels. Her name was Charlie, and this might’ve really been the case considering that name’s popularity here, in Québec, for girls.
They sat down, covered themselves with napkins, and the chef explained their steaks in pained English. The waiter used a similar pidgin to direct the best use of their Mediterranean and English salts, which were different colors. “Basically, you put one salt on the beef at a time,” he said, “to see how it can taste with a different flavor.” This was all theater. People knew what to do with salt. But there was no real malice in it, and if James made a stink about pretenses now, how could he reasonably persist on this date? They hadn’t met. She was working, and he was paying for her with the change fallen from the pockets of his dad’s funeral suit.
“Do you have a job?” Charlie asked. She tapped his shoulder, lightly, like a poke, which was maybe an updated, more lightweight version of the sultry shoulder stroking from old movies. A neoliberal geisha girl. Or maybe it was her personal thing, like knocking on an eggshell first. “You look like you could be a lawyer.”
“I’m between jobs,” he said. “I was a phys. ed teacher for three years, but the school I taught at is now defunct.” He clarified how, detailing the Catholic school's property sale to a neighboring hospital. “My parents tried to donate some money to keep it afloat because my family is in the alumni association, but that didn’t pan out.”
“Why didn’t your parents give you the money instead? Fuck the school. Donate to you.”
“They did just a few days ago.”
“Change of heart?”
“That’s right.” He was enjoying the steak and salt and conversation so far. The salt was really the best part, sort of like regular smoked salt but more citrusy, and he would’ve eaten off a napkin; and he felt like he had to piss really bad, but it wasn’t real urine, just jittery adrenaline piled up against his bladder. “They actually died, and I more or less sold their house and liquidated their furniture, so now I’m here for a few weeks to hang out.”
They ordered gelato at a creamery near the St. Lawrence, just an elevator ride from the steakhouse. This was all part of a high-rise with a rickety-wooden appearance and a rock-solid iron substructure.
The gelato was piled up in tubs. Some flavors resembled an ocean frozen mid-wave, and others had a hilly, scalloped appearance like the lid of a fish pie. This seemed to do with popularity, as the ocean was easier to maintain after frequent woundings with a metal scoop.
Oddly enough, both James and Charlie had been to Florence as children, where they’d had gelato for the first time, and they ordered the same flavors again now: stracciatella and pistachio respectively. The St. Lawrence flicked them with a cold mist, and James felt the slow of time: a gritty smash between old feelings and new jitters: a profound sense of worry and concern. “Do you want to make out?” he asked. They were sitting on a wood railing, smoking her French cigarettes.
“Are you, twelve?” she asked. “Let’s go to a nightclub.”
“I’m not really a club person.”
“I’ll get us MD and then you will be.”
“I actually despise clubs,” he said.
She frowned at him, pityingly. “I mean, they’re not good, but unless you have something else in mind… It’s like saying you hate the bathroom.”
“I might need to use one soon,” he said. The steak hooves were, perhaps psychosomatically, cantering in his intestines. “I have the Lyme’s thing where you can’t have beef.”
She laughed and remembered something else. “I get it. I see where you’re headed.” The St. Lawrence blew across her hair and his, flapping their similar haircuts away from their faces, and sharpening the tips of their noses and thinning blood against their jaws. “If you’re in that state of mind,” she said, “you won’t hate this place.”
Dagobert was a castle on the outside, but the inside had that ordinary look of a nightclub: like an airplane hangar with too many crisscrossed bits of steel overhead. James had the sense, not yet dulled by his second tequila soda, that the glass balconies and speaker rigging might tumble down and crush him into a puddle of blood.
He and Charlie joined a circle of people who all sort of looked like versions of Charlie. That’s to say they were all thin, college-aged, and had drastic haircuts. Felix, who Charlie hugged at the door, seemed to be in charge of the night. He had a buzzcut, a structured beard, and a short, mostly square head with a flat, stumpy nose that permanently flared its nostrils. James wondered how he snorted powders like MD without having them fall right back out. “Felix models,” Charlie explained. “He has an agent from an American agency, and he did pictures for ASOS.”
The urge wasn’t very strong, but James tried to lean into possessive jealousy, thinking that, if he could stumble into emotional pitfalls as the night went on, he’d enjoy the sex more. Maybe Charlie intuited this, and Dagobert was part of an inspired humiliation routine. “Come with me,” she said.
He and Charlie did MD in the women’s bathroom. Charlie sat on James’ lap, and he sat on a toilet. The lid creaked and pushed up into his hamstrings. He felt around the front of Charlie’s dress, catching the aerospace flattishness of her genitals, which she’d compressed with spandex briefs. “You’re killing me,” she said, and sat up to pull her underwear down, which she did quickly with an eye roll as if he was supposed to flick them off with the same flourish as a bra strap. “I have all fucking night,” he said, perhaps touching on the contractual nature of their date. Why was he being petty? She was taking them off, after all. “Take it easy, stupid,” she said, “you’re pinching me.” There was a second pair of underwear under the first, a thinner, seamless pair of even tighter polyester. After this came off, she held her penis in one hand and massaged it, returning blood flow until it was slightly bigger. A chain link texture was stamped into it, an artifact of the underwear’s weave. “Are you going to suck me off?” she asked. That was more or less the idea, and he did it without any supremacy of intention. She came after two minutes, and he spit her cum into the toilet between his legs.
There was no chance he’d done it right. She must’ve taken Viagra before coming out; must’ve been squirming this whole time with chemical horniness. Now that she’d come, the night would sour as she fell into a dark serotonin valley, and he wouldn’t get to fuck her organically. She’d have to put out. “Are you still into it?” he asked.
“Got it out of your system?” she asked, with admonitive hurt. She was performing a version of dignity, basically.
“It’s not that,” he said.
“I’m not bored,” she said, “I’m still here.”
When they got back to the throng, Felix was dominating the group conversation. It was all in French, and their utterances disappeared into the French-sounding disco lyrics, which were further cracked up by drums and warm synth noises. It should’ve been disorienting for someone who processed the world in English, but James was reliving the blowjob he’d given in the bathroom. He was trying to figure out if he’d enjoyed himself, or if he’d simply been carried along on an ordinary reckless impulse, or if this unprecedented non-heterosexual behavior was on a death-driven continuance with the Wagyu. He had a hard time choosing between these three possibilities and was starting to doubt that a meaningful difference between them existed.
“You have something,” Felix said, and touched the corner of his lip. “Sperme.”
James encountered the bullying as magnanimously as the MD let him, with an unselfconscious physicality, and prodded the region with his tongue. A bit of chapped lip and some sweet residue. “Stracciatella,” he explained. “Gelato.”
The conversation found its locus around the word mosque. Felix had the most to say. “He is a nationalist,” Charlie explained. “Felix can’t talk about things like this normally because he would be canceled. He doesn’t want Muslims to live here, in Québec. He is against Trudeau.”
James laughed. “He looks Muslim with that beard.”
“Don’t tell him that,” Charlie said. “He can become violent.”
James said, “We have more shootings in America and more Muslims. He could move down south and cut his teeth.” Felix was listening. James was delirious. “This is such a funny country,” he went on, speaking right into Charlie’s ear. “I messaged you from an internet café by my hotel. They still have those here. This place is insane.”
Felix said something about américain arrogance. Charlie laughed, so he repeated it. Something including: “est stupéfiante.”
“Is he calling me stupid?” James asked.
“Not really that,” Charlie said, “he’s saying that you are hard to believe.”
James and Charlie’s hotel room was unconventionally made of ice. This all happened in March, which was the last month of Hôtel de Glace’s operation. It melted thereafter and had to be done up again with fresh blocks. The staff was melancholic because they had to find new seasonal jobs in bartending, lifeguarding, cooking, and so on. James was coming down hard enough that their moping around the lobby and the melting of this giant igloo felt like the pieces of a singular human monument.
He was glad in any case to get upstairs and into his cell. Vines, buds, and mushrooms were carved into the packed snow walls, and, rather unerotically, a Germanic gnome presided over this forestry. “I don’t think I can fuck with that thing looking at me,” James said.
“That’s fine,” Charlie said, “I can.”
After another unprecedented penetration of his form, James socketed himself into one of the sleeping bags atop his ice slab. Charlie sat on top of hers and checked her phone, not absent-mindedly. She seemed to have thousands of things to respond to. “I would have charged you triple if I knew you were staying here,” she said.
“It had good reviews. And it’s icing my ass for me, which is convenient.”
“Such a baby.”
“It’s how I was raised,” he explained. “I think my parents really wanted to save that school.”
They sat for a while in the icy throb of this room. It was hard to exist in it without a sense of conspiracy, but they were two strangers, even with the total involvement of flesh. No unspoken agreements. James asked, “Have you ever read Kawabata?” and started to cackle.
Charlie started a cigarette, which was soundly against the rules. She said, “I could kill you, you know. Your body wouldn’t even rot because of the snow, and you’d basically deserve it. I’d stab you with an icicle.”
“Can I have that?” James asked. He smoked the rest of her cigarette.
They went in their underwear and towels to the Finnish bath, which was closed up for the night. In a stroke of luck, an apathetic employee had left the door unlocked, and they were able to sit by an inactive electric fireplace and lean their arms on the jacuzzi. The jacuzzi, which seemed to run on its own circuit, burbled away in the dark like a pot of stew. Despite this impression, the water inside was cold.
They tried all the switches on the walls and on the side of the jacuzzi, but none of them did anything, so they sat in the dark with everything off for as long as that lasted.
Kevin Zebroski has an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is working on a novel called Glass Heaven.