Before he disappeared, Julian was all grins. Shit-eating grins. Payday: new wool toque, vest, chinos. A weeks’ worth of stubble on his upper lip. Friday was his busiest night but I liked to play dumb, lay the guilt trips. We perched on couch cushions, TV dark, and he watched me eat forkfuls of congealed pork and egg rolls. I could tell he wanted compliments on his new get-up.
“Cash up front this time?” I asked. His vest smelled of leather and metal, like blood.
“They sure as hell don’t give cheques.”
A car pulled up outside and the driver revved the engine—Julian’s signal to head out.
“It’s Friday,” I said. “Can’t you take the weekend off?” “Money’s best tonight. Sorry. Kiss?”
“Trash.” I pointed to a knotted bag on the kitchen floor. Minutes later I heard the dumpster lid crash down. You could see the carport from the living room window, and after midnight you might catch drug dealers trading product for cash beside the parked cars. I etched a sad face on the glass that faded as soon as I thumbed it to life. Julian never looked up, just hopped in the back seat of the car and disappeared. That word, disappear—all weekend, I heard it pop in the air like a magic trick gone wrong. On the statements and forms I struck out disappeared and penciled in missing. I could handle that word. It lacked magic.
Next morning I woke clutching Julian’s pillow. No missed call or voice mail. I’m fine, home soon, go back to sleep. I listened for the shower’s hiss and heard nothing but the shopping cart clatter of a homeless man. Empty aluminum cans, loose wheels, sounds I never thought would comfort me. After six months on EI from a car accident that left glass splinters lodged in my back and shoulders (I milked the system as long as I could), daytime TV followed by porn and the odd midafternoon stroll to avoid muscle cramps, the shitty realities of the outside world were welcome distractions. Sometimes it involved drugs, other times prostitution. Julian called it life in the dirty south of town, his ‘whatever’ attitude from a bad childhood. You learn to watch your back.
I hit the call button on my phone and his photo lit up the screen. It was a fairly recent snap of his handlebar mustache, the hairs sparse and patchy. Something new. I told him he looked a poor imitation of Tom Selleck, my passive-aggressive gears sliding into overdrive, merely a quiet plea for him to shave, but he was a rock—when I pushed too hard he bounced back. We settled for a pencil- line thinness and I quit my bitching.
Three calls went unanswered. I put on coffee, thought of the possibilities, bred and slayed a different fear with each drip. I drank from a porcelain mug and smoked by the window, watched a pervert harass a young mom and her toddler. She whacked him good with her purse and almost cheered. The losers below—the haggard dead—stumbled to life long after the rest of the world on Saturday mornings. They wore ripped jeans and wifebeaters, smoked and got buzzed on caffeine, planned their days around the latest neighbourhood crisis. Do disappearances count? I was different and I believed it, so it must’ve been true. All I needed was a nudge into open air the way a dying wasp needs one final push off a windowsill to fly again.
The first place I checked for Julian was the Metro club. He came often; he loved its cool, industrial feel and stopped in before or after work to unwind. Vent ducts and electrical wiring hung from the ceiling, and a stolen traffic light flared red over the exit. Not a lot of noise on a weekend afternoon—hair-of-the-dog regulars sat hunched at the bar with whiskeys or vodkas. It was Marty behind the counter this time, wiping glasses and schmoozing the dayside crowd.
“Julian in here last night?” I asked. Marty gave me the onceover, fondled a straw at his mouth like a cigarette.
“Business is business,” he said. I handed him a five and he poured.
“So you seen Julian or not?”
“You mean Jenelle?” His eyes went wide and he sipped a cherry cola.
“I mean Julian. You call him what you want. Did you see him?”
“Not last night. And Jenelle’s more a feather boa kind-of-gal than anything else.” “Right. Thanks.”
I slid to the end of the counter, sat a bar stool away from a creep with fucked up teeth. A black and white movie played on the flat screen; with no dialogue, I made up words in my head for the young couple, him with slicked-back hair and her in a sweeping skirt. Sure they’d only just met, but he had a train to catch, and wouldn’t she ever see him again? Probably not.
Fuck-tooth shuffled over, his bourbon breath warm on my forearm.
“What’s your name, son?”
I stared at the TV and let the tumbler sweat in my hands. I’d never been good at crushing advances from strangers until I met Julian. He knew men—how to approach them, sucker them along, shut them down.
“Damn you. I’m just trying to get to know a friendly face.”
“I’m not single.” I downed my glass and left under the blinking red light. On the subway I swayed with the rush hour crowd, dopey from the drink, glad for the company of suited men and over-perfumed girls. Let me say how easily I could’ve pressed the emergency strip, that rubber band running the train car wall like a yellow fear. With a screech, a halt, I could’ve put my life on pause to figure out this shit. Instead I watched the outside world speed past like a movie on fast forward.
We talked about open relationships, about monogamy versus one-off fucks, the previous summer. Summer meant foam parties, swinger joints, city-wide pride in sunbaked July. Whole streets were closed off to cars and the queers strutted in short shorts and tight tees, eyes hidden behind aviator sunglasses. We played the game, held hands, looked the other way. What else was there? Julian was in his twenties but his smooth skin resembled a teenager’s. They ogled his olive colouring and dark hair, not just the homos but the lesbians, the ones with big hoops and plunging necklines. Rubbernecks who gaggled in the 7-Eleven line with handfuls of candy bars and sports drinks. Julian soaked it up. Attention whore. We all were.
His friend Todd had been in an open relationship. Todd, bright eyes, flushed cheeks, an obsession with Prince Charming’s from too many Disney princess movies. I could see the appeal of staying open; you were never alone. Unlucky. Farmer found him knocked out in a ditch, clothes stripped, fag painted across his back.
“It’s all about who you know,” Julian said, checking out his reflection in a department store window. We walked the parallel lines of Main Street in linked arms so we wouldn’t lose each other. He waved to a group of guys gyrating to loud electronica, squeezed the shoulder of some dyke in the middle of a make out session. I lost my bearings and felt directionless with him on that crowded street. We decided to stick a pin in the open relationship idea until he could ease me into his world.
Parents, the encouraging ones. Police, the realistic ones. After leaving the Metro I called both, desperate, and gave yes/no answers to questions ticked from a list: When did you last see him? Have you called family/friends/lovers/jealous exes? Any illegal activity you know about? I took a shower and stood naked at the sink, wiped up Julian’s pine-needle hairs around the faucet. Sometimes, when his long nights bled into mornings, I’d find him in the tub with the shower running cold. Do you still recognize me? His bruises shone like flattened coins in the yellow light. Of course, why wouldn’t I?
The pin fell out before New Year’s. I got home around midnight from a family Christmas weekend, exhausted and a little buzzed. The noises in the bedroom struck me first—grunts like a fistfight. Julian wasn’t much of a fighter. My reaction time was slow but I knew he was messing with me after
I tripped over a pair of white Nikes (not mine, not his). I strung them together like skates and hurled them at the bedroom door.
“Knock knock, you stupid fuck,” I said. Julian rushed out in his jockeys.
“This guy couldn’t host. I’m sorry. I haven’t had a decent pay in days.”
“That’s our bed. There’s someone else in our bed.” “Keep your voice down. He paid more for the place.” “Where the hell do I sleep?”
“On the couch. Or you could join us.”
His teeth gleamed white in the unlit hallway. Magic tricks, old but familiar—I’d yell, he’d talk and when we were out of words, he’d flash a smile and I’d be grinning too. It was easier to smile away an argument. That was love for us, for me, to give in at the end. The place was freezing but I could feel his body heat on my arms. The bed creaked under the stranger’s weight. Julian’s eyes and teeth shone like an animal, and like an animal my eyes adjusted to the dark. I opened my mouth and smiled back.
Evenings, the sun shone like a spotlight on the neighbourhood screw-ups and outcasts. Skyscrapers swelled in the south of town, steel structures whose windows reflected the sunset’s glare. It blinded you if you weren’t careful, left a swollen orange imprint behind your eyes. Was I blind to the world or my own throbbing doubt?
I knew of one more place to look for Julian but waited until dark. His spot—a dead-end under the city’s last overpass, his runway—was a short hike from our place. The sound of my own footsteps scared me shitless, I’ll admit, but the faster I walked, the more my phone spoke in its soft, robotic voice. A compass icon pulsed on the screen and its points shifted as I turned corners. Continue to crosswalk. Stop before entering road. I kept my eyes down and let the arrows guide me. I was alone but anchored. Destination will be on the right.
Let me tell you about Julian’s corner of the world: it lacked magic. The flickering streetlights sucked away all charm. The sidewalk smelled of piss. I expected sleazy women in low-cut tops but the hustlers boasted muscle and body hair. Blowjobs for cash, extra to lose the rubber. Romance was dead but everyone was honest about what they wanted. Something rose in my throat as I scanned the faces—no Julian, but I had hope because these were guys like me. These guys would understand.
A blond in leather chaps stuck his head in car windows, tried to make deals for the night, even yelled at a few drivers to fuck off. When he stepped onto the curb I clicked Julian’s picture on my phone and held it up. No eye contact. He pushed past as if I didn’t exist. I was an outsider, someone who didn’t speak their code.
A tranny in pink pumps and a leather one-piece tapped my shoulder. “You won’t make much with that attitude,” she said.
“I’m not hooking. I’m trying to find someone.”
“Ask the clients. Most come down here every night. Show a little skin if you want them to talk to you.”
So I dropped my jacket. I peeled off my shirt. Rain pelted the scars on my upper back, and I probably looked as stupid as I felt. Cars began to pull up, a slow rotation of eager faces, and I held out his photo. Most said no while others said they’d pay to tell me what I wanted to hear. One guy slipped out his dick, said we could spend the night together. In that hour, I spoke to more guys than I had in weeks. Desire, disgust, admiration—all of these rolled around inside my gut.
A red sedan stopped. A middle-aged driver rolled down the window, his belly flopping over the seatbelt.
“I’m not here to hook up,” I said.
“Neither am I. I’m actually looking for someone.”
He handed me a wrinkled photo of Todd. I recognized his bright eyes, rosy cheeks, mussed hair. A fake blue sky hung behind him. It was a high school photo, maybe ten years old.
“You’re his dad.”
“You know him? Have you seen him?” His voice was eager and high-pitched.
“No, been a while. But he’s friends with my partner.” I showed him my phone.
“Yes, Julian. I remember him. Nice kid. You know, Todd got beat up real bad last year.”
“Yes, he did.” I didn’t know what else to say as I closed my phone. Moths flapped around a streetlight, its glow beaming down on one last gigolo who hadn’t scored. Some nights that was
Julian, alone and killing time, his breath a cloud of pot smoke.
“Maybe they’re together somewhere.”
I wanted to say, Todd’s not exactly Julian’s type, but didn’t.
“Great kid, such a great kid. I miss my little boy.” His voice caught and he flicked open his wallet before I could ask if he was drunk. He showed me a young photo of Todd with another boy—I imagined Julian. They sat cross-legged in matching Mario Bros t-shirts on a playground ride, the spinning kind that makes you throw up after too many turns. Todd’s cheeks burned the usual red. The other kid, the one I pretended was Julian, had hairless, perfect skin. Both boys looked terrified.
“Do you think we’ll find them?” Todd’s dad asked, all teary-eyed and stupidly hopeful. He wanted make-believe, not truth. I folded the picture so the crease divided the spinning dish, both boys mirroring the other’s terror. My phone buzzed to life in my back pocket but I let it ring and ring, the last hooker stumbling toward me, the crazed moths knocking into the light.