This is the 4th story from my “10 Short Stories in 10 Weeks Challenge” that I did in 2020. It’s an odd one, but I like odd. There are several themes I wanted to explore with this one. First, I’ve always been intrigued with amputees and missing limbs. Not sure why. Probably has something to do with reading too much southern literature over the years. Flannery O’Connor, anyone?
Next, I was thinking about the Monday night routines of my twenties when I used to stay out late and go to happy hour and karaoke. That was during a time before cell phones so there were no dating apps. Chatting online in AOL chat rooms was fun, but you eventually had to meet in person if you wanted to continue things further with someone. You had to leave your house! I updated those themes here with the use of cell phones because this story is about identity and gay men aren’t always truthful about themselves online.
I did once meet someone at karaoke that I’d been chatting with online. We quickly realized, in person, we weren’t very compatible but his roommate took a liking to me and we dated for a very brief time. (Both had all of their limbs.) A bit of this story pays homage to that memory.
Another time at karaoke a very handsome man was there with a group of coworkers, and he got one of his girlfriends to approach me and ask me to be his date for his upcoming birthday party. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before (or since). I was quite enamored and accepted the invitation. That memory is here too, though I definitely fictionalized events and let my characters take me where they wanted.
Enjoy! Feel free to comment.
I’d been chatting with Ellis off and on for several weeks before we decided to meet. It was my idea to meet at Backstreet on karaoke night. Although I never sang, it was the Monday night routine for the gays who lived in Midtown. Ellis had never been there before..
Before Backstreet, they packed Molly’s La Casita, a local restaurant across the street, for two-for-one margaritas. By 9 pm, they staggered out of the restaurant and across the street to belt out Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” or Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” Whoever sang Elton always changed the words to “Don’t Let Your Son Go Down On Me.”
Ellis had messaged me first on Grindr. I never messaged anyone first, but I would chat with anyone. I didn’t invest much time in Grindr and didn’t take it too seriously. It was just another app on my phone used to cure boredom or to find a hook-up. I liked the animosity of being able to look at other men’s photos, and read their profiles if they were filled out, without having to talk to them. So did everyone else.
I’d been coming to Backstreet for years, even before the appeal of Grindr and way before cell phones made our lives both more fascinating and more boring. I remember when the bar buzzed with music and conversations; our attention was always on what was right in front of us. Now, the drag queen who hosted karaoke frequently had to yell at the room and tell them to put their phones down and pay attention.
Using Grindr in the bar was weird anyway. Everyone in this town knew everyone already, and thanks to Grindr’s geo-location tracking you were right there in the room with practically everyone on the app anyway. If you took time to look up from your phone, the digital lies would soon reveal themselves.
Ellis and I had not shared our phone numbers so Grindr was our only form of communication and would at least make it easy for us to find each other when we got there. His dating app profile wasn’t very specific, but neither was mine. It was common to eventually ask someone what they were looking for, but Ellis had never done that. I liked just chatting with random guys in the middle of sleepless nights. I rarely opened the app in the bar because I was one of those few people who still liked to “live” in the moment, and I also didn’t want the drag queen to call me out.
Backstreet was made up of two large rooms. The front room had a large dancefloor and bar, and the back room was cabaret-style with tables and chairs and a stage. Karaoke took place in the back. The front room stayed dark and quiet until midnight. That’s when a DJ brought it to life with lights and music for those who were tired of singing and who felt like dancing a bit before going home. We’d agreed to meet each other in the front room while it was quiet so that we could hear each other.
I’d gone early to say hello to the usual faces, and to have a drink or two to ease my nerves. I don’t know why I was nervous. I’d met plenty of guys from Grindr, but Ellis would be the first I’d met where our immediate intention wasn’t sex. After my two margaritas at the restaurant, I almost ordered a beer at Backstreet but then I remembered Ellis didn’t drink. I decided to wait. An hour passed with no word from him. I figured maybe he’d gotten cold feet. I wasn’t going to message him because I didn’t want to seem desperate. Instead, I ordered that beer. I was halfway through it when my phone pinged. It was Ellis.
I’m here. Sorry, I’m late. I’ll message you when I’m inside, he said.
No problem. Grab a table in the front room. I’ll meet you there, I typed.
I chugged the rest of my beer so I wouldn’t have to drink it in front of him, and I popped a mint in my mouth. I left the cabaret bar and went to the restroom to take a piss. I checked my hair in the mirror while washing my hands. I walked through the darkened hallway that connected the cabaret with the front and paused there to wait for his text.
Several minutes passed. I thought he might have stood me up. There was never a long line out front so I don’t know what was taking him so long. I even peeked into the front bar to see if someone was in there and maybe his text had just not come through, but no one was there. I was just about ready to go back to karaoke when my phone pinged again.
I’m in the front. Blue shirt, it said.
Great! On my way, I texted back.
I waited a beat or two in the hallway before making my entrance. I didn’t want it to appear as if I’d raced over or as if I’d been waiting for him, even though I had been doing just that. From across the room, Ellis appeared nervous. He was tapping his foot and switched the position of his hands several times as he looked down at his phone. The glow of its screen lit his face; I couldn’t tell how much he looked like his photo until I was standing by the table.
“Ellis?” I said.
He quickly looked up. He turned his phone over so that it was facing the table, an impulse everyone practiced to keep their guest’s eyes off their screen. He stood up and extended his hand for me to shake.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you,” he said.
I tried not to look as if I was studying his face too much, but I was convinced he looked completely different from the photo he’d shared with me online. His hair was longer and darker. It was parted down the middle and hung loosely over his ears. He seemed thinner in the face. I wish I’d taken another look at his photo while I waited in the hallway. Gay guys didn’t have a good reputation for using current photos; I was guilty of that myself even though my current profile pic was only a year old.
“Please, sit down,” he said.
I sat down. This was the awkward moment where, now face to face without the veil of privacy a cell phone provided, we had to find something to talk about. It was always so much easier to skip the small talk when both of you knew your intention:
“Hey! C’mon in.”
“Want to go to the bedroom?”
I even answered the door in my bathrobe just to save time with getting undressed. I always took lube and condoms out of the nightstand and put them on the nightstand so there would be no fumbling for them in the dark if they were needed, and I hung two towels on the back of my bedroom door for clean-up afterward. Say what you want about one night stands, but there was an art to it and to being prepared.
“How’s karaoke going?” he asked.
“Good. It’s always a fun time. We can go watch if you want.”
It would be over later and the front room would come alive with music and drunken dancers. I wondered how long he intended for us to sit here. I wasn’t good with small talk especially in this atmosphere, but I wanted to be respectful.
“So, I know what you are thinking,” he said.
I’m glad one of us did. I wasn’t really thinking of anything. I was hoping he’d drive the conversation or ask questions. The two margaritas and the beer I had were starting to make me feel numb. One more beer and I would have turned into the chatty one.
“What’s that?” I asked, curious as to what he was going to say.
“Where’s Ellis, right?”
“I thought you were Ellis.”
“No, sorry, I’m not,” he said with a nervous grin.
“Who are you then?” I asked.
That came out with an angry tone, and a bit louder than I had intended. It was the margarita’s fault. He flinched a bit and widened his eyes.
“I’m sorry. You’re angry, and I understand why.”
“No, no, I apologize. I didn’t mean for it to sound like that. I’ve had a couple of drinks.” I went ahead and admitted that since this man in front of me had also gotten right to the truth.
“My name is Gaelyn. Ellis is a close friend of mine.”
“That explains why you don’t look like your profile photo,” I said, digging my phone out of my pocket.
I tapped the app and it opened to our conversation. I tapped his photo and it filled the screen. I held it up next to his face. Now I could tell they weren’t the same person. I was glad. I thought Ellis had an adorable youth-like quality to his face. Gaelyn was attractive but too skinny. I also didn’t care for his long hair.
“Ellis is waiting outside. Is that okay?”
“Why didn’t he want to come inside?”
“I better let him tell you.”
“Is he coming inside?”
“No, he’d like for you to come outside. We could go back to his place if that’s okay?”
I didn’t know what was okay anymore. This was weird. Was Gaelyn his bodyguard? Or some kind of pimp? Was Ellis deaf or mute? And why would we go back to his place? I just wanted to sit here and chat. It’s why we had decided on a public place. Did “we” include Gaelyn now? I wanted to be angry. I wanted to get up and just walk away. But I was intrigued, and the alcohol helped shed my inhibitions.
“Okay,” I said.
Gaelyn smiled and nodded his head. He stood up and turned toward the exit. I followed him. Outside, I immediately spotted a black Cadillac Escalade, sitting idle with its lights on, in the handicap parking space next to the building. Having come here almost every week for years, I knew the usual cars very well and the Escalade was definitely out of place. It must be Ellis.
Gaelyn approached it and opened the back door. He turned to look at me and indicated for me to get inside. A dozen questions flooded my mind again: Was Gaelyn his chauffeur? Was Ellis rich? Were they serial killers and this was a trap? I looked at Gaelyn and studied his face, but I was a horrible judge of character, especially when I’d been drinking. He smiled and gave a single nod, some indication that it was okay for me to get inside. So, I got into the back seat and he closed the door for me.
“Hi,” a shy voice said.
It was dark and my eyes were adjusting, but I could make out a hand reaching overhead. I immediately held up my hand to shield my eyes from the bright light I was anticipating, but it was a soft yellow light. I put my hand back down and could immediately make out a small man sitting across from me.
“Ellis?” I asked.
“Yes, sorry. I hope you are okay with this.”
There was that word again. Okay. How could I be okay when I didn’t know what any of this was?
“Is Gaelyn your butler or something?” I asked.
“No,” he said with a laugh, “just a good friend. He looks after me.”
I didn’t know why he needed to be looked after, and I wasn’t going to ask. I had a feeling I would soon find out. This was all a surprise since he had not told me about Gaelyn or even shared much personal information on Grindr.
“You two okay back there?” Gaelyn said opening the driver’s door and climbing inside.
“Yes, fine, Gaelyn. Would you like to go back to my place for a drink or something?”
“Sure, I guess I could follow you in my car.”
“We can bring you back. Is it safe if you leave it parked here?” Ellis asked.
“I suppose,” I said.
I knew he didn’t want me to get out because he feared I’d change my mind and drive in the opposite direction. I’d been stood up plenty of times by people who got cold feet, and it always made me wonder why. The thought of driving away and blocking him on Grindr certainly crossed my mind. I didn’t want to leave my car at Backstreet, but I’d done it before when I went home with someone. I also didn’t want to be at their mercy for very long, so I told myself one drink and then I’d ask him to bring me back.
“Don’t worry. I’m not a murderer,” Ellis said.
That didn’t make me feel any better.
“I don’t know about Gaelyn though,” he said, laughing. Gaelyn laughed too. “I’m kidding, of course.”
For something that sounded so outlandish, it didn’t bother me. I think I was relieved he said it, even though he could have been lying. Gay people were so trusting of each other when it came to going home with each other. Even though the apps make it easier to hook up from the comfort of our old homes, it was still dangerous. People could lie about themselves or share pictures that weren’t them. Even though he’d apologized for it, Ellis had already deceived me for some reason. My desire to know why is what let me agree to go with him to his house.
“I don’t live very far away. I love Midtown, don’t you? Where do you live?”
“I’m in Midtown too. Near the zoo.”
“I love the zoo.”
Was there anything he didn’t love? I knew he was just making small talk, but he sounded like a child.
“Here we are,” Gaelyn said.
We’d pulled into one of the quaint little neighborhoods still left in Midtown, a narrow street shaded with a canopy of trees and lined with little bungalow-style homes. I had several friends who lived in this area. I could always run to their house if I needed to escape. We were only about a mile from the bar, so walking back to my car was an option too. Even when I went home with other guys, I always had a plan of escape though I’d never had to do that. That seemed much more appropriate tonight though. I wasn’t nervous; more intrigued by all of this than anything.
Gaelyn parked in the driveway and got out. I tried to open my door, but it was locked. I looked back at Ellis. Just then the locks automatically clicked and Gaelyn opened Ellis’s door. He reached in and lifted Ellis off the seat. Ellis wrapped his arm around Gaelyn’s neck. This wasn’t the oddest detail of this activity. It had been so dark in the backseat I’d failed to notice, until now, that Ellis did not have any legs.
“Now you know why I didn’t come inside,” Ellis said.
I followed them inside and through the house to the living room where Gaelyn planted Ellis on the sofa. Gaelyn poured Ellis and I each a glass of wine. He sat the bottle of wine on the coffee table in front of us and then disappeared. I was glad he left. I had nothing against Gaelyn, but I had wondered if he was going to sit down and be a part of the conversation as well.
“It certainly explains a lot,” I said, hoping I didn’t offend.
“I have a set of legs. I just don’t like wearing them.”
I don’t think I’d ever heard anything so bizarre. I tried to hold back, but I sniggered a bit. I grabbed my glass of wine but was afraid I’d end up blowing it out my nose because I was so close to laughter. Ellis began to laugh too.
“Do you mind if I ask what happened?” I asked after a large sip of wine.
“Amelia,” he said.
“It’s a medical condition, a birth defect. It’s called Amelia. Isn’t that a beautiful name?”
“So you were born without legs?”
“Correct. I hope this is okay.”
There it was again. Okay. I didn’t know how to respond. If it wasn’t “okay,” I couldn’t very well tell him to put his legs on. I was curious why he hadn’t shared this when we chatted online, but asking someone if they have legs or not isn’t typical chatter between gays who use an app on their phone to trade dick pics before meeting in person. It was a bit unnerving, but I had no choice but to be fine, or okay, with it.
“So is Gaelyn your caretaker?” I asked, changing the subject. I was very much intrigued by this whole set up.
“Caretaker seems so formal. He’s just a good friend that looks after me. I’m wobbly on the prosthetics, but that’s my fault. They’re titanium. I am ti-ta-ni-ummmm! You shoot me down, but I won’t fall. Remember that? Such a good song.”
“Sia and David Guetta, right?”
He was referencing the song “Titanium” which had been a big club hit in 2011. They still played it in the bars.
“Does Gaelyn live here?” I asked.
“Yes, but in the guesthouse out back.”
I was glad he didn’t ask me if that was okay. I could tell he didn’t want to talk about Gaelyn though. I decided to let him lead the conversation, which he was more than happy to do.
As he spoke, I tried not to look down where his legs should have been. I would steal a glance from time to time when we weren’t making eye contact. There was nothing below the upper thighs. He wore loose-fitting shorts that covered the ends. He didn’t discuss them. There was nothing to discuss really, and I felt it would be rude to ask questions but my mind still ran with all sorts of things I wanted to know, like how he performed meaningless tasks we all took for granted because we had legs. I’m sure Gaelyn helped him.
It didn’t matter. As the night wore on, I became quite enamored by him. I’d thought he was cute in his photo on Grindr with his green eyes, perfect teeth, and blemish-free skin, but he was even more handsome in person. He was quite boyish, but he was perfect. I realized now he probably worked hard to make everything about him attractive or at least the best it can be to make up for the one part he had no control over.
“Do you want to stay the night?” he asked.
It had to be early morning. We’d been talking for hours and finished the wine a while ago. I was trying to hide yawns, but they crept in. I was tired, but I could have kept listening to him till sunrise. He’d even moved closer to me on the sofa and tucked himself under my arm. I did not remember the last time I’d cuddled with someone so it was nice. I wanted to stay. Gaelyn had not returned all night. He’d allowed us our privacy, so maybe there wasn’t anything to worry about.
“Are you sure?” I asked anyway, not wanting to seem eager.
“Of course. Do you mind carrying me to bed?”
“I’d love to.”
I stood up and knelt to reach for him. He climbed into my arms, wrapping his arms around my shoulders. His face was inches from mine and it seemed appropriate to kiss him. He pulled my head close to his and we did. He was surprisingly very light in my arms. He told me later that a human leg can weigh up to eighteen to twenty pounds.
In the bedroom, he shucked off his clothes but left his underwear on, so I left mine on too. He’d already climbed under the covers while I was getting undressed. He liked the lights off, but so did I. We must have kissed and necked for an hour before he finally reached for my underwear and let me take off his.
Legs certainly get in the way. There’s always the acrobatic feat of how to bend them, turn them, or spread them when you are in bed with a lover. The absence of his made the sex very different and exciting, but it wasn’t enough to make me want to stay with him. More than my legs got in the way.
The sun was just cracking the sky when we awoke. He asked if I wanted to have breakfast with him, but I didn’t. He offered to call Gaelyn to take me to get my car, but I told him I didn’t mind walking. I got dressed and kissed him. Ellis stayed in bed while I saw myself out. I knew I would never see him again.
“Good morning,” Gaelyn said. He was sitting on the porch and sipping a cup of coffee when I walked outside.
He handed me my car keys. At some point, while we slept, Gaelyn had taken my keys and retrieved my car. It was parked in front of the house. I wondered if he’d also watched us make love. I shook my head in disbelief.
“What is this?” I said.
“I know what this is,” I said, indicating my keys. “I meant…this…all of this.”
“What do you want it to be?”
“I don’t want it to be anything. But, it’s weird. You. Him. This is weird. I don’t want it to be weird. That’s what I want.”
“You’re the weird one.”
“Me? How so?”
“Guys like you. You and your devices. Your preferences. Your hang-ups. You’re the weird ones.”
“We’re the weird ones? Oh, so there’s been others?”
“Of course. There’s been several, and I tell him every time not to go to bed with them on the first night, and he never listens to me.”
“What are you to him anyway? His butler? His chauffeur? His nurse?”
He didn’t answer. He just took another sip of coffee and sat there. I couldn’t think of anything else to say so I turned and walked across the lawn to my car. I got in and drove away. When I got home, I opened the app on my phone and went to my messages. Ellis wasn’t there. He’d blocked me.
It wasn’t the first time a one-night stand had done that. I’d done it myself a few times. It seemed arrogant, but gays were guilty of treating men like sex objects when it came to online culture. I didn’t think of Ellis as an object, and I doubted he thought of me that way either. But I knew why he’d done it. It sent a clear message, to both of us, that we were done and each of us could move on.
For weeks, I beat myself up for thinking I didn’t want to be with Ellis because of his condition. There were probably a thousand reasons why we weren’t meant to be together, but I only blamed one. And that was me. It was my predicaments, or preconceived notions, that had made me leave that morning.
About a year later I saw Gaelyn in the produce section of the grocery store. He didn’t see me. I was already checking out as he came in. As I left, I saw the Cadillac Escalade with its dark windows in the parking lot and wondered if Ellis was inside. I’d never told any of my friends about him, but I’d thought of him often.
Midtown was small, and the gay circles were even smaller. You thought everyone knew everyone else, but you rarely crossed paths with your one-night stands. When it did happen, both of you pretended you didn’t know each other. So, I wasn’t surprised that I never saw Ellis or Gaelyn again.
But circles talk and one night I found myself back at Molly’s on a Monday night, having my two margaritas before karaoke, and two men sitting next to me were looking at pictures on one of their cell phones. One of them was blond; I recognized him from karaoke. The other had black hair and I didn’t recognize him. The one with black hair had just attended a wedding the previous weekend, and I heard him telling his friend how one groom had carried the other groom down the aisle.
“Ellis is so cute. How did they meet?” one of them asked the other.
“On Grindr, believe it or not.”
“Did Ellis get married?” I asked, chiming in.
“You know Ellis?” the black-haired guy asked. They both turned to look at me.
“I used to. I haven’t seen him in a few years.”
He held up his phone and showed me a picture. It was my Ellis alright, looking lovingly into the eyes of a tall slender man holding him in his arms. I did not recognize Ellis’s new husband.
“They look so happy,” I offered.
“They are going to live in Ellis’s house,” he said.
“Does he still live a few blocks from here?”
“Yes, you’ve been to his house?”
“Of course, years ago. I think it was a Christmas party or something. Is Gaelyn going to live with them?” That was the real question I wanted to ask.
“Oh,” he said, frowning.
“I’m sorry. What?”
“You didn’t know?”
“Gaelyn passed away a few months ago. Quite suddenly. They honored him at the wedding and had his urn there. It was really sad.”
“Seems weird, doesn’t it?” I said.
“Why? Ellis loved him. Gaelyn took care of him.”
“I wonder what his new husband thought of Gaelyn,” I said.
“Oh, Jared didn’t mind. Gaelyn was his brother, after all.”
“Ellis married Gaelyn’s brother?”
“No, silly. Gaelyn was Ellis’s brother. He’d taken care of Ellis his whole life.”
“Really? I never knew that!”
It was true. I didn’t know that. Neither Ellis nor Gaelyn had ever offered that piece of information. That night we’d spent together might have made more sense if they had told me that. Had I known, it might have been me in that photo holding Ellis at the altar.
He told me how both Gaelyn and Ellis were gay, but Gaelyn had given up his chance at being with someone because of having to care for Ellis after their parents died. Gaelyn had longed for affection though and had taken to sneaking off to a bathhouse when Ellis slept or had company. I wondered if he’d gone to the bathhouse the night Ellis and I met. Gaelyn had tested positive several years ago. It seemed he’d made it an effort to find someone to care for Ellis, knowing that his days were numbered.
“That’s so sad,” the blond said.
It was, and I was both sad and angry at myself for some reason. I didn’t go to karaoke that night. I left the restaurant and drove by Ellis’s house. The lights were on, but the curtains in the window were drawn. I wondered what Ellis and Jared were doing inside. I don’t know why it bothered me so much. Ellis and I could have been more, but my hang-ups had not allowed that. I think I was angry because I hated myself for walking out on him that night. In time, I would have learned about Gaelyn and how he fit into the picture, but I was too conceited or fixated on trivial matters to see past that. I realized our online personas made us seem superficial, and I hated that about gays. I hated that about myself.
I’m sure it wasn’t the first time I’d missed out on something greater. It wouldn’t be the last. I was happy for Ellis, and he deserved someone to make him happy. When I got home that evening, I grabbed my phone and opened the Grindr app. I perused the same old profiles I’d seen a thousand times, each eager for a connection and waiting for someone to reach out. I was one of them.
I held my finger down on the app which prompted the trash can to appear on my phone in the upper corner. I moved the app to the trash and confirmed I wanted to uninstall it. I knew it would be short-lived. I’d deleted it several times before, but always reinstalled it when I was in the mood for company or bored, or like all the others out there using it for some type of connection.
Tonight it was symbolic. Tonight I deserved to be alone. I opened the music app on my phone and searched for Sia, and fell asleep listening to that song and thinking about what might have been with Ellis, and the love I’d missed out on. I wanted to see Ellis in my dreams that night. I wanted to see Gaelyn. I wanted to see Amelia.
I am ti-ta-ni-ummmm!
Ellis now had everything he needed. It was me who was missing something.