Happy Hour of the Wolf
by Michael Narkunski
The innocent start: you’re sitting on the stool, as usual, awkwardly waiting to be seen.
It’s the wrong time again, as usual. Too early to get anything close to the amount of attention that could satisfy you—but that’s just one way to look at it. Another side of you is thrilled with the happy hour hunt, thinks it’s more civilized to meet someone not-so-sloppy drunk (anyway, a bar is a bar). It’s also more charged and surprising, two guys connecting in the daylight when everyone else is in friend-mode, in unwind-mode, in still-a-person-in-the-world-mode.
Maybe it’s just happened successfully once or twice before (Bryan the ballet dancer?), so you’ve romanticized it. Maybe so many computations are unreliable (alone at night on the East side, with a wingman on the West side, in a group downtown after-hours, etc.), that any success meant repeat, repeat, repeat, in your mind. But maybe you were wrong. Maybe the trick is variation. Or to not care at all. Or to re-evaluate your whole quantitative approach to sex and dating. Maybe you need a better job first or a better body. A better attitude or better self-image. Or since you’re me and therefore quite short—just a better view of the bar door.
So you’re about to switch spots, head your flannel-clad, concave-chested self away from the shirtless bartenders and the visual obstruction of biceps pouring drafts, when suddenly two dark and swarthy men tout their nearness. They don’t look at you, but that is just another part of their touting, their announcing heartily of their sheer proximity. You wonder if this is it, if this is going to be the story of the day, these two companions who appear sturdy, solid, and ready to perform their sturdy-solidness for you. You’re almost sure it’s not, so you try not to get too excited. But then you take a wider look, notice the larger, hairier, older one has a cast for a broken foot. You see him crouching on the stool, his weary expression. Broken foot. Weary expression.
It slips too quickly into your mind: easy prey.
You know immediately to use the second man—the younger, less-hairy, dumber-looking one—the one who’s not weary. You know he’s the key to the other. You both know, actually, and that’s why the dumber-looking one is there. For this exact purpose, to grab your attention, be bright and alive with his eyes, so you can confidently step onto the invisible welcome mat before them and let them size you up as you say something, contribute anything, in order to enmesh.
You can say: Cute couple! (While knowing they’re friends.)
Or: What’s the red chip mean? Free beer? (While knowing it does.)
Or: Want my chip? I’m not going to use it. (But of course, you could be persuaded.)
They’re not all equal. That last one’s not an “open” question, requiring just one response, yes or no. The second one, too, is risky. So you stick with your first instinct. Even if lame, even if blah. Because that’s what unfortunately works, and does again like a charm.
The tall, younger, dumber-looking one is the one who reacts. He says no way they’re a couple, no, no way, they’re just friends, friends who are both from the same country, the country of Oman! You say, “Oman? Oh, man!” and the younger one (who is still much older than you) laughs, which makes you happy. The one you actually want does not, which makes you even happier, especially as his weary eyes train steadily on you, as you get a feeling that this is an audition and it’s really just begun.
After a bit of what do you do and why do you do, the older one finally speaks, low, with his Middle Eastern lilt. You have no idea what he says, but you like it, and you immediately notice his hard yet plump lips, like Kris Kringle’s when the little girl pulls his beard and he goes “oof.” You picture those lips on you. His thick tongue in you. And this, whether you’ve planned it or not, remains the primary subtext of your interaction from now on.
There will be further small talk, of your Queens apartment and of you teaching rowdy children after-school. Of his teaching business at NYU and that you went to NYU too and isn’t that NYWonderful. You will run out of major identity markers to discuss and make bad joke after bad joke for the young, dumber-looking one to keep laughing, for the pretense you need in order to continue being bodies in proximity. You will even act young and dumb yourself, because you pretty much are in this context, but also because it’s serving you and got you here. And even if you don’t love the character you’re portraying for this particular piece, you’ll know it’s OK, because there is a bigger objective—one that is more piercing and urgent and true.
You ask the older one if he broke his foot in a sex accident.
This unconsciously serves a double purpose. First, to put him on edge. To think that if you mention sex so casually, you must not be thinking about it that hard, the way he probably is. He’s hopefully worried that you think this is all a joke, a meaningless interaction. But he’s a professor, so that becomes part of your gamble, too—that he’s smart enough to see through it, just not completely (because professor).
The second purpose is simply to say the word itself: “sex.” To be hip, to be wise, despite your age, despite your utter in-betweenness, and young, dumb jokes. That both of your wavelengths can touch in the same adult, horny man-space of plain language. That he knows that you know that he knows—without a colored handkerchief, secret lexicon, code, or app, but just from normal words, normal gestures, from smiling and seeing and being. And after a lifetime of the opposite—of hiding, averting, and non-being—it’s exhilarating, it’s the most exhilarating thing in the universe to flirt with common signals and you are happy to operate this way until you die.
He responds with the real reason he broke his foot, but you can’t bother to listen then either—you like your version better. And all truly feels ecstatic, until they unceremoniously rise.
You immediately worry you spent too long in the subtext, beat yourself up for not keeping them entertained and engaged. Just in time, though, you’re able to get out of your head and back into your mouth to ask the young one for his number. He agrees, as they promise to show you “real” Middle Eastern food, smoke some hookah, solve the Muslim-Jewish problem.
“Can’t wait,” you say. “See you!” you say. And vibrating, smiling, you skip back up to the bar with your red chip, ready for a victory round—then think better of it and walk out, your thirst already quenched.
Yazan, the older one, meets you for Spanish tapas a week later, alone. You got his number through the friend and now the pretense is over, the staff off-duty, happy hour’s over—this is the part where no one can hide. So when he greets you outside, you notice a few, new things.
You see he’s a bit bigger than you thought, as he stands up straight, with his cast gone. You see he’s not crouched on a stool, but that he’d probably be more himself if he was. You can also tell that he’s more refreshed from it being the weekend, that he carries a dark cloud around him nonetheless, and most importantly, that his nose is one of the broadest, sexiest, most bulbous things you’ve ever seen.
After ordering, though, you notice something even bigger: the stilted conversation. There’s even more grunting on his part than before, more askance glances, and way too many teeth at wrong times. But this is how it happens, this phase. No bar, no visual stimulation, no wingmen—the knowns slightly adjusted—just you and a practical stranger, feeling your way through the expanse between. So you don’t panic. You keep it neutral, controlled.
You say: “Do you like professing?”
And you say: “Is your family accepting?”
And you say: “I have a pregnant older sister.”
But with each Q and each A, you remember how little getting to know someone is about sharing actual information.
Luckily, there’s the Shirt. His rugby shirt that’s blue, with green panels hugging the sides—clearly his effortlessly masculine, “non-date,” date outfit. The Shirt flatters him, struggles around him. And you want to, of course, lyricize that struggle of Shirt vs. Beast. So, with that in mind, the Shirt your north star, you feel strong enough to steer things back to that adult and horny man-space from before. Yes, what began as an impromptu audition may have now become a forced interview, but this garment is telling you it’s still salvageable, maybe even desirable. Especially if you lean into it, perhaps, with a Smart Adult Flirt?
As seen on TV, Smart Adult Flirt always leads to the hot push-through-the-door make-out when the tension gets too high. It shows you’re deep and complicated in a real, HBO kind of way. It would also dispel, you hoped, any previous notions that happy hour-you was you. That maybe, yes, you’re uncomfortable in your body, always playing catch-up, that you can be corny and overly sarcastic and eager, but ultimately, you’re ready for the 10pm slot—ready to be real.
So you challenge him on why has he’s never been in a serious relationship. You ask him why he’s not at least come out to his family. You mock his economic worldview that mocks Karl Marx. You play skeptical that he’s as happy as he says, or why would he keep changing the subject away from him? You keep dispelling his lazy retorts and put him against a wall on—
And it works, because now you’re against a wall, a real one, in his breathtaking Hell’s Kitchen high-rise.
There was something else in between. You were shown his collection of miniatures and his sleek telescope. You wondered briefly if you needed more hobbies, too, and whether he spied on people. You pictured yourself spying together and going shopping, collecting more knick-knacks for his menagerie. Also pictured you laughing, making playful noises in the background for him to lie badly to his mother about on the phone. “That’s no one, no one,” he’d gleam, as you tickled his feet, picked at his calluses.
But none of that matters, dramatically speaking. What matters is you achieved your goal: happy hour worked again, your strategy paid off, and even if this isn’t it, the one, or a one, you’re still one step closer to figuring out life.
“Want to be my bitch?” he asks between kisses.
Hell fucking yes.
Some of what happens next is unclear.
You probably start off strategically, holding him around the waist in such a way that subtly discourages him taking off the Shirt.
You likely feel pretty comfortable, despite the one date, because he’s so brutishly handsome, so seemingly simple with a calming presence.
You probably become super “responsive”—as a porn star would describe you years from now, a word you’d never come up with on your own, but which rings embarrassingly true.
You likely still go overboard at times, burying your head in his chest too hard, lapping your tongue too far into his mouth.
You definitely worry that without the Shirt, something will change the dynamic too much, change your good time.
You definitely feel relieved when it’s off and he still feels amazing.
You probably start to wonder, though, why he’s not kissing you as much as you are him.
You likely feel uncomfortable when he rolls over you, since he’s twice your mass.
You definitely wonder how you got face down on the bed, since this isn’t the most successful position for you, penetration-wise.
You probably strain, lose air as his body weight rests heavily on you, and as he twists around again.
You definitely feel something’s not right.
You definitely think, Um, that’s not pleasant.
You probably feel him, is it… stretching out your scrotum?
You definitely feel him stretching out your scrotum.
You definitely feel him flicking your scrotum, hard.
You definitely snap out of your alcohol-induced cloudiness.
You definitely feel it again.
You likely jerk your legs, flail them as if they’re arms waving down a lifeguard, thinking he must be getting the message to stop. That this is too painful. That this is insane.
You definitely panic when he doesn’t.
You probably try to shout.
You probably cry.
You definitely take your nails, which are always a little long for a boy, and dig and curl them into his skin, gasping for air as he finally, finally gets off of you and scream:
“What the fuck!?”
“What is it?” he asks, minorly inconvenienced.
Your mind swirls back to reality. “That fucking hurt!” you let out.
“You said you were my bitch,” he states.
Huh? You can’t believe it. “No! That’s not what I meant!” you say. You’re really shaken up and your heart is pounding.
He tilts his head, as if genuinely confused by your reaction. But you’re too mad to care, to ask direct questions. You act like this, when you’re really freaked out and feeling victimized, whether justified or not. You get obstinate and angry and physically overwhelmed.
“I’m gonna go,” you say and get up, before things get even worse.
But he blocks you. “No, no, not like this. How can I prove it to you. Anything. Tell me.”
Prove what? You’re confused. You’re horrified, actually. But that’s when you look to the side, and see it there, crumpled on the floor. The decision is instantaneous.
“Fine,” you say. “Give me your shirt.”
It was a hunch. It was an instinct. As you’re learning, though, your instincts can sometimes be too good, because immediately his face drops. That dark cloud releases around him only to be replaced with something like a summer storm, a skittish yet necessary deluge.
“That’s… a special shirt,” he says, rocked. “I don’t—”
“You said anything,” you remind him. You’re oddly pleased. You’re sure now you picked the right thing, also known as the wrong thing, and you’re impressed with how the tables have turned, with him at your mercy now.
He looks around, almost sweating. You can tell he expects you to give up, maybe take some pity. But it feels way too good to be in the power position.
It becomes a stare-down. You don’t budge. You don’t blink.
You barely even breathe.
He shakes his head.
“Take it,” he says, finally. “Take it… and get out.”
Then he waves you off in an old-world way, a way that reminds you exactly of your Israeli father when you’ve gone too far, and he walks to his couch in the other room to sit, crouching, just like he’s on a stool.
It takes you a few minutes to get your bearings. You first check yourself out, rub your ache. But alone in his bedroom now, with the energy shifted and threat neutralized, you slowly, surely, begin to calm down. You stuff your legs into your saggy, frayed jeans. You methodically loop your worn belt and tighten the notch. Yet, still, with each movement, you become increasingly unsure of how to feel. Indignant? Violated? …Guilty? You cross his lush, white carpet to pick up his Shirt, and hold it up wide in front of you, as if searching for an answer.
Did you maybe, possibly, blow it out of proportion? Was it really such a big deal? Perhaps things went so wrong because of his broken foot. His cast was gone, but if his foot still hurt him, it would explain a lot. Why it was so hard to move, to cry out.
Sure, you can say: “He needed to be way more clear.”
Or: “That was deeply fucked up.”
Or even: “You were assaulted.”
But like before, maybe they’re not all equal. The last one, especially, starts to feel wrong to you, especially due to his reaction, the incident’s innate absurdity, not to mention the flippant way you’ll surely tell the story later. You know that’s not supposed to matter. You know. But maybe, again, your first instinct is right, even if lame, even if blah. Maybe you just can’t always trust common signals the way you thought, the way you so badly wanted.
Not that that makes much of a difference. In the next few years, there will be innumerable more happy hours for you and non-happy hours, full of questionable cruising of all shapes and sizes, along with other trophies, good and bad—often at once. There will be the guy who looks just like Ralph Macchio, but can’t stop biting. The guy who says “your people” smell, but teaches you salsa dancing. Then there will be the real estate big-shot who tries to thrust you into a three-way (before you like three-ways), but will also say, after giving up, looking deep into your eyes, that you’re going to have an incredible, incredible life.
Things will get so confusing, actually, that a couple years from now, when you run into Yazan at a Beards and Bears happy hour, you will hardly cower. In fact, you will go loose as he hugs you tight with one arm, give him a hard kiss on those Kris Kringle lips, and even push for round two—presumably to rectify what happened, see if you can re-write the ending.
You’ll be relieved when you get separated by the crowd, wonder what the hell you were thinking. But it will just further go to show that even when you technically know better, or even when you don’t, but you write things out, talk to yourself in the second-person, slow things down moment by moment to learn more—see your desperation, manipulation, victimization, and everything in between—that there’s a long way to go when it comes to understanding your hunt. You just hope one day, when everything magically clicks, or you get ten new hobbies, whichever comes first, that it’ll pay off—that two-for-one will finally be worth the bargain and you’ll be able to do with each old memory and trophy the same thing you do right now with the special Shirt in front of you:
Fold it up nicely, nicer than you’ve ever folded anything, place it gently down on the bed, and quietly but for the red chips jangling in your pocket, run out the front door.
Michael Narkunski is a Los Angeles-based New Yorker whose personal essays can be found in Out, The Advocate, Narratively, Hippocampus, Full-Grown People, and two queer anthologies. He earned his BFA from NYU and MFA from Stony Brook University. This piece is from his memoir-in-essays in progress. IG: @mikenark Twitter: @thebadhomo Website: www.michaelnarkunski.com
Photo: Sérgio Alves Santos/Unsplash