(EXCERPT from Tales from the Bottom of My Sole)

* * * 

CHAPTER TWO

 

The Limit to Your Love

Early in February, I was getting take-out at Big Fat Burrito when my old acquaintance Marwa walked in carrying a shopping bag full of posters. She was dressed in a fitted white pea coat, a white Russian hat with dangling pompoms and matching fur-lined boots. When I commented on her outfit, she spun coyly and struck a pose. “Zo you like zees, comrade?” she said in her best Soviet era accent. “I win ushanka in vodka-drinking contest.”

“In Siberian prison,” I said.

“Against toothless babushka,” Marwa said, “of Mongolian warlord.”

Marwa explained she was helping to promote a Valentine’s Day burlesque show at the Revival Bar. Her catering company, Cherry Bomb Bakery, was hosting a booth at the event. As it turned out, my ex-boyfriend Marcus Wittenbrink Jr. was scheduled to make a guest appearance. “Marcus,” Marwa said, stapling a poster to the wall, “he’s like a surprise celebrity performer.”

“What? Is he going to jump of out of a giant frosted cupcake or something?”

 

Marwa giggled. “I offered to bake him one, but he turned me down. Truth is, I don’t know what he’s planning. He says he’s choreographing something special. It’s all very secret. He won’t even let me see. He insisted his name stay off the bill. Don’t tell him I told you. Daniel, you and your boyfriend should come. David, right? It’ll be fabulous.”

“And delicious?”


Marwa pinched my cheek. “And delicious.”


A boy with neon-blue hair called out my number, and I retrieved my big fat burrito wrapped in foil. “It sounds fun, Marwa but to be honest, I’m not really sure it’s my thing.”

 

“It should be your thing,” Marwa said. “Burlesque is all about playfulness and subversion and feminist empowerment.”


“Maybe you should be performing.”


“Me? I’m just a reformed goth girl from Burlington, remember? I channel my inner goddess into baking. It’s Skin Tight Outta Sight teaming up with Boylesque.”

“Boylesque? There are boys in this show?”

“Marcus eez boy, isn’t he? But yes, comrade, are boys in zees show. Aha ...” She stroked my burrito with a pompom. “Now, Mr. Garneau, I haf your attention. Now you must come zee fabulous Valentine’s cabaret. I bake special cupcake just for you.”

Marwa’s Russian accent was awful. I laughed, despite myself. “I’ll think about it.”

“Here.” She handed me a glossy, heart-shaped post- card. “Take this. Promise you’ll think about it?”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Good boy.”

Later when I mentioned it to David, he was more than enthusiastic. “Of course, we should go,” he said, running the hot water, clutching a towel around his waist. “I’ve always wanted to see burlesque. It’ll be fun.”

“You just want to see twirling pasties.”


“Yeah, and?”


Before moving into David’s Kensington Market loft,I’d never lived with a boyfriend. David was messy and played his music too loud. But I loved that he collected old LPs and Scott Pilgrim books, and had over two dozen spices in his spice rack (all of which he actually used). It was cramped for two (especially with my giant palm taking up half the living room area), but somehow we made it work. This evening we were sharing a bubble bath. Back in the fall, David had come across a vintage claw-foot bathtub abandoned in an alleyway. It took a week for him and Rick the building manager to find the parts to install it properly in our bathroom. When they were done, we went into Chinatown and adopted two rubber duckies we named Sam and Dean and popped a bottle of Asti Spumante.

“Did you know Marwa’s hired a second part-time assistant to help with her company?” I said. “She’s doing really well for herself.”

David leaned back into me, lighting half a joint. “Good for her, she deserves it. She works really hard. Maybe Cherry Bomb Bakery could team up with Kyle’s Kandy Factory.”

“I could introduce them.”

“It’s all about who you know, networking, strength in numbers. Teamwork.”

“Marcus is helping out with Boylesque. Marwa says he used to date one of the performers.”

“Oh?”


“Joseph.”


“The Joseph who was in that threesome?”


“With Marcus and Fang, yeah.”


“Didn’t we bump into them at Inside Out last year?”

 

“Yeah, we did.”


David reached out and carefully ashed his joint in a Pop Shoppe bottle. “That didn’t last too long. But it’s good they can still stay friends.”

I stroked David’s shoulders and limbs. “Marcus stays friends with all his exes. He never said anything to you about this show he’s doing?”

“Nope. He hasn’t mentioned anything on Facebook either.”

I rested my chin on top of David’s head. “Don’t you think it’s weird?”

“What?”

“Us going to see him perform in a show he hasn’t told anyone about?”

“Daniel, he’s just making a guest appearance, right? He’s probably only going to be on stage like five minutes.”

“Probably.”


“So I doubt it’s any big deal at all.”


“Karen says he’s a narcissist.”


David butted out his roach. “Marcus? He’s a theatre artist. Hell, he’s a three-ring circus. It’s how he makes his living. He’s allowed to be a narcissist.”

“You just want to see him do a striptease.”

“Of course, I do. And so do you.” David craned his neck to look back up at me. “Are we okay with that?”

“Yes, we are okay with that.”


“Spiderman kiss.”


I kissed him, open-mouthed. After that, David reached for his wineglass. “And I also want to see twirling pasties.”

 

“Apparently there’ll be a lot of boys in the show.”

 

“Very inclusive. Very avant-garde. Now I’m definitely getting excited.”


“Are you?” I reached forward under the bubbles and palpated. “Uh-oh. Young man, it does feel swollen. Is there any tenderness?”

“Oh, yes, sir, there is. I think it needs medical attention.” “Or maybe just a little TLC.”


“Maybe.”


“Like this?”

David bit his lower lip. “Mmm.”

I took his glass and set it aside. “Or like this.” I pinned him against me with one arm across his chest. Water sloshed onto the bathroom floor. He gripped the edges of the tub. I ran my mouth over his jaw and neck, careful not to break the skin. Sam and Dean bobbed up and down with surprised expressions. After a while, I could tell he was getting close. David’s hips arched. Then I kissed him hard just as his toes clenched and a muffled groan escaped his lips. It was always easy with David. Afterwards, he sank back into me. We ran more scalding water and took our time finishing the wine.

“So,” I said, “should I tell Marcus we’re coming?”

“No, why should we?” David said drowsily. “It’s our date night, not his.”

“Well, we’ll just surprise him then.”

“Perfect.”

* * * 

One week before Valentine’s Day, David and I went shopping for outfits. I was never a fan of shopping (de- spite Parker Kapoor’s best efforts) but David insisted. The Saturday afternoon was brisk and sun-drenched, with sparkling flecks of snow blowing off the rooftops. We strolled down Queen Street West, coffees in hand. Past MuchMusic and the Black Bull Tavern, we hugged the big colourful tree stump on the north side. I was ready to look into The Gap, but David made a face and the sign of the cross and hurried us past. He knew exactly where we were going and I eventually followed him down a short flight of stairs into a store called Borderline Plus.

“Welcome,” he said, holding the door open for me, “to Toronto’s gothic and alternative retail boutique.”

I’d never seen so much lace, leather and rubber in one place. The store was narrow and long, with red-painted walls. A Chinese woman hunched behind the counter hand-stitching ostrich plumes into a top hat. David led me into the back, which was crowded with ornate dresses and luxurious, Victorian-tailored jackets. The aesthetic inspired but my jaw dropped when I checked a price tag.

“I fucking love this place,” David said, holding up a crushed velvet frock coat. “How decadent is this? Just feel it.”

I closed my mouth. “No thanks.”

 

“C’mon. Touch it.”


“Okay. Very nice.”

“But do you like it? I think it’s absolutely brilliant. Rocambolesco! That’s what Ma would always say.”

Life was rocambolesco for David’s ma. I’d never met a more passionate or opinionated person. The few times I’d actually been in her presence, she never failed to terrify me.

I rolled my eyes. “Rocambolesco.”


“Ooh, look at this, way too steampunk.”


I followed David around as he admired one item after another — this was no Fabricville. Black boots of all shapes and sizes lined one section of wall. Tacky accessories featured skulls and pentagrams but there were also beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces. Others just confused me. David held up what looked like a flak jacket constructed from vacuum hoses and industrial-grade Saran Wrap.

“Now you would look hot in this,” he said.


“Are you kidding me?”


“I know, a little more apocalypso than rocambolesco, I get it. Oooh, wow, check this out. For your friends Charles and Megan?”

“What are they?”


“Matching corsets, his and hers.”


“David, we can’t afford any of this stuff.”


“Daniel, people dress up for these burlesque events. I’ve still got that money from Luke. Let’s have some fun here. I’m paying.” He peered at me through a pair of aviator goggles. “Whatever we pick out, it’ll be our Valentine’s gift to the both of us.”

“Shouldn’t you be saving that money?”

“For what? Our kid’s college fund? We still got time for that. C’mon, show me something you like.”

Reluctantly, I let myself stray through the aisles as David tried on half-a-dozen items. While I waited for him, two big girls in Hello Kitty fanny packs walked into the store. David drew back the change room curtain and stepped out wearing a dark brown cotton kilt trimmed in leather.

“So,” he said, “what do you think? I’m not sure about all these chains and pockets here. Is it too much?”

He was holding up his T-shirt, exposing half his torso. I’d never looked twice at a man in a kilt before, but on this occasion, I couldn’t help but stare. The truth was, it was sexy as hell.

“Wow.”


David grinned at me. “You think?”


“Definitely.”


“That works on you,” one of the girls said, peering down the aisle. She pointed with a lollipop she was sucking. “Except you’re wearing it backwards.”

“Oh shit.” David laughed. “Oops.”

“Here, can I help you with that?” Lollipop Girl got down on one knee and expertly rearranged the kilt over his hips, loosening and cinching buckles and straps.

“Your boots rock,” David said. “They look like the Full Metal Alchemist boots.”

“Oh, thanks man. That’s awesome.” She got up and stood back. “There, how does that feel?”

“Great,” David said.

She nodded in approval, arms folded, and waved her Chupa Chup at me like it was some sugar fairy wand. “Now you try one on.”

“Oh.” I backed away. “No thanks.” “Not everyone can pull off a kilt.”

“Precisely.”

“I think,” she said, “you two boys would look awesome in kilts.”

“What are you, some kind of fashion designer?”

Lollipop Girl glanced at her companion who was talking to Top Hat Lady up at the front counter, then adjusted the thick glasses on her snub nose. “Mm-hm. We are.” She pulled two kilts off a rack, examined them both, and held one out for me. “Here. Try this one. Go on, it won’t bite.”

“C’mon, Daniel,” David said, massaging my shoulders (and keeping me from escaping). “Resistance is futile.”

Resistance was futile. While I was in the change room trying to remember which way was front, David poked his head through the curtains. “Remember, no underwear.”

“What?”


“You can’t wear underwear with a kilt.”


“I don’t think so.”


“Daniel, c’mon, it’s tradition. You can’t mess with tradition.”


“Tradition? These aren’t even real Highland kilts. No way, man.”


“Trust me, you’ll be way more comfortable.”


“Are you,” I asked, “wearing your underwear?”

 

David shook his head. “Nope.”


“Really?”


“Dude, when in Rome.”


“Fine.” I pulled down my underwear. “Happy?”

 

David’s eyebrows rose. “Very.”


I pulled up my underwear. “Seriously, I’m not going without my underwear. It’s unhygienic.”

 

“Aw, Daniel, c’mon.”

Lollipop Girl stuck her head through the curtain.

 

“Excuse me,” I blurted, clutching my kilt. “I’m changing here.”

“Your boyfriend’s right,” she said. “It really is a lot more comfortable if you go regimental.”

“Regimental?”

“She means,” David said, “going without your underwear.”

“I’m not,” I said, “going regimental.”


“It frees your base chakra.”


“What?”


Lollipop Girl thrust out her Chupa Chup, waving it in little circles. I stepped back, unsure if she was channelling Glinda from Oz or more Bellatrix Lestrange. “It allows for more flow down there.”

“Definitely.” David nodded. “More flow.”

“If you don’t mind me saying so,” Lollipop Girl said, “your aura could use a little more flow.”

I was being double-teamed here and my back was against the wall. This was not a contest I intended to lose. I’d show them flow. “Look, do you want me to wear the stupid kilt or not?”

David folded his arms. “Daniel, it’s not stupid. It’s rocambolesco. It’s for Valentine’s Day. You and I, we’ll be the hottest couple there. And,” he said, rocking forward on the balls of his feet, “it’ll make Marcus jealous.”

* * *

That next weekend, David and I arrived at Revival Bar’s Valentine’s Day burlesque show wearing matching kilts, vintage dress shirts and old combat boots we’d polished up. I’d agreed to go regimental and we did turn heads. On more than one occasion, people even asked if they could take our pictures. I had to confess, it was incredibly comfortable, even liberating, to just let it all hang out. A couple shots of Crown Royal from our hip flasks didn’t hurt.

As David had promised, we weren’t the only ones dressed up. The audience included an elegant older couple in a tuxedo and evening gown, and a host of others in costumes from the Victorian period through to the Roaring Twenties. No one seemed out of place, and everyone looked like they were having a great time. By the end of the first act, Marcus had yet to appear on stage. It was a sold-out show, and the performances had been cheeky, raunchy and over- the-top. When the last dancer soaked her tassels in lamp oil and set them on fire, all the while gyrating to Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet,” the audience rose to its feet, whoop- ing and hollering.

During intermission, David lined up at the bar and I made a point of searching out Marwa. Tonight she was looking coquettish in a hip-hugging Chinese dress, sequins glinting beneath the glowing chandeliers. A gold and crystal candelabra drew a small crowd to her table featuring a decadent display of Valentine’s-themed cupcakes and confections. To my surprise, her assistants turned out to be two awkward-looking boys with rouged cheeks, wearing togas and fuzzy angel wings, handling the cashbox and doling out free samples of Nipples of Venus.

“You’ve got to give it to Marwa,” David said as we stepped outside for a smoke, “when it comes to promoting herself.”

“Actually, the shorter one’s her cousin and website designer,” I said. “The other one’s studying culinary arts at George Brown College.”

“No kidding. And I thought they were just actors she hired. Her cousin’s kinda cute.”

“David, the kid’s still in high school.”


“I’m just saying.”


“Here.” I handed David a piece of Turkish Delight dusted in sugar and wrapped in red foil. “Compliments of Cherry Bomb Bakery.”

A gong rang to signal the start of the second act, and we hurried back to our seats. The emcee introduced the next number only as, “A Somnambulistic Soldier’s Soliloquy.” Music was cued and a nurse pushed an old man in a wheelchair on stage. Dim, watery light flickered. I didn’t even recognize Marcus until he lifted his head. Five minutes later, the song was over. After a second of silence, uncertain, scattered applause arose. Then someone called out: “Bravo.” It was the white-haired gentleman in the tuxedo. “Bravo!” He started clapping, methodically and clearly. I quickly joined in and within moments, thunderous applause and whistling shook the house.

A bawdy act followed involving a girl dressed like a lobster, and the evening careened on toward its end. There’d been pole-dancing, circus-sized props, opera singing, and even an aerial silks act. At the final curtain call, all the performers crowded the stage, including Marcus leaning on his cane. He’d washed off his make-up, but the grey colouring remained in his eyebrows and hair.

Afterwards, chairs were cleared, and the floor swept of glitter and feathers. While people loitered at the bar and in small groups, I recognized many of the performers who’d come out to share a drink, but there was no sign of Marcus. It was Marwa who eventually pulled me aside to say Marcus had left already.

“Marcus Wittenbrink Jr. has left the building,” David intoned in my ear. In his normal voice he added: “That’s too bad. What’d you think of his performance anyway?”

“It was alright.”


“Just alright?”


“It was very Marcus.”


“You okay?”


“Of course, I am. How are you?”


“Daniel, I’m good. I had a great time tonight. I actually had an awesome time.”

 

“Me too.”

“You want a drink?”

We’d both finished our flasks long ago. “Sure, why not.”

I looked for Marwa but she was busy packing up her booth. The truth was, Marcus’s performance had been unlike any of the others. It had been hallucinatory and sensual. Its bittersweet tone only added to the rich flavour of the evening. I was proud of Marcus, in awe and envious of him at the same time.

I spotted Tuxedo Man leaning over two champagne glasses at the end of the bar. He was a strikingly handsome gentleman in his sixties, poised and unselfconscious, observing his surroundings with an air of detached curiosity. Then I recalled where I knew him from, approached and introduced myself. We were still chatting when his wife joined us.

“Rebecca,” he said, “you remember Daniel, don’t you? One of M’s old friends.”

The woman’s silver hair was drawn up in a severe bun, but her smooth features were warm and inquisitive. “Why yes, from M’s New Year’s Eve party. You took our coats and served us Marwa’s special meatballs.”

“Yes, I did.” The truth was, I was shocked she remembered me. There had been a lot of people at that party and it’d been over three years ago.

“You were one of M’s lovers at the time.”


“Um, I was his boyfriend.”


“Yes, of course you were. You meant an awful lot to him.”


David appeared at my side and handed me a pint. “Hi,” he said. “I’m David.”


The woman’s gaze lingered over us. “So very pleased to meet you, David. Now, you two young men look dashing together.”

David raised his glass. “Why, thank you, ma’am.”

“Please, call me Becky.”


“Becky and Frederic are friends with Marcus,” I explained.


“Frederic,” Becky said, “was one of Marcus’s lovers, along time ago.”


David coughed, spilling his beer. I handed him a crumpled napkin. “Frederic was Marcus’s semiotics professor.”

 

“I suppose,” Becky said, “I risk sounding salacious. This younger generation remains puritanical in so many ways. Frederic and I have kept many lovers over the years.”

“And shared a few,” Frederic said. “So very true, dear.”

“Rock on,” David said.


Frederic smiled. “Rock on.”


“Tell us,” Becky said, “what did you think of M’s performance tonight?”


All eyes turned to me. David poked me in the side. “What did you call it earlier?”


“I said it was very Marcus.”


“Well that about sums it up, doesn’t it?” Frederic said. Then he and his wife both laughed as if I’d told the funniest joke in the whole wide world. I fixed a smile to my face and bowed my head.

“This was our first burlesque,” David said. “We really enjoyed it.”

Becky tilted her glass flute toward him. “And what part did you enjoy the most?”

David opened and closed his mouth. I mentally prayed as hard as I could he wouldn’t mention Lobster Girl drizzling her tits with melted butter. Another second passed and I was just about to intervene when David replied: “The characters, the story-telling, the parody. Take that act with the opera diva and the maestro. It was clearly a commentary on the intersection of racism and patriarchy.” I stared at my pot-smoking, bike mechanic boyfriend but he wasn’t done yet. “Does a woman’s body have value only before a man’s gaze? Or can she step outside the script that’s been assigned her? Can she have her own voice? When she hit that high note and blew off that guy’s pants, that was freakin’ brilliant. Society codifies and commodifies sexuality and beauty. But tonight was a celebration of the human form in all its shapes, colours and sizes.”

 

Rebecca’s gaze narrowed. “Some would say it’s still exploitation. It’s still women being paid to remove their clothes.”

“But for whom? How many straight men do you think were in the audience tonight? Very few, I’d say. If these dancers are doing burlesque to feel joyful and subversive and defiant, and if it’s in front of an appreciative and supportive audience, then that’s real empowerment. The truth of it is, burlesque isn’t inherently feminist or anti-feminist any more than any other art form. But like any art form, it can be used for good or for evil.”

“For good or for evil?” Becky said. “How terribly romantic.”

David emptied his pint in one slow, unhurried quaff. As I watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down, framed by the rough, unshaven curve of his jaw and the musculature of his throat and neck, I realized with the inexorable and elemental force of a glacier calving that, after two years, I was just beginning to know this man standing next to me with no underwear on and his balls hanging out, that I’d just scratched the surface of everything he was, and every- thing he was capable of. Reaching between Frederic and Becky, he set his empty pint glass on the bar, shrugged and knuckled away the moistness on his upper lip.

“I’m Italian,” he said.

At the far end of the room, a small circle of friends sang in perfect, three-part harmony “Happy Birthday” while sparklers illuminated all their faces in an ephemeral, golden light.

“Viva l’Italia,” Frederic said.


Becky leaned forward and kissed David on both cheeks, right to left. In that moment, it seemed the most natural, warm gesture possible. The top buttons of David’s dress shirt were undone, exposing a glinting crucifix. Frederic’s hand rested on the back of my neck. I couldn’t recall when he’d actually placed it there, but it also seemed more than okay.

“It is getting late, dear,” Becky said. “Will you fetch us our coats?”

“Of course,” Frederic said. Then, as a kind of afterthought, he squeezed my shoulder and glanced sidelong at David and me. “Why don’t you two join us a for a night-cap?”

“We don’t live too far from here,” Becky said, adjusting her shawl. “A ten-minute cab ride. I’m afraid our glorious M has abandoned us all tonight.”

I was just about to politely decline when Marwa approached with a tiny, red-ribboned jewellery box, just large enough for cufflinks or earrings. “Here you go.” She handed it to Becky. “Everything’s in there.”

“Thank you, Marwa. You’re a sweetheart. You’ll put this on our tab?”

“Daniel.” Marwa looked from one of us to the other with a furrowed pixie smile. “Do you know Freddy and Becky?”

“Yeah, we’re old friends,” David said.

“Any friends of M are friends of ours,” Becky said. “We were all just about to come back to our place for a drink. Marwa, your little wingèd helpers will join us tonight, won’t they?”

“My cousin’s just finishing packing the van. Sure, I can ask them, if that’s okay.”

“I insist. Marwa, you did a splendid job this evening. Congratulations. If you young people are hungry, perhaps we can call ahead and have something delivered?”

“I’m hungry.” David nudged me in the arm. “What about you?”

“Perhaps something from Terroni?” Becky said.

“Oh. Fuck me sideways.” Marwa’s big eyes grew bigger. She clasped her hands beneath her chin. “We have to order their C’t Mang.”

I looked at Marwa. “What’s see-tay-mon-jay?”

“Just the pizza version of crack cocaine. It’s mozzarella and gorgonzola, with smoked prosciutto and sliced pear and walnuts, all drizzled in honey.” Her eyes rolled back in her head like she was having an orgasm. “I know the combination sounds crazy, but trust me, it’s absolutely to die for.”

“Then it’s settled.” Becky unsnapped the razor-mouth of her taloned purse. “A nightcap and a midnight snack. Marwa, remember to order extra this time, so people can have something to take home with them.”

Marwa already had her phone out. “Roger that.” She took the credit card Becky handed her and retreated to a quiet corner.

“Frederic, sweetheart. The coats, please.”


“Yes, of course, dear.”


After that, there was no off-ramp in sight. If life was a highway, we were careening along at breakneck speed. Before I even realized it, we were getting into a cab with Frederic and Becky; Marwa and her two assistants would meet up with us in their own van. I clutched my coat in my lap. The truth was, I had a semi-hard-on, and I was scared to even begin to think why.

Becky had somehow ended up sitting in the back between David and me. As we skated north-by-west through residential side streets, David expounded on Venus figurines and Renaissance art while Becky listened attentively with one hand resting on top of my knee.

After ten minutes I asked, trying not to sound too pathetic: “So, are we almost there yet?”

“Not far,” Frederic said.

“Almost there,” Becky said. Then she squeezed my knee and winked at me.

I entertained a vision of the two of them snapping the cabbie’s neck before turning to plunge their fangs into our jugulars, or maybe once we were alone they’d calmly reach behind their heads and peel off their faces revealing themselves as grey-skinned, double-jointed, prostate-probing aliens. No wonder they liked prosciutto on their pizza; hadn’t I read somewhere that human flesh tasted just like pork?

Finally, after what seemed like hours driving through the night (but which in reality was probably less than fifteen minutes), we arrived at our destination. Their vine-covered, Tudor-styled home in The Junction looked deceptively modest and just a little bit sinister, set back from the road. As we stepped out of our cab, Marwa’s van pulled into the drive. Once inside, Frederic gave us a tour of his newly-renovated, glass-walled, climate- controlled cellar, reconstructed entirely from reclaimed lumber and Ottawa Valley river rock. Back upstairs, we settled on plush cream-coloured couches in front of an enormous gas fireplace. Marwa strolled comfortably in her bare feet and cheongsam between the living room and the kitchen, replenishing our glasses and helping Frederic in the pantry.

Marwa’s cousin was a nervous teenager named Youssef who relaxed after his first beer and passed out after his second. Then I wondered what might be in the gazillion-year-old Scotch Frederic was serving the rest of us (although that didn’t stop me from drinking it). Marwa’s other assistant was a loud, talkative redhead named Brody who apparently owned a proper, authentic kilt, and whose family boasted its own clan tartan. I started eying a soapstone beaver on the mantel, thinking I could use it to club him unconscious, but thankfully the conversation moved on to other topics. As promised, when it arrived, Terroni’s C’t Mang was truly fabulously delicious. While Youssef snored, curled up like a puppy in his love seat, we stuffed ourselves with gourmet pizza, washing it all down with heady bottles of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

A little after 2 a.m., the six of us gathered around Youssef and woke him gently. We said our goodbyes and Frederic and Becky hugged each of us in turn. Before we left, they made us promise we’d come back to a proper dinner party which they’d host in the spring. Then Marwa, who hadn’t been drinking, drove us all home, dropping off David and me last.

As we stood outside our building in our kilts and blowing snow, Marwa called me over to the driver’s window. “I almost forgot.” She presented me a small box sealed with a Cherry Bomb Bakery label. “Something special, just for you.”

Inside our loft, David and I flung off our coats. I accidentally tore his shirt wrestling it over his head, but neither of us cared. David’s back was against the front door and I had him in my mouth when he came. I swallowed all of it, deep-throating him, one sweaty hand splayed over his crucifix, while jacking off furiously on my bruised knees. After that, I felt a whole lot better. I felt so much better I was laughing from relief. Then we cracked open some beers and ate the leftover pizza Becky had insisted on sending home with us, standing around the kitchen table wearing nothing but our combat boots. Inside Marwa’s box, we discovered a single fancy cupcake decorated with the letters “D&D” in pink icing.

So, we were alive and we hadn’t been eaten by aliens or roofied (and sold into the white sex slave trade) after all. I was embarrassed and immensely gratified, and I was also feeling full and drunk, and grateful, and exhausted in the best way possible, which was a good thing because I was looking forward to spooning David naked and passing out, and then waking up in our own familiar bed and under our own warm blankets, in the cool and hazy, dawn-bright February morning.

* * *