Photo by simpleinsomnia via Flickr

Hamish regretted agreeing to the dinner almost immediately, but he arrived at the bistro in Tribeca just before eight and tried to feel good about it.

He had been in the city for two weeks, trying to get acclimated before his contract began, but so far, he mainly spent his time watching people in Union Square. New York was a city in which people were always making plans, a city of interlocking calendars and appointments designed to make everyone else feel left out. New York was a bunch of empty rooms with cordons outside barring entry. New York was a series of attitudes and performances, demands and pleas — a populace at once on fire and losing its mind from boredom. In short, New York was totally ordinary.

Hamish never meant to end up in New York, but instead of doing rural medicine in Alabama the way he wanted to, he accepted a large pile of money to work as a concierge doctor in a small, tight Manhattan practice. The job offer materialized the way things always did — from the ether of his friendships with the fleet of rich people he’d met at Yale, particularly Soren, whose family had so much money that they were virtually their own economy. After medical school, Soren returned to New York for plastics at NYU, while Hamish continued his itinerant wandering and ended up in family medicine at Oregon Health and Science University. In school, they had been very good friends, and for weeks at a time, more than friends.

Soren arrived at ten after eight, only marginally late. He was in a skinny suit, the jacket of which he was already removing by the time he stepped through the door, and he looked sweaty and flustered. Otherwise, he looked so much like himself that Hamish was a little startled. Had it really been six years? What had he expected?

Hamish stood up in greeting, but Soren waved at him to sit back down.

“No, no,” he said, “none of that. I’m sweating like a pig. God, it’s so humid.”

Hamish’s grandfather used to say that simple minds and strangers turned to the weather. This came to him with the involuntary spasm of memory. He suppressed a smile. They were at one end of a shared table, and people kept squeezing by them. Occasionally, their water glasses shook.

“I told you to order. You didn’t have to wait.”

“Oh,” Hamish said. “Yeah, I know. But I’m not really in a hurry. I didn’t mind.”

Soren frowned in concentration. Then he put his hand on the table and stroked its grain with his thumb. He was flat-footed by Hamish’s patience, it seemed, and this embarrassed Hamish for the both of them because he didn’t mean to express patience, and he didn’t mean to make Soren feel bad. He fell into a prickly quiet himself, just as their waiter — trim, black, with dreads and a brilliant smile — appeared.

“Can I do for you?” he asked, as if in medias res.

“I’ll have a white. And” — Soren’s eyebrows raised, at which Hamish shrugged — “seltzer?”

“Yeah, that’s good.”

“Seltzer for him, a white for me, whatever you think is the best, but I’d like it a bit dry.”

“We have just the thing,” the waiter said. He must have been accustomed to sifting the vague preferences of strangers into something textured and understandable. It was like an epilanguage, drifting as it did above words, referential, a symbol of a symbol, an abstraction of an abstraction. Notions. The waiter’s eyes shifted to Hamish.

“You sure a seltzer is all I can get for you?”

“I’m sure,” he said.

“Well, alright then. If you change your mind, you know where to find me.”

Soren watched the waiter’s retreating back, and he said to Hamish, “Well.”

“Don’t start,” Hamish said.

“What are you getting?” Soren asked. “My treat. Get whatever you want.”

“I can’t let you do that — you already did so much.”

“No, no, don’t worry. I want it for you. Get whatever.”

“I can afford to treat you now,” Hamish said, resenting himself and Soren at the same time. “This isn’t med school.”

“Hammy, let me be nice to you,” Soren said flatly but not unkindly.

Hamish did not respond. The muscles of his jaw tensed. He tasted, briefly, copper and heat. The menu was sturdy cardstock secured to a plank of reclaimed wood by a binder clip. The paper was splattered in one corner with red wine.

“Thank you, that’s generous.”

“Hamish.”

“I mean it,” he said. “Thank you.”

Soren sighed. “Plus ça change.”

“La chat est rouge.”

Soren laughed, and Hamish felt a little better. Their waiter returned with their drinks. Soren ordered a cheese board and a salmon fillet. Hamish requested the hanger steak, medium well.

“Red meat — someone’s living the life.”

“I thought the mood was celebratory.”

“Oh, sure, yes, of course. I didn’t mean to judge.”

“You did,” Hamish said wryly, “but I forgive you.”

“Now that’s generosity.”

A quiet came over their end of the table then, and Hamish didn’t know what to say to break it. He didn’t usually mind quiet, but he had spent the last couple of weeks in his own company, and he worried that he had lost some sense of when and how conversations between people were supposed to work. Soren kept adjusting his knife and fork so that they alternated between touching and not touching. Hamish looked to the people at the other end of their table. In another restaurant in another city, they would have been considered part of the same party, but in New York, less than a foot was apparently appropriate spacing for separate guests. They were white and attractive. The woman had quite blond hair, and her teeth were terrifyingly fluorescent. She wore a strapless gold dress with intricate beading, and she said things like “Oh my gosh” and “No, totally” and “Our yacht.” The man was a dark tan color, and his hair was aggressively gelled, with a part so severe that it looked laser-etched. He wore a white shirt with the cuffs curtly and stiffly folded back, and he rarely spoke. Every so often, his eyes darted under the cliff of his brow right to Hamish and Soren. The woman was gesturing with her knife. She was eating pasta with some sort of white cream. The man ate mussels and smiled a tense, nervy smile.

Soren leaned onto the table and watched them too, and so Hamish and Soren were in it together — the observing. They were being rude. They were perhaps also being a little menacing, but when their eyes met, they laughed, sharing in the giddy voyeuristic thrill. It was nice to not have to be talking. The quiet alleviated something.

Soren’s face was terrifically elastic. He used to harbor a small dream of becoming an actor, but his father, who was a pediatric oncologist, put an end to that. In high school, Soren played Hamlet and, rather unfortunately re: blackface, Othello. He played Falstaff and a gender-swapped version of Antigone. He played Rhett Butler and Atticus Finch. Acting was one of the great joys of his life because it didn’t come easily to him. He’d enjoyed the feeling of getting better with iteration. The collaboration. The free-fall sensation of creating in that very moment something new. He’d enjoyed speaking into the taut, cool silence of the stage, feeling it crack open before him as he offered himself to the audience, yes, but more importantly to the story. Anything that let him absent himself from his life. He’d even found an agent and auditioned for a role in a small indie film. Until his father found out, anyway. That was years ago, before Hamish knew him, but it had settled into the firmament of his self-conception, the way all such almost moments do. It was the third thing that Hamish learned about him, after his name and that he was from New York, by which he meant Connecticut.

It didn’t occur to Hamish until then that you could end up in medical school against your will. For Hamish, getting into medical school was like releasing a breath he’d been holding his entire life. But once there, he found himself surrounded by people for whom it represented nothing more remarkable than the result of mild exertion; they accepted it as a blasé part of their destiny. It was like finding out they were hyperflexible or had the genes that made them able to discern the stink of their piss after eating asparagus. Maybe that’s the way it worked for some people. Maybe for them, there was an order to life, a logic that could be easily traversed, whereas for Hamish, life was like leaping from ice floe to ice floe, drifting for weeks or months or years with no land in sight. But here he and Soren were, joined in the watching and the looking and the silent gossip of shared spaces with strangers, and he felt as he often had with Soren in those years — that he’d at last come in out of the cold.

* * *

The food was good, or at least subtly bad. Hamish’s steak was lukewarm, and Soren’s salmon was a little wet. The cheese was waxy and dry.

“It’s like you’re not supposed to eat it, just look,” Soren said, frowning.

“It’s better than the boxed mac I’ve been eating,” Hamish said. Soren’s eyebrows spread and rose, and there was a look of such crestfallen anxiety that Hamish couldn’t help but laugh at him out of sympathy and also from shame. “I mean, I’m poor.”

“God. If you need money, I can — ”

“No,” Hamish said. “No fucking way. Like I said, I can take care of myself. But I mean, you know. Boxed mac is great anyway. Stop judging me.”

“You are an adult.”

“Adults eat boxed mac.”

“You’re saying this to drive me crazy,” Soren said. “I know you are, and it’s working.” He made a show of plugging his ears and shaking his head.

“I’m sorry you consider my relative poverty a goad.”

“A provocation, really. Wait. How were you going to treat me if you’re broke?”

“Oh, as with all things: ill-advised credit card debt until my first check clears.”

The couple next to them had turned the game around and were watching. Hamish’s laughter quieted. Beneath Soren’s playful veneer, Hamish could see that his financial situation did bother Soren. Hamish’s lack of money always sat between them like an ill-behaved cat. The woman kept sneaking unsubtle glances at them, and Hamish wanted to turn to her and say, Yes, it’s true, I am very poor, but he didn’t because that would have been considered a provocation, to use Soren’s word, and he knew that there was a code in New York about what could and could not be said to strangers. The man chewed his toast with a lot of force, and Hamish wanted to say to him that he was going to need a mouth guard at the rate he was going.

Soren noticed the increased attention and smoothed his napkin flatter across his lap. He returned to his damp fish. The steak had seemed the truly adult option at the time, but now Hamish saw it in front of him as a series of pulpy, reddish strips, not a true steak but a steak as rendered by a minimalist artist — less food than experience.

“Anyway, it’s delicious,” Hamish said, chewing his steak and tasting the blood. He could hear in his mind Soren’s airy correction hanging over his thoughts like a footnote: It’s not blood. It’s myoglobin. Where’d you go to medical school?

“I don’t believe you,” Soren said with a smile.

“No, it’s quite good,” he said, chewing more of the meat. “So good.”

“What do you know about what’s good? You love boxed mac.”

“Boxed mac is an American staple!”

Soren waved him off, and Hamish swallowed.

“Okay, but on a serious note,” Soren said, “how are you feeling?”

“About?”

“The job.”

“Oh, well,” Hamish said, “I feel fine.”

“Yeah? No big nerves?”

“Yep,” Hamish said a little petulantly. “No, yeah, it’s great. I’m looking forward to finally starting. I’m going a little nuts.”

“Yeah, this city will do that to you. Sometimes it feels like everyone’s around just to make you nervous.”

Hamish felt swiftly buoyed up.

Exactly,” Hamish said. “God. Exactly.”

“But don’t worry. Once you start, you’ll be so busy you’ll want to die.”

“Sounds pretty ideal.”

“You’re so morbid.”

“Well,” Hamish said.

“Are you about done?” Soren asked, but he was already waving for the waiter, his hand rising smoothly into the air, a gesture that was hardly a gesture at all. Their plates were subtracted from the table, and the waiter was back with the check. Soren paid, and then they stepped out into the humid evening. Hamish stretched, and Soren blotted sweat away with his hand.

“We lapped them,” Soren said, “the people from our table.”

“Oh, yeah, well, now they’ll be put to death.”

“Defeat in the arena.”

“The coliseum of cuisine,” Hamish said, flexing like a wrestler on Saturday morning television.

“The might, the muscle,” Soren said in an elaborate Swedish accent, his body twisting, contorting. Unlike Hamish, Soren had real, adult muscles, and Hamish immediately felt awkward and boyish next to him, but also aroused, turned on, not so much by his body as by the ease with which he fell in with the joke.

Hamish stepped away from him and down onto the street next to a parking meter.

“Cabbing?” Soren asked.

“No,” Hamish said. “No, I’m probably just going to take the train.”

“Let’s walk a little, then. Do you know what station?”

Hamish stepped back onto the sidewalk. Soren tucked his hands into his pockets. His jacket hung through the loop of his arm.

“Sorry the food was so bad,” Soren said. “Sorry again.”

“It was good, don’t worry.”

Soren’s expression was closed, and Hamish wondered yet again if he had been insufficiently thankful, inadequately grateful for the help getting the job, and for the dinner. He wondered, too, if something alive and important had gone out of their friendship because he accepted the help. When a relationship became transactional, it was impossible to extricate what was good and loving and tender in it from all the rest. Every little thing was now a transaction, another step in the whirring calculus that connected people. He saw it happen to his own parents, the way they flared into arguments over unpaid loans so small that they didn’t even matter.

* * *

When Hamish was seven, his mother flung a hammer across the living room at his father, shattering a row of beer glasses. She was in a fury that his father had taken twenty dollars from her purse to pay back an uncle for cigarettes and whiskey, and they stayed up the entire night screaming and tearing at one another. Hamish lay awake, shivering and afraid. In the morning, he broke open his Ninja Turtle piggy bank, then counted out the wrinkled bills from his birthday and put them on the table next to his mother.

Money made things hard between people, but so did favors, asks, requests, and the like. Even when someone offered something seemingly free of attachment, it never was. Everything had a price, and in the course of a relationship with another person, that price was usually a deformation of the relationship itself. It was difficult for Hamish, in seeing Soren’s expression seal itself off, not to read some indictment of himself.

Above the street, green tarps swelled and pulled taut at the construction scaffolding. Near the water, the skyline broke open, and Hamish didn’t have the feeling of being hemmed in by tall buildings. They could have been on a street anywhere. For the first time in two weeks, he felt free of New York. Blocks of light scaled the buildings, and in the glass citadels above them, he saw lives carrying on.

“Sometimes it’s a beautiful place,” Soren said. Hamish felt a pulse of worry. Had he said something out loud? No, Soren was only reading the awe in his face. It was embarrassing, but Hamish shrugged, caught out.

“You must be over it, though, I imagine. People being in awe. You grew up here.”

“No,” Soren said. “I like seeing it. Reminds me that there’s still a reason, I guess.”

“How theocratic.”

“Shut up.”

They passed from under the scaffolding, turned, and walked up the sidewalk against the flow of traffic, the long string of cars and their glinting headlights. Dusk was swiftly falling, the way it does in midsummer, as if it had been storing up its energy all day to make one sudden push at the end, the seemingly instantaneous flare of late evening giving way almost immediately to darkness. The moisture in the lower atmosphere graded the lights from the city, and there were shades of blue falling across one another. It was a totally ordinary sight. Just some cars on a street, the congestion of traffic, the moment evening came fully into itself, and yet Hamish was overwhelmed by the intensity of it, as if everything had been assembled just so, just right, in that moment for the two of them, coming around the corner. It possessed the perfect spontaneous beauty of something rehearsed.

Again, Hamish felt himself exposed and wrong-footed, because it wasn’t any of the particular and specific attractions of New York that flayed him. It wasn’t MoMA. It wasn’t the Guggenheim. It wasn’t the Cloisters. It wasn’t the High Line. It wasn’t Times Square. It wasn’t any of the things that people flew thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars to see. It wasn’t Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t Beyoncé. It wasn’t anything that couldn’t have happened anywhere else in the world. It was just the heartbreaking beauty of sunset in a contemporary American city, remarkable only because mankind had not yet found a way to ruin it. Two friends coming from a semi-bad but very expensive dinner merely turned a corner and saw a string of people waiting in their cars, polluting the environment, the congestion a failure of infrastructure and planning, and yet here he stood next to Soren, tears filling his eyes to see this string of lights, this blue, this sky, this darkness, this little moment in the world’s vast history, this, this, only this.

“Goddamn,” he said after a few moments. They were walking by some shop windows. “Goddamn.”

Soren put an arm around his shoulder and squeezed.

“Welcome to New York City, pal.”

It came to him then that what overwhelmed him was the fact of his life changing. The fact of this new job, this new opportunity, this new place. He kept it all at bay by staying in his underfurnished and perhaps too large apartment and only going to Union Square, by restricting his range of vision to the few people wandering the park, to the pigeons and the cats and the dogs on their leashes, to reality television and the inconsequential blur of the world sliding past him on its great tracks. He managed to not think deeply about the material of his life altering in any way. He managed to not think of it at all. But it had changed all the same.

Soren had lifted him up out of his life and set him here, in this place. And it was seeing those cars all lined up, their lights and their people, waiting, waiting, and the sky changing, and the smell of the water nearby, oil and gasoline and something deeply foul but alive somehow too. It all came to him as swiftly as a returning tide. Oh, he thought as they passed more shops. Oh, oh, oh, it’s all different now. It was sad in a way — that he’d never again be as he had been.

“I’m not going to take you to a park,” Soren said. “That would be cheesy.”

“Unbearably so.”

They stopped just outside a bar, and Soren seemed to be weighing whether or not he wanted to go in.

“Would you mind?” he asked.

“No, not at all.”

“If you have other plans — ”

“We both know you only said that as a kindness,” Hamish said, laughing.

“Indeed I did.”

* * *

The bar was so bright that Hamish briefly thought they were in the wrong place. He had never in his life seen a bar so brightly lit. The countertop was treated steel running from the head of the bar back into a wall of mirrors. Out in the main room were booths with industrial accents and tall, skinny tables without stools. So many reflective surfaces. Everything doubling ad infinitum.

“Well,” Hamish said.

“Isn’t it wild?” Soren asked. The door opened behind them, and a largish group sidled in. Then everyone in the group was hugging Soren tightly or slapping his back.

“Oh,” Hamish said. “Oh.”

“Guys,” Soren said, motioning in Hamish’s direction, “this is my buddy Hamish.”

“Hey,” they said, their voices rising and falling discordantly, like a badly played piano piece for beginners.

“Hey,” Hamish said. He was wrong about the size of the group. In truth, there were only four of them. Two women and two men, all white, all tidy and upright. The two women were Vera and Alyona, the men Tagg and Bascom. They quickly populated a curved booth near the back. Their waitress had a tired but buzzed energy about her that suggested she was on some sort of mild amphetamine. She was tall, with elegant posture and bright pink hair done up in a tight chignon. She looked like a charcoal drawing, something fierce and chic, from the imagination of a gay man. Hamish asked for another seltzer and lime. Tagg wanted an old-fashioned, Alyona a Manhattan. Vera ordered a gin and tonic, and Soren and Bascom also went with old-fashioneds. The waitress took their orders pleasantly but in a way that also felt like she was recording the details of their party to share with her friends on a break. One of those anecdotes about nothing to fill a lull in the group chat. She was waiting to see which one of them would turn this into something worth reporting, a behavior that was noticeably bad or problematic. Social media turned everyone into private informers, a secret and shadowy force of sentinels. They were all adjudicators of morality — the vast and churning power to judge and punish had been dispensed among the people, or perhaps only returned to the people, or perhaps it was only that the people’s capacity for judgment and punishment was now endowed with actual power. But it wasn’t power, not really. It was the illusion of power that turned, sometimes and only sometimes, into real, concrete action in the world. The waitress might tell her friends about them, this little party that came in out of the heat. She might talk about how they were some rich assholes, and about how she herself sometimes felt implicated because she worked in a place that catered to rich assholes, making her part of the problem too.

And were they assholes? Hamish found out that Alyona worked at an investment firm and that Bascom had worked there too, before he quit to teach creative writing in a Williamsburg warehouse. Vera, who worked in biotech, was a mid-level executive at a start-up called V-SMART, which made testing strips for blood, for urine, for spit, etc. She said they were revolutionizing the diagnostic space. Tagg was a cardio fellow at NYU. He and Soren played racquetball every Tuesday and Saturday morning. They all spoke of themselves in long, unbroken passages punctuated with practiced feints of self-consciousness. It seemed obvious to Hamish that though they tried very hard to show they were uninterested in themselves, they found themselves interesting, but they just couldn’t bear to have it known that they found themselves interesting, and so the information came in digressive asides about how annoying it was: Oh, you know how tech is. Oh, you know the primes. I work at the big one downtown. Oh, yeah, cardio is full of jock assholes, and, like, yeah, totally, I’m guilty. When they finished their careful pirouettes on the illuminated surfaces of their egos, they turned to Hamish and asked what he did, and he said stupidly, plainly, “I’m a doctor.”

Their eyes narrowed, not because they didn’t believe him but because he didn’t make an effort. Only Soren laughed.

“He’s starting at a new practice.”

They nodded.

This was the moment, as clear to him as the glare from the overhead lights on the plasticky table, when he knew that he was supposed to elaborate. To tell them the hook. Give them something to invest in, one of his medical school mentors had told him right before he went on his fellowship interviews. They need to hook onto you as a person. And Hamish wasn’t naive. He knew that people were fundamentally uninterested in the lives of others unless those lives were fitted with some kind of lure to snare or maim the attention of the observer. He knew this, but he also found it strange, this breed of bright, shining people who came for drinks and deployed their personalities as though they were streaming a live feed.

“It’s not what I originally wanted to do,” he started to say. Then, feeling like he might be shorting Soren, he said, “But it’s great. It’s cool.”

“Hamish is a bleeding heart and wanted to do rural medicine,” Soren said with derision. “Doesn’t that just make you feel like the biggest dick on the planet? This guy. A saint.”

“What is rural medicine?” Alyona asked. “Is that, like, Doctors Without Borders?”

“No,” Hamish said. “Or, well, not exactly. Rural medicine focuses on the needs of rural communities.”

“Like what?”

“Well, stuff like vaccines. Diabetes. Screening for things that might get missed because there aren’t a lot of resources.”

“So, like, refugees?”

“Except it’s Americans, people in far-flung places.”

“So, like, you’d go to Alaska or something?” Bascom asked.

“No, I was thinking Alabama.”

“Alabama? Why? That’s not far-flung. It has cities.”

Hamish smiled tightly. Soren’s hand was resting on the back of his neck, and he could feel the slippery heat of its palm, like the underside of a reptile. Alabama was mountainous in the north, with fields and rich forests all through the central part of the state. It turned to swampland in the south, and then there was the coast. The weather was wild and unpredictable throughout, with hurricanes and tornadoes and violent thunderstorms that left destruction in their wake. But it was beautiful too, with deep valleys full of pines and cedars. It was true that Alabama had cities that glinted at night: Birmingham, Hoover, Montgomery, Mobile. But Alabama was poor, and its people suffered for it. Many of them were farmers who lived in tight communities, and they were lucky if they could drive to a Walmart. Black people, especially, lived way out there in the country, and they went for years without doctors, without medicine, without anyone to help them. Hamish had gone to a doctor roughly once every five years when he was growing up. They didn’t have the money, and his family was also wary. Every time a black person went into a hospital, it seemed to be that they died. And so he’d been kept away, except when he needed his shots to go to school, or when the free lunch program required dentist visits and paperwork testifying to the fact of their poverty. What should Hamish say to these happy, fortunate people who did not seem to understand that rural life was not just a rustic set of attitudes but a particular set of physical and economic realities? A set of conditions that made one more susceptible to the most basic of maladies. What to say to their shining faces? What?

“Rural communities don’t have — ” Hamish started to say, but Soren squeezed his neck, and Alyona said, “That’s cool.”

It was one of those moments, Hamish knew, when it was better to let it go, even if letting it go made him feel worse, as though he were endorsing their attitude. And he’d turned his back on his principles. Here he sat, in New York rather than in Dallas County helping poor black children with their scoliosis. Here he sat, in this bright bar, listening to these assholes rather than giving out vaccines and setting bones in Phenix City. He had traded all of that to help rich people, and he could imagine what his grandfather would say about it: People who don’t even need help get all the help.

He slipped under the gurgle of conversation, which moved on without him. Soren’s hand left his neck with a passing caress and came to rest on the table close to Hamish’s hand. He wasn’t sure what to make of this gesture — if it was comfort or something else. But he let it ride. Vera linked her arm through Bascom’s, and Alyona was on the other side of Soren, leaning into him. Something vague began to take shape, and Hamish felt embarrassed again, this time for not realizing that there was a purpose in the way they’d slid into the booth. He and Tagg sat at the vertex of two pairs. Whenever their eyes met, Hamish felt something crackle in the air.

It was a fucking setup.

The waitress reappeared with their drinks. Bascom tried to engage her in conversation. Hamish had seen people try to banter their way into economic parity. Bascom asked her where she was from, where she lived, what her interests were, what she liked to do on the weekends, said things like “Ugh, it must be so annoying, people like us coming in here,” and Hamish bristled because he wasn’t like them, and he resented being linked with them, but then, this kind of discomfort must have been what made Bascom do it in the first place. She just answered his questions and smiled brusquely. Hamish wanted to point out to Bascom that this was not how one went about building solidarity. She didn’t have the space to refuse his probing. She was probably trying to calculate the minimum necessary politeness to give before she was free to go back to her job. They were assholes. All of them, himself included.

Hamish’s seltzer was a little metallic, and there wasn’t as much ice as he wanted, and the lime was sad and brown. They sipped, but then Vera raised her glass and said, “Cheers.” The rest of them awkwardly joined her. Tagg stared directly at Hamish and said, “In Ibiza, you have to look the person in the eye,” then made a show of pointed eye contact with each of them as they toasted to…what? Nothing at all, just the moment, the occasion.

* * *

Later, on the street, Hamish watched as Alyona and Soren leaned into each other. They were just talking, but Alyona reclined against a wall, and Soren stood very close to her, their faces almost touching. It was as if they had taken their clothes off right there on the street. She vaped and held his hand, and Hamish wished he were somewhere else.

Vera was pulling Bascom down the street, away from them, waving, saying, “See you next week!” That left Tagg and Hamish standing a little off from Soren and Alyona.

“Are they always like this?”

“Those two? Yeah, it’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not worried,” Hamish said.

Tagg smiled in a way that suggested he saw through Hamish, and Hamish liked him both a little more and a less because of it. Now that it was just the two of them, he really looked at Tagg and saw that he was another of those largish, overgrown Connecticut sons, bland except that he was rich and had a dark scar on his chin. He looked like he owned winter flannels and knew the difference between denim and chambray — not in a way that he could explain, only know. In short, he was the sort of man whom Hamish knew to guard himself against because it would be easy to sleep with him and then want to do it again. He was athletic and rangy, like he counted macros and used to play lacrosse, and Hamish would bet that his Catholic family had gone Protestant about fifty years ago. Hamish knew boys like this because they had been the standard model at Yale, and he had slept with them, had tried to know them and be known by them, but it never held. It never could. There was always too much space into which could be projected all the things they didn’t know to ask or think about him. Like with Soren.

“Well, this has been fun,” Hamish said.

“You out of here so soon?” Tagg seemed genuinely startled.

“I think I better.”

“Sober and responsible,” Tagg said. “I get it.”

“You do.”

“Is there something on my face?”

“I don’t know what that means. I’m sorry?”

“No, you just seem to be in such a rush to get out of here. Is there something on my face?”

“No,” Hamish said. “It’s a good face.”

“I paid enough for it.”

“Is that right?”

“You should ask Soren,” he said, and Hamish narrowed his eyes, trying to make out in the streetlight signs that Tagg’s face had changed somehow. He looked in the obvious places — creases, near the eyes, the jaw, the mouth — places where a doctor might hide the scars until they faded, places where the body pulled tightest on itself. He looked but did not find anything.

“Oh God,” Tagg said. “Look at you.”

“You said it, not me.”

“No, I just meant…Not like that. I broke my nose a little while back.”

“Oh,” Hamish said. “I’m sorry.”

“No big deal. Soren broke it.” Tagg nodded toward their friend. Alyona wrapped her arms around his neck, and they might have been kissing for all Hamish could tell. Soren’s back was to them.

“Ouch.”

“Well, you know, he’s competitive.”

“I can imagine,” Hamish said. In medical school, Soren had not exactly been competitive. Not with Hamish, at least. They’d known more or less early on that they wanted different things, so there wasn’t any point in trying to destroy one another. But at parties, he often saw Soren flip entire tables over because he’d lost at beer pong.

Hamish shrugged and said, “Okay, well then.”

“Are you taking a train?”

“Yes, I think I will.”

“Here, I’ll come with you.”

“Why?” Hamish asked, and Tagg smirked at him.

“Oh, okay.”

“No, I didn’t mean it like that,” he said.

“No, I get it.”

“No.”

“No.”

“Stop it.”

When Tagg laughed, Soren turned to look over his shoulder at them, and Alyona stepped around him.

“What’s so funny over there?”

“Nothing,” Tagg said, but his laughter indicted them, and Soren and Alyona came over.

“I don’t believe that,” Alyona said. Her wavy hair, which was streaked with gray, was cut in a bob, and she wore rectangular glasses, a plum-colored top, and wide-bottomed pants in a saffron hue. Five years ago, her look might have been called eccentric, but now it was quite common among a certain class of professional New York women. Hamish saw them walking through the park in tight packs. In their clogs and linen jumpsuits and bright red lipstick. Their punchy little dogs on leashes while they talked and made big gestures, circles, ovals, plans for futures. Alyona puffed vapor at him, and he smiled, but there was tension in his jaw and neck. Soren smelled boozy.

“What’re we laughing about?” he asked. Tagg put his arm around Soren. Hamish looked at the three of them, their eyes darting among each other and back to him, and he felt that it was really time to go.

“I better get going.”

“We should go back to mine,” Soren said.

“No, no, I better head home.” Soren frowned and leaned in Hamish’s direction. Tagg had to pull him up again. He braced his finger against Hamish’s chest.

“Don’t be,” he started. “Don’t be.”

“Okay,” Hamish said. Soren pulled free from Tagg and wrapped his arms around Hamish, hugging him tight. He’d put on his jacket, though the evening was still humid. He smelled of sweat and Alyona’s vapor. Underneath all that, there was his expensive cologne and the heavy smell of his human body. Hamish could feel the firmness of his muscles, the solidity of him. “Okay, buddy.”

Soren wouldn’t let him go, and Tagg could only look on with vague irritation that gradually gave way to amusement. Alyona rolled her eyes.

“We’ll leave him to you,” she said. Then she put her arm through Tagg’s and told him, “Take me home.”

“I’m going to call a car,” Hamish said as he watched them leave. Soren made a pleasant, agreeable sound, and Hamish got his phone out, then asked for and put in Soren’s address. Almost no time passed before the sleek, black car materialized before them. Hamish squeezed Soren into the back seat and got in beside him. Soren babbled pleasantly at the driver, a broad man who nodded to Hamish and then, with a skill that took Hamish’s breath away, pulled back, turned, and ferried them in the opposite direction. He had never seen a car move so beautifully.

At Soren’s building, there was a doorman. Soren wasn’t completely drunk, just mostly drunk, and he insisted on not being left alone. He put his arm around Hamish’s neck and wouldn’t budge until Hamish agreed to go in with him. They took the elevator, passing so many floors that Hamish’s ears popped, and when they stopped, Soren seemed to sober up almost right away, like the distance traveled had caused his head to clear. When the door slid open, he looked at Hamish and stuck out his hand as if for a shake, and Hamish shook it as they stepped onto the landing. Soren’s palm was warm and dry, like a freshly laundered bedsheet. The elevator door bounded shut with a muted thunk.

Soren pulled Hamish tighter to himself, held him. They stood together in the soft light of the hall, which was like that of a hotel, burnished and old-fashioned. The carpet was dusty. It scraped under the soles of their shoes as they began to sway. Soren took up Hamish’s hand and looped an arm around his waist. They did a little two-step, with Hamish’s chin on Soren’s shoulder. He felt shy about how silly they must have looked, the two of them carrying on this way in their sweat-dampened clothes. The hall was powerfully warm. But they went on swaying, suffocating in one another’s smell, because the contact — the firmness of it and the closeness — was pleasant. The night fell away, all the discomfort and unease from the bar, with its piercing lights, and the irritation of the conversation. All of it dropped down and back. Hamish didn’t feel as though he had to anticipate and parry, to prepare himself for the worst. For the first time in weeks, he found that he could relax, and it was Soren shoring him up. They danced their silent dance, with no one there to see.

Then Soren’s head lifted, and he looked down at Hamish. They kissed, and it was like a long game had at last come to its conclusion.

“Good night,” Soren said, and he extricated himself from Hamish, who extricated himself from Soren, and there they stood, separately, as though they had not just been embracing. Their posture felt, to Hamish, like a rebuke of everything that came before.

“Okay,” he said.

Soren took Hamish’s hand again and kissed his wrist. He pulled again, and Hamish found himself embraced.

“Don’t play around with me, Soren,” he said.

“I never know what you want.”

“You do.”

“I don’t,” Soren said, pressing their cheeks together, kissing Hamish’s forehead, nose, lips. “I don’t.”

“You want to be wanted,” Hamish said.

“Yes, that’s what I want, but that’s not what you want.”

“It’s what everyone wants,” Hamish said.

“Not you.”

“Bullshit,” Hamish said.

“You’re like a little cactus. You could survive all on your own. You don’t need anybody.” Soren laughed.

Hamish pushed at Soren’s chest, but Soren held him firm. He tried again, but Soren would not relent and instead drew Hamish closer, suffocated him. Hamish couldn’t breathe. Soren squeezed harder.

“Say it,” Soren said.

Hamish pushed, but Soren held him still, as though to demonstrate that his strength was totally superior.

“Say it,” he whispered.

“Say what?” Hamish gasped.

“Say you need me,” Soren said.

“I need you.”

“Say it again.”

“I need you.”

* * *

Soren’s apartment had a second floor and an elegant staircase that seemed to float in midair. The furniture was low and modernist in a minimalist sort of way. There was a view of the river, and there were three high bookcases filled with medical textbooks and some sort of leather-bound series of novels. The bedroom was on the second floor, and Soren took Hamish up slowly, leading him by the hand. It was funny to Hamish that rich people’s houses had to be navigated via a sherpa. The bedroom also featured low furniture, and it had high windows, as if Soren wanted to lie down and be loomed over by the buildings. He wondered what it was about lying close to the ground that made people feel safe and secure. Perhaps it had something to do with the womb.

Sex with Soren was more or less how he remembered it. Soren wanted to be sucked off and looked up at while he stood over Hamish. He wanted to glide himself into Hamish’s throat and watch him as he struggled to breathe, so Hamish pretended to struggle to breathe, thinking not so much of his own pleasure but of Soren’s. But Soren couldn’t stay hard. He didn’t seem to realize this, though, so he kept trying to piston himself in and out of Hamish’s mouth, but it wouldn’t work. There was no traction. Instead, Hamish had to coddle the soft, pliable tube of Soren’s penis in his mouth. It tasted sour, like sweat, but it wasn’t unarousing for him. Soren did not attempt to reciprocate, seemingly thinking that this was sufficient, and for Hamish it was, because he didn’t want to take his clothes off, because he was insecure about how his own body smelled and looked after all of the sweating, and he was too shy to ask Soren to let him shower. Eventually, Soren got hard enough that an orgasm was possible, and he pulled out and jerked himself off roughly. He pulled at Hamish’s shirt, and Hamish turned hot and tried to roll away. Blood roared in his ears. He was staring up at the underside of Soren’s body, and Soren kept pulling at his shirt, so Hamish let Soren pull it up over his soft belly. Soren gripped at Hamish’s neck and pulled him up so that he could lick at Soren’s scrotum, which he did, breathing Soren’s smell and tasting where he was raw and a little spoiled, and then Soren pushed Hamish’s head back down so that he almost fell off the bed. Soren came on Hamish’s belly and chest.

“That was so good,” Soren said. “You’re so good.”

“Oh, yeah. Can I shower?” Hamish asked, because there was no way not to shower now.

“Sure, sure, alright.”

The bathroom was cool and white. There was an enclosed shower with black tiles. Hamish pulled his shirt the rest of the way over his body and tossed it aside. He got out of his pants. The dinner and drinks had made him feel bloated and full. He had to pee quite badly. He pissed for what felt like eight years. In the shower, the water felt good, if somewhat hard, and he closed his eyes, washing off the night, washing off Soren, washing off his own animal smell. He didn’t hear the bathroom door open, but when he turned to reach for the soap, he saw that Soren was on the toilet with his legs braced wide.

He said nothing. Hamish said nothing. He just stood under the spray of water and watched Soren stare down between his knees, as if in solemn reflection. Hamish felt embarrassed. Shame over his own body and the posture of perfect vulnerability that Soren adopted. He felt as if he had been forced into witnessing something he shouldn’t have. He closed his eyes. He heard the toilet flush, and when he looked again, Soren was gone.

Hamish found Soren asleep when he returned from the shower. He did not know if he was supposed to sleep too or leave. He could get a car. He could walk. But home felt far. And he was too tired. It seemed reasonable that because he let Soren finish on him, he could expect to spend the night. They were, after all, friends.

He got into bed next to Soren, who came closer, threw a leg over Hamish, and attached himself. It was a familiar position. They had slept together this way in medical school. And it was okay. It was alright. It was good. Hamish closed his eyes and held his breath. It was a habit of his to hold his breath until the moment he couldn’t anymore, then do it again and again, until he wore himself down, until he was no longer aware of what was the pressurized darkness of his lungs and what was sleep.

Soren’s chest was warm against his side. The air-conditioning finally came on, and the room cooled. The sheets were soft and seemed to whisper when they adjusted themselves. It amazed him that Soren could sleep this way — so deeply, so easily, so without trouble or worry. It amazed him that anyone could fall asleep without concerted effort. It cost Hamish everything to sleep. To give himself over to the world. It cost him everything.

Brandon Taylor

Brandon Taylor is the author of the novel Real Life, which was a finalist for the 2020 Booker Prize, the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, and the 2021 Young Lions Fiction Award, and was named a NYT Editors’ Choice and NYT Notable Book. His collection Filthy Animals, a national bestseller, won the 2022 Story Prize and was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize. He is the 2022–2023 Mary Ellen von der Heyden Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.