I’ve stripped off every piece of clothing that I can without risking public indecency. My boxers are clinging to my thighs in a sticky, sweaty mess and the sweat dripping from the back of my knees feels like a dozen mosquitoes landing on my skin. The rattle of the old metal fan that the landlord brought over to me last night is grating on my nerves. It has to be at least twenty years old. The fan, I mean. It’s got a wide metal cage around the blades and as it spins, one of the blades brushes the cage and makes a screeching noise. When the sound starts rattling in my brain, I turn the fan off for a few minutes. The air instantly goes completely still, and the clang of the fan is replaced by the humming whine of the Baker kids racing their dirt bikes in the field behind the house.
I bang on the keyboard, pounding out words that don’t mean anything, hoping if I just keep typing, something is going to make sense. I used to have my office in the tiny back room of this rental house, but we’re having such a hot summer and that room is oppressive. There is a bit more breeze here in the living room, but it means I get distracted by everything happening in the neighbourhood.
Mr. Preston and his husband, Eric are walking on the street with their little dog on a jeweled leash. I’ve never spoken to them, but Cara brought them a casserole when they moved in and a week later, they brought it back filled with some uppity vegetarian soup. Cara said it was delicious, but it looked disgusting with little flecks of some green leafy thing floating on the top. Mr. Preston, according to Cara, is always called Mr. Preston. Eric is always called Eric. Eric’s last name is Preston, too. Mr. Preston probably gets off on people having to address him by Eric’s last name. I hate when gays feel they have to flaunt their relationship in people’s faces. Look, we all know you’re gay. You wouldn’t have that prissy little dog if you weren’t. Just because it’s legal for gays to marry now, doesn’t mean we have to like calling them Mr. and Mr.
For some reason, all the women in town love those guys. Probably because they brought banana bread to the farmers market in town square and passed it around to all the vendors. Token gays in small town, British Columbia. They don’t hunt or fish, but they can bake. Every girl’s dream guy.
I stop watching when Mr. Preston takes Eric’s hand and kisses it. I don’t need to see that right out my front window. I’m just trying to finish this story so I can send it in and hopefully collect a check.
Cara bangs through the apartment door followed by Babs, her BFF. They’re giggling at something, probably something stupid that Babs said. I don’t know what Cara sees in her, to be honest. She’s everything Cara isn’t. Fat and loud with a foul mouth. Today she’s wearing her vintage finest, a red polka-dot dress with a round skirt that spins out when she moves. Her mammoth breasts are pushed up over the top of the neckline. If she looks down, her double chin will be resting on the top of her boobs. I don’t have a problem with fat people, but I think they should have the decency to wear clothes that fit and cover their bodies. Babs created a movement called Fat-shion which essentially means she dresses like a cross between a clown and a 50s housewife.
Cara walks over and leans in for a kiss. Her long, dark hair brushes across my skin as she kisses me and she reaches down to run her fingernails over my chest. She’s the antithesis of Babs, willowy and quiet. She leans over me for a long moment. When she stands, she wipes her fingers on her shorts with a curl of her lip.
“You’re sweaty, Bry,” she says. Her nose wrinkles as she steps back. “You’re kind of stinky, too.”
Babs laughs. She looks at me over the top of her retro horn-rimmed glasses. I want to choke her. She has room to talk. There’s a sheen across her forehead and upper lip that tells me she isn’t taking the afternoon heat any better than I am.
“Men sweat, babe,” I tell Cara. “Men and fat people.”
Babs sneers at me. She drops a couple packages on the peeling linoleum. The whole house is floored in the same brownish squares. It was probably the cheapest they had back in 1970 or whenever the landlord last renovated this place. The walls are brown, too, and the cabinets and countertops are beige. Cara has done her best to liven the place with some prints she got from the thrift store. A giant poster version of Matisse’s The Dance hangs over the couch in the living room which embarrasses the hell out of my mother every time she comes over. Not that she comes over very often.
Cara slaps me on the shoulder and walks back to Babs. They hug and talk about meeting back here in a couple of hours. I overhear Cara say “Mr. Preston.”
I’m drawn into their conversation. “What? Mr. Preston, what?”
“I’ve told you a dozen times, Bryan.” Cara turns to glare at me, hands on her hips. I reach back into every conversation we’ve had over the past week. I can’t remember anything concrete. If Babs was involved, I would have tuned her out anyway. Cara’s always droning on about Babs’ accomplishments, like getting a job at the only clothing store in Serenity is somehow worth writing home about.
I wave my hand at Cara. “Tell me again, babe.”
She grins, practically bouncing with excitement. “Mr. Preston and Eric are throwing a party today to celebrate the release of Eric’s book!”
She sounds so excited; her voice is shaking. I don’t remember having this conversation. I would have remembered having it because I remember when the gay guy finished his book. Babs and Cara sat right there at the counter while I was trying to work and babbled about how exciting it was to have a novelist in the neighbourhood like they didn’t have the next Nicholas Sparks right in the same room, like I didn’t have three full novels done and sitting in the file cabinet next to me, like it was only because I didn’t have the money and connection to get a publisher that I wasn’t currently a goddamn bestseller. Eric finished one book and everyone around here acted like it was the second coming of Christ. Not only that, but he sent that one book to exactly one publisher who decided to publish it. The gays have it so easy. They have their own network for things like that.
Babs steps closer, smiling. “It will be good for you to go, Bryan. You might meet a publisher.”
Ignoring her, I turn to Cara. “Tell me from the beginning.”
“Eric finished his novel, submitted it to a publisher, and got it picked up. It’s being released next month, but they’re having a party tonight at the Drake and Lewis bookstore in Kelowna. Locals can buy the book a month before the big launch party in New York City.” Her voice gets faster and louder as she tells me this and her hands are waving in my face.
I pull back out of harm’s way. “I remember now.” I didn’t really remember, but I didn’t want Cara to think I don’t listen to her.
Babs leans back against the wall by the door. “Are you going, Bryan? It’s sure to be a good time with those big city gay guys coming in and all.”
The stillness of the air is driving me crazy and I reach over to turn the fan back on. The clanging fills the room. I really need to take it apart and see if I can bend the blade back into place. I could just go down to the Walmart and buy a standing fan. I’ve asked Cara to do it about a hundred times, but she keeps telling me if I want a fan so bad to go get one myself. She hates going into Walmart as much as I do.
“Is there going to be room for both of us, Babs?” I make a point of looking up and down her big body. “I mean, once you step into the bookstore, half the floor space is gone.”
Babs opens her mouth to respond, but Cara speaks first. “Bryan, stop being such a dick.”
I glare at her, dumbfounded. She’s always taking Babs’ side over mine and I’m sick of it. “Don’t hate me for being honest, Cara. I tell it like it is.”
“No, you don’t. You make a point of being an asshole.” Cara takes Babs’ arm. “Let’s go pick out my outfit for tonight. I’ll get ready at your house.”
“Chicks before dicks,” Babs says, giggling as she snuggles up to Cara.
“Wait, aren’t we going to the party together?” I watch them march toward the bedroom. Cara’s shoulders are so tight, I could bounce a quarter off them. “Babe come on. I’m not driving all the way to Kelowna by myself”
Cara glances back. “Eric and Mr. Preston offered to drive Babs. I’ll just go with them. You can make your own decision whether you think you can go and be civil on Eric’s big night.” She sniffs. “Frankly, you should be honoured they even invited you.”
Fuck her then. Both of them. I didn’t want to go to the stupid party anyway. I’m sure it will be filled with a bunch of squealing gay guys fawning over each other and Babs in equal measure. Lucky her. She can’t get a date in the real world, but gay guys are in love with her.
I try to throw myself back into the article, but I can’t. All I can think about is Eric and his publishing contract. The Drake and Lewis isn’t a tiny small-town bookstore. It’s the real deal. Maybe not as big as something in New York City or even Vancouver, but big enough to be impressive.
There might be publishers there. If Eric’s publisher is coming from New York, maybe he’s bringing friends. I could talk to them about my work. Maybe someone will be interested in Strange Love. It’s my best work, an epic tour de force with a unique plot. It would make a great movie. I blink up at the wall for a moment, picturing myself accepting an academy award.
Cara storms back into the kitchen with Babs waddling behind her.
I don’t want to go to the party, but I don’t want Cara to be mad at me. “Look, babe. I’m sorry I was a jerk.”
Her voice is soft, and I strain to hear her over the clanging of the piece of shit fan. “You are a jerk, Bry.”
Maybe I am a jerk to Babs, but it isn’t like she’s a peach to me. She’s constantly undermining me and my relationship. “I’m just under a lot of pressure. I’ve got to get this article done today to make deadline. And I’d rather use my talent to work on my novel.”
Babs smiles. “I don’t blame you, Bryan.” Her voice is fake-sweet, and I wait for the punchline. “I mean, freelancing pays the bills, but I imagine you won’t feel like a real writer until you publish a novel.”
I turn back to my laptop so she can’t see that she hit a nerve. I am making a living, such as it is. I can pay more than half the rent, which goes up every year as the housing crisis gets worse. The crappy little two-bedroom next door just sold for 280,000. Maybe we aren’t as bad as Vancouver yet, but it’s not great. Rents are going to keep going up until I can’t afford to live here. Ignoring Babs, I turn back to look at Cara. “It would be great to get out of this town. I can’t afford to get us out of here on what I’m making as a hack, but who knows what might happen if one of my novels got picked up. We could move to Langley or maybe Abbotsford.” Cara hates Vancouver so I leave out mentioning it. But that’s where my heart lies. Vancouver. A big city. Publishers. TV appearances. All the things I can’t get here in Serenity.
Cara moves closer to Babs. “I don’t want to move, Bry. I like it here.”
“You’re missing the point.” Frustrated, I turn back to my computer again. I hit save even though I haven’t written a word since the last time I saved. They just don’t get it. They don’t get me. My books are good. They’re better than good. They’re better than most of the crap I pick up from the local library. My books should be out there. It’s not fair that Eric got a publishing contract just because he’s gay. That’s what’s really bothering me. He hasn’t paid his dues. He isn’t a better writer than me. He’s just lucky because he’s part of the LGPQS whatever community. I look up at Cara. She still looks pissed and for a second, I can’t even remember why I started dating her. She never supports me. “It’s not fair. It’s just easier to get a publishing contract if you’re gay.”
Babs snorts and rolls her eyes. “Nothing is easier if you’re gay, Bryan. Maybe you should try really putting yourself in their shoes for a while and learn something about empathy.”
I whirl around in my chair and stand up. This house is ridiculously small. Even though they’re in the kitchen, I’m a mere three steps away from them. At 6’3, I tower over a lot of people. But Babs, whose height is the only small thing about her, is practically a midget compared to me. I glare down at her. “Babs, why don’t you shut the fuck up?”
Cara gasps and puts her arm around Babs. “Let’s get out of here.” They gather Cara’s bags and head for the door. Cara looks back once to look me up and down. “If you’re going to the party, I highly suggest you take a shower. You look like …