Jeremy Garrett lives and writes in Austin, Texas. His fiction has appeared in Splinter Generation, phati'tude, Prick of the Spindle, and Gargoyle Magazine. He attends the MFA program at Texas State University.
Alex turned down the volume of the Christian radio station. His mother, praising the Lord in her Protestant skull, had missed the exit. They didn’t often drive out from the suburbs. “Pay attention,” he said. “We can’t be late.”
Downtown grew in the windshield. From the expressway they passed a row of high-rises and the riverside stadium with its pristine baseball diamond. Alex checked his hair in the visor mirror and worried over the pimple taking its time to fade from his chin. He was ready for today, having spent the summer on the treadmill and weight bench in his parents’ basement. They were to meet the photographer by the river.
The minivan pulled into the lot by the waterfront park. He’d rather his mother drop him off, but she insisted on meeting the man who would capture her son’s youth in wallet-sized glossies. The guy wasn’t hard to spot. Camera slung across his chest, he stood from a bench and walked to meet them.
“Younger than I thought,” said his mother. Alex had found his advertisement in the newspaper classifieds. Jarrett Horvath Studios—weddings, engagements, senior photos. Canvas shirt unbuttoned to a smooth chest, skinny jeans clinging to calves, the man looked as hip as the self-portrait on the webpage Alex had left open on his computer all week. He worked at seventy-five dollars an hour, plus the cost of prints.
Alex dropped his duffle bag to the ground. His mother had packed four changes of clothes for the shoot. He crossed his arms at his waist, a nervous habit he’d picked up years ago to hide the fat around his midsection. Running had been good to him, though. He’d lost the bulge around his middle, and now when he crossed his arms he could clasp the hipbones that jutted from his sides.
The photographer looked at Alex’s mother. “Such a lovely face. Tell me I’m taking your photos today.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “We can’t afford it.”
“And you must be Alex?”
He uncrossed his arms to shake the photographer’s hand. The man’s grasp was firm, his palm smooth. Standing together, they were about the same height.
“Before we get started, let’s get a picture of you and Mom.” Alex’s mother almost refused. “Free of charge,” he said.
Alex sat with her on a park bench. The photographer framed the shot with the river behind them. “Don’t be embarrassed. Put your arm around her. Smile.”
He wanted her gone so that he could have the man to himself. After several successive shutter snaps, Alex dropped the fake smile they had practiced—“I paid for those teeth, you’d better show them”—and took his arm away.
“Ok, Mom,” said the photographer. “It’s time Alex and I got started.”
She followed them to the edge of the Ohio.
“I want you to grip the railing and face the river.” Alex would do whatever he said. “Stare out across the water. Your long-lost love is coming up from behind you. She calls out your name. Now swivel your waist, look into the camera, and smile.”
The camera snapped twice. “I don’t like it,” said his mother. She walked up beside Alex, leaned her back into the railing, and stretched her arms out along the metal. “I want something like this.”
Alex could have thrown her in the river. Instead, he followed her suggestion, showed the camera his teeth. The photographer rested the camera on his chest. “Mrs. Reeves, can I bother you a moment?” They left Alex at the river as the man smiled and laughed with his mother. He pointed down the street.
His mother returned, grinning. “I’m going up the road for a bit. Jarrett recommended I go see the galleries, get some lunch while you finish. Meet back here in two hours?” She kissed Alex on the cheek. “Remember to smile.”
Once his mother was far enough away, Alex corrected the photographer. “The love that calls my name. It wouldn’t be a woman.”
The photographer stared into him for a moment. “Then let’s retake the picture. We’ll pretend the other way.”
Alex leaned into the railing. The breeze fluttered his cargo shorts and plaid dress shirt unbuttoned to a white tee, which the wind pressed against his stomach and chest. He swiveled his torso at the sound of his name, looked through the pupil of the camera to the man behind it.
“You have a nice frame,” said the man. “Why hide it under such big clothes?”
Alex’s face flushed. He crossed his arms at his waist. “Mom won’t buy smaller than a medium.”
The photographer studied him. “Let’s go to the studio for your tux portrait. I have some things that might fit you.”
Away from the river and across the bustling traffic of Main Street, they passed a long brick building with black-tinted windows and a sidewalk strewn with cigarette butts. Alex noted the rainbow flags fluttering from the second-floor balcony. “That’s the club, isn’t it?”
“It’s not everything it’s cracked up to be.” A little further up the street, the photographer said, “I imagine it must be hard for you sometimes. I didn’t have the guts to come out until college.”
“Don’t fret. I’m not going to kill myself.”
They came to an old warehouse that had been converted into offices and lofts. Through the lobby and inside the elevator, Alex stared at the back of the photographer’s neck, the mole not quite hidden by his collar. He’d messed around with a couple kids at school, but he was alone now that Mark Lacy had transferred and Ted Ramsey sported a girlfriend on his arm. Alex wouldn’t mind an older man for once.
The elevator stopped at the top floor, where the photographer unlocked the door of his studio. His loft opened onto a room with spotlights, tripod, and a stool to sit on for portraits. Around the corner were the kitchen and a spiral staircase that surely led to a bedroom. An adjacent room was disheveled with costume racks and overflowing boxes of props—wigs, boas, top hats, a crate of stuffed animals and building blocks for the younger clients. A desk in the corner housed an iMac and expensive-looking printer. A closet was built into the wall with sliding, mirrored doors.
Alex studied the framed prints on the walls as the photographer rooted through the closet. Here was a well-dressed couple holding hands to accentuate the sparkling rock on the girl’s engagement finger; toddler twin boys sharing a toy-train engine; and a high school girl standing by the same river where Alex had posed. Tacked onto a corkboard above the desk was a contact sheet striped with rows of developed film. The black-and-white close-ups captured the same woman at different angles. Makeup colored her face in shades of gray. An Adam’s apple bulged from her neck.
The photographer snuck up behind him. “I haven’t worked with film in ages. I went to the University to develop them.”
“Got about ten good prints in the bunch. I’ll upload them to the Mac and add color, a different spectrum for each photo. I’m building a show with them.”
“I’d like to come,” said Alex. “Whenever it’s ready.”
“Let’s get you changed.” Several outfits awaited him on the costume rack. “These are my clothes. Be careful in them.”
Alex changed in the bathroom, clean as a hotel, from the shining sink faucet to the fresh oval of soap snug in its wooden cradle. As he pulled back the shower curtain to hang his outfits on the rod, he took stock of the brands of conditioners and moisturizers he would tell his mother to buy. He removed his clothes and folded them on the sink counter. He didn’t look at himself in the mirror.
The first outfit—a checkered red and black dress shirt, textured gray pants, a belt with a reflective buckle—was a tight, clean fit. Where his other clothes were loose, the photographer’s shirt clung tight to his biceps. The black leather shoes were an effortless fit. The pants accentuated his ass. He buttoned up the shirt as far as it would go, popped the collar, and began to work a silver tie around his neck. Halfway into his through-the-rabbit-hole routine, he untangled the tie and left it draped over his shoulders. Alex was now an altar of style when he faced the mirror.
A Ke$ha song Alex had never liked played from the main studio. In these clothes, however, his strut synced with the music. At the threshold of the studio, he paused at the sound of conversation not quite concealed by the techno beat. Standing beside the photographer was a tall, pale man in a tank top and camouflage pants.
“He’s cute,” said Jarrett, “right on the cusp of legal, but you know how clingy young guys get.” His friend laughed, reached into his back pocket, and withdrew a bag of blue pills he exchanged for the photographer’s handful of folded twenties.
Alex stepped into the room. His fancy shoes clicked against the hardwood, and Jarrett secreted the Ziploc inside his desk drawer. The other guy stuck his thumbs in his pockets. Alex, though he pretended not to notice the transaction, guessed at the nature of the drug. He’d only ever taken Vicodin, those large white horse pills the oral surgeon had prescribed to him after removing his wisdom teeth. Perhaps the pills were to help Jarrett relax. They might as well keep him up dancing all night.
“Ah, my client,” said the photographer, standing from the desk. “Alex, meet Casey. He stopped by to look at some prints.”
“Jarrett’s told me he’s dressing you up.” Alex shook the pale hand with crescents of dirt for fingernails. “His clothes look better on you.”
The guy was soon to leave, but not before he said, “Watch out for this one. Jarrett’s a heartbreaker.”
The door bolted behind him, the photographer busied himself with his camera settings. Alex fiddled with the tie draped over his shoulders. “Could you help me? I can’t make a Windsor knot to save my life.”
Jarrett clasped the silver tongue of fabric. Had Alex been dressed in different clothes, his heart would have been pounding. He basked in the photographer’s breath, warm on his face as he allowed the tie to be manipulated around his neck. Once finished, the photographer stood back to survey his model. Alex’s head spun when the Jarrett touched his collar again, slid his fingers beneath the knot, and pulled the tie loose from his neck. “Undo two buttons,” he said. “Go to the top of the staircase. I want you to walk down, slowly.”
Alex imagined himself in a New York penthouse as he spiraled upwards. He peeked into the bedroom, where a sleek, queen-size bed with black posts and shelves for the headboard was the only piece of furniture. Smoothed out across the bed was a white quilt encapsulating pillows at the head. A socialite fresh from a tryst, Alex descended in measured steps, one foot ahead of the other, pausing on the staircase with a hand in his pocket, yet still showing some wrist. The photographer circled the base of the staircase, snapping away at him as an alligator would a monkey in a tree.
For the next set of photos, Jarrett took him to the rooftop. The modest cityscape was the backdrop as Alex sat on the roof’s edge with his hands clasped between open legs. “Thank you,” he said, once the photographer had exhausted the pose. “I feel better in these clothes.”
“Don’t think of it. We’re family.”
They left the building after another wardrobe change. Alex wore a yellow t-shirt with a red star on the chest and shorts that ended halfway down his thighs. The flip-flops with plaid thongs felt as though they’d never been worn.
Scouring the city streets for the best backdrops, Alex posed in the intricate doorways of century-old government buildings. He leaned against street lamps as the buses drove past. Every so often they passed a fiberglass horse, fixtures of the Derby City displayed on the sidewalk. Red and white stripes spiraled up the legs of one with the calligraphy of the Emancipation Proclamation scrawled across its flank. There was even a purple Pegasus with jewel-encrusted wings. Then Alex found the perfect horse. It was painted with a spear of martini olives resting in a pool of vodka, and cast, almost cruelly for its lifelessness, frozen mid-gallop. The photographer glanced around to make sure no one was coming.
Alex mounted him.
“He’s a Derby horse.” Snap. “You’re running him fast.” Snap. “You’re one with him. Bend forward into his speed.”
Afterwards, Jarrett extended a hand to help him down. He slapped Alex on the back. “Great work.” His hand lingered for a moment on the Alex’s shoulder. “Another change of clothes and we’re almost done.”
Alex felt he was on a date, a real date as opposed to his casual sleepovers with schoolmates, their passion obscured by videogames and the pizza his mother brought down to the basement, his cave of sexual exploration and murmurs and caresses in the dark. He was above ground now. Out in the open with this man, he was emboldened by the roaring traffic, the towering buildings, the people in the street who ceded the sidewalk to them and must have considered him and the photographer a couple.
He thought they were taking a shortcut to the apartment when Jarrett led him through a Market Street alley. They stopped at the receiving dock at the back of a building. The gate was a see-through iron mesh that guarded the dark emptiness of unused warehouse space. “This’ll do for a backdrop.”
Alex had brought his bag of clothes with him. The trek back to the apartment would have taken too long. “Where should I change?”
“Behind the dumpster? It’s not the fanciest changing room.”
Jarrett waited by the gate with his back turned. The dumpster smelled of rot and mildew as Alex stepped out of his shorts and slid into silver-tinted blue jeans. He traded his star emblazoned shirt for a black v-neck. He didn’t need a mirror to know he looked stunning. Surely Jarrett had worn this same outfit to the club, had attracted the looks of men. Alex smoothed his hair, adjusted his clothes, and stepped out from behind the dumpster.
“Where do you want me?”
“By the gate.”
Before Jarrett could tell him how to pose, Alex put his back to the gate, raised his arms in a Y, and grasped the mesh.
“That’s the spirit.”
Once Alex let go, he’d make his move. He’d put his hand on Jarrett’s waist and draw him into the shadows. They’d go back to the apartment and muss the clean bed. He’d call his mother to say the shoot was taking longer than expected.
“We’re done here.” The photographer capped his lens.
Chest pounding, heart in his throat, Alex let go. He felt as though he were coming to the surface after spending a life underwater. It didn’t matter if Jarrett paid him no attention while flipping through the photos on his camera screen. Alex sidled up next to the photographer, feigning interest in the pictures, ignoring the nervous churning in his stomach.
He hooked his fingers into Jarrett’s belt.
The photographer turned into him. If he opened his mouth to say anything, Alex would shush him at the lips. This was the man he wanted, the man who made him feel good about himself. The nicest clothes in the world wouldn’t have stopped his heart from pounding, wouldn’t have stopped that churning feeling in his gut that hurt so much it had to be love. The feeling pulled at his groin and pushed upwards through his stomach, his throat, left an acrid taste on the back of his tongue.
Jarrett placed a hand on his shoulder. The grip told Alex everything was all right; they could have what they wanted. Alex let go of him and took a step back. He hadn’t been good enough in his old clothes.
“You’re pale,” said Jarrett.
The churning in his stomach was more than love. Alex was ill. “I’m sorry,” he tried to say, but gagged on his words. A gray gush splashed the concrete, his borrowed pants and shoes.
When Alex retched again, the photographer put a hand on his back. “That’s right. Get it all out. A man who doesn’t puke is a man who hasn’t lived.”
Once his stomach was empty, Alex sat down on the curb, a few feet away from the mess. As much as he spit he couldn’t get the taste out of his mouth. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what happened.”
“I overworked you. We should’ve stopped for water.”
“I don’t know why I couldn’t kiss you.”
They sat on the curb without saying anything for some time. A door opened from the building opposite them. A man in a white apron considered the mess on the concrete, slung a bag of garbage into the dumpster, and disappeared back inside.
“It could’ve been the clothes,” said Jarrett.
“You weren’t yourself.”
Back at the studio, Jarrett sent him to the bathroom with a trash bag for his soiled clothes. As if intended for an overnight lover, a yellow toothbrush, sealed in its package, awaited him on the sink. Alex stepped out of the wet blue jeans. He inspected the black v-neck that had fit him so well, found that it had escaped unscathed, and shoved it in the duffle bag with his other clothes.
Teeth brushed, face washed, he donned his baggy cargo shorts and went shirtless into the main studio. The photographer helped him with the tux. He buttoned Alex into the white dress shirt, adjusted the tie, and held up the coat for the boy.
He sat on the stool in front of the white screen. His shorts didn’t match the tux; the final shot would be from the waist up, the photo his classmates would see decades from now. Alex sat there feeling somewhat embarrassed, a shade too pale, though knowing the photographer would touch up his insecurities. He’d find an excuse to come back downtown. There was the museum, the orchestra, and if he could get his mother talking about the art she viewed today, perhaps she would drop him off at the galleries. Away from her prying eyes, he’d unbutton his shirt to the black v-neck he’d stolen.
Of all the tuxedoed students, Alex’s face would arrest those who flipped through the pages of the yearbook. There would be no credits beneath his name, not one sport or honor or extracurricular activity. He’d seem almost too good for the allotted yearbook rectangle, his exhausted, forward-leaning pose. Alex’s green eyes, wide-open and staring past the camera, looked beyond his senior year, when he would walk the hallways with a strut. He was sure of himself as the shutter snapped.