“You can’t skip your own party,” Roger said as he handily tied his pale pink bowtie. I’d made the mistake of telling him I thought his bowties were cute when we’d first started dating, and I couldn’t very well tell him the truth now that we were married. Still, they suited his personality; classy, a little bit showy, cheerful. Chaste.
“It’s not my party. It’s a party for me,” I whined, jumping up and down, using my weight to propel my thighs and ass downwards into my black skinny jeans.
I’d been hoping for tips on real estate, so I’d put up a post on Facebook announcing that Roger and I were moving “back” to Frederica, where I’d attended undergrad at Mamerbury College over a decade before. Only a few friends had stayed in Frederica long term, and one of them was Matt, who’d messaged me within five seconds of my post going live.
Matt and I had been more friendly acquaintances than friends. We’d lived on the same floor freshman year and he’d drunkenly come out to me – and then hit on me – at a party sometime after that, but we’d both pretended to forget that had ever happened. Yet he’d still insisted on having a “Welcome Home-O” party for me. I’ll round up some of the old crew!!! he’d messaged, whoever that meant.
Matt and his husband, Brian, lived in a small gated community called The Wesley Plantation on Gascoigne Bluff, a swampy knoll on the west side of Frederica’s island half. Frederica was split equally over the Georgia mainland and a large island bordered on one side by the salt marshes and by Georgia’s Atlantic coast on the other. The Wesley Plantation consisted of a number of plantation homes that had been broken down and rearranged into long lanes of townhomes in the late 1980s. The plantation homes had been built over the ruins of a naval base, which itself had been built atop a Franciscan monastery, which had been founded after “colonists” destroyed the Native American village that had been there before.
I knew this because what had brought me back to Frederica was a tenure-track position in Mamerbury’s History Department, where I’d be heading up the college’s new Institute for Native American Studies. I was only, in terms of genetics, about 1/16th Native American, but my mother’s side of the family had held tightly to their Creek roots, and several relatives were members of the Muscogee Nation back in Oklahoma, where I’d been born. One of the reasons I’d come to undergrad at Mamerbury was to return to my great-grandmother’s ancestral home, as she and her family had been forced from the Frederica area in the late 1800s. Though I identified strongly with my familial Native heritage, I kept my relationship with it academic, out of respect for those with less privilege (my other 15/16ths were all Irish) and because I’d learned my lesson from Elizabeth Warren.
“Fine,” I said to Roger. “But I apologize in advance for taking you somewhere named after a plantation.”
“I appreciate that, but I’d never go anywhere in Georgia if that was a rule,” Roger responded.
The Wesley Plantation was over-landscaped but striking. Whoever had designed it had a penchant for foxglove, hollyhocks and lavender, which perfumed the walkways. Gas lamps cast flickering shadows, and the fireflies were just beginning to sparkle as we approached Matt and Brian’s home. The cobblestone lanes within the development were narrow, and the townhomes felt oddly heavy, their tooth-square balconies jutting out and casting long shadows, their weighty white bricks, boxy wooden shutters, and heavy white columns threatening to sink the lot of them into the swampy Georgian land.
The only element of the outdoor décor under the discretion of each townhome’s inhabitants seemed to be the color of the front door, which varied greatly and in no obvious order.
I knocked firmly on Matt and Brian’s bright red door, which swung open almost immediately. Matt swooped out and kissed me wetly on the mouth.
“Jonny!” he squealed when he pulled back, my nose picking up the brandy my mouth had just tasted. “Get in here, you bitch!” he slurred, making way for me to go into the house.
Then he turned to Roger and greeted him with a kiss as well, which made Roger – a proud germaphobe – freeze in terror. Matt took that moment to step back, still holding Roger’s face, and declare, “You’re really black, aren’t you? Like I knew you were black from Facebook, but you’re like black black.”
Roger remained frozen in place and I stared incredulously. Matt must not have noticed our discomfort, because he cheerfully led Roger and I into the house.
“Should we leave?” I mouthed to Roger as we followed Matt through the foyer.
“Nah, he’s just drunk,” Roger whispered. “I’m sure it’s coming from a good place.”
We found Brian and four other people in a large, open-plan kitchen. Brian was hunched over the stove, stirring something, and the others were seated at a round table and picking at a plate of charcuterie. The kitchen opened into a lounge with heavy white carpeting, and two Chesterfield sofas facing each other in front of a fireplace carved out of dark green stone, in which a fire crackled. The hearth below and the large mantle above the fire were attractively, organically jagged and uneven, and the fireplace as a whole looked as if it had been conjured up from the earth below the house.
While the fireplace was eye-catching, the painting above the mantle was even more striking. It was a portrait of the head of a raven or large crow, its feathers rendered in deep shades of grey, purple, and blue, in profile against a burnt orange background, its sharp black beak open to the right in song or hunger.
“Honey, this is my BFF from college, Jonny, and his husband, Roger,” Matt proclaimed to Brian, who turned from the stove to look at us.
Brian was average in every way, except for a wide neck that nearly swallowed his chin. He had little eyes that his thick-rimmed glasses failed to magnify. He swept over, his apron billowing out as he moved, and grabbed my cheeks, also giving me a kiss on the mouth. His lips tasted of tomato sauce in addition to brandy.
“Welcome Home-O!” he cheered after kissing me, and then moved on to Roger, who managed to shove a hand in between them before the kiss landed. He awkwardly shook Brian’s hand and then, ever the boy scout, strode over to the others to greet them.
Matt introduced us to the others: Renata, a redheaded caterer with a pinched face and a spectacularly large mole between her lips and her nose; her square-jawed, surfer-haired boyfriend, Max; a bird-boned, big-eyed guy lawyer named Ben; and Ben’s fiancé, Nat, a horse-toothed, spray-tanned real estate agent.
The men all blended together, their monosyllabic names and beige hair mixing them into a soup of average white maleness. Renata looked a bit familiar, but I put that down to her impressive hair, which was splayed across her shoulders, the candlelight revealing a multitude of hues amongst its waves. Then she looked me in the eye and said, “Jonathan, you asshole, don’t you remember me?”
I didn’t. Not at all.
“Of course he does, Ren,” Nat said, his eyes hopeful.
“Sure I do!” I lied, looking to Matt for help.
Apparently, Renata, Nat, Matt, and I had been in the same freshman seminar and I’d once gone to a party at Nat’s fraternity house, where I’d made out with Renata during a game of spin the bottle. I remembered that; mostly for because of the novelty of kissing a woman.
Rather than eat a formal dinner, we picked at creations that Brian plucked off the stove at various intervals. While the sweat glistening on his forehead and lightly fuzzy upper lip implied he was working hard on the food, it all tasted as if it had been reheated from frozen. Chewy flatbreads, wet tortellini, powdery cheese cubes, and too-sweet or too-salty dipping sauces came out in waves. I gulped Merlot while Roger drank his Pinot Grigio with seltzer, much to Matt and Brian’s horror.
Alcohol was solely responsible for moving the conversation forward, and after a little while Roger asked Matt where the “restroom” was, which made the rest of the room cackle.
“The shitter, you mean?” Renata barked, and Ben and Nat hyena-laughed along with her. Max smiled dimly, but appeared to be heavily drunk or stoned. Probably both.
Matt informed us all that the bathroom was off of the foyer, which he’d led us through too quickly for me to notice the first time.
“If that one’s occupied,” he said sharply, “then just go upstairs and through the double doors into our room. The bathroom’s just to the right of the bureau, unless you’d rather have a detour in our bed.” With these last words, he glanced heavily at Roger, eliciting another round of squeals from the other guests.
Roger blushed, a ribbon of dark red running from his eye to his lip, and then excused himself.
“Well, I guess we know who the top is in your marriage,” Brian said when Roger was out of sight.
I was used to people assuming things about Roger and I, but from Brian it seemed like a jab rather than a joke. Eager to change the subject, I looked to Matt and then Max, who were both very intoxicated. Nat seemed very shy and Ben appeared to be incredibly boring. This left Renata.
“Renata,” I started, then scraped my thumb nail around my lips for fear that the merlot had stained them. “I’m sure you get this all the time, but your hair reminds me of Julia Roberts.”
Renata’s face stiffened.
“Julia Roberts is such a bitch,” she said before shoving an olive in her mouth. Some of the olive’s juice spritzed onto her mole, making it twinkle as she moved her head.
No one else looked at all surprised or offended. I was both.
“I’ve always loved Julia Roberts,” I said.
“Well you obviously don’t know her,” Renata said, swinging her hair over her shoulder, causing the mole to blink like an errant Christmas light.
Then, even though I hadn’t asked, Renata sighed heavily and told her Julia Roberts story as if I had forced it from her lips.
“We were working together,” she started, which seemed improbable. “Julia was on yet another break and they couldn’t find her stand-in, so I was asked to take her place so they could get the lighting right for her hair, which isn’t nearly as impressive as it looks on screen. So I did, and then she comes back, late of course, and then doesn’t even say ‘thank you.’ She just stares at me until I move and then asks me for coffee with a paper straw. Like that was my job.”
“Was it your job?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“Fuck no! I was working for craft services. Making food. Not delivering it.”
Usually in this kind of scenario I would just agree with the storyteller in order to be agreeable, but I felt like slandering Julia Roberts was a level of sin I wasn’t willing to risk. I was about to launch my defense of Julia, but Roger chose that moment to reappear, as if sent by God, and shifted the course of conversation by asking Matt and Brian where they’d gotten their hand cream.
The evening remained relatively bland but, aided by large amounts of wine, rolled along pleasantly enough. We found a nice cadence of discussing home décor and gossiping about Mamerbury people that Renata, Matt, Nat, and I knew or remembered tangentially, and the evening progressed pleasantly. However, there was an uncomfortable sense of expectation in the air. Maybe it was just a natural facet of a “welcome home” party but I had this feeling that Roger and I, regardless of our desires, were suddenly a part of this group and that we needed to be introduced to all of their quirks and customs.
We eventually cleared the table of food, which was replaced by more wine bottles and a beer for Max. Just as Matt topped off everyone’s glasses, a loud clap of thunder sounded and then the lights went out.
Chaos erupted as we each tried to pull out our phones to see one another. Matt and Brian distributed flashlights and lit candles, and within a few minutes we were sitting around the table again, a large candelabra sending buttery light over all of our faces. The fire still crackled in the fireplace, but it was mostly just embers now and provided little light.
Brian shot Matt a devious look and said, “Should we play Snapdragon?”
Renata squealed, while Ben moaned in what seemed to be mock resignation.
“What’s Snapdragon?” Roger asked.
Matt, whose arm was around my shoulders for what seemed like the hundredth time that evening, exclaimed, “It’s our game! You’ve got to be initiated.”
Brian said, “It’s from the 16th century. Shouldn’t Jonny know all about it, as our resident historian?”
There was an edge to Brian’s voice, but we’d all been drinking so much that it could have simply been a side effect of inebriation. He continued, “We pour brandy into a bowl, and then set the brandy on fire. Then we take a box of raisins and dump it in the brandy. They simmer for a bit, then we go around the table and each take a raisin from the bowl. If the raisin doesn’t burn your tongue, you have to tell a secret about you and someone else at the table. If the raisin burns your tongue, you have to show something to the table. Something worth seeing, though. So it’s basically Show or Tell.”
I was tipsy, but this sounded like a horrible idea. Fire, alcohol, darkness, and secrets. What could possibly go wrong?
“Can’t you just lie about whether it burns your tongue?” Roger asked.
Matt laughed disproportionately and said, “We use the honor system, but it’s also hard to hide your expression with a flaming raisin on your tongue.”
“That’s what she said,” Renata added.
“I don’t want to put fire on my tongue,” I said.
Max spoke then, and I realized that he was very drunk. “The hot ones burn less than hot food, and the other ones just get…you wasted?”
I looked at Roger, who frowned and shrugged. Some help.
“Okay. Snapdragon it is,” I said, taking a big swig of wine.
Matt retrieved a box of raisins, a long metal spoon, a bottle of brandy, a lighter, and a wide bowl and placed them all in the center of the table. Renata poured half the bottle of brandy into the bowl, and then Brian gleefully lit it on fire. A mesmerizing, ghostly blue flame rose from the bowl and stayed lit, wobbling ever-so-slightly as miniscule currents of air glided through the room, unfelt by our dulled skin.
Matt took the red box of raisins in his hand and dumped it into the flaming bowl. The woman on the box smiled mischievously as the raisins fell out in sticky clumps.
“Ben, will you start?” Matt asked. “Then we’ll go around the table clockwise.”
“I know who I hope has to show,” Brian said, his chin dipping forward and getting lost in his thick neck as he looked hungrily at Roger. Roger grabbed my hand under the table and squeezed. I could tell he was uncomfortable, and I worried that he was clinging on because he thought I wanted to be friends with these people, which really wasn’t the case.
Ben picked up the spoon and placed it in the flaming brandy. He fished around for a raisin and then pulled the spoon out, held it over it over his open mouth, and poured the raisin – along with some brandy – into his mouth.
I gasped and Roger squeezed my hand again, but Ben simply swallowed, his big eyes remaining calm, though reddened from alcohol consumption.
“No burn,” he said, swallowing the raisin.
“Tell!” Renata yelled.
“Hmmmm. A secret about me and someone else at the table.” He waited for a second, apparently going for dramatic silence.
“Okay,” Ben continued, “so, my lovely husband-to-be and I aren’t racist, but we hate Asians!” he said with a squeal.
I waited for the joke, or the “just kidding!” but everyone just laughed. Roger looked appalled, but no one even seemed to notice him.
“Like, all Asians,” Nat added with a high-pitched chuckle, which morphed into a whinny as it came through his large, square teeth. “We went to China on vacation last year and just swore at everyone under our breath.”
I wanted to say something, but my tongue felt thick in my mouth.
“My turn!” Nat yelled, grabbing the spoon from Renata.
His raisin definitely burned, so his was a show.
“They’ve all seen my tattoo, but you guys haven’t,” Nat said, speaking to Roger and I. Then, without further explanation, he slid his pants down and showed us his flat, pale ass. On the upper part of the right cheek, a square-ish heart stared sadly out at us. Nat wiggled it around for a bit. Then he pulled his pants up again and looked over at Brian.
“I hope he gets a show, too,” he said, looking at Roger. “If so, can we put our shows together?”
Roger took a big glug of wine as play shifted to Renata, who downed her raisin with swift ease.
“No burn. Okay. Truth time. I don’t think any of you know this yet,” she said, popping her eyebrows up and down. “Can I tell them about your birthday present, honey?” she asked Max.
Max, his lids heavy, said, “Hell, we could show them.”
Renata laughed and then said, “So, and you guys will all understand this, I’m sure, sometimes a guy just wants to be fucked, am I right?”
Roger coughed. Roger was not an anal sex person. Which was fine. We did rubbing stuff, hand stuff. Oral on anniversaries. I wasn’t complaining. I’d had plenty of wild times before we’d found each other. But Roger – and, I was surprised to learn, a surprising amount of his friends and former lovers – did not consider anal to be a necessary part of gay sex.
“So I got him – or us, rather – Bend Over Boyfriend!”
We all just stared.
“It’s like a belt that I can put on, with a dildo on the end,” she added.
“It’s so hot,” Max added. “I see why you guys are into it.”
I shifted my focus to the blue flame of the brandy bowl, afraid to meet anyone else’s eyes, particularly Roger’s.
“That is so hot,” Brian said.
“Yeah,” Matt agreed. “Like, can we watch?”
“My turn!” Max said, and after his raisin burnt him, he grabbed Renata and proceeded to show us all of the positions he’d been pegged in. His tangled, dark-blond hair swung lazily around as he moved while his too-red lips remained in an unmoving ‘O’ of pantomimed ardor.
Matt was next, and his raisin didn’t burn.
He paused for dramatic effect, and then took a big breath, as if his secret was something so big he needed extra resources to propel it forth into the world.
“So, in college, I lost my virginity to Jonny,” he said.
Roger’s hand dropped from mine.
Brian’s eyes went wide, and he looked over at me and pointed.
“You are ‘the flexible frat party guy?’ I’ve been hearing about you for years!”
I was pretty sure I wasn’t. In fact, I was positive I wasn’t.
But what I didn’t know was whether Matt actually believed I was.
“Oh my god this is amazing!” Renata screamed before downing a full glass of white wine.
Matt was staring at me, daring me to say something.
“I don’t think it was me,” I said, trying to sound casual. To laugh it off. Was it his fantasy? Had he willed it into his memory? Or was he trying something else here?
If this hurt him, he didn’t show it.
“You were so drunk,” he said simply, and passed the spoon to Brian.
I looked over to Roger, who was staring into the flame. But when I reached for my hand, he took it in his.
Brian’s raisin burnt his tongue, and he proceeded to demonstrate how flexible he was, putting both feet behind his head. While he did this, he stared at Roger, even licking his lips at one point.
“You might have been flexible then, but I bet you can’t do that now,” he said to me once he’d finished.
Then it was Roger’s turn to take a raisin. Brian started chanting, “Show, show, show” and the others joined. I considered how uncomfortable it was making me and then thought about how much worse it had to be for Roger.
Still, Roger put the raisin in his mouth. I knew that it burned before his face even scrunched in pain.
“Okay, you’ve got to show us something,” Matt said.
Renata added, “Something good.”
Brian licked his lips, while Nat and Ben giggled.
Even Max smiled and then said, “I’ve actually never seen a black dude’s dick. Are they really that much bigger?”
Renata screeched, “In my experience, yes!”
Matt said, “I’ve only seen them in porn.”
“Me too,” Nat and Ben added in unison, and then looked at each other and squealed, “Jinx!”
I actually couldn’t believe it. They’d turned into a Greek chorus of drunken, racist, sex fiends.
Roger stood up.
“You don’t…” I tried to clear through the fog to say something. The fact that I didn’t expect him to whip his dick out should have been obvious.
For one horrible moment, I thought he was actually going to pull down his pants.
Instead, he said, “Fuck you people.”
He picked up his wine glass, calmly, and threw it into the living room, where it struck the wall and shattered.
Then he turned and walked out of the kitchen.
Everyone else looked around at each other, unsure of what to stay. I was shocked, too; I’d never heard Roger swear before, let alone throw something.
Rather than pop, the stretched balloon that was the room was simply wheezed out, sagging into something lurid and ugly. The rest of the group looked at each other, chastened, but embarrassment quickly turned to anger. I could feel it simmering, bubbling, then seething in all of them.
I jumped up to chase after Roger. As I stood, I turned to see what kind of damage the glass had done to the lounge. A streak of splotches dotted the carpet – thank God he’d been drinking white wine– but otherwise everything appeared normal outside of the shards of broken glass. Then I saw the painting of the bird. It had fallen to the mantlepiece, dislodged by Roger’s glass. The painting had turned forty-five degrees in its fall, and the bird’s mouth now opened towards the sky, its open beak reaching skyward. It was ghastly, and its mouth no longer suggested song or hunger but rather frenzy. Madness, even.
Roger, being Roger, forgave me before we were out the front door. Once home, after we’d removed the throw pillows from that Roger loved having on the bed and turned on the recorded sounds of waves crashing that I needed to sleep, after I’d put on my sleeping mask and Roger snapped his retainers into place, we laid there, side by side. We turned off our bedside lamps and I reached over and my hand found Roger, and his found me, and we stroked each other slowly, our breathing mingling with the recorded waves in the warm dark.
Like Sharon Stone and the zipper, Mike McClelland is originally from Meadville, Pennsylvania. He has lived on five different continents but now resides in Georgia with his husband, their two sons, and a menagerie of rescue dogs. He is the author of the short fiction collection *Gay Zoo Day* (Beautiful Dreamer Press, 2017) and his work has appeared in publications such as the Boston Review, Entropy, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and others. He’s a graduate of Allegheny College, The London School of Economics, and the MFA program at Georgia College, and is currently a student in the University of Georgia’s Creative Writing PhD program. Keep up with him at
Previous Publications and Links:
*Gay Zoo Day *(Beautiful Dreamer Press, 2017)
“The Flotilla at Bird Island” in *Take Us to a Better Place*:
“A Feast for Clowns” in *DREGINALD*:
“Sheffield Beach” in *Queen Mob’s Teahouse*:
“Olive Urchin” in *Blinders*:
“Glass City, Glass Heart” in *Speculative City*:
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