HUMAN BEHAVIOR–JAIME SANDOVAL

There wasn’t any parking on Asa’s street. This happened last time too. Had there been a single parking spot, I might’ve gotten laid that night. My palm hovered over the horn, but I opted for texting Here while pulling to the far right of the narrow street. Drivers shot me dirty looks as they squeezed through the tight opening, almost grazing my bumper. I turned on my hazards.

Asa lived in an enormous house. When I dropped him off last time, I had to make sure we’d arrived at the right place. The old house had at least three stories and intricate green molding that traced each window. The paint on the façade was cracked, giving it the feel of a giant, wrinkled face. In the yellow sunset, the old face seemed to glow like some ancient totem.

I stared at it, mesmerized, until I caught sight of Asa waving at me from the topmost window on the gable, disappearing when he caught my gaze. I looked in the rearview mirror and tried to morph my expression of unease into a smile.

Asa was probably skipping down the stairs, head teeming with romantic scenarios to play out that night. I couldn’t blame him. Our first date had been fantastic: we shared our first kiss in the rain outside a boba café in Koreatown, played footsy in a closing Yoshinoya while feeding each other pieces of tofu, and made out in my car until three AM. Staring employees and passersby faded into the background. We had an abrupt connection—a sudden “click” I had only dreamed of. We exchanged life stories and listened to my old CDs. While we made out, he broke away and told me how much he loved the song playing, not knowing that it was my favorite, and I pressed my hands to his smooth cheeks and kissed him even harder.

That was only a week prior, but a lot could change in a week. As he walked up to my car, I could see why it wouldn’t work between us. His face was too oval. He had bad skin, too. I don’t know how I didn’t notice before. He climbed into the passenger seat of my Corolla, leaning in to plant a kiss on my lips. I turned at the last second and gave him my cheek. He was so close I could see his pores gazing at me like a wall of eyes.

***

I drove us to a revolving sushi bar in Japantown where I had been taken on a date by a man I planned to see later that night. The tables were all full so they offered us the counter, which I accepted so I wouldn’t have to look Asa in the eyes. He immediately brought his chair close enough that our thighs touched. I turned my attention to the conveyor belt in front of us, parading small green plates of sushi around the perimeter of the establishment. I reached out and grabbed the first roll I saw.

Asa talked about some music he’d been recording. It was based on poetry he’d written during a depressive episode a few months ago. He described the sound as Depeche Mode meets Garbage—that’s a band, he clarified. He’d sent me some of his music after our first date. I didn’t get it. I checked my phone to see if Jonathan had sent me a message.

“Do you wanna see a visual accompaniment I shot for one of the songs?”

“A music video?”

“Not quite. It’s more of, like, a visualizer,” he said, making strange gestures with his hands. As if that somehow cleared things up.

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

He put his phone between us and cupped the speaker. I could hardly hear the song over the chatter of the sushi bar. The music video featured Asa in drag outside of his house, staring at the camera dead-faced while holding some foil balloons, then pretending to water the trees with an empty watering can. Other shots showed him getting out of drag in front of a bathroom mirror and smoking on a rooftop balcony. I didn’t recognize him until he began smearing the make-up off with a wipe, then he started to look more like himself. By the time he finished wiping it all off, he looked like someone else again.

He looked at me with expectation. I didn’t know what to say. It certainly had artistic merit, I could tell that much. But I still didn’t get it. He seemed to sense that and launched into a frame-by-frame explanation.

While Asa talked, my mind wandered to the last time I was in that sushi bar. Jonathan told me to meet him there. I had hopes of being in bed with him later that night, but before I could even grab a plate, he told me he was moving to the Bay. I knew that a couple months of fucking did not a relationship make. He didn’t invite me over afterwards. He didn’t even kiss me. He just put his arms around me and rested his chin on my head. We remained friends, but the weeks that followed felt like the end of all things. After I watched him walk away, I went back inside the restaurant and stuffed myself with peppered tuna rolls.

I had been looking for that dish since Asa and I sat down, but every time I saw the Peppered Tuna sign pass, the saucers behind it had already been taken by someone closer to the start of the conveyor belt. I searched for another serving and found it traversing the conveyor belt by the tables behind us. It would still have to pass at least ten more tables before it got to me.

“You’re not super talkative today. Is something the matter?” Asa asked, putting a hand on my shoulder. I tensed. He began rubbing circles into my back. A part of me wanted to pull away—he wouldn’t be so affectionate if he knew what I was thinking—but his touch was comforting. He gave me something I hadn’t realized I craved so much—something Jonathan never gave me.

I thought about unbridling my mouth like I had on our first date and simply letting it all spill out with the sincerity and hope that can only be given to someone you don’t yet know. I could tell him his attentive care was wonderful, but it was not coming from the right man. I knew Jonathan would never look at me the way Asa did; I doubted I could ever look at Asa that way again. All I could see now were his clogged pores showing through a thin layer of foundation. Maybe it was my mistake for trying to salvage a botched one night stand. The moment was gone whether Asa realized it or not.

But I didn’t tell him any of this because I barely understood it. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it then. Instead, I decided that Asa was too pure of heart for me to burn him just because I couldn’t figure out my feelings. I would continue with the date as congenially as I could muster, I would drop him off in front of his giant home, wait for him to climb up the stairs to the attic, and by the time he made it to the window to wave goodbye, I would be gone. By the end of the night, I’d be in bed with Jonathan, finally.

“I’m just a little worried is all,” I said, stealing a glance at my phone. I double-checked that my ringer was on, then turned my attention again to the conveyor belt. A plate of the peppered tuna had finally made its way to us, but I didn’t want it anymore.

***

I’d put away seven saucers of sushi by the time Jonathan called to say he wasn’t coming. I stepped outside to take the call. 

Sawtelle was bustling on the weekends. Packs of UCLA students jaywalked and smoked cigarettes, food trucks set up outside karaoke bars, beautiful people ordered their friends to photograph them against neon signs.

Jonathan was a renowned flake, so I wasn’t surprised when the plans fell through. But that didn’t make me any less disappointed. I was standing in roughly the same place where we’d said our last goodbyes, and the irony wasn’t lost on me.

“Maybe it’s good timing. You can spend the long weekend with Asa,” Jonathan said. He didn’t know I found Asa annoying now. I hadn’t had a chance to tell him. I said yeah, maybe. He said sorry, I love you—which he never said to me before.

***

Traffic was backed up on the I-10 going downtown even though it was almost midnight. I handed Asa the CD binder in my backseat and asked him to DJ. He thumbed through the selection in silence before sliding Björk’s Debut into the stereo’s slot. If you ever get close to a human and human behavior / You better be ready to get confused, she sang over a bouncy beat that made the shitty speakers crackle.

We eventually reached the bottleneck on the interstate: a crushed sedan was flipped over, and a brown truck was stuck in the divider between the eastbound and westbound lanes. Just by looking at the wreckage, I couldn’t figure out how the accident had occurred. Soon, we were leaving the accident scene behind, but I couldn’t stop looking at it out of my rearview mirror.

“Okay, I could get into this,” Asa said, turning the volume up. He swayed to one side and then the other. I caught a glimpse of what I’d seen in him before. He said I could stay the night, if I wanted. I told him I’d think about it.

***

I was sleepy by the time I pulled into Asa’s neighborhood. It was probably best if I just dropped him off and went to bed. He looked like he wanted to say something but couldn’t muster the courage.

The house emerged before I had even turned onto Asa’s street, appearing through a gap in the trees. When I spied it in the background between two houses, I swear I saw it wink. My car inched closer. The shadow of the moon accentuated every wrinkle in the house’s face, painting a grotesque face of a goblin.

Asa nudged me and pointed a few cars ahead of us. I could hardly believe my eyes: a parking spot. There was a car crawling in the opposite direction getting awfully close to it. I don’t know what came over me, but I stepped on the gas. I swerved into the spot and blocked it until the skinny Latina in the other car gave me the finger and drove on.

Asa and I looked at each other and started laughing. We thanked the parking gods. We kissed in between giggles and put our hands on each other. I felt the delicious sensation of arousal mixed with infatuation flourishing inside my belly again. It was so much easier when our eyes were closed and our lips were occupied. He broke away from the kiss and told me to come inside. I didn’t have to think about it.

He led me by the hand, skipping over the thick tree roots that cracked the old sidewalk. Standing in front of the house, it struck me how colossal it truly was. The house looked sturdy. There were no other houses this grand in the neighborhood. I imagined a wrecking ball trying to demolish it and failing.

Asa pulled me past the bone-white door into a foyer too narrow for a house that size. It was evident the house had once been spacious and open until someone came along, cut it up, and started renting the rooms as apartments. Intricate wood molding that upheld clean lines was intersected by new smears of plaster, and drywall interrupted the vintage wood paneling.

Asa led me past a door and up the first flight of stairs where we reached two more doors. He unlocked the one on the left which took us up a winding stairwell with pink shag carpet and unfinished walls. We reached another door, unlocked by yet another key. It opened into a dim corridor. Every door was white and looked identical to the next, without any numbers or distinguishing features. For the first time since I entered, I felt uneasy. I had the feeling of being deep inside something, like an underground bunker or a service hallway.

He led us through one of the doors, and I expected another set of stairs, but found myself in a hallway with a pile of shoes next to the door.

“I don’t know how the hell I’m gonna get out of here,” I said, sliding my sneakers off and surveying the space. A couple of bedrooms on the right, and a kitchenette at the end of the hallway. There was a musky aroma in the air. Weed or incense, maybe both, but also the smell of moist.

“Thinking of leaving already?” Asa asked. A smile played on his lips, but his eyes were cautious. I got the sense he was as anxious to seal the deal as I was.

A tall, dark-haired guy stepped out of the bedroom closest to us and leaned against the doorframe. His hair was parted down the middle and swung over the sides of his eyes, exuding an aura of cool that I hadn’t fallen prey to since high school. A Latino guy, short and tanned in a sleeveless top, came out and wrapped an arm around the tall one and smiled at me. He was more cute than handsome, but his white shirt hugged his rounded pecs in a way that made it hard to look away.

“You must be Antonio,” the cute one, who I presumed was Asa’s roommate, said. Asa told me that he and his roommate had been involved in the past but remained friends; he hadn’t mentioned the boyfriend. Or that they were so attractive. The way they appraised me made me feel I might be the first guy Asa had brought home.

Handshakes felt impersonal in a group of gays, but hugging felt inappropriate. I walked up to the pair and extended my hand, which they considered warily at first before the cute one, who introduced himself as Miguel, gave me a limp handshake and the tall one, Luke, gave me a firm one.

“We took some damn good edibles—just waiting for them to hit. We’re gonna watch porn for the rest of the night,” Miguel said, crossing his arms under his pecs. “If you wanna join.”

I paused to make sure I had heard correctly. My mind conjured images of what could happen if I accepted their invitation. I’d never been in an orgy, but I was game. I looked over at Asa. His mouth was agape.

“Maybe next time,” he said, dragging me away.

“Let us know if you change your mind. We just took some damn good edibles,” Luke said. His large Adam’s apple bobbed as he spoke.

***

“Make yourself comfortable,” Asa said, gesturing to a futon the color of grass stains.

I sat down and took in his bedroom. It was a bohemian fantasy, all wood-paneling, cream shag carpet, and fuzzy lighting from psychedelic lamps. The plaster wall couldn’t even ruin the illusion because I had my back turned to it.

The walls were beautifully curated with art postcards, polaroids, magazine clippings, and dried flowers hanging upside-down. Any flat surface in the room had been overtaken by tchotchkes or schoolwork or vinyls. The record player crackled on as Asa put on an LP, then he went to get us drinks.

While he was out, I went over to his window. It was the one that I’d seen him wave down from, I was certain. I could see my car from there, and rows of houses in every direction. The moon wasn’t bright enough to see much, but I imagined during the day you could get up to all sorts of people-watching. I thought about how there was surely an alternate universe in which I’d come upstairs after the first date and wondered how that turned out for them. I opened the window and stuck my head out into the cold breeze.

Asa entered with two rum and Cokes in tall glasses. I returned to the couch and he sat next to me—close enough that his intentions were clear. I took a large drink.

“Sorry about my roommate,” he said, “He and his boyfriend are Grade-A horn-dogs.”

“I don’t mind the attention,” I said. The look on his face told me that wasn’t the right thing to say. He looked off into the corner of the room, either lost in thought or focusing on the music. I took another gulp and tried to pass off how bad it burned. After a while, Asa extended his bare feet on my lap and took a sip of his drink.

“Before he and Luke got together, Miguel used to blow off our plans to go to hookups all the time. It made me feel like I wasn’t enough,” he said. His confession cut through the silence. I wondered if Jonathan was in bed with someone else right now, up in the Bay. It didn’t bother me to think about it. I thought to ask Asa if he felt like enough now, but I didn’t want to have that kind of conversation.

We finished our drinks. Asa began curling his toes and stretching his legs, subtly caressing my groin with his feet. I developed an erection, which he took as the green light to make the next move. He got on top and rubbed his ass onto the bulge in my pants. I looked up, evaluating him. I wasn’t crazy about him, but we could fuck. It entered my mind that it was cruel to lead him on, but it was hard to think rationally with him straddling me.

Asa removed his clothes, then he straddled me again and looked into my eyes like he knew what I was thinking. He pulled my shirt off and ran his hands through the hair on my torso. He kissed me so hard my lips ached. I kissed his neck and he let out a loud moan and slammed his palms against the wall behind me.

For reasons unknown to me, I decided to open my eyes just then. We were still lip-locked, so Asa’s face was too close and out of proportion. I saw his enormous pores again. I felt them stare back at me, like security cameras capturing a shoplifter. The black heads that clogged the pores on his nose and cheeks didn’t look like flecks of pepper from this close; no, they were tar pits. The more I looked, the more that appeared. His face was hardly visible anymore. All I saw was a horrific, never-ending series of black holes that threatened to swallow me up. I grabbed Asa by the hips and shoved him off me.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, wide-eyed.

I paced. Every time I shut my eyes I saw those tiny holes piercing through my eyelids as easily as they did Asa’s skin. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. I must have hyperventilated. I don’t remember how I got to the bathroom.

A splash of cold water helped me catch my breath. Seeing tiny holes behind my eyelids for the rest of the night would be inevitable, but my heartbeat had gone back to resting rate. I dried my hands off on the decorative towels and recognized them. This was the bathroom in Asa’s music video. I checked myself in the mirror again, making sure I looked like myself. When I opened the door, I saw Luke standing in the middle of the kitchen in his boxers, eating a bowl of cereal.

He looked at me as if I had something on my face, then it seemed he was looking through me at his reflection in the mirror. My eyes wandered to the horse tattoo on his side. The black horse’s front hooves were poised in the air and its mane swayed with each breath Luke took. The bottom half of the horse was concealed by Luke’s plaid boxers.

“Edibles must’ve hit, huh?” I said, drying the excess moisture on my hands on my jeans. I waited for a response. He kept looking at me, occasionally shoveling cereal into his mouth. A drop of milk escaped his mouth and trailed down his lips and back into the bowl. I walked back to Asa’s room and left the door cracked, curious as to how long Luke would remain there.

“Are you okay, babe?” Asa said as soon as I came through the door. He was the kind of femme that could get away with calling anyone babe, yet the word hung in the air. I was still afraid to look at him, so I pretended to be engrossed by the mannequin next to the sewing machine. It wore a wig that appeared to be made of real hair.

“Sometimes when I see a concentration of black dots, it freaks me out. Or I see black dots when I’m freaked out. I’ll be fine.”

“I didn’t realize you were trypophobic,” he said. I was silent. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of thinking he’d taught me something. “This might help you calm down a bit,” he said, waving a rolled joint in front of me. I traced his arm with my eyes until I brought myself to look at his face. I tried focusing on his eyes as best I could. They were brown like mine.

“Could you dim the lights?” I asked. His smile widened and he turned down the dimmer by the door.

He led me to the couch once again and gestured for me to lay down with my head against the armrest. He stood over me and grazed the tip of the joint with the flame of a Bic lighter. I could still see Luke through the crack in the door. I saw only his back, but I could guess he still had that absent look on his face. Asa gave the joint a small puff to check it was lit and handed it to me. I took a deep pull and exhaled a large mass of smoke that clouded my vision. As it dissipated, I noticed Luke’s figure in the kitchen was gone, and that Asa was naked again. Before I could react, he got on his knees next to the couch and began undoing my pants. I held the joint up to his lips and he looked up at me as he inhaled.

Time began to run like honey and I could feel Asa’s mouth in different places at once. My lips, my neck, my nipples, my chest, my penis, between my fingers, pulling the warm smoke into his lungs and exhaling fantastic shapes. He had four hands like da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, all caressing a different part of my body. I closed my eyes and saw a million tiny holes again, but I forged past the utter revulsion and approached them.

A hand came out of one of the holes, and then another. They grasped the edges of the opening and a man hoisted himself out. The figure crawled out of the hole, stark naked, and stretched. His lanky frame towered over me. It was Jonathan. Then, out of the adjacent holes, almost as if being birthed as grown adults, came Miguel and Luke. The horse tattoo did indeed trail down Luke’s hip and thigh, as I had imagined. The scene was hard to take in, and it only became more surreal when Asa came out of another one of the holes. There was something uncanny about him; his eyes were lifeless and his face wrinkled into a frown.

***

Asa’s moans woke me. Still naked on the couch, I squinted through heavy eyelids as he jerked off in front of the full-length mirror by the door, wearing the black wig off the mannequin. I pretended to sleep.

***

“I’m normally not one for goodbyes. I thought last time I saw you would be the last time I saw you,” Jonathan said, dipping his sushi in soy sauce.

I thought about the last time. We had lingered in bed afterwards. He’d held my chin when he kissed me goodnight outside of my car. I hadn’t realized he was kissing me goodbye then. I wondered if there was an alternate universe where I let that night be our goodbye, or if I was that obtuse in every universe.

***

I woke up when the sunrise filtered through the blinds and flashed in my eye. Asa was asleep with his head on my chest. I got out from under—careful not to wake him—and found my clothes. My head pounded and my body was sore. I caught my reflection in the mirror as I dressed and saw there were hickeys on my neck and bruises on my arms and legs.

I half expected to find Luke eating cereal in the kitchen, but it was dark, empty. I tip-toed to my shoes and slipped out the door. All I wanted was to pop a Tylenol, sleep in my own bed, and leave this experience behind me.

It was impossible to tell time in the windowless hallway. Sconces at every door lit the way and cast unnatural shadows across the cracked plaster walls. I tried finding the stairwell that would take me down to the second floor, but every door looked the same. I tried wriggling them, but they were all locked.

Then, a door opened behind me, and I turned to see Miguel and Luke. They were both wearing short shorts and sweat-drenched headbands. I could see the stairwell behind them. The look on Miguel’s eyes told me he knew I was sneaking off. It would take a few steps to clear the door and then be gone. Still, I found it hard to leave. I wanted a chance to get with Miguel and Luke, but I’d already made such a mess of things back there.

“Sure you won’t stay? Luke makes pancakes on Sundays,” Miguel said. His tone was cold, almost formal. I looked at Luke, wondering if he would mention anything about last night, but he just smiled all goofy and red-eyed. I noticed a pair of black hooves peeking out the bottom of his shorts.

I declined the invitation and dipped out the door before I changed my mind. I retraced my steps, but nothing in the house was as I remembered it. Where I expected a door, I found two. Where I expected a narrow hallway, I found an empty room that seemed to take up the entire floor. I climbed down more flights of stairs than I did on the way up, yet when I crossed the threshold I found myself on the rooftop. Somehow, it was nighttime.

The terrace looked out in the opposite direction of Asa’s bedroom window. Instead of seeing houses, I saw the Expo Line and the brick sprawl of USC, and further out the skyscrapers of downtown thrusting into the dark horizon. I was unsure if I had lost time or found it, but I didn’t care. It occurred to me then that this was the terrace from Asa’s music video, and that I was a part of it. Somewhere deep in the house, he was crafting the song that I would accompany.

***
Jaime Sandoval is a queer writer and English tutor from Baja California. In 2022, they were awarded the Periplus Fellowship. Jaime resides in Los Angeles with their fiance and pet dog.