My friends say Mackey is utterly repulsive. He’s blind in one eye and has the worst hairline I’ve ever seen, but he can bench 275 and has a great sense of humor. I see where they’re coming from – I do – but all together, I don’t think the man’s too bad.
Last December, I’m busy with work and don’t see much of anyone that month other than my girlfriend, Lys. On New Year’s Day, my friend Fay throws a little get-together at her place, and I’m happy to see everyone again. My buddy Julian is there and a couple of Fay’s coworkers too, as well as a garish creature I barely recognize as Mackey.
He’s wearing blue mascara and earrings with little plastic devils; knee-high boots and designer jeans that look like dishrags; and a kimono shirt, printed with koi fish and Japanese characters. I ask Mackey what the Japanese get-up is for, and he gives me a knowing smile. I realize the shirt is a very old in-joke among our friends. The joke, I will add, is easy to explain but won’t be funny to anyone but us. Lys and Julian think the shirt, and the joke, will be a good conversation starter. Fay even says Mackey, “you look hot, you look good.”
Mackey tells me a few girls have already commented on his mascara. I want to comment that none of those girls are dating him, and I want to tell him the shirt will not be funny when he explains it to his date. I want to tell him what Lys, Fay, and Julian really think of his looks—and
I want to rip off all of Mackey’s clothes.
Now that’s a thought I never thought I’d have.
One day, Mackey drops a picture of himself in the group chat. He’s cock-eyed and sticking his tongue out, wearing his kanji shirt and the pair of devil earrings.
on my way to another tinder date, he says below the photo. wish me luck
Then the supplicants come in their blubbering hordes.
ur gonna kill it. show of that big dick energy, Fay says.
you don’t need any luck. you gots it, my girlfriend says.
Julian adds on too. my mans, she’d be an idiot not to date you.
Naturally, Mackey never sees that girl again, nor any girl this month. But in all these photos, he looks undeniably happy, so should I really be so upset?
A couple weeks later, everyone but me is at some dive bar next to Fay’s place. I get a blurry selfie of my girlfriend and Mackey. He has his arms wrapped around her, his mascara’s running down his face like a clown doused with a bucket of water. It’s no surprise he’s crying. This is what you get for dressing like that. I laugh, until white-hot pain shoots up from my knee to my spine.
I’m baffled. I’ve felt pity before, but I don’t remember it being excruciating. Maybe this is real pity. Not self-pity or the media-enforced pity you feel hearing about a famine a thousand miles away. I’m a little disgusted with myself for having laughed, but I certainly got what I deserved. I just don’t want to feel that again.
So I give Lys a call. She’s in a noisy corner of the bar and says Mackey’s drunk and been hugging her all night. I hear him moaning in the background, “I’m so lonely, I’m so lonely…”
The nerves in my leg and back are tingling. I go off on Lys. “Okay, give the man a hug or two, yes, definitely. But Christ alive, that guy needs to stop wearing mascara and get rid of that fucking shirt! I know that joke means a lot to him… but it’s not funny. It’s not funny anymore, you need to tell him that. You can’t laugh when he brings it up either, not even a little bit. I swear to God, Mackey is a good guy, he’s not bad looking either. He lifts too! This isn’t rocket science, I’m no womanizer myself, but anyone can see what’s wrong here. Tell Mackey to stop with this kimono bull-”
Lys interrupts me. She wants me to pick her up from the bar because Mackey’s making her uncomfortable. I harangue Lys until she admits to being selfish and agrees to be there for Mackey, if only for one night. I tell her goodnight then hang up and go to bed, but the image of mascara running down Mackey’s face keeps me up.
A week later, we’re at another dive bar. It’s the kind of place you go to when you want the scents and noises to fill your head and push the bad thoughts out. There’s a pool table, which is great, because there aren’t any women. This is Lys and Fay’s favorite bar, because the drinks are cheap, and the gay men are harmless. Mackey’s there too, in his Japanese shirt, along with Julian and a couple of Fay’s coworkers. Fay, after one round of pool, goes outside to smoke and doesn’t come back. My girlfriend ditches me to chat with Fay and her friend, so Mackey and I play some pool.
“There’s not many girls here, are they?” Mackey says after sinking another shot.
I laugh. “You don’t say…”
“I’ll tell you, man. It’s not easy as people tell you.”
I can tell the liquor has loosened him up, so I ask, “What isn’t easy?”
I can see he debates telling me. “Would you judge me if I said it isn’t like the movies?”
“No, never,” I say.
“You’re a bad liar.” He chuckles and tells me anyways. “I really did think I’d meet someone when I went back to school, but man – those girls!” He puts the pool stick across his shoulders. “I’d rather they just ignore me. The nice ones, I mean. Cos’ they make you believe there’s something good about yourself, deep down, like there’s something they see in you that no one else does. But every time… they just… they always keep you an arm’s length away! I can’t figure them out, man!”
I’d have thought if Mackey knew this, he’d be a little better off.
After sinking another ball, he goes on a little more. “Fay is always telling me how the guys she goes out with put up such an act to get in her pants.”
“Does it work?” I ask.
“No,” Mackey says.
“So she tells you.”
Mackey grinds the chalk on the end of his stick. “What I’m trying to say is: you have to be yourself. You’ve got to be real.”
“And you’ve got to go to a bar with a woman,” I say as I line up another shot.
Of course, when I miss it, Mackey laughs. “You’ve got less balls in tonight than you’ve had girlfriends.”
There’s that great sense of humor.
I lose all three games.
Hanging over the patio is a fine gray mélange of cigarette smoke, marijuana, and Jul vapor. If there isn’t already a subsection in the Chemical Weapons Convention regarding this substance, someone, please, put one in.
Mackey and I pass through the smog and sit down at the table with everyone else. Fay is handing a joint to my girlfriend, who nervously glances at me before declining and passing it to
Julian. Fay’s coworkers are already rolling another. They’re thin, bag-eyed creatures, skin
pocked from years of drug abuse. They’re having a great time, telling us how they overdosed in the bathroom of a Tame Impala concert. In short, they are esteemed company.
Around one in the morning, this Mexican guy walks up to Mackey and says, “Hey, I love your mascara. I fuck with that so much.” He’s wearing a diaphanous pink scarf around his head, wrapped like a loose hijab. He doesn’t quite have a lisp, but there’s enough of one to tip me off.
His gay and Chicano accents clash.
“Oh, thanks, I did it in the car ten minutes before coming here,” Mackey says. I can tell from the way he’s talking, Mackey’s wasted.
“Dude, it’s good. Like, really good.” The man in the scarf is stepping left and right, moving his hands up and down. Whatever he’s on, it’s strong, and I feel a deep, almost spiritual disharmony watching him gesticulate as he flirts with Mackey. “I like doing mine with the purple eyeliner sometimes, you know? It looks good at the club, you know?”
“I like your scarf!” my girlfriend says.
“Oh, thank you!” He does a pirouette. “I got it today at Goodwill…”
“Hey, man,” I say to him. “Are you gay?”
My friends stop talking. Fay and Lys are mortified. Fay’s coworkers and Julian are holding back laughter. Mackey looks somewhere in between, but I can’t decipher his expression.
“Me?” The man in the scarf points a finger at himself. “No, ah, bro, I’m not into dudes…
Why? Are you?”
“Asking for my friend there,” I say, surprised the man outright said no.
Maybe he’s lying, maybe he is gay. I’m not so sure. I am, however, a hundred percent certain he’d suck a row of cocks for a baggie of PCP. Fay and her friends know it too. Fay’s posture becomes withdrawn, turned away from the man in the scarf, trying to ignore him and trying harder to ignore what I said to him. She passes the joint to the friend of hers sitting furthest away from the outsider.
“I get it, I get it, it’s cool, it’s cool.” The man in the scarf spins on the ball of his heel. “I fuck with gay people, though. I fuck with trans people too, you know? Trans rights, baby! If you don’t believe in trans rights, get ready for these hands.” He throws a few punches in the air above
Mackey’s head. “I fuck with trans people, I fuck with everybody…”
“Hey, man, what’re you on?” I ask, trying not to laugh, “And what would you do for more of it?”
His eyes go wide. “I’m not on anything… for real, dude… I’m high on life, baby… you know what I mean?”
Fay and her friends start talking loudly. It’s a very specific, personal conversation that completely embargos the man in scarf from joining. When he leaves, it’s business as usual, and Fay’s friends—who’ve been telling stories about their near-death drug experiences all night— look at me and smile with their rotten heroin teeth.
I do my best to smile back at them, though I am feeling very depressed. All these friends of mine, Julian, Lys, Mackey, Fay – who all have Pride bumper stickers and rainbow flags on the walls of their rooms – say nothing as I expel the man in the pink hijab from our conversation with a joke about his sexuality. This is because, my friends, when their little urbanite ecosystem is disturbed, they don’t care what the disturbance is or how it’s removed. All that matters is that it’s gone.
And when I talk to Mackey about his looks, I will be the man in the scarf. I’ll be a disturbance to his happy little thoughts, and he’ll want me removed from his happy little ecosystem.
I excuse myself from the table and leave the bar, deciding it’s just not worth it.
That night, I’m up late thinking what to do about Mackey, going back and forth with myself: tell him, don’t tell him… arguments, counterpoints… actions and consequences… It’s five in the morning when a warm feeling of clarity washes over me and realize: I have no right to tell Mackey what’s good for him. I’m not sure I know how to live my own life, so what right do I have to tell Mackey how to live his? This just isn’t my fight—it’s Mackey’s, to win or to lose. He’s a grown man and can help himself. I don’t feel much better about this revelation, but at the very least, I can get some sleep.
It’s been a few months since I stopped going to bars with the gang. Today, however, is Fay’s birthday, so I want to be there for the festivities. The bar we’re at is cheap, dirty, and full of ugly people. Fay, Mackey, and Julian commiserate they haven’t found a soulmate amidst the wretches and freaks. I agree with them: not even they deserve the twisted lumps of flesh we’re surrounded by tonight.
My advice to them is a ménage à trois. They are not amused. I’m shoo-ed away, so they ask Lys for advice instead. I’m laughing under my breath because I know they’ve never taken anyone’s advice and never will. They’ve never lowered their standards: they don’t go to bars with people their age. Their sexualities change from month to month, but always go for 7’s, 8’s, and 9’s. They go to dive bars with pool tables and karaoke machines because that’s their happy little ecosystem and they don’t want it disturbed.
When I go back to the table, Mackey’s there, sitting by himself. He’s staring into the eye of his whiskey glass, looking at the very end of his rope. His shirt is open to his navel, he’s got the devils on his ears tonight. And in the shadows of the bar, his mascara makes his eyes look like empty, black sockets.
I almost topple over. After all I did to eschew that feeling, here it is again. Surging up my leg, into my spine, and crashing into base of my skull. I get off my legs as quickly as I can, sitting at the barstool across from Mackey.
“Scene’s kind of dead, isn’t it?” I say making small talk.
“It’s alright.” There’s a shot or two in him, but he’s not that drunk.
“There’re girls here, at least, but they’re not really our age. Don’t know if that matters to you. If you’re just here to hang out with friends, it doesn’t, but if you’re trying to meet someone, well…”
“I’m trying to, yeah.”
I see the tears forming. God, he really is trying.
Truly, the things men do for women are disgraceful, and the things women abet men in doing are even more despicable. I’ve long since accepted I can’t do anything about either. The only thing I have control over is myself, but it seems tonight I don’t have even that.
“To be honest, Mackey, I don’t know if this is the right look for meeting girls,” I say. “The mascara, the earrings, the kimono shirt—that joke, Mackey… It’s been three years, it’s just not funny anymore. I know it means a lot to you, but what will it mean to her? At best, nothing. At worst, a reason not to give you a chance. Let me put this in perspective: Fay can sleep with you. Or she can sleep with a thirty-two-year-old salaryman who has expendable income, a Porsche on lease, and a two-bedroom apartment that’s on the other side of town from her parents’ house. You don’t have any of that, so you better look the part.” I wipe the sweat off my forehead. “Fay doesn’t know what she’s talking about. You can be as superficial as you want, but—at the very least—if you don’t look like someone she wants to fuck, there’s nothing you have your competition doesn’t.”
Mackey sits there—gapes at me—like a sheep before slaughter. Cross-eyed, staring straight down the barrel of a bolt gun. He nods and bats his clumpy eyelashes, but I’m not sure he registers what I’m saying in the English language.
“Let’s go to a bar that has girls our age, eh?” I slap him on the shoulder. “We’ll dress up.
Jeans and a nice dress shirt. Back to basics.”
Mackey bobs his head with shiny, marble eyes. Something about his very peaceful expression makes me extremely nervous, so I start talking faster.
“I’m not to trying to hurt you, man. You’ve got a lot going for you: you work out, that’s a leg up on most guys – and you’re funny. I got way too lucky with Lys, we’ve been together four years now. If I wasn’t with her, I’d be in the same boat as you. God knows I’d consider all the possibilities!”
I swallow and stare back at Mackey, badly wanting him to respond. I want him to say or do something other than nod and blink. Mackey, for God’s sake, say something. Tell me I’m wrong! Tell me I’m right, start crying, start yelling… Do something, but don’t sit there and look like a sheep!
“So, yeah,” I say. “Let’s go out some time… okay? You, me, and couple other of the boys. Got it?”
“Yeah, got it,” he says.
I spend the rest of the night dodging conversations and thinking about what I said, but the more I play the conversation back, the more the words and sentences change. I’m tempted with all the different things I could’ve said and the hundred possibilities one word less or one word more could’ve amounted to. There’s the possibility Mackey thanks me and burns the shirt. There’s the possibility Mackey burst into tears then burns the shirt. Then, of course, there’s the possibility Mackey spits in my face, breaks his whiskey glass on my head, then walks out of the bar and burns the shirt.
It’s a few weeks before I see Mackey again. One night, when everyone else is busy, he insists we go to a bar downtown to talk. I listen to what he has to say, say something supportive, and then I walk up to a couple of girls and ask if they want to get a drink with my buddy and me. They say, “Why not?” and join us at the bar. One of the girls asks Mackey about his shirt, so he tells them story, the full story, and when it’s over, they burst into hysterics. Everyone in the bar – the pretty girls to the toothless addicts – all the wretches and freak are laughing. Mackey laughs so hard he cries; I tell him his mascara’s running, and when he goes to the bathroom to fix it, I make sure to sit down before I start laughing too.