Read More: A Brief Interview with Joseph O’Malley
Overnight the weather turned from sopping to crisp after a full week of rain. It was early October, one of those days where nobody could ignore trees and bushes changing to red, yellow, and orange from their previous greens, and everything about the air suggested bright blue amid the lush decay.
Late in the evening of that first fine autumn day, Hugh Jensen left a dinner party given by friends in the Village. Strong, tall, blond Hugh was a bit of a prodigy. At only twenty-five years old Hugh’s insight and breadth of knowledge of cinema and literature had helped him snag a plum job as a reviewer at a major magazine in Manhattan. He walked on West 12th from Greenwich to Eighth Avenue wearing pointy-toed shoes, skinny gray pants, and a form-fitting pink shirt that accentuated his fine torso; over this he donned an elegantly cut Burberry overcoat. He had gotten a lot of attention from all the men at the party. As he walked alone, he savored the evening, thinking of the food, the wine, his friends and good fortune, and the attentions of handsome men.
He heard behind him the extended rumble of one of the brownstones’ wrought iron gates as if it were purposely shaken, then a male grunt, and the laughter and swearing of men. From the timbre and modulation in their voices and the content of their banter, he guessed the men were straight, one of them possibly foreign. The street was long and deserted. The faint prickle of caution that arises in gay men on encounters with a group of straight male strangers arose for a second in Hugh, but since this was Manhattan in the twenty-first century, the gentrified-to-nearly-sanitized West Village, Hugh relaxed, and resumed savoring his pleasant evening. He was jerked from his reveries by the word “pussy,” spoken by a loud, deep voice. Hugh couldn’t tell if the word popped out from inside a sentence, or if “pussy” was its own exclamatory sentence. He turned to look. They were closer than he’d imagined.
“What are you looking at, Faggot?”
Hugh’s heart bumped heavily, blood surging up to heat the tips of his ears and dropping to pool in his feet. He presented to the men the bored, nonchalant expression he always affected to dismiss the menacing foolishness of bullies. He looked each of them in the eye before turning around to continue on his way. Two were fat, crew cut, pale eyed, and otherwise non-descript. The third had brown eyes and a magnificent nose like pictures he’d seen in his mother’s record collection of a young Ringo Starr, someone who might have been just Hugh’s type, had the man not been bleary-eyed from drink.
There were no alleys or offshoots along the way, and although it was a long street, Hugh knew he’d make it to Eighth Avenue within a minute or two, where he could quickly hail a cab. They were on top of him before he could finish his thought. He saw a flash, then darkness, felt the rasp of fabric as it tightened around his throat. A knee jabbed his back, a fist shoved a rag into his mouth. Something hard hit his head; there was heat, then the tickle of running blood. He fell backward over a railing for a drop of about three feet into a recessed alcove in front of a darkened brownstone. He heard the rattle and thud of the men jumping the gate, shoe leather scraping the ground, his own muffled groans, the clatter of his belt hitting cement, the swish of gabardine pulled down over his hips and legs to his ankles. The real pain came when the first man thrust inside him, and whispered hotly in Hugh’s ear, “We’ll take care of you, you little cocksucker.” His accent was one of those British accents that were hard to locate: Irish, or Welsh, or some Highland place. It was in the “t’s” and the “r’s.” One of them immobilized Hugh’s arms behind his back while kneeling on Hugh’s head, pressing his face hard against the ground, which was covered with a sharp mulch of leaves. Struggling only increased the pain. There was a shifting of bodies, a taking of turns. Hugh’s biggest worry was that he’d suffocate from the rags around his throat and in his mouth. He passed out thinking, this is it. He woke to the sound of their feet thudding away.
It was a messy rape. Had there only been a profusion of blood, Hugh would have been happier, but they’d raped him at night after dinner and with a full bowel. With the surprise and the fright of it all, there was shit everywhere, which was probably why it hadn’t lasted longer. He walked back to his friends’ place. He just wanted to wash up, borrow some clothes and go home, but his friends wouldn’t let him. “DNA,” they said.
Hugh told the ambulance drivers he had been mugged, but Hugh’s friends added, “and raped.” This went on all night at the hospital with the interns, social workers, and nurses. One intern asked, “Are you sure?” By four o’clock that morning, after the battery of questions, Hugh wasn’t certain if the men had raped him with their own flesh or with some inanimate object. This point seemed important to the police. They said the story sounded strange. “Why would a group of men do something like that one, two, three?” They asked Hugh what he might have done to provoke the men. Everyone who touched him wore protective rubber gloves.
Hugh hated weak people. The world was filled to the brim with mewling “victims,” and he steadfastly refused to join their ranks; it was unmanly. The broken rib kept him out of work for a week—time enough for the bruises and the big cut over his left eye to have mostly healed. All his co-workers agreed that the story he’d told them about being mugged on the subway was a little surprising in this day and age in New York, especially for a measly twenty-eight dollars. Some older people shared their mugging stories from the eighties.
After a month, it was over. No one was caught or charged. Everyone was glad to let it drop. He finished the prophylactic anti-HIV meds that the emergency room had almost forgotten to give him until his friends made a scene. And because Hugh was young and strong, it wasn’t long at all before he could swim again with very little discomfort. Except for bad dreams, and the momentary flashes of rage, he was fine.
The winter was long and dreary, more wet than snowy. Hugh preferred snow. He kept himself active and warm in the beds of many new men. A switch in him had flipped; he’d gone from prissily selective to adventurously permissive, and Hugh emerged from the winter exhilarated, if a little dehydrated. By the end of March, it looked like warm weather had come to stay, but then a lovely, early April frost covered the walk, trees, and windows with silver-blue crystals, and Hugh had a chance to wear the burgundy cashmere scarf he’d just finished knitting. Sunlight melted the frost, but the day remained cold. He went to Bloomingdale’s after work, walking home in the sweet dusk with his eye on a line of pink and orange stained clouds that hovered in the darkening blue of the western sky. He thought maybe he’d treat himself if something interesting were at Carnegie Hall. Outside the Russian Tea Room a valet in a red coat and black top hat caught Hugh’s eye. He was handsome, in a Ringo Starr kind of way. It was the one man Hugh recognized from that October night. Hugh’s bowels rumbled. Even though he’d taken care of that business just before he’d left work, he thought he might be in danger of having an accident right there on the street.
“Yes sir?” the valet said when he saw Hugh staring.
“I’m meeting some friends here, but I need to use the restroom first.”
The valet cordially opened the door for Hugh. “Certainly. Just down the hall, there. First door on your left.” The accent was there, in the t’s and r’s.
Hugh saw he was as insignificant as a mosquito to this man.
“No friends?” the valet said when Hugh came back onto the street five minutes later.
“No,” Hugh said loudly, and walked briskly away. He went home, showered, changed, called his date to cancel, and returned to loiter against a wall by the construction site on the north side of the street across from the Russian Tea Room. The site was nothing but a hole in the ground in which sat a giant crane. A high wooden fence surrounded it. People ebbed and flowed down Fifty-seventh Street in such heavy waves that it was hard for Hugh to keep track of the valet. During a quiet ebb, he saw that the valet was an efficient worker, calling for cabs or opening doors for anyone who needed a cab or an opened door. He moved with a flair and grace that surprised Hugh. His valet jacket did not fit him well, the shoulders too baggy, the sleeves too short.
At eleven o’clock, the valet disappeared inside. At eleven-fifteen, he reemerged in jeans and a thin green cloth jacket too light for the weather. Hugh followed him onto the subway, then trailed him at a slight distance and from across the street as he walked to an apartment a few blocks from the Jamaica stop. The valet added a tiny jump to each step, spending more time on toes than on heel. Short hamstrings, thought Hugh. Once the valet went into his building and the glass door shut behind him, Hugh crossed the street. He crept closer to see the valet get his mail from a large bank of mailboxes: second box from the top and second from the left. After he’d disappeared in the elevator, Hugh pressed his face against the cold glass, but couldn’t make out the name or the apartment number. He pressed methodically along the row of buzzers, affecting a ridiculous accent to say “deribbery” when the intercom came on until someone buzzed him in. S. Jones. 7B. Hugh was disappointed that the name wasn’t more distinctive or ethnic. He wrote down the full address, and took the train home. He took a hefty dose of Ativan, called into work for the next day, and went to sleep.
He had heard rumors of a gay mafia. Most of the stories revolved around gay bars as weigh stations for drug money, or the regulation of a network of Rent Boy services. But he’d also heard vague, unsubstantiated stories of “corrections” for “Crimes against Family.” It didn’t take long. Without revealing his intentions, he’d found out from someone at the gym about someone who knew someone, who, after three other someones, knew about a guy named Boris, who worked at a bar called the Rod near the West Side Highway in Midtown. By the time he’d actually met Boris, who was as young as Hugh, and built thick and solid as a tree trunk, he felt certain his secret would be safe. After Hugh had made it clear that he wanted Mister Jones, the valet, badly hurt but not killed, Hugh had only one question: “May I watch?”
“An unusual request,” said Boris. “Probably I should say no.”
Hugh said, “Please,” and for the first time in six months, he cried. He collected himself quickly and swallowed. “Please,” he said again, this time self-assured and fully composed, and Boris reluctantly agreed.
They called themselves “The Mariposa.” They were strays, cast-offs, runaways who had found their way to the Rod, where the big boss—an old queen everyone called Sister Mario—held court over dirty martinis. After Giuliani had closed down all Sister Mario’s porn shops in the late nineties, and the Pakistanis somehow got hold of the network of sex shops that were left, Sister Mario set up a computer hook-up site for gay men, made a bundle, and branched out from there. Sister Mario listened to the stories of the boys who came in from nowhere, gave them shelter and jobs in The Mariposa.
Boris set up a date for Hugh to meet three of the Mariposa across from the Russian Tea Room, so they could identify the valet. They were just boys. One was tall and thin, well built in that gay boy way. The short, squat one with tattoos and a pug face was the only one who looked even remotely tough. The last one was gorgeous with gentle black eyes, fine shaggy hair, and a long scar that cut through his left eyebrow. He seemed intelligent and unable to hurt anyone, except romantically. The thin one saw Hugh’s doubt, and flipped open a knife with a long, razor thin blade. “The Gelder,” he said. “He’ll bleat like a sheep from now on.”
Hugh went pale, and the other two laughed. “I just want him beat up a little,” Hugh said. “I made that clear to Boris.”
“Shh, shh, shhh,” the gorgeous one said, putting a hand on Hugh’s shoulder to comfort him. “That’s a last resort. We all learned to fight young. Been in more fights than most boxers.”
Hugh pointed out the valet from across the street. They made a plan for the following Monday night. […]
Subscribers can read the full version by logging in.
Joseph O’Malley’s fiction has appeared in dozens of journals, most recently in Colorado Review, A Public Space, Glimmer Train, and Crazyhorse.
Read More: A Brief Interview with Joseph O’Malley