The bandana made Hyland disappear.
Disappear wasn’t quite the right word. It wasn’t like a finger snap, the sound there for a second and then gone: his body didn’t simply slurp its way out of the world into a translucent nothingness; instead, Hyland turned into a vague, blurry thing, and if he stood still long enough, shoulders crouched together, he and his clothes would blend in with his surroundings, body taking on the color of the signs buzzing behind him about Bud Light Lime and two for one cosmos. But the bandana wouldn’t affect the things he touched, so someone taking a break from the greenhouse of a dance floor looking in his direction would see what appeared to be a pint glass full of sloshy Fat Tire floating chest high.
He’d felt silly the first time he put the bandana on, proffered by his roommate Nolan while he tried to convince Hyland to go clubbing at Booth. They stood in their shared bathroom that smelled like artificial lemon. While Nolan smeared his hair with pomade, Hyland practiced standing still, letting his form blend in with the cheap towels strung messily on the rack bolted to the back of the door. Nolan was whistling and nodding, looking back at Hyland in the mirror.
“See?” he said. “You’ll be fine.”
The bandana was a gift meant to assuage Hyland’s nerves about stepping foot in Booth, where half-naked men, all more muscular and smooth than Hyland could ever dream of being, danced and flirted in a glossy slalom, many of them on Quaaludes or LSD or some other upper to bash against the depressants they glugged down in the form of Washington Apple shots and citrus martinis. A way, Nolan said, for Hyland to make himself comfortable, invisible enough to take in the scenery until he was ready to merge into the throng.
“And if I don’t want to merge?”
“Meet someone then.”
“And if I don’t do that either?”
Nolan rinsed the excess pomade from his fingers. “You will find someone. You found Beth, didn’t you?”
“She was different.”
“How was she different?”
“Well, she found me, first of all.”
“Okay,” Nolan said. “Someone else will find you.”
“Not if I’m invisible.”
Nolan shook his head. Hyland smiled. He did like his teeth, if nothing else. Certainly more than the biceps he couldn’t get to grow no matter how many curls and pullups he sweated out at the gym. When Nolan rushed out of the bathroom to put on his shoes and answer the text that announced itself with an electronic chirp, Hyland lifted his shirt and pinched at the small layer of fat covering the abdominals he knew the clubbers at Booth would be scrunching and flexing and showing off while electronica blasted from oversized speakers.
His hand was shaky as he held it out to be stamped by the bouncer, a cement block of a man with frosted tips and a t-shirt so tight it must have been cutting off his circulation. The bouncer smirked, gave Hyland the once over, counting the imperfections and deciding whether they outweighed the pros of letting him in. He curled his lip like a snarling dog and, by some miracle or mathematical error, put Hyland in the plus column, waving him and Nolan through. They bought their drinks, screaming into the ear of the shirtless bartender with shoulders like balled fists and abs like a tic-tac-toe board, who nodded and winked at Hyland when he ordered his beer.
Nolan disappeared into the throng after Hyland cinched the bandana on his head in the graffiti-laden bathroom that smelled of latex and piss. Someone whistled in the stall next to the sinks, booted feet stomping to the music slamming out of the speakers. Hyland then pushed himself into the darkest corner of the club he could find and watched. When he finished his beer, he didn’t venture across the dance floor until Nolan appeared.
“You’re really good at standing still,” he said. “I almost didn’t see you.”
Standing beside Nolan was a tall, clean-shaven man. Unlike Nolan, he was still fully clothed, though his tank top did reveal dripping blue veins laid over muscled arms, the flared wings of strong lats peeking through the fabric. The man wasn’t smiling, exactly, but he didn’t look unhappy to have been hauled over either.
“This is Ethan,” Nolan said. “Take off the bandana.”
Hyland said nothing and didn’t move except to pretend there was still enough beer for a last, languorous swig from his pint glass.
“Come on. Live a little. Let us at least see you.”
Hyland sighed and plucked off the bandana.
“Hi,” Ethan said, extending a hand. Now, he was definitely smiling. His teeth glowed in the neon lights, and his grip was strong, fingers smooth and warm.
Nolan led them around the edge of the dance floor, where Hyland swore he could see sweat flying like the spit off a sprinkler. One dancer’s end and another’s beginning was a blurry uncertainty of pink.
The bartender laid out three shots before them. Ethan turned to Hyland and offered a silent toast. They took their shots and Ethan frowned, sticking out his tongue and waggling his head like an eighteen-year-old who has just slurped down his first hit of Popov.
“I’m new at this,” Ethan said, waving a hand around him. “All of it.”
“Me too,” Hyland said.
“You guys chat,” Nolan said, snapping his finger at the bartender and pantomiming pouring out two beers. He spun toward the throng.
“Your friend is interesting,” Ethan said.
“He’s like the Energizer Bunny. And he’s not new at this.”
“We all start somewhere, I guess.”
While Nolan’s short frame bobbed in the flood of dancing torsos and arms, Hyland gave Ethan another quick scan. His hair was cropped short, shiny with sweat like every other surface in Booth, and he had a sharp jaw, jutted forward with a shadow of underbite that looked good on him. Hyland wasn’t sure what to do with his hands, so he palmed the bandana, which he’d shoved into his back pocket. It felt like a ball bearing pressing against his skin.
“Cheers,” Hyland said, picking up his glass. “To being new at this.”
Ethan connected their pints. “To being new.”
They drank three more beers each. Nolan dashed from the dance floor and waved down the bartender for another round of shots, this time something fiery and cinnamon that burned going down. Hyland coughed and shook his head. Then Ethan announced that he had to work the next morning and he shook Hyland’s hand again, his hard grip pinching at Hyland’s bones.
“What’s wrong with you?” Nolan said when Ethan was gone.
“How could you let him just leave?”
“What was I supposed to do? Tackle him? Hold him hostage in the bathroom? Tie him up with this?” Hyland wriggled the bandana at Nolan.
“Or you could have just given him your phone number.”
Nolan rolled his eyes. “Which it’s a good thing I did before I even introduced you.”
“I knew you’d mess it up, so I gave him your number.”
“Before we even met.”
“And he also gave me his. To give to you. You want it?”
Hyland disappeared again, back into the corner. He felt the heat of his cell phone in his pocket as he watched Nolan, whose eyes had gone glossy with drink, his forehead slippery with sweat as he danced and pawed at the massive torso of a tree of a man whose chest was swirled with hair. Nolan had taken Hyland’s phone, plucking it from Hyland’s hands like he was snatching an apple from a bin, and programmed in Ethan’s phone number.
“You should send him a text,” Nolan had said. His body was wiry and jouncing to the beat of the music while they leaned against the bar.
“God, did Beth do everything in your relationship? Did she buy the condoms, too?”
Hyland coughed and scowled.
“Sorry. That was uncalled for.”
“You’re right.” Hyland had then unspooled the bandana, and, despite Nolan’s objections, stuffed himself in the corner while Nolan, who promised they would leave in thirty minutes, returned to the fray.
Noland was, if nothing else, promise keeper, and in exactly thirty minutes, Hyland watched him detach himself from his most recent dance partner, who wore a pink mesh shirt that displayed a hairless, fatless body, and come pouncing over to the corner. Without a word he snatched toward Hyland, yanking off the bandana. Hyland felt the swoop of coloration, his vanishing act whirling away like a thrown baton.
“There you are. Let’s get out of here, huh?”
Drunk Nolan always tried to seduce Hyland, his tongue loosening itself like a rotted board, eyes fluttering and cartoonish in their size. They had an understanding: Hyland would tolerate these alcohol-spiked flirtations, waving them off as driven by too much tequila and gin; in the morning, after a handful of ibuprofen and a greasy takeout burger, Nolan would assure Hyland that he only wanted to be roommates and friends, even if non-sober Nolan was interested in seeing what was hidden behind Hyland’s belt buckle.
Nolan stumbled into their apartment, flicking off his shoes with sanguine ease but tripping along the wall; Hyland, following, was sober enough to keep his words crisp, vision straight, and steps regular while Nolan charged toward the kitchen to raid the fridge, plucking the door open and grabbing the soggy box of leftover crab Rangoon from lunch, shoving a won ton into his mouth with crumbly abandon. He took a slug of orange juice, pulp gathered at the corner of his lips like an infection, then let out a vodka-tinged belch. He waggled the Styrofoam container toward Hyland, where the last Rangoon rattled. Hyland shook his head and marched to the bathroom to brush his teeth and glug down a glass of water from the tap.
When he emerged, Nolan was lying on the couch; he regularly fell asleep there, streaming uninteresting tennis matches on the television, the announcers’ Eastern European accents strangling Hyland’s understanding of their commentary. The court was bright pink, and two women howled as they slapped the ball across the net. Without a word, Hyland slunk into his bedroom. As he was about to shut the door, Nolan yelled out: “Send him a text! Use a sexy emoji!”
Hyland stared at his phone, the white expanse of screen blinding. He squinted, fingers hovering over the digital keyboard’s squashed letters, and started typing. He deleted each word he wrote. Then he darkened the screen and set the phone on his nightstand next to his alarm clock and box of tissues. He flicked off the reading lamp that served as the room’s only light source. Shrouded in darkness, he felt the heaviness of his comforter, the give of his mattress under his spine, the puff of pillow as it cupped his neck.
He and Ethan hadn’t touched except for the goodbye handshake, but Hyland felt a strange linkage, a hooking in his stomach, as if the two had hugged, gripping at one another’s lower backs, chins pressed on clavicles, breath steamed by the cold beer cascading up nostrils. He imagined the sensation was nothing like holding Beth, who was birdy, all bones and sharp points. He tried to picture the hard strength of Ethan’s body, the tautness of his lips, how much power would flow through a kiss delivered by his mouth. Hyland felt the stirring warmth of an erection.
He leaned down over the side of the bed where he’d let his jeans pool in a cobra snarl of fabric and pulled out the bandana; Nolan had not demanded it back. He unfurled it, smoothed out the wrinkles, folded it over and cinched it around his forehead, the knot a square against the back of his skull. Then Hyland laid down and let it work its magic.
The vanishing felt like a buzzing, as if his body was turning into champagne. His toes tingled, and the feeling like ants were crawling along his skin crept up past his knees, crotch, hips, belly button. He interrupted his disappearance to peel away his boxers, slingshotting them toward the closed closet door. It began again, and Hyland watched as his features—ankles, kneecaps, groin, elbows—melted into the white fabric of his bed.
The only men Hyland had ever seen naked were his high school basketball teammates, pulling down their mesh shorts in the locker room that smelled like old feta cheese; unlike Nolan, he’d never actually slept with another man, so he could only invent the pressure of muscle, the bristle of stubble against his lips and throat, the feel of hip bones and thick pecs. He’d watched porn, of course, but scenes of anal sex scalded him, a trench of discomfort settling in his stomach like a peach pit when he tried to imagine the pleasure being guffawed about on screen. When he’d whispered a confession to Beth about his sexual orientation, the word bi, had lodged tight and heavy in his throat. She’d stared and chewed her lip, a drawn out okay streaming out from her like a yawn. He knew his admission had been the beginning of the end despite what she said a month later when she took his hands in hers and told him, words poured out like an automated message in an airport about a gate change, that she didn’t think their relationship would lead to the kind of long-term future she was after. She insisted it had nothing to do with what he’d admitted to her, but he could hear the falseness in her voice, the lie rampant and soggy like rotting vegetation. He had wanted to disappear then, poof his way out of existence so she’d be left staring agog at the space he’d occupied.
She’d asked, “Are you sure you’re not gay?”
And then, “Is this why we only had sex sometimes?”
She’d left, crying.
Hyland was torn between trying once more to formulate some suave message to Ethan, and remaining still, allowing his body to fall into a state of full invisibility. Nolan hadn’t said so, but Hyland was convinced that if he remained quiet and unmoving long enough, if he took a deep breath and stilled his lungs and controlled the thump of his heart, he could make his translucency permanent. He could stalk through the world as a shimmering blur like the heat rising off asphalt, could curl himself into living rooms and kitchens and marketing offices and television studios and bars, hover into the sexy spaces that made his head lurch and his vision blur. He could find Ethan, flutter to him without fear of appraising eyes and lay down beside him, press one see-through hand to his chest and one to his crotch and feel the sort of touch he’d never known, the electric response of a hardened body as it reacted the invisible spray of his fingertips.
A twisting shiver shook Hyland’s shoulders and he blipped back into focus, a momentary flash of peach on his white sheets. He took a deep breath and settled himself again, bit back the image of his cell phone screen, him typing away, winky, squirty emojis plastered in a message to Ethan. As his body started to fill up with empty light, he heard a whir from his nightstand, his phone crooning for his attention, and he felt a new sharp brightness cutting down his spine like a drizzle of warm water. His mouth went sour, an acidic slough gathering behind his teeth and in his gums. The glimmering feel in his gut was overpowering, like the queasy, pleasant wave that comes during a drop on a roller coaster, that momentary gulling emptiness, that bit of flight.
The phone vibrated again. Hyland rolled his eyes just so, enough to see that he’d received a text message.
Sweat bloomed across his forehead, gathering beneath the bandana. He felt the shiver again, like he was suffering delirium tremens. Through the crack under the door, he could hear the tennis commentators howling about a great forehand down the line to save a match point, their wondering aloud about could this turn things around? It was overwhelming, the power and confusion of the world. Hyland felt his body melt further, his whole self becoming scattered and indistinct like a pool of marbles squelched apart.
What does it mean to be invisible? he thought. To disappear, to become unreadable. To be incorrigible as a bank vault, as confusing as a jigsaw puzzle without a picture.
He remembered the befuddled look on Beth’s face when he’d spluttered it out. Bi. Then, forcing the frog clogging his throat to evacuate through his lips, the whole tumbly, institutional phrase: bisexual.
Hyland shuddered again. Though invisible, he felt cascading beads of sweat gathering at his forehead, his groin, the base of his spine.
He pulled off the headband, felt the lurching weight of his body again, and turned to grab his phone. He unlocked it, opened the text messages from Ethan. And Hyland began to read.
Joe Baumann's fiction and essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri. He he has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016.