CLOSE TO HIM
Brady modeled in his underwear. Flexing alone in his bedroom mirror, he contorted himself into the eighteen signature poses required of competitive bodybuilders. He’d release a deep breath at the end of each pose, naming the next out loud to himself before sucking in another gust of air. Bodybuilders give wild, toothy grins when they hit their marks on stage. Brady had yet to master this, his face swelling instead into a constipated purple grimace. Digging his toes into the carpet, feet turned slightly outward, he sucked his navel into his spine and bent forward. He made fists and curled them up to his sternum. Crab pose, BAM.
He propped his phone against a stack of magazines on his desk and flicked the camera awake. Brady led himself backwards after tapping the record button, standing between the camera and the door on which his mirror hung, his back reflected behind him.
“This is for you, Tiffany,” he said as he began to run his palms over his shaved chest and down his stomach, sloppily working his underwear down to his ankles. He whispered to the camera, to Tiffany, telling her how hot she was making him, though in truth, Brady was more aroused by his own dwarfed image in the camera. He practiced a few of the more sensual poses he knew. Poses he’d seen men make the week before in the conference room of a Howard Johnson, where he and Jason, his boss at Vitamin Village, had attended the Birmingham Area Bodybuilding and Yoga Symposium for Health Instruction and Training, or as it was quietly known around town, BABYSHIT.
He liked to imagine himself in the future, his body trained to a level suitable for competition, posing before a line of judges below him, writing notes in their legal pads and nodding approvingly to one another. The kid’s got amazing glutes, he imagined someone saying as he strutted across the stage.
Brady’s knees began to shake, he winced. Oh fuck yeah, Tiffany, he whispered. The rapping of this mother’s knuckles came quickly at the door before she turned the knob and tried to push her way into his bedroom.
“Brady, your chicken is boiled!” she called cheerfully as the door swung open. The hanging mirror approached Brady quickly from behind before bouncing off his back.
“Get out!” He shouted, snatching up his underwear.
Jan didn’t need to guess what she had interrupted. She had seen the magazines sprawled open, scattered across his floor. Tan, shirtless men in skin tight underwear on every page, flexing, gazing into the camera with an alarming intensity. Men possessing the kinds of stares she imagined seeing behind plexiglass partitions in prisons. My poor son, she thought, my poor, secretive, repressed, gay son. Embarrassed on his behalf, she pressed a loving hand against his closed door, murmuring gently, “your chicken is boiled.”
Brady didn’t go downstairs until he heard his mother’s bedroom door shut. He sat alone in the kitchen, reading articles about macronutrient ratios and ketosis while he spooned dry brown rice into his mouth. His daily carbohydrate allowance, 30 percent of his total caloric intake. He bit into the pilled white chicken breast and swallowed without breathing so he wouldn’t have to taste it. Clenching his fists as he chewed, he watched the tendons in his forearms undulate like legs moving under a blanket. He didn’t like how deeply his veins were buried beneath his skin. I could be more vascular, he thought, standing up from the table. He emptied the container of rice into the trash, he felt bloated.
A hard-boiled egg sagged in Brady’s shirt pocket the next morning as he drove to Vitamin Village. A plastic tray of cold cuts, his school lunch, rested in the seat beside him. Jason would already be at work, he arrived hours before the shop opened to lift weights in the back room. He liked to get a good pump, as he called it, first thing in the morning, so the fabric of his Village polo would hug his chest and biceps a little more snugly. He told Brady it motivated customers, or at the very least, it intimidated them into believing they needed every powder and pill Jason recommended. Brady could hear music playing from the sidewalk outside, the Sorry, We’re Closed sign still hung from its hook, vibrating against the glass door with the rhythm of Jason’s soundtrack.
The bell above the door rang as Brady let himself in. Jason emerged from the back room, shirtless and panting, pumped, a white towel draped over his shoulders like a derby winner’s garland.
“What are you doing here so early?” Jason asked.
“I needed some more pre-workout,” Brady said, taking the egg out of his pocket and cracking it on the counter next to the cash register. “And maybe a different protein powder,” he added, “the stuff I’m using has too much sugar I think. I’m looking for something non-dairy, I’m bloated.” He pulled a stamp-sized salt packet from his pocket and sprinkled it over the peeled egg.
“It could be the protein powder,” Jason said. “But that salt isn’t helping either.” He took the egg from Brady’s hand and wiped it off with his towel before taking a bite.
“Come on, man,” Brady said as he took half his egg back. “I’m already having trouble getting enough protein as it is.”
“Maybe your problem isn’t ingestion,” Jason said, a look of sage wisdom in his eyes. “Maybe it’s absorption.”
“I’ve been doing some research online,” he said. “According to certain forums, your body only absorbs about 20 percent of the protein you ingest when you swallow it, but some people suggest there’s a way of of bumping that number up to more than 80 percent.”
“Some kind of new supplement or something?”
“No, they say it’s not so much what you’re supplementing with, but how you’re getting it in your body. These guys have been taking all of their stuff as suppositories.”
“What does that mean?” Brady asked.
“It means they’re sticking supplements up their asses.”
Jan sat at her kitchen table and wandered through Youtube in search of new “It Gets Better” videos. Over the last few months, she’d slowly been working on a playlist, one she would inevitably send Brady a link to after he came out to her. She had been working on a game plan, imagining the whole teary-eyed scene for hours on end. Brady’s tears, not hers, she would be strong for her son. She would show him that he had nothing to be ashamed of. “God doesn’t make mistakes,” she would say as she reached across the table for her weeping son’s hand, “I accept you,” or possibly “to me, you are perfect.” She had yet to decide on the final phrasing, but the pressure was on, she knew how important a parent’s reaction to their gay child’s big reveal really was. Say the wrong thing, and you’re cut out of their lives forever.
Often, in the midst of one of her imaginary speeches, she would mouth the words as she recited them in her head. The phrases rising out of her in loops repeatedly, endlessly, like a catchy theme song or a radio jingle, her mouth and tongue silently practicing the shapes they would make.
A kettle howled on the stove and Jan stood to retrieve it. She poured boiling water over a mound of instant coffee flakes that swirled and dissolved at the bottom of her mug. She sat back down at her laptop and added another video to her playlist, this one from the cast of Glee. Despite her attempts at steering him towards the show, her son had never watched it, or even shown an interest in it for that matter. Such a shame, she often thought, so many valuable lessons. It wasn’t uncommon for thoughts to cross her mind involving her son and the children she saw on television. She imagined his days in school to be as vibrant and lively as they were onscreen, and for that matter, just as socially volatile. Less singing was involved, obviously the show couldn’t be entirely accurate.
“It’s going to happen soon,” Jan said into her bluetooth later that afternoon as she drove to Jamba Juice. “I can tell, he’s going to do it soon.”
“How are you so sure?” Her sister asked. “I still don’t understand how you can be so positive he’s gay, let alone how you can tell he’s going to talk to you about it.”
“Maternal instinct,” Jan said. She pictured her son’s empty bedroom, just as she had explored it earlier that morning. The coppery, nearly naked men in those magazines, the smell of sweat, the unexplainable appearance of a multitude of hand towels. She felt there was something under the surface, some emotional trauma bubbling up inside of him every night when he closed himself up in his room away from her. He was growing distant, spending more time out of the house, going down to his job at the supplement shop hours before he needed to be at work, and staying late for reasons she couldn’t pinpoint. Why else would he monitor his diet so diligently? What seventeen year old boy buys self-tanning lotion? Gay. He had to be gay. And if he wasn’t ready to admit it, she was going to be sure he knew that when he was, she would be the picture of acceptance. “A mother just knows,” she said.
Jan was waiting for Brady at the kitchen table when he arrived home from school. Two styrofoam cups sweat on paper napkins beside her open laptop. Surprised, Jan snapped her computer shut when she saw her son.
“Hi Angel,” she said. “I got you a smoothie. Do you want to sit down with me and catch up? It’s been a little while since we’ve had a nice talk.”
“I can’t right now mom,” Brady said. “I have to get to the gym before it gets too crowded and all the squat racks are taken.”
“What about just a quick chat? At least drink your smoothie with me?” She lifted the cup from the table and tried to hand it to him. He waved it away.
“I can’t mom, that has too much sugar.”
“But it’s your favorite, come on,” she pleaded, his self-loathing must have been more severe than she thought. “Razzmatazz!”
Brady carried his backpack upstairs to his bedroom, where he gathered his clothes for the gym, his shoes, his headphones, and finally his supplements. He went into the bathroom.
That morning Jason offered to special order the same products the men online used as suppositories, but also suggested that filling empty capsules with powdered supplements would have a similar effect. Brady ordered a case of 500 empty gel caps online, and would make do with improvisation until they arrived.
He stripped in the bathroom and looked up an article he’d found in third period. It was about celebrities on cleanses taking coffee enemas each morning as a way to jump-start their detoxification rituals.Brady shook a bottle of neon green liquid taken from work that morning. Even with his discount, it had been overpriced. Primal Rage the label read. The stylized image of a preposterously muscular caveman clutching a spear sprinted across the bottle. Exxxtreme Lime Flavor! Power-packed with paleo friendly, dairy-free protein. Enhanced with exclusive energizing pre-workout enzyme formula!
Brady unscrewed the cap as his mother crept up the carpeted stairs and waited at the end of the hall, listening for signs of distress. Brady didn’t yet have the supplies the article suggested he use, but the neck of the bottle itself was slender. Cautiously, he squatted down, exhaling deeply as he carefully tried to insert it into himself, to no avail.
He stood and covered the lip of the bottle with hand lotion, then lay on his side, his mother’s plush bath mat below him. He did a little more research on his phone, guilt on his face as he searched different combinations of words. It might seem like the wrong thing to do, one forum advised, but if you push out, if you bear down on the object, it’ll slide in easier. Brady tried to picture himself growing larger; outgrowing his clothes, outgrowing Birmingham, outgrowing his life. He would find one of the hyper-tan, ripple-bodied women he’d seen photographed beside some of the men in his magazines. He saw himself storming down a beach beside a faceless model, the two of them pounding craters in the sand with their sinewy legs, flexing and grunting for each other in the exotic grapefruit haze of the Carribean sunset.
Green liquid spilled onto the bath mat as the bottle made its second approach. Brady pushed, and as the bottleneck slipped inside him, he let out a moan of discomfort.
Oh, my god, Jan thought as she stood outside the bathroom door. He’s hurting himself.
Brady took deep breaths as he climbed to his feet, steadying his weight against the sink, holding the bottle in place. He bent forward, touching his toes in an attempt to make gravity aid the liquid’s drainage into his lower intestine. He waited to feel the energetic rush of the drink’s primal power. He reddened as his face and neck filled with blood. He waited, bent at the waist.
“Brady?” Jan called cautiously from outside the bathroom door. Her hand jiggled the knob. “Brady, are you okay in there?” Her son snapped up, his vision blurred. White specks drifted and multiplied across his line of vision, the room grew dark, his heartbeat pounded in his temples. He lurched forward to block the door, and in doing so his bare foot slid across the tile, still slick with extreme lime flavor.
Jan heard the heavy thud of her little boy, a fully grown man, hitting the ground. She heard the sound of glass shattering.
“God doesn’t make mistakes!” she screamed, slamming her body into the bathroom door, harder and harder, until it hurled open. She found her son unconscious, naked on his side, covered in liquid the color of antifreeze. She saw no blood, only shards of a broken bottle glittering across the tile floor between the two of them. Brady stirred, and began to slowly collect himself on the floor. It was then that Jan noticed the neck of the bottle, spiked shards of glass, emerging from her son like a light bulb broken in its socket. Brady felt it still inside him, panicked, and began to sob like a child startled by a popping balloon.
Jan rushed frantically through the glass and collapsed on the floor, pulling her crying son into her lap. She felt then as though she could leave herself, a bodiless spectre, floating above the mess, viewing it from some place beyond the room.
Soothing him, combing through his damp tangles of hair with the fingers of her free hand, she reached down to retrieve the ring of glass from inside Brady’s limp body. It came out in one piece, followed by a quiet sputtering of murky green liquid. She continued rocking him gently, tears of relief in her eyes. It felt good to be close to him again. “It’s okay,” she whispered. “I know. It’s okay.”
Alex Ebel is a queer writer currently living in Boston, where he received his MFA at Emerson College. His work is featured or forthcoming in The Southampton Review, The Maine Review, Hobart, Barrelhouse, The Rumpus, American Chordata, and Hello Mr., among other publications.