Everyone was milling around the lab waiting for the meeting to start when Hailey told me we were going to the amateur adult film festival.
‘You’re going to this with me and Brian,’ she said. ‘No significant others.’
Brian came up beside me. ‘Did she tell you we’re going to that porn thing?’
‘I already bought you a ticket,’ Hailey said. ‘You need to pay me back.’
We met at a bar on the north side of town. My girlfriend was working. Hailey left her boyfriend at home. Brian didn’t have to worry about it—he had just gotten out of a five-year relationship. They’d owned a house together, a Jeep, two pugs. He’d joked about finding a ring and she’d told him straight up that she would never marry him. He found a room in a house three blocks from the lab and had been living there for a couple weeks when I first met him. The ex had already bought him out of the car and the house, but they still shared custody of the dogs then. It would take an entire year to break him on that. By the time we were at the bar on the north side of town, he was drinking every day and too much, juggling three girls, and hooking up with his ex every time he went over to walk the dogs just as a fuck-you to her new boyfriend. One of the girls I never met, much less learned her name. Val was nice but all I remember about her was that she had dark hair and all of her friends were lesbians. I think Brian kept her around because she let him borrow her car. Stacy, the last girl, was about ten years younger than Brian, a few years younger than either Hailey or I. She was pleasant in a dumb way and, according to Brian, loved cocaine and sex in the bathtub.
Hailey could barely sit still, giddily leading us in a round of sexual confessions. ‘Dude, okay,’ she was saying, ‘I absolutely love it when a guy licks my asshole. Obviously I’ve never had Greg do it—’ Greg was her boyfriend, ‘—but back in college or if I knew it was going to be a one-night stand, I was always like get back there and make it happen, I don’t care if you get a disease.’
It was my turn. ‘Well, Megan is on birth control but last week she got super horny during one of those stretches where she’s on the placebos. We were out of condoms so she flopped over on the bed and shouted, Fuck it! Just put it in my ass!’
Hailey snort-laughed, sending bits of her vegan meatball sub crumbling across the table. ‘That’s so Catholic! I love it.’
Brian was making a face, a half scowl hidden in his pint glass. ‘That’s gross. I don’t do butt stuff. It’s a one-way street.’
‘I mean, yeah, with that attitude,’ I said.
‘I’ll bet you’d love getting your asshole eaten,’ Hailey said. ‘Anyway, good luck dealing with this fucking porn festival then.’
Brian’s phone buzzed. ‘Oh nice. Stacy’s here. She’s right out front.’
Hailey looked like he’d just slapped her. ‘What? Fuckin—what happened to no boyfriends or girlfriends?’
‘She wanted to go and it’s not like she’s my girlfriend.’ He used air quotes here.
Stacy arrived at the table with an oblivious smile. ‘I’m so excited! A movie fest! Wow.’ It was pretty clear Brian had not specified the style of films that would be shown. In her defense, its name was relatively benign. It could’ve been anything. ‘So, like, what’s the plan? Are we going straight there? I’ve already got my tickets.’
Hailey looked to me as if I could somehow disappear this girl. ‘We’re gonna take a cab to a whiskey bar down the street from the theater, have a drink or two, then go in.’
‘Oh cool,’ Stacy said. ‘I hope they have tequila. I don’t like whiskey at all. But I love tequila.’
Hailey puckered her lips. I hadn’t known her that long—I’d only been at the lab four months—but this was by far the angriest I’d ever seen her.
As we were paying up, Stacy got a text. ‘Holy shit, my friend is in town. I haven’t seen him since high school. Should I tell him to meet us at the whiskey bar?’
Before Hailey could protest, Brian cut in, ‘Yeah, sure. Let’s add another one.’
I don’t remember who was at fault, but we all ordered the special—a habanero bourbon that tasted like someone had simply mixed ground up pepper seeds and ribs into Maker’s Mark. The shots had us all choking. We sipped our little glasses to the bottom, complaining the entire time.
I was buzzed enough to be sociable towards Stacy. ‘So, who’s this friend we’re meeting?’
‘Oh, he’s like my best friend from back home. I haven’t seen him in years. He was like super Christian back then, basically a Mormon. I’m surprised he even wanted to come to a bar.’
When he did show up, he shook all of our hands and introduced himself as Chet, surveyed our empty shot glasses and asked the server for one of what we were drinking. He looked exactly the type of golden retriever I expected.
His shot arrived and I said, ‘Watch out, it’s pretty—’
He tossed it back. Immediately, he let out a trio of bronchial coughs. It sounded like someone had stabbed him through the lung with a screwdriver. ‘Oh my goodness,’ he said through an embarrassed smile, blinking tears out of his eyes. ‘Whew! You all did that?’
He asked what our plans were for the night and Stacy told him about the film festival. He ordered tickets on his phone.
The fest itself was fine—short films about pegging, nipple clamps, orgies, graphic blowjobs, gimp masks, a couple of narrative pieces—none of it was particularly sexy, which I think was mostly the point. Very little of it was compelling, which seemed less purposeful. Still, as each new title card flickered across the screen, Hailey would slap my thigh and stage whisper, ‘Ooh, watch this!’ as if I could do anything else.
Afterward, back on the street, Hailey was buzzing, in possession of too much blood moving too quickly, and asked if she could buy me a drink. She led our group to a crowded dive. Everyone split between trying to squeeze their way up to the bar or stake out a place in line for the bathroom. I didn’t want part in either so I stepped out front. Chet was standing next to the entrance, staring off into the middle distance.
‘Hey, man,’ I said. ‘What’d you think of the fest?’
He kept his eyes on some unknown point in space. He looked like someone had beaten the shit out of him spiritually. ‘I saw things that I will never be able to un-see. I just—I don’t know what to do with that.’
‘Oh, come on. It wasn’t that bad.’
‘Yes. Yes, it was,’ he said, getting angry. ‘It was that bad. I don’t think things can be the same anymore. I’ve seen stuff now. I don’t think I can even be the same person. I’m, I don’t know, different.’
‘Hey, take this.’ Hailey stood in the doorway sloshing the head of a beer all over her hands. ‘You need to come inside to drink it.’
I turned back to try and bring Chet inside, but he was gone, just completely vanished. I never saw him again, never heard what became of him. When I think of Chet, like I’m thinking of him now, I always imagine him happy, freed of unnecessary shame and fulfilled by his fall from grace. I know it could easily be the opposite.
Aaron Block is a graduate student at Oregon State University.