“I have six dating apps on my phone.” He said the words to no one, being unfortunately alone, imagining what people would say. An amusing idea occurred to him where he’d have a different phone for every app and would spread them before him like bingo cards, making an operation on each as necessary. Until he won. It got complicated keeping track of all the messages, tapping away the constant notifications like a game of whack-a-mole.
Actually it was seven if you counted Facebook.
Maybe he should move to a bigger city. It was the same faces on each app and he’d exhausted the best candidates, having rated, swiped, liked, rejected, or otherwise judged certainly thousands of people. One in ten looked decent. Half were functionally illiterate, unable to converse with any depth. James became skilled at evaluating their potential in an instant, tallying pluses and minuses. An ill-framed selfie or a misspelled word spoke volumes.
A notification slid from the top of the screen and he reflexively touched it. “Ralph liked you back!” Who?
He vaguely recalled him as one he swiped days ago. Who goes days without checking their Tinder? James must have been feeling particularly generous at the time because there was little to recommend young Ralph besides a cute face. He only had one bad photo and his profile said nothing. This was almost insulting because his own profile was a masterpiece of careful persuasion—a whole paragraph summing up his interests and background.
The app placed the guy less than a mile away. He didn’t have any other potentials lined up and really needed to get laid this weekend after staying in last week.
“Hi, I’m James. Anyone ever told you you look like Evan Peters? Really cute <3”
Not a great opener but he couldn’t be bothered. He worked through the backlog of profiles that had accumulated, waiting for a reply. It took a full five minutes.
“No… thanks, lol.”
More than a single word at least, but he should have included a question. Another thing he couldn’t stand was aimless chatting, especially with people who weren’t good at it. It was best to try to meet in person as early as possible.
“Wow, you’re really close. Wanna get lunch?”
Another long wait. He imagined Ralph pacing his room, wracked by fear and lust, struggling to make a decision.
“Ok,” he said.
James wrote back in seconds. “Benny’s? In like thirty mins?”
“‘Ok. See you there,” wrote Ralph. The icon that indicated he was typing something else hesitantly popped up a few times. “You’re cute too :)” finally came.
Nice. Got him. He showered and fixed his hair. A survey of the state of the apartment deemed it acceptable for guests. With minutes to kill he pulled up Ralph’s profile again. He truly was quite adorable, short and skinny and baby-faced. Of course no twenty-one year old ever had anything interesting to say so the talk would likely be dull.
He walked to the restaurant deciding it’d go fine because he was a great talker and could always think of something to fill the air. In the past he used to get skittish about dates, but not after going on so many. Typically he was the more experienced and thus more confident one, which made him even more confident. And since he’d been on so many successful dates this meant that if things did go bad, like if someone didn’t like him or something, it honestly probably wasn’t his fault. The problem was on the other end. Although happily nothing like this ever happened, except for that librarian that ghosted him. That dude had bad teeth anyway.
No one on Benny’s patio looked to be his guy, and he had no messages. Lack of punctuality was another turn off. He stood there wondering if he should go inside or send a message or what. Then he noticed a boy further along the sidewalk, hands behind his back, leaning curiously at a tree. The details matched and he realized with a twinge of dissatisfaction that it certainly was him. What on earth was he doing? James watched and waited for the guy to leave the tree and keep going, yet he didn’t budge so he walked toward him, cautious of the bizarre behavior.
A few paces off, the guy, Ralph, turned to him and flashed an unsteady smile and shyly swiped at his hair before nodding at the tree.
“Pantherophis,” he said.
Baffled, James inspected it and saw nothing of note. Ralph shifted his weight from foot to foot.
“Is that the name of the tree?” James asked.
“No, the tree is Pyrus calleryana, which is an invasive species by the way, although this one was planted here on purpose, don’t you think?” Ralph spoke fast and in monotone, without eye contact.
“I’m not sure,” said James unsurely. He reflected on the fact that Ralph had not gotten dressed up in the slightest, wearing jeans in a fit a decade removed from the current style and a black shirt with what appeared to be an anime character on it. Well at least he wasn’t too feminine. “What was that other word you said?”
Primed with this, he spotted its coiled shape resting at a fork of the trunk, dark-scaled and sun glinting off the black mirror of its eye, mere inches from James’s nose.
“Oh my god,” he said, shuffling back. “How did it get in a tree?”
“Snakes climb trees all the time,” Ralph explained, miming a gesture with a flattened hand to illustrate how they did it. “I’m not sure the exact species, there’s quite a few, but the genus is Pantherophis. A rat snake.”
James groaned. “Don’t stand so close, oh my god, it will bite you.” He had no love of reptiles but could admit the novelty and drama of the situation. Later tonight he would tell someone all about this.
“They have teeth but no venom.” Ralph bit his nails and shifted his sight back and forth between James and the creature as if undecided which deserved his attention.
“It might be beneficial actually. To get bitten. It’s said that rat snakes are the lowest caste of snakes, and that if you get bitten by one, all other snakes will be too disgusted to touch you.”
James nodded politely. “You know a lot about snakes. Do you study them or…?”
“Not particularly.” Ralph shrugged.
They walked next to each other to the restaurant. James had to restrain himself to match his date’s reluctant pace. A waiter seated them. Ralph intensely studied his menu like an exam. James watched. How odd that they hadn’t even properly introduced themselves, not even saying hello. And the guy hardly looked at him. He could have been autistic or something, or else just super awkward.
“Is this place okay?” James asked, needing to say something. “I figured it was close to both of us.”
“Umm,” Ralph said while continuing to gaze at the menu with a furrowed brow, evidently giving the question great consideration. Finally he said, “Yes, it will do.” The small frame of his body arranged in the middle of the oversized booth, along with the way he let his arms hang limply at his sides instead of placing them on the table, gave him the appearance of a child, or at least someone out of his element. He was attractive though. Good bone structure. But could you take him anywhere? Would he always act this weird? And would he ever ask a question?
The waiter took their drink orders. James said beer and Ralph said water. For a bit they glanced around at the decor and the other patrons. James asked Ralph if he drank.
“I can’t see any reason to.”
James nodded as if this were a reasonable statement. “Does it bother you if I do?” The boy paused prior to answering, again as if weighing the issue carefully. “Not at this point,” he said.
Accepting this in the most charitable way possible, James changed the subject. “So what do you do?”
“I’m a software developer.”
That explained a few things. Nerds. “Oh cool, do you like it?”
“If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t do it,” Ralph said almost defensively. “Although some of the possible future applications concern me.”
At a loss, James responded, “Lots of people don’t like their jobs.”
“I’m not like lots of people.” Their eyes came together briefly and he thought he saw the hint of a smile. Was he being weird on purpose?
The waiter returned with their drinks. James asked for a couple slices of pizza. Ralph ordered some sort of vegetarian wrap that required a complicated exchange to negotiate alterations.
“Most people get pizza,” James deadpanned once the waiter left. “This place is famous for pizza.” He decided to simply embrace the strangeness of the date. It seemed Ralph could play along. “Are you comparing me to most people again?” he asked.
“Sorry!” James laughed and so did Ralph. For the first time they really looked at each other. “What did you do today?”
“I was working on a personal natural language processing project, using Markov chains in a sort of Bayesian method to pull words from a predefined corpus and string them together in a manner that replicates human speech.” As an afterthought he added, “What did you do?”
“Gosh,” James said. “I don’t know half those words. I just cleaned my apartment. Nothing else to do today. I’m a simple guy.”
“That’s not all you did.”
James shrugged. “Yeah, pretty much. What else did I do?”
“You were also on Tinder.”
“That’s true, but so were you.”
“What were you looking for on there?” Ralph asked, fidgeting with his cup.
This question, James knew, was about sex. Translation: will you have sex with me? Yes, he would. “Maybe you should have asked me that ahead of time?” he said with mock disinterest. “You barely said anything at all. I was worried you were going to be an idiot.”
“You go out with idiots?” asked Ralph.
“Oh my god, you’re hilarious. Sometimes I do yeah, unfortunately.”
“I’m not just interested in sex,” Ralph said much too loudly. James nearly spit up his beer and scanned the room to see who’d heard. What the hell was the point of saying that? Here and now?
“No, yeah. I mean, I get that,” said James. He ran a hand through his hair.
“Nah. I mean I asked you here.”
Ralph gave a half-nod, considering this. James idly browsed the drink menu and wished he’d ordered the IPA, which had more alcohol. Conversation remained light until the food showed up. Anxious for this sad scene to be over, James ate quickly. Yet they couldn’t sit in silence like nervous middle schoolers so he asked Ralph about the food.
“It’s fine. I normally cook.”
“What do you want to do after this?”
The question made him want to throw his hands up. There was no use spending any more time together.
“I dunno. What do you want to do?” He tried to sound as unenthusiastic as possible without being rude.
“Don’t you live around here?” Ralph asked, chewing with his eyes somewhere below James’s chin.
“Why yes, I do.”
“And you said you cleaned up.” Ralph smiled and mischievously rolled his shoulders. “Do you have any video games?”
“Yeah, what do you play? Smash?”
Ralph’s eyes lit up and he placed his hands together as if in prayer. “Yes please.” Gosh he was such a dork. But now James felt excited too.
“We can do that.” It clicked. Some guys had to put on a show about how they weren’t interested in sex even though they were. To make themselves feel better about it or something. Knowing he was indeed going to get laid improved his mood by a landslide. Already he started planning the moves he’d make.
James paid for both meals, saying don’t worry about it. Outside he waved in a direction and said, “It’s this way. Don’t get distracted by any trees.”
“But they’re fun!” said Ralph. He had thankfully lightened up, but now edged too close to hyperactivity, talking endlessly about the game. James wondered if it would be possible to date someone like him. Having good social skills was highly important and it would be embarrassing to have to apologize for his partner constantly. And who names their kid Ralph?
The heat caused him to sweat and feel self-conscious though they arrived before it got too bad. “This is me,” he said, stopping in front of his stoop.
“Yeah, it’s pretty nice.” He almost said how much it cost but didn’t want to sound boastful. Inside he respectfully asked Ralph to take his shoes off. In a minute they sat on the couch with glasses of ice water. James crept as close as he could immediately get away with, leaning back and stretching his arm behind Ralph across the top of the cushions. It must have been too soon though and he realized they actually were going to have to go through the show of playing the video game.
It had been a while since he’d played and during the first round Ralph dispatched him easily, annoying him because he used to be good. The kid appeared to be happy at least. During the next round he put some real effort into it, though did little better to fight him off.
“You’re just too good for me,” he said.
Obviously pleased with himself, Ralph said, “You have potential.”
James again eased his arm around and slithered his fingers up Ralph’s back, shoulder, and smooth neck where he stroked gently. “Do I?”
He kept it up until Ralph set his controller down and opened his mouth to say something, but only exhaled deeply. The poor thing was stiff as a board and probably terrified. It was adorable.
“You okay?” James asked, rubbing Ralph’s knee with his other hand.
“Yeah.” It was barely a whisper. James kissed his cheek tenderly, thinking that’s what was called for.
“Want to see the bedroom?” Not waiting for an answer, he stood and urged Ralph along, leading him by the hand. He followed dutifully. In the dim room James removed their shirts and maneuvered Ralph to the bed. He kissed him all over.
Ralph performed little better than a slug, having no aptitude for any of it. James was forced to do every bit of the work, sustained by the fantasy that this was the kid’s first time. In the end it turned out to be horrendously quick and all throughout Ralph watched him expectantly like some wild-eyed nocturnal mammal.
They lay on the bed next to each other, two deflated balloons. Worried this would segue into talking or cuddling, he got up and started cleaning himself off. He was going to make a joke but saw Ralph wipe his eyes and had the very disturbing realization that he was crying.
“That was great, buddy, thanks,” he said turning away, pretending not to notice. “Maybe you want to take a shower?”
A slight grunt came in response so he got the hot water going and said that a fresh towel was hanging. James dressed and went to the kitchen to give him some space. This was the first time anyone cried and he was definitely not up for dealing with it. He flitted in the kitchen tidying up, waiting for the sound of the water to cease. Triggered by a phone notification, he indifferently swiped a few new profiles. The wait grew to be long and he lost patience and poked his head into the bathroom, becoming alarmed when he couldn’t see any shape beyond the shower curtain. Nor was the boy still in bed or anywhere else. Confused, he leaned closer to the tub and found him sitting under the stream of water, hugging his legs.
“Everything okay?” James asked, clearly aware of the opposite. Ralph said sorry and twisted the water off and stood, contracting his body timidly like a dog caught wetting the floor. The towel hung easily within reach but James had to hand it to him and watched as he dabbed himself dry inch by inch with unimaginable slowness. Trying not to gape, James collected the kid’s clothes and set them together on the counter to speed his departure. He threw the sheets in the washer to help create an atmosphere of busyness.
Having done all this it proved hard not to hide his dismay when Ralph sheepishly eased into the living room wearing only his underwear and the towel around his shoulders. He fell onto the couch and curled up. When he saw James watching he cocked his head and raised his index and middle fingers. “Round two?” he asked.
James kept his expression blank in the hope that the request would be taken back. Ralph proved unable to read the room. Finally James said, “Yeah we can play a little more. Soon I have to get ready to go to a thing tonight though.” Ralph said nothing to this.
The next game was something of a contest. He felt on edge, irritated that he’d been cast into this situation. His memory of the game was refreshed however, making him able to counter some of Ralph’s tricks. Not to say he enjoyed it, instead fighting mostly from frustration. He had a vague feeling that if he managed to beat him then he’d be able to dictate the terms of their separation. Ultimately his clumsy mistakes added up and Ralph still proved too much to handle.
“Well done,” he conceded, putting the controller down to signify that the game was finished.
“What do you have to do?” Ralph asked. Wrapped in the towel with his hair still wet, he looked like the lone survivor of some traumatic accident. Actually he started to become somewhat attractive again. James hated his brain sometimes.
“You said you had to go somewhere.”
“Oh yeah, it’s just this charity volunteer night I do on Saturdays.”
“Oh. At the restaurant you said you were free all day.”
“I forgot I guess.”
“Oh. Maybe I could wait here while you go?”
James scratched his chin, unable to believe his ears. “I mean, I just met you like two hours ago?”
“We’ve had sex.” Ralph still looked at the screen while saying this.
His face heated up. I wouldn’t call that sex, he wanted to blurt out. Instead he shrugged. Ralph seemed to get the picture, but asked, “So when will I see you again?”
Somehow he maintained his saintly composure despite these repeated violations of social norms. “I don’t know. Maybe next weekend. I’ll message you.”
“Oh, okay.” The kid grew pale. Mercifully he got off the couch and went to get dressed. James wiped his forehead with a paper towel, relieved it was finally ending.
They stood outside for a moment after walking to the door. Normally he would give a goodbye hug in these situations but couldn’t muster it, and instead slapped him on the shoulder and said, “Take care buddy!” then turned to go back in.
“Wait,” Ralph said. For a second he wondered if he should pretend he didn’t hear. Yet what could he do other than stop? He looked at Ralph and found him on the verge of tears. James’s heart roiled with indignation.
“Am I going to see you again? Please be honest. No one is ever honest.”
“I mean, maybe?” James then decided that if he wanted honesty he would get it. “Actually no, probably not. I don’t think we really click together.”
At that moment Ralph acted as if someone stabbed him in the chest. A horribly pained expression overtook him and he fell to his knees right there on the sidewalk where anyone could see. He pleaded. “We click! We both like video games and taking walks! Oh god, why does this always happen? Please see me again, please. I was nervous. I’ll be better next time.”
Across the street people at the coffeeshop were watching them. His neighbors were sitting on their balcony, undoubtedly leering at this mortifying scene.
“Get up!” he said in a forceful whisper. “Get a fucking grip on yourself and please leave.” Absolutely done with this, he shoved the door open and headed in. Ralph’s hand snatched him by the wrist.
“I’ll kill myself,” Ralph said, with no shirking of eye contact. “If you don’t give me another chance.” He pointed down. “Right here. I’ll set myself on fire.”
“You’re fucking crazy!” James jerked his arm free and retreated to the apartment. He locked both locks. He closed the blinds guarding the thin windows on either side of the door, refusing to check if Ralph left.
For the rest of the day he stayed inside. A scalding shower helped purge him of the cloying uncleanliness. On the phone he recounted the events multiple times to friends. Each agreed that the kid must have been a psycho and that he himself had done nothing wrong. All assured him there was no reason to worry. As night fell, the gaps separating those uncomfortable moments when he thought about it began to lengthen. He allowed himself a decadent meal and afterward lay sprawled on the couch thinking about someone new and the things they could do.
The sounds sent him to his feet. Something outside the door. Shoes scraping pavement, splashings of liquid, a hollow canister hitting the ground. There was no knock. He crept down the hallway, alert to every stirring beyond but not eager to see. He halted when the hellish glow bloomed through the windows, bright as spotlights. The ensuing forlorn and ragged screams brought his hands to his ears, though he couldn’t deny the encircling shadows shuddering on the walls, elongated, like arms.
Clay Holt is a writer and programmer living in the American South. His work has also appeared in Crack the Spine Literary Magazine and The Fiction Pool. His website is https://claywriter.com.