by Justin Whitney
I watched Mom watch Zee, waiting for the tension to crack and approval to wash forth.
As I scratched my beard, Mom sipped her coffee, eyes glancing over my partner, taking in every detail. Zee, bless him, just smiled back without a care in the world. His hair draped off his shoulders like a curtain of black agate. He had a sharply trimmed goatee and mustache that set off his deep indigo skin nicely. He wore a plain white t-shirt with khaki shorts. His hairy, muscular legs, the midnight blue of a twilight sky, were folded. He hovered about five inches above the sofa.
Mom’s eyes flicked around his hair. Still smiling, she took a deep breath and raised her eyebrows at me.
It was the hair. I knew it’d be something.
We sat in her living room, the South’s version of a parlour (but without the class or elegance). The room stank of cheap potpourri, strawberries and lilacs. Probably chemical-soaked wood chips from the dollar store. Through wide windows, the fierce Texas sun lit up an infestation of white and blue ducks. Mom loved ducks. Pillow shams, wallpaper, salt and pepper shakers, countless ceramics. Above the sofa she’d hung a picture of Jesus, bordered by blue ducks in oval needlepoint trimmed in white lace.
Mom cleared her throat. “So…uh…”
“Xeralis,” I said.
“Oh that’s right. Sorry, it’s so unusual. Is that Oriental?”
“Asian, Mom. And no, it’s not.”
“It’s a family name,” said Zee.
“Oh, I see. And where is your family from?”
“The Ether Circle of the Extraplanar Dimension,” he said, nodding. He picked up a white ceramic duck wearing a blue bonnet and turned it over, fascinated.
“Oh, uh-huh. Uh-huh.” She turned to me. “Did I tell you about the new couple I signed up?”
Mom was gunning for Direct Distributor in a new multilevel marketing scheme that sold “all natural” vitamins. On our bi-monthly phone calls, she regaled me with her every conversation, every compliment, every petty slight. If anyone asked her what I did for a living, she would stop and try to remember. Then she’d get mad for not knowing. Then she’d blame the other person for testing her. And lastly, she’d call me up to complain about her rotten friends. And the cycle would begin anew.
As I listened to the details of her new couple’s marriage, Zee placed the duck back on the coffee table and brought it to life. Ceramic wings cracked and pulled away, fluttering. As he giggled, the duck craned its neck and quacked, then promptly slipped on the glass table top and broke apart.
“Oh dear,” said Mom.
“Oops, sorry about that.” Zee waved a hand over the pieces and they reassembled themselves. He gently put it back in place as Mom watched his hands closely. She glanced away, picking a spot on the wall, then staring at her coffee, and finally smiling at me again.
Looking in my own cup, I noticed an iridescent oil slick on the surface. Folger’s: hand picked by Juan “Exxon Valdez.” Angling the cup so I could avoid the slick, I took another sip. It cut through the awkward silence like a bedsheet ripping in half. The coffee tasted cold and bitter. Mom saw the look on my face and sprung into action. “Want some more coffee? I can make a fresh pot.”
“No, Mom. That’s f…”
“Oh, let me do somethin’ for my baby boy.” She bustled into the kitchen. “I ain’t got none of that Stardust or whatever that is you drink in the city.”
I let it go and looked over at Zee, giving his hand a squeeze. “How you holding up?”
“I’m sorry it’s so awkward. You’re not nervous?”
“Why would I be? Your Mom’s really sweet.”
His smile was beautiful. I smiled back gratefully and stroked his hair with the back of my hand.
Two years ago I’d found a charming antique store in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Not in the tourist section, of course. Overpriced trash. A friend had taken me to a more upscale area with tasteful shops. I like to rummage around in the overlooked and dusty corners, which is where I found an uneventful brass lamp. I rubbed it a little with a sleeve – in hindsight it makes sense that my neat freak partner would only emerge after a thorough cleaning – and decided it would make a nice incense holder for my creativity altar.
Later, after being visited upon by a fearsome and magnificent genie, or djinn as I was corrected, Zee gave me three wishes. The whole idea of servitude seemed so abominable to me that I wanted to stop this nonsense once and for all. So after wishing for a high-return socially responsible mutual fund and a larger penis, I used my third wish on him. “I wish for you to be emancipated and self-directed, for the rest of your existence!”
Zee was so touched that he hung around after that. We shared some wine and chocolate, told stories from our childhood, tried out my second wish, and fell madly in love. I think the moment things got serious came after I told him how much I loved lavender. After brunch with friends I returned home to find the apartment filled with the stuff. Clouds of lavender floated in every corner and he’d turned the couch into a living nest of petals. Even the walls were covered with undulating stems.
I was deeply moved, and I’ll admit a bit dizzy from the smell. But I told him, “No, Zee! I’m not your master! I don’t want you doing stuff like this for me.”
He said, “I didn’t do it for you. I did it for me. So I could see the joy on your face.”
I have to admit, I got weepy then. That’s when I knew he was a keeper.
Zee and I sat on the sofa staring into one another’s eyes, reminiscing while we held hands. I ran my fingers through his beautiful hair.
“I made some more Folger’s. I know you like them fancy…oh.” Mom saw us and stopped short. By reflex, I drew my hand back, then hated myself for it. She refilled our cups with fresh oil slick without looking at either of us, then set the pot on a coaster painted with white ducks in blue underpants. She took her seat and crossed her ankles and hands like she was a lady.
She wore her finest visiting clothes: white leather cowboy boots with fringe, carnation pink denim about two sizes too small, starched western shirt, equally starched and poofed blonde hair, with shiny silver cowboy hats dangling from each ear. I so wanted to take her shopping.
She tapped her pink fingernails against her cup. It was chipped white, made in China, and read “Don’t Mess With Texas.” Someone had painted a duck on the handle.
“So Mrs. Cooper,” said Zee.
“Oh Betty Lou. Please. You’re part of the family now.” I flinched, wondering how Zee felt about that.
“Thank you, Betty Lou,” he said, smiling. “Did you know your son is showing again at the Whitney Museum? He does really amazing work.” I blushed and kissed him on the cheek.
“Wow, how ’bout that!” She stood and picked up a small picture from a bookshelf. Showing it to Zee, she said, “Did I show you this? That’s my upline, Dennis and Barbara Nordich, giving me a Go-Getter Award. Stevie, did I tell you I showed the business to sixteen couples in one month? Aren’t you proud of your momma?”
As she put the picture back, Zee looked over at me and gave my hand a gentle squeeze. He was surprisingly innocent for a 3000-year-old. He told me once that he slept most of that time, only coming out when some poor peasant stumbled on his vessel. He learned what he could until the three wishes had been wasted and he slipped back into a coma. As a result, he picked up things fast. Yet another thing I loved about him.
The screen door creaked open and we heard someone fumbling with the doorknob. As Zee and I stood, Mom walked over and opened the door for Dad. “Oh, thank ya.” He poked his head in and saw me. “Hey, hey, stranger!” He pried his muddy boots off with a boot pull and left them on the porch as he shambled in, wearing one white and one black sock. He noticed Zee, studied him briefly, and gave me a big hug.
“Look who’s finally come home,” Mom announced. “Our prodigious son has arrived.”
“Prodigal. Hey, Dad. Here, I’d like you to meet my partner, Xeralis.” I presented Zee with my best Vanna White hands. Dad looked dubious.
“Say who? Zippy? Zorro?”
“What is that, Oriental?”
“No Dad, he’s a djinn.”
“Djinn. Like gin? Like what you put in a martini?” I figured a drink reference would clue him in.
He looked at me and carefully pronounced, “…Jim. Jim…Martin?”
Before I could correct him again, Zee put out a hand. “Jim is fine, sir. Good to meet you.” Dad grabbed the offered hand and shook, then glanced down at what he was shaking. The smile slipped into something disconcerted.
“Boy-hidey. Got some fingernails on you, boy. You got any clippers? I got some out back, if you need ‘em.”
Zee looked at his fingers.
Mom leaned over to Dad, looking at Zee conspiratorially. “I was just about to tell our baby boy that I got some scissors for that hair. You think Mary Bell could fit him in for a cut. She could give a shave while she’s at it.”
“Mom, please. He’s standing right here.”
Dad hunched over with his elbows sticking out and started bouncing in rhythm. “Shave and haircut…six bits! Shave and a haircut…six bits!”
“It’s two bits,” I said. “And he looks fine.” I grabbed my man’s hand and squeezed. He was holding his hair in front of his face as if pondering it.
“Aw,” whined Dad. “We was just funnin’.”
“Well…it’s kind of rude, Dad.”
He scratched his ass and gazed around with a sour look on his face. Mom jumped in, almost frantic. “Who’s hungry? Dairy Queen’s still open. I could sure eat me a dilly bar.” She sang the last part, tempting us with the prospect of tasteless vanilla ice cream, enrobed with wax-like chocolate. On a stick.
“That’s great. I’m starving,” I said. “How about you, Zee?” He nodded.
Dad shambled out. “Welp, I’m gonna lay down for a nappy-nap.”
“You’re not coming with us, hon?”
“No, y’all go on without me.” He sounded like he was sacrificing his every joy for our one moment of pleasure. Before he disappeared into his room, he stopped and wiggled his fingers at me. “It’s good to have you back, son. We missed you.”
“Let me run get my purse,” said Mom.
I watched her scurry in the other direction, then turned to Zee. He had manicured fingernails and short-cropped hair, buzzed close to the sides. That sexy beard I loved so much was gone. “Zee! What’d you do! You didn’t have to change!”
“Well, I thought it would make your parents more comfortable.”
“No, no, no! That’s the whole point. We talked about this. We’re not going to act any different, right? We shouldn’t have to change for anyone. If they have a problem with the way we look, or whatever, then that’s their problem!”
“Oh,” he said, eyes downcast. The short black hair spewed out like play-doh until it reached his shoulders. “So you want me to have long hair?” The hair kept going. It reached past his waist and hit the ground. He looked like a blue Morticia Addams. Or maybe Cousin It.
He gave me a sly grin that was usually much cuter. “It’s not about what I want,” I said. “It’s about what’s natural for you. Look however you want to look.”
“Seriously?” With a poof, he exploded into a cloud of blue vapor, then imploded, churning into a swirl. I put my hands on my hips and stared at my beloved blue tornado.
“Ok, now you’re just mocking me. You know, there is a balance.”
Thunder rolled into fractured words. “You said…”
“Ok, forget it. Let’s just go, Zippy.”
I wasn’t sure what to do about the lamp at first. Zee said it was both a gateway and a leash. So if we destroyed it, would it set him free or return him to his home dimension? I wanted him to be liberated, but not if it meant his going away forever. Then there was the question: what did he want? I didn’t want him to go, but it would be hypocritical of me to force him to stay if that wasn’t in his best interest.
We decided not to decide. It seemed to keep the most options open.
I kept the lamp on my altar, though. Not as an incense holder – that just didn’t seem appropriate. But Zee had a special place in my life now.
As we pulled into the parking lot, I leaned over to Zee and whispered, “You’re going to love this.” His hair (and body) were back to normal and sexy as ever. He’d never been to a Dairy Queen. I couldn’t wait to see the look on his face.
Crossing the lot I felt like an ant under a magnifying glass. The Texas summer sun felt radioactive. Ghostly bodies in the window twisted around to face us. I held Zee’s hand and squeezed, trying not to smirk.
The Dairy Queen wrapped us in a pillow of cool air. Mom glanced over the faces, her cowboy hat earrings jingling as she jerked her head. She waved at a dry Texan in a beige Stetson. “Hey there, Tiny! You met my baby boy?” I cringed. I don’t mind an audience if it’s my show. But I despise being exhibited. The codger waved once and turned back to his wife, a pinched woman who stared at Zee with a look of horror. I could feel their judgment coating us like the stench of old grease from the fry station.
“So this is a Dairy Queen,” said Zee.
“Yeah,” I said. “They have a lot of choices.” I ran down the menu. “Deep-fried animal toxins. Botulism burgers with antibiotics. Hormone-enriched ice cream.”
A wide woman with a lazy eye and mustache sauntered to the register. “Hidey, Mabel,” said Mom. “You met my baby boy, Steve? This is his friend, Zuh…Jim.” The word “friend” made my skin crawl. Mabel looked over Zee and turned back to Mom with a flat stare.
Zee thrust his hand out. “Hello, Mabel. It’s a pleasure.” She tried to ignore him, then brought up a hand. Her arm flapped as he shook.
“Mabel, could I get me a dilly bar? And whatever these boys want. My treat,” she announced in my direction.
When it was ready, our “food” came to us in little plastic red baskets. For Zee, a deep-fried melange of chicken parts known as chicken fingers, with a side of fries. For me, iceberg lettuce and too much ranch dressing, sprinkled with grated carrots. And a dilly bar for Mom.
About half a dozen men and women sat in clusters and stared as we passed their booths. The men sat bow-legged in their starched Wrangler jeans, sipping dollar-a-gallon coffee from thick diner-grade cups. The women folded their hands and looked at their coffee, at their men, or when they thought I wasn’t looking, at Zee.
I led us to a booth at the far end. Cozy maroon naugahyde seats that gracefully cupped chipped white formica tables. Zee and I sat facing the back wall, with Mom facing out into the restaurant. Behind her head, a plexiglass frame protected an offensively inoffensive print of country living: a pasture, a farmhouse, and some hills. It looked like my salad tasted. But it served my purposes. In the reflection of the plexiglass I could just make out the restaurant behind me.
Mom slurped her dilly bar and looked past us. Her eyes scanned back and forth. Zee took a bite of a greasy plank and said, “Steve, these don’t taste like chicken’s fingers at all. Are you sure I have the right order?”
“Does it taste like chicken?” I said.
“Then you have the right order.”
I put my arm around his shoulder. In the reflection, I saw shadowy blobs moving. The locals were staring. I watched Mom. Her eyes flicked back and forth, back and forth. “Did I show you these? I got ‘em at a garage sale.” She held up a dangly cowboy boot with her free hand.
“Wow, how ’bout that,” I said. A garage sale. Imagine.
“Hey Steve,” said Zee, munching on his food. “Did you tell your Mom about the print you got at that yard sale?”
“It was an estate sale,” I said, glaring at him in the reflection. But he didn’t see me. He was setting his remaining meat planks on the table.
“What if these really were chicken fingers?” he said. The air above them shifted and a giant deep-fried chicken clucked across the table, walking on its chicken finger toes, bobbing a head that looked like coagulated meat scraps battered and fried to a soggy brown.
Zee laughed and pointed. The chicken clucked and poked at my salad, smearing ranch dressing on its beak. As I gently stroked the back of Zee’s indigo neck, I watched the reflection. “Tiny” wobbled to his feet and led his wife out by the elbow. The others just stared in disgust.
Mabel brought a coffee pot around, shuffling her feet on the linoleum floor. Passing by our table, she glanced at Zee and said, “Betty Lou, I think Mary Bell is open today if anyone needs a haircut.” She shuffled off, shaking her head in disbelief. The chicken dropped a little turd that looked like the crumbles of batter that floated in a vat of grease.
Mom scanned the restaurant and said, “Did I tell you about that new couple I signed up?” Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Zee watching me.
We came home to find Dad sprawled in his easy chair. In the time we’d been gone, he’d evidently gotten up from his nap, rolled over, and fallen headfirst into a glass of whiskey. His eyes had gone red and beady. And his hair, his own special alcohol barometer, had started to jut out. Despite my unsurprise, I felt let down. I never got to tell him about my show at the Whitney. Or help him get to know Zee. He hadn’t asked. And now he was too drunk to care.
“How was it, y’all?” his slurry words oozed.
“Your baby boy was testing me again.”
I stopped in mid-step. “What do you mean testing you?”
“He thought he’d rub it in that his friend’s a little hippy-doo.”
Dad struggled out of his chair. “Ain’t that pitiful!”
“One, I was not testing you. Two, Zee is my partner, not my ‘friend’. And three, we’re standing right here, so stop talking about us like we’re not in the room!”
“Don’t talk to your momma like that!”
Zee followed the argument like he was watching a live bird being batted back and forth. He looked concerned and a little sad.
“I’m just saying we didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. We’re just trying to be ourselves.”
“Honey, you should’ve seen the way they was watching those two.”
“I don’t understand why, Mom. Why? Why should anyone care?”
“Oh, now. You know what kind of people they are.”
“No, I don’t. Tell me.” I did know. That wasn’t the point.
Mom glanced at Zee. “Well… you know they don’t like the long hair. It’s different. Personally, I think your hair is beautiful, Jim.”
Dad bounced around. “Shave and haircuts, dah dah. Na nana na na, boo boo.” I ignored his drunken attempt to diffuse the tension. Infantilism was sad enough when sober.
“No,” I said to Mom, shaking my head. “That’s not it.”
Dad gave us a sour look and waddled back to his bedroom. Mom stuttered and blushed, glancing at Zee. I said, “Honey, it looks like the sun’s going down. The sunsets here are beautiful.” He nodded and went outside.
After the door was closed, I said, “Mom, what is it. Seriously.”
She looked around for something to distract me with, then gave up. “Son, I don’t want to upset you. It’s your life and it’s your choice.”
There it was. “Go ahead.”
“I just don’t understand why you brought home a… you know…”
“Well…” She sounded defiant. “Why does he have to be colored? That’s all.”
I was stunned. Speechless.
“Oh, don’t give me that look. You know what I mean. All that blue!” She shivered.
“Ok one, what century are you from? Two, he’s not blue, he’s indigo. And three, how many indigo people do you even know?”
“That’s not the point. He’s just… I don’t trust him.”
“Because he’s indigo? Mom, he floats. He made his chicken fingers walk across the table at the Dairy Queen. You have no problem with that?”
“Listen, this family is full of loonies. Your uncle found a live bat in his driveway once, did I tell you this? And he picked it up – a live bat! Dang thing bit him right there.”
She showed me the heel of her palm. “Had to take him to the hospital for rabies shots.”
As she shook her head at the insanity, I tried to think of what to say but couldn’t. I brushed past her and went outside, slamming the door a little too hard on the way out.
Zee stood out by the decaying barn. Tall pecan trees bordered it on all sides, hiding the last of the setting sun. Crickets and frogs chirped from a nearby pond and ducks, real ones, splashed into the water, twitching their tails.
“Your Mom thinks I’m blue.”
“You were listening? Baby, I’m so sorry.” I held him close, my chin resting on his shoulder, my hands cupping the small of his back. He did the same.
“It doesn’t bother me, Steve. I can be anything she wants, see?” He turned pale and pinkish, a perfect facsimile of Caucasian flesh that turned my stomach.
“No, baby. Don’t do that. That’s not who you are.”
“Well, neither is this.” He turned back to deep indigo, still in human form.
“That’s different. I mean you shouldn’t have to change who you are for them…”
“Only for you.”
“No! No, that’s not true.”
“You’re getting angry. I’m sorry.”
“No, I’m not, dammit.”
“Oh. Well, since you’re not going angry, can I point out something?”
I held my breath. “Sure.”
“You and your mom have a lot in common.”
I gasped. “How dare you! What do you mean?”
“You both care a lot about what other people think.”
“I saw you watching everyone at the restaurant. In the reflection? Look, I can take any form imaginable and you want this one. You definitely care, Steve. You say it shouldn’t matter what other people think, but it still does. To you.”
I stared at an old tire swinging in the wind, grasping for a snappy comeback. “But don’t you care? Don’t you want people to accept you for who you are?”
He held me by the shoulders and gently turned me to face him. The moonlight gave his skin a diffused glow that highlighted his strong features and deep violet eyes. He said, “What you’re looking at now is no more natural than this…” He shivered and collapsed into a powder-white blonde with fake tits. “…Or this…” His skin turned green and he sprouted three heads, of three different races. “…Or this…” He became eight feet tall, hairless, very male. Enormous feather wings unfolded from his back. I took note – I’d have to ask for that again. “…Or this…” With a sucking sound he imploded into a translucent blob with visible organs.
“Ok, ok. I get it.”
He shifted back to the Zee I knew and loved – tall, strong, and indigo. “None of this is what you would call the real me. That person is unnameable. But I know who he is. And that’s all that counts. Everything else is just a matter of convenience.”
I watched him, considering. “A matter of convenience.” He nodded. “Are you suggesting I don’t know who I am? If that’s the case then I’m asking my therapist for a refund.”
Zee shrugged. “I think if you did, maybe you wouldn’t have anything to prove.”
He looked so innocent. But sounded so wise. The bastard. I wrapped my arms around his waist and held him for a long time. The night air felt cool and smelled of manure and hay. I closed my eyes. “I don’t quite get what you’re saying, but it feels good to hear you say it.” I followed the curve of his back with my fingers, feeling his muscles through his thin t-shirt.
“Hey, I may only be 3000 years old, but I know a thing or two about human nature, young man.”
“Yeah, well I hope it doesn’t take me 3000 years.”
“Me neither. We’re meeting my parents next week.”
I pushed him back. “Oh crap.”
Laughing, he leaned in. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll do fine.” He smiled. I melted. Our lips met in a soft kiss as I cupped his strong jaw in my palm. Around us, the wind kicked up. His firm body dissolved and he wrapped me in a deep indigo mist.More stories like this by topic: LGB characters, Queer authors