So, what are you doing for New Year’s?”
An innocent enough question, but one that Ben always dreaded because the answer was always the same. “Probably go to a movie, then grab a beer somewhere.”
“With Tubby?” inquired Ben’s cousin Lance, who had posed the initial question.
“It’s Toby, and you know it,” Ben said. “Don’t be such a dick. That’s fat shaming.”
“Lighten up,” Lance said. “You know I’d never call him that to his face.”
“Okay, so it’s fat shaming once removed. It’s still mean. Ya know, not everybody can spend all day at the gym like you.”
“You don’t have to spend all day there for it to make a difference. You know how much extra strain he’s putting on his heart, lugging around all that weight? He’s not gonna be around for many more new years if he keeps that up. You should both swing by after the first and I’ll hook you up with free passes for a month. I’ll even throw in a couple of training sessions to get your year started off right.” Lance punctuated his point by leaning back in his chair with his hands clasped behind his head, a move which, intentionally or not, showed off Lance’s enviable biceps. When Lance’s pecs flexed beneath the white polo which bore the logo of the gym where he worked as a personal trainer, Ben knew that Lance was just rubbing it in.
“Yeah, I’ll think about it,” Ben said, which Lance interpreted as a solid “fat chance”.
Lance was an anomaly among Ben’s fraternal cousins, a natural jock among a flock of twig-thin geeks. His fair hair and blue eyes also set Lance apart from the otherwise brown-haired, brown-eyed clan, as did his status as the only known homosexual in the extended family. The logical assumption would have been that he was adopted if he hadn’t possessed the same beaky nose as the rest of Ben’s dad’s brood, although Lance had a plastic surgeon deal with that imperfect family trait years ago, leaving him with a sleek movie-star hooter to go with his blindingly white veneers.
“What movie you seein’ anyway?” Lance asked distractedly as he checked out a shirtless jogger passing the restaurant window.
“Spider-Man,” Ben admitted sheepishly.
“Didn’t you already see that, like, twice already? I can never understand why anyone would watch the same movie over and over. You saw it once. You learned the whole story. Who needs to watch it again?”
Ben shot back, “Well, maybe I don’t understand why anyone would lift a barbell more than once. I mean, you lifted it once. You proved you can lift it. Who needs to lift it again?”
Lance was exasperated by the comparison. “It’s not the same at all. You do reps in order to increase your… Oh, you’re just fuckin’ with me now. Hey, instead of watchin’ some damn movie again, you oughta come out with me,” Lance suggested.
Lance didn’t even have to say where, because Ben knew his cousin only frequented one club, a gay disco over on University Avenue. Ben laughed. “Yeah, no, I don’t think so. That one time you dragged me there was the boringest night of my life.”
“Dude, I’ve seen your life. That cannot remotely be true.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t wanna be the one straight guy in a gay club on New Year’s Eve. Besides, I already made plans with Toby.”
Lance hesitated a moment before suggesting, “Bring him along.”
Ben glared at his cousin. “Yeah, right. I’m sure your jacked pals from the gym would be real welcoming to the guy you call Tubby.”
Lance put on his most sincere-sounding voice. “You’re in a rut, cuz. How many years now have you and Tub…Toby been hanging out together on New Year’s? I never been with the same guy two New Year’s Eves in a row. Shit, you guys are the most stable couple I know.”
It had been a long-running gag for Lance to gently imply that Ben had a secret lurking in his closet. It was a sensitive topic for Ben, who assumed his cousin wasn’t the only one to harbor such suspicions about him. After all, he was thirty years old, never married, rarely dating. Hell, before he came out at nineteen, Lance had laid far more women than Ben had in all the years since. Although Ben wasn’t technically a virgin, his passport to Poontown hadn’t been stamped in quite a while. He probably would need a refresher course and a written exam before he’d be allowed to fuck again. “What exactly are you tryin’ to say, Lance?”
“Nothin’, nothin’, just bustin’ your balls, man. You know that. Just sayin’ it might not be a bad idea to shake things up once in a while.” When Lance reached into the pocket of his track pants to pull out his wallet, he also found a folded-up flyer which he tossed onto the table. “If you change your mind, there’s the info. Seriously, you should come. It’ll be fun. There’s always a few chicks who show up, and you wouldn’t have much competition for ‘em. You’re never gonna have better odds. Maybe you’ll get lucky, have someone to kiss at midnight for once.” He stood up and dropped a twenty on the table, which easily covered both of their lunches. “Happy new year, cuz,” Lance said, patting Ben on the shoulder as he walked to the exit.
Ben noticed the bill on the table and objected. “Hey, you didn’t have to…” But Lance was already out the door. Just like when he casually flexed his muscles, paying the full tab was another way in which Lance passive-aggressively demonstrated his superiority over his dweebish cousin. Ben had no idea how much money Lance made as a trainer, but it was undoubtedly more than Ben cleared clerking at a comic-book store. With the money he saved not paying for lunch, Ben calculated that he could spring for the mega tub of popcorn at the movie tonight.
Ben suddenly felt very sorry for himself. Was the prospect of chomping down a larger quantity of starch and grease really the most exciting thing he had to look forward to this New Year’s Eve? Was ringing in another year at Toby’s side truly the best he could do?
Ben looked back at the paper on the counter and unfolded it curiously. “Out With The Old, In With The New,” the flyer declared over photos of hard-bodied dudes on a tightly-packed dance floor. “Dress as your favorite character from the last year for valuable prizes!”
Shit, Ben thought, wasn’t Halloween just two months ago? Did the gays have to turn every holiday into friggin’ Comic Con? Couldn’t they just be themselves?
Ben crumpled up the paper and decided to stick to his original plan. He might be in a rut, but it was a comfortable rut.
“Man, I caught so many more little details this time,” Toby told Ben excitedly as they exited the movie theater. “Thanks for springin’ for the 3D glasses. I usually think that’s a waste of money, but it was really worth it.” He noticed that Ben was uncharacteristically quiet, just as he had been before and during the movie. “What’s wrong? You’re not gonna start pickin’ apart the logic now, are ya?”
“No, no, it’s still awesome,” Ben said, zipping up the Spider-Man hoodie that he had gotten from Toby for Christmas.
“Then what’s buggin’ you?” Toby asked, pulling on the Overwatch hoodie that Ben had given him for Christmas. Ben had bought size XXL, but it was still a bit small for Toby, with the lower curve of his gut poking out at the bottom. Despite the chilly weather, Toby was wearing the same baggy knee-length shorts as he did all year ‘round, exposing his pale white calves to the elements.
Ben shrugged dismissively. “It’s nothing. I just had lunch with my cousin Lance today.”
“The gay guy, right?” Toby said, thinking Ben had changed the subject. “He’s so cool. What’s new with him?”
“More than is new with us,” Ben mumbled.
As they stepped outside onto the sidewalk, Toby automatically pivoted in the direction of their usual bar while Ben stood in place, hands buried in his hoodie pockets. Toby had walked a third of a block, blathering about something or other, before he realized Ben was no longer alongside him. He looked around until he spotted Ben back by the exit doors. “Aren’t you comin’?” he yelled.
“I was just thinkin’, maybe we should go someplace else for a change,” Ben shouted down the street.
Toby looked confused as he trundled back toward Ben. “Why?”
“Just to try something different. Break up the monotony.”
“But we like this bar,” Toby huffed as he reached Ben. Just that brief walk had caused drops of sweat to roll down from Toby’s bowl cut and across his puffy cheeks before disappearing into his patchy neck beard.
“Yeah, well, maybe there are other bars we’d like too, but we don’t know about ‘em because we never go to ‘em.”
“Fine. Whatever. A beer’s a beer. There’s that one joint a couple blocks north of here that’s always looked kinda interesting.”
“Fine,” Ben said, turning north. Toby hustled to catch up to him.
After walking in silence for a bit, Ben laughed as he thought of something from earlier in the day. “Hey, guess what? Lance offered to give us free passes to his gym for a month.”
“Really? That’s cool of him,” Toby said, giving no indication that he would actually accept the offer.
“Would you do that?”
Toby tilted his head back and forth, weighing the question. “Dunno. Probably should. Neither of us is gettin’ any younger.”
If Toby was indeed willing to go, then Ben might consider it too. With traumatic childhood memories of dreading gym class where he was inevitably picked last and picked on, Ben remained too self-conscious to wade all by himself into a room full of sweaty, pumped-up jocks, certain that they would be laughing behind his back if not directly to his face. But if Toby were there, perhaps his outsized presence would divert any assholes’ attention away from Ben’s puny ass and onto a bigger target. He knew it was rude to consider using his friend as a decoy for dickheads, but the issue was academic, because he knew Toby would keep putting off the idea until Ben stopped bringing it up.
“You’ll never believe what else Lance suggested. He thought we should come to his gay club tonight. Can you imagine that? You and me at a gay bar?”
Toby guffawed so hard, he had to pause to catch his breath. Ben stopped and waited for Toby to recuperate.
When he finally could speak, Toby was still wheezing. “That’s hilarious. I can just see all those gay dudes hittin’ on us, can’t you?”
“I know, right? Like, if chicks aren’t even into us, why the hell would some guy want to fuck us?”
Toby got defensive. “Hey, don’t ever say that. There’s chicks out there for us. We’re just choosy.”
“Yeah,” Ben replied uncertainly. The two friends had been reassuring each other for years about how “selective” they were, how women were just blind to their obvious, if well-hidden, merits, but Ben was coming around to the conclusion that their perpetual bachelorhood had a lot more to do with natural selection than with their own pickiness.
“But, hypothetically,” Toby wondered, “if you and me were a gay couple, like, who would be the guy?”
Ben gave a look like he’d smelled spoiled milk. “Would you get outta here with that? Anyway, I’m pretty sure the whole point of being gay is that both guys are guys.”
“Yeah, I know that, but, like, isn’t one of ‘em usually more the macho type and the other one’s kinda like…” Toby let his hand dangle limply from the wrist.
“I don’t think it works like that any more,” Ben replied. “I mean, you’ve met Lance. He doesn’t act, like, gay-gay.”
“No, man. If I hadn’t seen him kissin’ guys, I’d think he was totally straight.”
“Right. And when I’ve met his boyfriends, they’ve all seemed pretty much normal.”
“Huh,” Toby said, pondering this new insight. “Even though I’m big, I think I’d probably be the girl. I like to be waited on and shit.”
Ben shook his head in dismay at the direction the conversation had turned.
“Hey, you ever wonder if blind guys can be gay?” Toby asked philosophically. “I mean, if you can’t see somebody, how do you know if you think they’re hot or not? Or when you’re fuckin’. I mean, a hole’s a hole. How do you know if it’s a chick hole or a guy hole? How would you even know that you prefer to fuck a guy’s hole? Their voice, maybe?”
Ben waved his hands frantically in the air. “Can we talk about something else, okay?”
“Fine,” Toby said, noticing they had reached the bar he had been thinking of. “We’re here anyway.” Ben grabbed the handle and swung open the door, holding it for Toby. “Why, thank you,” Toby said with exaggerated pleasure, just to annoy Ben.
The bar was darkly paneled and dimly lit, with the rich musky scent of a century of liquor spilled onto hardwood flooring. Christmas decorations hung from the ceiling, looking so forlorn and faded that Ben figured they must be up year-round. The place was crowded but not suffocatingly so, filled with well-dressed couples Ben and Toby’s age or younger. A hipster band was on a small stage in the corner, playing an acoustic version of “Thank U, Next” arranged for their eclectic lineup of banjo, xylophone, upright bass, tambourine, and scratching turntables.
Toby looked at the stylish couples chatting and mingling around them and leaned over to Ben to ask, “How can all these people afford such nice clothes and shit?”
Ben said, “They probably got better-paying jobs, higher-limit credit cards, or richer fucking parents than we do.” It wouldn’t be hard for someone’s take-home to exceed what Ben pulled down at the comic-book store, and Toby was even more strapped for cash than Ben. Toby still lived in his childhood bedroom at his mom’s house, and his only regular source of income was doing video-game reviews on YouTube. At least Ben could afford a cramped but decent studio apartment.
Ben wasn’t sure this was his kind of place. “You wanna try someplace else?”
Toby said, “Nah, this is fine. It’s almost midnight anyway. A beer’s a beer.” He walked to the bar, squeezed his bulk between two canoodling couples and gestured to the barkeep, who had a waxed mustache, ear gauges, and, swear to god, a monocle. “Can we get a couple of whatever you got on tap?”
“Nothing on tap,” the bartender informed him, pointing to the daunting wall of bottled beers behind the bar.
Toby stepped back and looked desperately toward Ben. “I’m not good with decisions. You pick something.”
Ben sighed and maneuvered toward the bar, pointing to two varieties at random. The bartender uncapped the bottles and brought them to Ben, who laid a twenty on the bar. The bartender took the bill without saying a word. Ben lingered until it was clear that no change would be returning to him. He scooted over to Toby and handed him a bottle.
Toby raised the bottle and said, “Here’s to a better new year than the last one.”
“Hear, hear,” Ben said, clacking the bottom of his bottle against Toby’s. They each took a drink. Ben thought his selection was fine but not worth ten smackers. He asked Toby, “How’s yours?”
Toby shrugged and repeated his mantra, “A beer’s a beer.” He started to bob his head in time with the music.
Ben’s mind drifted as he thought about their half-assed toast. How would the next year possibly be any different from the miserable one drawing to a close? What was ever going to change if he kept doing the same things he always did? Was he doomed to a lifetime of New Year’s Eves standing alongside Toby, ostensibly serving as each other’s wingman but remaining forever grounded, spectating while other people lived more interesting live? Nothing against Toby. Sure, he might not be the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but they shared a lot of the same interests and made each other laugh at references most other people wouldn’t even understand. Their friendship was the very definition of “low maintenance”. But was that honestly all Ben wanted out of life?
In that moment, Ben decided he was not going to go another year without a midnight kiss on New Year’s. He squinted as he scouted the crowd for someone who would allow him to fulfill this vow. He automatically ruled out any woman who was dancing with or draped over some guy, which wiped out half of the club instantly just like a snap of Thanos’ fingers. Of the remainder who weren’t obviously taken, Ben scratched off anyone who was obviously out of his league, as well as the few who he considered too unattractive even for him. This provided him a very narrow window of cute but not too pretty, shy but not too mousy, approachable but not too desperate.
By process of elimination, Ben was left to fixate on the only woman who met his criteria. She was seated at the end of the bar, her stool spun around so she could watch the band and the dancers. She had short brunette hair and, unlike most of the women in attendance, was not dolled up in some expensive retro dress. Instead, she looked comfortable and practical in a plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans. Dammit, Ben told himself, I might conceivably have a chance with her. He forced his bottle into Toby’s free hand and said, “Hold my beer.”
Summoning all the confidence his scrawny body could muster, Ben walked directly toward the woman. Nothing would divert him from his mission. Just the prospect of a hypothetical midnight kiss from a total stranger was already enough to give him a chubby. As he got closer, he saw the woman’s face light up with a welcoming smile. That had to be a good sign, he told himself. He realized he should probably have thought of an opening line by now. He hadn’t wanted to overthink the situation, hoping that the perfect words would tumble from his lips like magic, but now he was having second thoughts about not overthinking. As the moment of truth grew closer, words were having trouble finding him. When his step hesitated for a fraction of a second, someone in a black leather jacket swerved in from Ben’s right flank, cutting him off and sweeping the brunette into a passionate embrace.
To avoid embarrassment, Ben maintained his forward momentum, acting as if his intended destination had been the men’s room all along. As he passed the kissing couple, he shot a quick glance toward them. The cute brunette and the woman in the leather jacket seemed extremely happy with each other.
Ben stood at the urinal, bonking his forehead repeatedly against the tiled wall. He was going through the motions of taking a leak but still erect enough that he knew nothing was likely to flow. Even though the bathroom was otherwise empty, he stood there with his dick out for the usual length of time a piss would take before tucking in, zipping up and flushing. As he stepped toward the sink, he stared at his reflection in the mirror. Yeah, he was skinny with sunken cheeks and poor posture and unruly hair and a protruding Adam’s apple and a bumpy nose and a shit job and low self-esteem, but he wasn’t that unfuckable.
Surely there must be one person in the world who could stand to be around him.
Ben had an epiphany. He looked directly into his brown eyes and, out loud, said, “Oh, what the hell.”
Through the door, he could hear as the xylophonist and the tambouriner did their best to approximate a drum roll, while the singer led the crowd in a countdown backwards from ten. He threw open the door and marched back into the bar as the count descended, growing in volume with each number. He breezed past the lesbian couple, who were murmuring the countdown softly as they gazed into each other’s eyes.
The chant had reached three when Toby noticed Ben heading toward him. “You just about missed it,” Toby said, noticing a wild intensity in Ben’s eyes. Toby was concerned. “Bro, are you okay?”
When the clock hit twelve and the crowd shouted “Happy New Year!” Ben rose on his tiptoes, clutched his hands around the sides of Toby’s head, and gave him a kiss. Not a quick half-assed kiss that he could easily shrug off later as a joke, but a full-bore, full-lipped, full-tongued, aiming-for-the-tonsils kiss. Startled, Toby teetered on his feet…but found himself reciprocating the kiss whole-heartedly.
As the band struck up their quaint arrangement of “Auld Lang Syne”, Ben and Toby both felt a peculiar tremor, a powerful burst of energy which emanated from where their lips made contact and rippled outward in waves that buffeted their bodies and seemed to spread to the air surrounding them. Feeling dizzy, they clutched each other to maintain their balance and continued to kiss as the quirky music morphed into a bass-heavy techno remix. Ben and Toby felt the environment around them become louder and chattier, hotter and sweatier. Ben grew claustrophobic and short of breath. He mumbled “I don’t feel so good” to Toby. His knees buckled, but Toby caught him.
Ben opened his eyes and looked up gratefully. “Thanks, To…by?” The man holding him upright had the same facial features as Toby, but his cheeks had lost their chubbiness and his scalp and chin were completely clean-shaven. His bad-ass cranium sat atop a thick, sinewy neck that flared out into broad muscular shoulders. A black stringer tank top revealed a complicated tribal tattoo that stretched across his chest and all the way down his right arm.
“What are you wearin’?” the muscle beast asked in Toby’s innocent voice.
Ben backed away, only now thinking to look away from Toby and down at his own body. The reason for the claustrophobia was immediately clear. He was wearing a full-body Spider-Man leotard with the cowl pulled up to his forehead in order to expose his face. This was no cheap Halloween costume from Target, but a detailed Lycra bodysuit which seemed custom-tailored to cling snugly to his every curve. Holy shit, Ben realized, I’ve got curves! His skeletal frame had filled out with lean toned muscle which felt permanently flexed even as he was standing still. He was grateful that the crotch area had extra reinforcements and darker shading to camouflage the enormous hard-on he was now sporting.
“Where the hell are we?” Toby asked, swiping a palm across his smooth scalp. Now that he had taken a few steps back, Ben was able to see Toby’s entire body at once. He was swollen with muscle. Enormous thighs stretched out his cargo shorts. Veiny calves bulged out above a pair of sturdy brown hiking boots.
Ben looked away from Toby to take in their surroundings. They were definitely no longer at the hipster bar. The crowd was predominantly, if not exclusively, male. Most were in some form of costume or halfway out of one, swaying drunkenly to the music and singing whatever stray words they could remember from “Auld Lang Syne”. Ben recognized the place, as he had been here exactly once, with his cousin. Somehow he and Toby had been teleported to Lance’s favorite gay club, wearing strange clothes and unfamiliar bodies. For all he knew, they weren’t even Ben and Toby any more.
Ben noticed a mirrored wall and scrambled toward it, feeling uncharacteristically nimble as he dodged his way through the crowd. Approaching the mirror, he was relieved to recognize his face, but as he drew closer, he knew something wasn’t quite right. As he turned his head from side to side, the difference was as plain as the nose on his face. He now had the same bump-free nose as his cousin, but with an upturned tip that gave him an even more youthful appearance. On further inspection, he also realized that his eyes looked different. His irises looked blue instead of brown under the strobing lights of the club, although he could tell from the slight irritation against his eyelids that the change was attributable to colored contacts rather than genetic modification. Noticing a tuft of light hair dangling over his forehead, he pulled back the head covering further, gasping as he revealed a bountiful thatch of blond-verging-on-white hair that only a bottle of bleach could produce, with the sides and back clippered to stubble. He covered his mouth with his hands, his emotions seesawing between shock and ecstasy.
“What happened to us, Benjy?” Ben turned to find Toby standing beside him, looking just as confused as Ben felt. “Last thing I remember it was midnight, and I started feelin’ all weird. Then all of a sudden, we’re in a whole different place and you’re dressed like Spider-Man. How come you got muscles now?”
“I’ve got muscles? Have you looked at yourself?” Ben took Toby by the elbow and pulled him in front of the mirror.
Toby burst into laughter as he saw his new reflection, the sight was so improbable. His immediate impulse was to hoist his arms up and flex them simultaneously, causing biceps the size of softballs to rise to prominence. He didn’t appear to have lost any of his mass. It merely migrated and converted into solid muscle, redistributed to his shoulders, chest, arms and legs. As he lifted his arms, the tail of his tank top rose to reveal that his gut had disappeared, leaving a clearly delineated eight-pack in its place. He rubbed his fingers over his tattoo, expecting the ink to smudge, but when that did nothing, he licked his fingertips and tried again. “Holy shit, it’s real! How is this possible?” Toby asked, mystified but explicitly not complaining.
“I have no idea,” Ben said, unable to keep his eyes from roving across the contours of Toby’s incredible physique, finding the rear view nearly as impressive as the front. He was being flooded with thoughts and sensations that he had never felt before…or perhaps had never allowed himself to feel before. He shook his head vigorously. For fuck’s sake, I am not gay, he thought to himself insistently, even if his body was sending seriously conflicting signals. Even if he had inexplicably “turned” gay, that still didn’t explain how he had instantly gotten so fit. It’s not like being gay automatically came with a great body, or vice versa. He knew how hard his cousin Lance had to work to stay in shape, yet he and Toby had somehow skipped over the pain and gone straight to the gain. None of this was making any sense.
Toby spun around and faced Ben. “You didn’t make, like, a magical New Year’s wish or somethin’, did you?”
Ben scrunched up his face. “A magical New Year’s wish? What is that? Is that even a thing? I don’t think that’s a thing.”
“Well, somethin’ musta caused this.” Just then, Toby remembered something. “Hey, back at the other bar…why were you tryin’ to kiss me?”
Ben laughed nervously. “Oh, that? It was a joke. Everybody else was kissing at midnight, so I thought it’d be funny if I kissed you. It was funny, right?” Ben could hear the hollowness of his words. He had known as it was happening that the kiss was too authentic to fob off with the “just kidding” excuse.
“Uh-uh,” Toby said. “You meant it. I could tell you meant it. You were wonderin’ what it’d be like if you and I were, like, a couple, weren’t you?”
“What, are you nuts?” Ben shifted uneasily, rubbing the back of his left leg against his right calf. “What would ever make you think that?”
“‘Cause I was thinkin’ the same thing,” Toby said with a sheepish grin.
A nearby voice boomed, “Well, it’s about fuckin’ time!” Ben and Toby turned to see Ben’s cousin Lance, unquestionably shit-faced, blowing a noisemaker that inflated a long paper cylinder. “Happy fuckin’ new year!” he cried. An cardboard-and-sparkle tiara was propped off-kilter on Lance’s head. He wore a red cardigan sweater, unbuttoned to display his ripped torso, along with a black Speedo and brown loafers.
Ben felt relieved to be recognized, but didn’t understand why Lance wasn’t as freaked out by their appearance as they were. “You know us, Lance?”
“Of course I do! You’re Spider-Man.” Lance turned to inspect Toby. “And you are the Rock in…what movie?”
Toby looked down at himself and said, “Every movie. And I’m guessin’ you’re supposed to be…sexy Mister Rogers?”
“That’s a bingo!” Lance shouted.
“No, I don’t mean what characters we’re dressed as,” Ben said, trying to keep Lance focused. “Who are we? Really?”
“Man, I thought I’d had too much to drink,” Lance said, chuckling. He pointed his thumb at Toby. “This gorgeous hunk of manhood is Tobe.” He slapped a hand on the back of Toby’s neck and pulled him down for a sloppy kiss on the lips. “And you are my dear sweet cousin Benjy, who I cannot kiss on the lips because somehow that would be incredibly gross.” He staggered over to Ben, aiming to kiss him on the cheek but reeling off balance and ending up laying a strip of saliva from Ben’s chin to his ear. Ben caught him and pinned him against the mirrored wall so Lance could regain his bearings.
Ben shot a glance at Toby and said, “Go get him a Coke or a Red Bull or something with tons of caffeine, will ya, hon?”
“You got it, babe,” Toby said, swaggering back to the bar.
Ben couldn’t be positive, but he was pretty sure that he just called Toby “hon” and that Toby had responded by calling him “babe”, but that was well down on his list of strange things to worry about. He focused his energy squarely on Lance. “Level with me, man. Don’t I look different to you?” he asked, clutching the cardigan to keep Lance from sliding down the mirror and onto the floor.
Lance fixed his bleary eyes on his cousin. “Are those blue contacts? Hell’s yeah. They look good on you.”
“What about the hair, Lance? Haven’t you noticed I’m blond?”
“Yeah, so? You been blond for, what, two, three years now? Right around the time I took you to my doc to get your nose fixed. So, wait, are the contacts part of your costume, or are you tryin’ to gradually steal my entire look?”
“What are you talkin’ about? I haven’t been blond for two years,” Ben insisted. “You saw me at lunch today and I had brown hair! Remember?”
“Cuz, I’ve had the whole week off. I haven’t seen you since the Christmas party. Remember?”
Ben asked, “What Christmas party?”
“Uh, the work Christmas party? At the gym? Where you work?” He rapped his knuckles on Ben’s forehead and asked, “Hello? Anybody in there?”
“Listen to me, Lance,” Ben said through gritted teeth. “I’m tellin’ you, ten seconds before midnight, Toby and I were at this bar downtown and then…something happened…and now we got zapped here looking completely different and I’m pretty sure…” He whispered the final bit. “I’m pretty sure we’re gay now!”
“Wait, wait, back up, buddy. What do you mean, ‘something happened’? What happened exactly? I mean, did you make, like, some kinda magic New Year’s wish?”
“That! Is not! A thing!” Ben declared furiously.
Toby returned with a fizzing pint glass. “Here ya go. It’s Coke mixed with Red Bull.”
“Give it to Benjy,” Lance said, straightening up. “He’s the one who needs to sober up.”
Toby turned to Ben, holding out the glass. Ben pushed it away and followed Lance as he snaked his way across the dance floor, with Toby trailing slightly behind, trying not to spill the drink.
“What do you mean I work at the gym?” Ben asked. “That’s crazy. I’m not an athlete!”
Lance laughed over his shoulder. “Aha! Finally you say something that makes sense. No, as anyone who’s played basketball with you would agree, you are definitely not an athlete. But at least you keep trying. I gotta give you credit for that!”
“So if I’m not a jock, how’d I get these muscles?”
Lance stopped in the middle of the crowd and faced his cousin. “Because you had an expert personal trainer.” WIth a cocky smile, he pointed to his own chest. “Because you don’t hafta be Mr. Coordinated to build muscle. And because you are an easy fuckin’ gainer, you lucky prick. Only person I ever whipped into shape faster is your buddy the Rock back there.” He winked at Toby and fired a finger pistol at him before resuming his trek through the dancing throng.
Ben massaged his temples with his fingers, finding the ridges on his Spidey gloves pleasantly soothing. He had no memories of anything Lance had described, yet as soon as he heard what Lance said, Ben had the eerie sensation that it was all true now. He turned to face Toby, who was looming behind him. “Quick, what’s my name?” he asked.
“Benjy!” Tobe wondered why Benjy would ask such a silly question.
That made no sense to Benjy. Nobody had ever called him Benjy. Why did Tobe say that? “Okay, what do I do for a living?”
“You’re a trainer. At the gym. With your cousin.” Tobe was starting to think this was some kind of gag, but he couldn’t see the point of it.
Benjy clutched the straps of Tobe’s tank top and stared desperately into his eyes. “Don’t you remember, we were just at a completely different bar just a few minutes ago?”
“Maybe you were, but I been here all night.”
Benjy’s conviction was crumbling, his voice weakening. “All…night?”
“Of course. You knew I was bouncing tonight. I’m lucky I managed to get a five-minute break when you showed up, so we could kiss at midnight.” He handed the glass of Coke and Red Bull to Benjy and said, “Lance is right. I think you do need this.” He bent down to give Benjy a juicy kiss on the lips and blurted out “Happy anniversary” before rushing back to his post at the front door.
“Happy…what?” Dazed, Benjy stood in the middle of the dance floor and sipped the caffeinated concoction. He felt like he was losing his grip on reality…or at least one reality. He remained positive that he had started this night hanging out with his doughy bro Toby, going to a movie and a bar, like they always did on New Year’s Eve, but an alternative scenario was taking root and cementing itself alongside that first version of the night in his consciousness. In the new scenario, Benjy had spent the night dropping in on kids who were stuck in the hospital on New Year’s Eve, surprising them with a visit from their friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. It gave him a warm feeling to see how happy the kids were to see him, and he knew from the reactions of the nurses how spectacular he looked in his costume. Heck, he was positive could have persuaded that one hunky male nurse to come back to the club with him, but alas, the hunky nurse was married and headed straight home once his shift was over.
Not that it mattered, since Benjy would never in a million years cheat on Tobe.
The distracting artifacts of a previous life which cluttered Benjy’s mind were quickly decaying in favor of a shiny new history that recontextualized elements of his old memories, leaving him with a past that still had remnants of familiar details. Sure, once upon a time, he and Tobe had been nothing more than buddies, and Benjy had worked at a comics store, and Tobe had lived at home and made money reviewing videogames online. And, yeah, they hung out and went to movies and played videogames. And every year, they ended up together on New Year’s Eve, toasting each other with beer and hoping for things to get better in the year ahead and, depending on how many drinks they’d had, maybe giving each other a half-assed, totally hetero, “no homo” bro hug before drifting back to their separate destinations and going to bed alone. That all seemed accurate, even if seemed to Benjy that it had happened so long ago, it may as well have been a whole other lifetime.
Then one year—Benjy couldn’t say exactly when, although it seemed like yesterday—Lance had offered to give Benjy and Tobe free training at the gym where he worked. Somehow, Benjy talked Tobe into it, or maybe Tobe talked Benjy into it, but they started working out together under Lance’s instruction where they made amazing progress. After six months, Benjy was in good enough shape that he quit his job at the comic store to become a full-time trainer at the gym. Under Lance’s tutelage, Benjy started to come out of his shell, shedding his old geeky persona in favor of something more in Lance’s image. He began to dress more fashionably in ways that highlighted his newly pumped assets. After a while, he decided to dye his hair blond. Lance even convinced him to save up for the same nose job he had gotten years before, giving them a family resemblance shared by no other members of their family. Newcomers to the gym were positive that Lance and Benjy were brothers, maybe even twins. They certainly maintained a fraternal rivalry, which pushed them each to stay at the top of their game to avoid slipping behind the other.
Even more than Benjy, Tobe had exploded with muscle, reconfiguring himself into bodybuilder shape at a speed which astonished and irritated the other gym rats, who couldn’t even achieve such impressive results with steroids. It was the only thing that had ever come easily to Tobe in his life, yet he’d always been too lazy and too uninterested in exercise to have discovered this mutant trait earlier. Like Benjy, Tobe was offered a job at the gym, but he passed on the opportunity, saying he didn’t like being cooped up. Instead, he took a gig as a bouncer at Lance’s favorite club and, in his spare time, started posting videos on YouTube of himself working out, on the beach or in a park or next to a waterfall. In theory, they were how-to training videos, but according to the appreciative comments left below the videos, the main takeaway for most viewers was “how to flog your meat while watching a swole stud exercise in a neon-yellow thong”. That exposure brought Tobe some attention which led to some modeling gigs, which led to even better modeling gigs, which finally allowed Tobe to move out of his mom’s house and get his own place. To celebrate his independence, he got the first of many tattoos, consciously emulating his role model, Dwayne Johnson, aka the Rock. When someone would say, “You know, you look like the Rock,” Tobe would be in heaven for the rest of the day, although he was never able to master the whole raising-one-eyebrow thing.
As their success and self-confidence grew, so did Benjy and Tobe’s self-awareness. With the patient encouragement of Lance, who had long assumed the boys were terrified of admitting that they were gay and had been gently coaxing them in the right direction for years, they each reached the point when they were finally willing to admit to the deep affection that had long bubbled under the surface of their platonic friendship. One New Year’s Eve at midnight, they broke out of the friend zone with a kiss, although Benjy strangely couldn’t remember who exactly instigated it or the exact year or the exact place it happened. For such a big moment, you’d think details like that would stick in your brain.
“Earth to Benjy. Benjy? Benjy?”
Benjy became aware of Lance shaking him vigorously in the middle of the dance floor, the drink in his hand sloshing onto the dancers surrounding him and covering Benjy’s hand in sticky sugar-water.
“You okay there, cuz?” Lance asked with genuine concern. “You’re acting really weird tonight.”
“Huh? No, I’m fine. Just zoned out for a minute there.”
“C’mon, the guys are over here.” Lance led him to a reserved table abutting the dance floor where all of Lance and Benjy’s fellow trainers from the gym were gathered—at least the gay male ones, which happened to be the majority of them. They greeted Benjy like the old pal that he was, complimenting him on his Spidey costume and particularly on how well he filled it out. For the rest of the night, Benjy took turns hitting the floor with the other trainers, always with his mask pulled down to maintain his anonymity. His awkward, spasmodic dance moves looked somewhat more intentional if it appeared that Benjy was actually intending to strike Spider-Man poses.
As the night wound down and the dance floor became less crowded, Benjy motioned for Lance to join him for a dance. Lance stumbled toward him and draped his liquor-soaked carcass limply over Benjy’s shoulders. “Have I ever told you how proud I am of you, cuz?” Lance asked with a slur in his voice.
“I don’t think so,” Benjy replied, adjusting his grip to keep Lance from collapsing in a heap.
“Well, I am. You used to be such a whiny little drip, but look at you now. And what you and Tobe have together? It’s a fucking inspiration. To see that kinda loyalty and friendship and love. Knowing that you’ll have the same person to kiss every New Year’s Eve for the rest of your lives. It makes me wanna find that special kinda relationship for myself.”
Lance seemed on the verge of crying. Benjy patted Lance on the back appreciatively.
“Someday,” Lance clarified, wiping away his tears. “When I’m old. And my body’s gone to shit. But not tonight. Definitely not tonight.” Benjy felt Lance’s hot breath against his neck as his cousin raspily whispered, “So, which of the guys do you think I should go home with?”
Benjy shook his head. Same old Lance. He was tempted to observe that people never change, but he knew for a fact that wasn’t true.
At closing time, the question of who Lance should go home with became academic when he passed out at the ringside table. It fell to Spidey to come to the rescue, slinging Lance’s body over his shoulder and hauling him to Tobe’s pick-up truck. When Tobe finished with his duties, the three of them drove back to the loft that he and Benjy shared, depositing Lance on the sectional sofa in one corner of the space. His snoring echoed off the exposed brick walls.
“Man, I am beat,” Tobe griped as he pulled his tank top over his head. “I swear, that was the longest day I’ve ever had.” As he kicked off his boots and shuffled toward the bedroom, he noticed Benjy, still in his full Spider-Man costume, pondering Tobe’s exercise equipment which occupied a quarter of the loft’s square footage. Keeping himself in top shape wasn’t just a hobby for Tobe any more, it was vital to his employment, so he had built a private gym that would allow him to work out whenever he wanted. “What are you doin’?” he asked Benjy.
“I always wanted to try this,” Benjy announced, leaping up to grab a chin-up bar, his strength compensating for his natural klutziness as he swung himself upward until he was perched atop the bar. He shifted his weight backwards until the bar was positioned in the bend of his knees. He let himself drop back and hung upside down, pulling away his face mask so only his mouth and chin were revealed. “Hurry up, before all the booze rushes to my head.”
Tobe eagerly thumped his way across the wooden floor in his stocking feet, well aware of the moment Benjy was trying to recreate. “Hey, Tiger,” he said with a grin before kissing Benjy’s upside-down mouth. They locked succulent lips for a solid thirty seconds before Benjy grew dizzy. Tobe helped him climb back to a seated position on the bar, then caught Benjy in his arms when he jumped down.
As Tobe carried Benjy to their bedroom, Benjy observed, “Isn’t it crazy how out of shape the two of us used to be?”
“We never used to have anyone we wanted to look good for,” Tobe replied. Benjy smirked in agreement.
“Happy anniversary, babe,” Tobe said, kissing Benjy again. Although he was the bigger and stronger of the two, Tobe would be ceding that advantage as soon as they got in bed where Benjy was definitely the dominant personality. Tobe didn’t consider himself less masculine than his boyfriend. He just hated making decisions.
“So, what you got planned for next New Year’s Eve?” Tobe asked as he placed Benjy gently on their king-size bed.
“Oh, ya know,” Benjy said with a satisfied grin, tossing his Spider-cowl to the floor and feeling his Spid-erection stiffening inside his spandex. “Same old same old.”
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