"Blank Canvas" (Short Story)
A man – and he is a man, as much as the term would bother him – stands before a house's front landing, typing something into his phone. There’s noises coming from inside the house, audible even from out here: a thumping stereo and someone’s voice trying to rise above it. He gets a text: just come straight in.
The man walks in, feeling awkward despite the invitation, and is accosted immediately by a woman his age with black straight hair and a crowded, smiling face. “Henry!” she says, enveloping the man in a hug. “I can’t believe it!” Henry smiles, freeing himself from the hug and straightening the wrinkles on his t-shirt.
“I wasn’t sure how many people would be here,” he says, the woman leading him deeper into the house, closer to the music.
“It’s just me and my sister. She invited Jordan, too. Wine?”
She pours him a glass in the kitchen, passing it to him. “Thanks,” he says. “It’s actually genuinely nice to see you, Jules.”
She laughs. “Try not to sound so surprised, wow.” Jules’s tone reminds Henry of their high-school rapport, which soured many years prior.
“I just mean, like -- it kills me to be back in town. So, it’s nice to see you, at least.”
A woman younger than Jules walks into the kitchen and smiles at Henry. “You came!”. She doesn’t hug him, but her smile is warm and genuine.
“Stef. Good to see you.”
“It’s a sorry state of business to be back here, isn’t it?” Stefanie says, following this with a sip from her glass. “You and Jules, twenty-eight years old, and living back at home. Classic. A very tragic post-post-graduate cliché.”
“I’m so sick of being judged by twenty-one-year-olds in the midst of their own useless BFAs,” Jules snipes back.
Henry smiles, feeling more at ease being amongst their sisterly ribbing. He hopes the other invitee Jules discussed doesn’t arrive. “Where are your parents?” he asks.
Jules shrugs, saying, “They went out. I swear they have a more active social life than I do.”
Stefanie looks down at her phone and then back up, saying, “Jordan’s here, I think. I’ll show him in.” She walks off towards the front door while Henry and Jules sit in silence, listening to Jules’s sister greet the unseen arrival.
Stefanie walks back in with a young guy, even younger than her. He has a wide smile and open, inviting eyes. “This is Jordan, works at the café with me. He’s eighteen,” she says, adding the last part as if it’s some rare disease, or perhaps an enviable status symbol.
The four end up on the balcony with their wine. Henry and Jules talk at length about a shared anecdote from high school that they’ve both misremembered, which leaves Henry frustrated with his own mind and feeling far away from himself. Stefanie and Jordan talk about their work and tell jokes about their boss which seem cruel to Henry. Their jokes categorise the boss as some sort of unreasonable taskmaster, but, even in their retellings, she appears to just be doing her job.
“If you met her, you’d understand,” Jordan says, “She’s a nut.”
Jules and Henry smile in agreement. Henry shrugs, conscious of the silence. “You guys’ll have lots of shitty bosses in future, I’m sure.”
“Oh no! The old people are being wise!” says Stefanie, grabbing Jordan by the arm, “Quick! Hide!”. Everyone laughs at this, and Jordan’s laugh falls into a quiet smile that lingers on Henry for a moment longer than the others.
By night’s end, Jordan makes notions about ordering a cab. A sober Henry insists on driving him home and after some polite refusal and back-and-forth, Jordan relents, getting in the passenger seat of the car Henry had driven there.
Driving away, Jordan unselfconsciously opens the centre console and looks at the CD cases inside. “Best of ABBA – Best of Dr. Hook – The Eagles Biggest Hits – you really like your compilations, huh?”.
“It’s my Mum’s car,” Henry says, feeling teased. “She doesn’t know how to get her phone to play through the aux cable…so she just cycles through those three CDs all day, I guess.”
“She likes the same sort of music as my Mum.”
Henry looks at Jordan. “Really? Your Mum must be much younger than mine. No way she likes ABBA.”
“She’s fifty-seven,” says Jordan, “I’m the youngest of four.”
“Oh. Mine’s in her sixties – but she’d kill me if I said exactly how old.”
Jordan smiles, looking at Henry. Henry feels Jordan’s eyes on him again, lingering.
Jordan directs Henry to a street in his hometown not too far from Henry’s parent’s. He pulls the car up out front of the modest post-war house. “Goodnight.”
Jordan feels around his seat while unbuckling the belt, ensuring he’s left nothing behind. Henry turns to him. “Got everything?”
Jordan nods and opens the passenger door. Like an afterthought, he leans back into the car and kisses Henry on the cheek. Jordan smiles and repeats his goodbye, unbothered, and walks into the house.
Henry sits parked in front of Jordan’s for a few moments, trying to decipher it all, before driving home and going to sleep in his childhood bedroom.
Henry’s week is spent being feeling smothered by his parents, and then feeling wronged by the fact that he’s not entitled to be annoyed by it. They never ask him about looking for jobs, his plans, his life; they just feed him three meals each day, make polite conversation, and remind him to unstack the dishwasher.
This routine is why he notices immediately when gains a new follower, Jordan, who must have asked for his details through Stefanie. He hovers over “direct message” a few times, steeling himself to type something, but never does, the desire much too reminiscent of the urge to press on a painful bruise. Jordan himself messages Henry anyway, soon after: a cool, informal, “what are you up to?”.
Henry affects casualness in his responses, but he soon agrees to meet Jordan in town. By eleven, Jordan’s sitting at a table in one of the town’s only two cafes, waiting for Henry as he walks in.
Henry spends the entire time thinking about the nearby patrons and how they might recognise him, know his parents, tell Jules or Stefanie or someone, but Jordan appears unfazed and charming. It isn’t until Jordan mentions only finishing school the November prior and his current looming decision whether to work for a year or enroll straight in university that Henry feels another pang of shame.
“I don’t regret going straight to university,” says Henry, “but it’s ‘cause I was desperate to get out of town. Maybe you feel different.”
Jordan picks at the remains of a croissant. “I mean, I don’t love it here, but I don’t expect that being in a new place is going to make me any happier.”
Henry smiles. “Clever. See, my whole idea was - move to the city, be a new person. But you’ve already figured out that it doesn’t work.”
Jordan smile falls and is replaced by something more doleful. “I was just trying to sound smart. I do kind of dream of that whole; new place, new person.”
Later, they walk around town, near the main street. Henry remarks on things that have changed, new amenities. Most things remain unchanged, but they are things which are harder to describe and less tangible.
Jordan leads Henry to the disused parkland a block back from Main. A line of overgrown trees along the fence hides the park from the street. Henry remembers going there at sixteen to smoke a joint with a friend, coughing and spluttering.
Jordan points to the brick wall by the tree, and Henry stands against it while Jordan kneels at his waist and gives him head. Jordan’s eyes look up at him periodically, perhaps for approval or some sort of reaction, but Henry feels too outside his body, as if he’s watching it all happen, spectating. He walks Jordan home afterwards and Jordan gives him another chaste peck on the cheek before walking inside.
On Friday, Henry gets a message from Jordan saying “come to my house.” Henry walks the few blocks to Jordan’s house without much question and knocks on the door, Jordan explaining he has the house to himself until tomorrow. Jordan serves Henry tastefully arranged cheese, meats, and crackers on a wooden board, and Henry wonders if Jordan is playing house with him.
Henry notes the family photos, creased and matted rug, and second-place medals, and Henry knows he was the never the intended audience of this memorabilia, this kitsch. He feels like a ghoul, like an uninvited haunting.
Jordan leads Henry by the hand to a bedroom in the bowels of the house. Jordan’s parent’s bedroom is the only one with a double bed, Jordan explains. Again, Henry leaves his body and observes himself with Jordan. Jordan lies shirtless on his back, legs in the air, while Henry thrusts towards him and his eyes search the room for something to focus on. Wedding photos. An armoire with an open jewellery case. An older woman’s formal gown draped over a bedside chair.
Jordan asks Henry to stay the night. Henry shakes his head. “Can’t. Having dinner with my parents, I promised.”
Jordan nods and kisses him on the cheek goodbye. Henry walks home and reheats leftovers his parents left out for him, takes one of his Dad’s Valiums, and falls asleep watching porn on his laptop but doesn’t even get hard.
Henry receives an email from a recruiter about a job opportunity in the city. He shares this with his parents, and they are proud of him, but he is sceptical of it. He feels every moment in the town makes it less likely he will ever leave, and so opportunities presented to him must be mere siren-sounds.
Henry and Jules get lunch at the café Stefanie works at, knowing her sister would be on shift and could finagle a cheap meal. It’s clear to Henry before ordering that he and Jules will never recapture their high school rapport and stops trying. Despite confirming his day off, Henry is also anxious that Jordan could walk in any time.
“When does your sister’s shift start?” Henry asks.
“Soon, I think. She’ll be here before we settle a bill, for sure.”
Henry nods and then it’s silent again. He’s certain their ease and casualness weeks prior at Jules’s parent’s house was an anomaly. They speak of an English teacher that they both liked in school, wondering if she still taught.
They watch as Stefanie quickly enters the café for her shift and puts on an apron. She approaches Jules and Henry’s table, bill in hand. Stefanie reads aloud a falsified bill, “Okay, so two coffees, black, and one small breakfast toast – ten dollars.”
Henry offers to pay, and Jules agrees, turning to Stefanie. “Hey, Stef – can you ask Jordan if Mrs. Taylor’s still teaching? She gave me straight A’s, remember?”.
Stefanie tears a receipt from the machine and turns to Henry. “Why don’t you just ask him yourself?”. She smiles at him and then departs to the back-of-house.
“Why would you ask Jordan?” Jules says.
“Dunno. That was weird.”
“I’ll ask her what she meant at home, I guess.”
Henry goes home and deletes all his messages with Jordan, unfollowing and blocking him. He imagines the conversation unfolding between the sisters and feels sick with shame, wanting to burn evidence of something that isn’t even really there.
Henry receives a message from Jules asking to call her. He paces his room upon receiving it, past the late-2000’s band posters his mother never tore down. He braces himself with a deep breath and dials Jules’s number. She picks up with one ring.
“Hey. It’s me.”
“Hm. Hey, so I asked Stef what she meant at lunch, about Jordan?”
“She reckons Jordan and you have…Jordan told her you guys were sleeping together.”
Henry briefly imagines Jordan finding out that Henry had blocked him. His reaction.
“He’s so young, no way.”
“That’s what I said - you’d never do that.”
“I haven’t seen him since that night…at your house, I think?”
“Hm. Yeah. That makes sense.”
A long silence; Henry can hear the phone line buzz.
“So weird – does Stef reckon he’d lie like that?”
“No. I mean, they’re not that close but she says he seemed pretty sure.”
“That’s so weird, Jules. I have no idea.”
“Yeah, okay. Makes sense.”
Henry sits on his bed, his heart beating in his throat.
“So, do you…”
“I actually have to go. Mum needs me. Talk later, Henry.”
Henry hangs up and revels in an adrenaline crash. He sleeps through the afternoon until the next day.
Henry agrees to meet with the recruiter in the city next week. The clients responded to his C.V and wanted to interview. He’s at the local airport with a few days’ worth of luggage as carry-on, walking around the departures area. The feeling that had been enveloping him – of being trapped, of being stuck in a sealed bag and breathing stale air - is starting to lift now.
Henry looks up. Jordan, a duffle bag over his shoulder, stands before him, smiling. Henry fights the urge to run.
“Are you leaving? Get a job?”
“An interview. What are you doing?”
Jordan gestures to an older couple sitting nearby, flanked by a few of their adult children. “My family’s all going to Sydney for a reunion thing. It promises to be painfully tame.”
A nod. There’s a moment of silence before Henry makes motions to leave.
“Well, I should…”
“Why didn’t you just tell me it was a secret, Henry? You didn’t need to… blow everything up.” Jordan’s smile is gone, and he plays with the straps on his bag nervously.
“Why would I tell you that, to keep a secret? We weren’t doing anything wrong.”
“You don’t think so?”
Henry shoves hands in his pockets, sighing. “I dunno.”
“Well, you didn’t like ‘screw me up’ for life or anything,” Jordan says, “if you were worried.”
“Were you worried about that?”
A boarding announcement over the tinny P.A echoes. “That’s my flight,” says Henry. “It was nice to see you, Jordan.”
Henry waves, limp, and walks away from Jordan.
In the air, Henry ponders Jordan’s question. He tries to remember being eighteen himself, how nervous he always was, nervous about sex. The men who specifically sought Henry’s youthfulness and wanted him to come their houses at night and do things to them, the ones who sidled up next to him at gay bar urinals and touched him without asking.
He knows he agonised over the ethics of it, he remembers it so distinctly – and, of course, Jordan had been so very willing. Jordan, the boy had gone along with it all.
The drinks cart is coming, now. Henry tries to think of nothing at all. He used to be able to empty his brain like that, but now, when he attempts it, a faint outline remains, like silhouettes after a nuclear explosion.
He decides it doesn’t matter. Soon, he'll be back in the city. He’ll be a new person, not the man who does things like what he did with Jordan. He’ll leave that particular man, that Henry, in his hometown, creating a new one –
Out the window, as he flies above the clouds, the thinks that it must work sometimes.
The man orders a coke from the flight attendant.