The West |

Before Security

by Tom Pyun

edited by Lisa Locascio

“Don’t come in here,” Wynn hollered from behind the stall door of the men’s bathroom at San Francisco International Airport. As he kneeled on the sticky tile floor, he regretted wearing shorts that day. The whoosh sound bounced against the tiled walls and floor and echoed in his head. He peered at Jared’s neon-yellow, sneakered-feet underneath the stall door.

“You ok? Do you think it was the shrimp Pad Thai at Yummy Kitchen? Cause I feel fine.”

“Wait outside. Give me a minute,” Wynn said as he stared into the clear pool of water of the toilet.

Wynn gargled at the sink. In order to keep the water running, he passed his hand back-and-forth across the sensor on the shiny faucet. He was usually conscientious about his water use, but at this moment he didn’t care about the drought. He blended the baby hairs on his forehead into his short thick mane with moist fingertips and patted down a stray silver hair near his temple. After he rubbed handfuls of water into his face, he stared into the mirror inhaling the spearmint scent of the bald man next to him brushing his teeth. The act of vomiting had temporarily cured him, loosening his chest and thoracic muscles, creating space for newfound bravery. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, summoning courage into his bloodstream. He had to tell him before security.

When they met at the men’s room entrance, Jared bear-hugged him and rubbed his head. Jared’s body felt lean but solid, a result of daily UltraStrength classes he’d recently begun taking during his lunch hour at Reverie, the world’s largest social media company. As they walked together toward the check-in counter, Wynn watched Jared’s mouth move, his hands gesticulate, and his head bob. He could only process snippets of Jared’s animated monologue.

“Maybe it’s just nerves, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was food poisoning…you know these takeout places use frozen shrimp imported from China and there’s like no regulation. Do you think the surrogate is eating organic like they promised? Is there even organic farming in Cambodia? I read that babies in utero are much more sensitive to toxins that can hurt their development.”

Wynn wasn’t listening. He was thinking about hip-hop dance instead. His heart turned leaden when he thought about the Old Skool Jamz class he was going to miss that night. While they flew over the Pacific Ocean, forty sweaty young people would be gyrating and mock boxing to LL Cool J’s “Momma Said Knock You Out.” The teacher, Xavier, was a spry Filipino in his early forties and contestant on the second season of Dance USA. Unjustly voted off after the first episode, he led two weekly classes at UrbanSmoothMove, a dance studio in the Mission. Xavier had taught ten eight-counts last Friday and promised the class they would learn the last six bars of the routine that night.

Wynn had taken five hip-hop classes per week over the past four years. He’d calculated that he was close to hitting his thousandth class. More, if he counted the three-hour weekly rehearsals with his amateur dance company Trayn Wrek, led by locally renowned choreographer Mercedes Trayn. He’d joined as an understudy last year; three months ago Mercedes announced him as a full-fledged member. He’d just turned 36, far past the prime of any professional dancer. But Wynn didn’t need to be the best or even a professional. He just wanted to dance as long as he could. A few months earlier he had torn a thigh muscle after a particularly grueling rehearsal. For three weeks Wynn was in and out of offices: orthopedists, osteopaths, acupuncturists, and chiropractors. His atheist soul made a pact with God. Please allow me to dance at least ten more years. You can take it away from me when I’m old…like really old.

Mercedes had retired from performing at fifty-two to dedicate herself to choreography and the management of her company. Wynn negotiated with his Higher Power and settled on fifty, though he would have gladly accepted the extra two years. If he stretched sixty minutes daily, did strength training, took his Glucosamine, ate Paleo, and cross-trained with Iyengar yoga

At the airline check-in counter, Jared made eye contact with the busty, fifty-something-year old woman who took their passports. “How are you today? It’s a scorcher!” He smiled wide for her.

“Oh I wouldn’t know. I’ve been here all day.”

“Well it’s almost as hot as your hair is red. Great color!”

Wynn cringed. Jared was camping it up, over-enunciating his consonants and extending the length of his vowels. Ever since his coworkers at Reverie lovingly dubbed him a “stromo”–short for “straight-acting homo”– Jared had intermittently put on a phony “gay” voice. After hearing him speak an octave higher and lisp like Elmer Fudd a few times, Wynn confronted him about it.

“Oh that! It’s my new persona, Ralph.” Jared giggled.

“You sound like a straight high school boy imitating a gay person. I think it’s offensive.”

“How is it offensive when I’m gay myself?”

“It’s offensive because I’ve met thousands of gay men in my life and none of them sound like that.”

“I do it cuz the ladies love it. It makes me appear non-threatening and lets them know I’m unavailable,” Jared justified with bravado, as though he were making a pitch to a corporate client about to purchase ad space on Reverie’s social media and search platforms.

Jared flashed his brilliant smile at the ticket agent again. They chortled in unison about a topic Wynn missed. “Joni, could you tell us where we are on the upgrade list?”

“Let me see.” She gingerly clicked buttons with her cream-tipped manicure. “Winston Tsai, you are number two and you, my dear, are number three,” she reported. Her lips moved as she read the next section on the screen. “Oh no! It looks like there are only two slots available in business class.” She pouted.

“You take the seat. Your legs are longer and you did all of the work planning for this trip,” Wynn said.

“Oh no sweetie, you earned it with all of those long business trips.” Jared waved a loose wrist and flaccid hand at Wynn.

“I insist, baby. It’s yours.”

“Don’t I have the best husband?” Jared winked at the desk agent..

“You boys are just adorable. I am so happy that marriage is legal for you guys now,” she cooed as she handed them their tickets.

“Wasn’t she nice?” Jared said as they walked toward the security line. He continued talking. Wynn noticed Jared’s dishwater blonde hair had begun to thin. There was a spot in the back of his head the size of a quarter that was just pink scalp. Jared was still good-looking, Wynn thought, with his long rectangular face, his square jaw and strong chin. Wynn had admired Jared’s grey-blue eyes and eyelashes that were so long, he could feel them flutter against his when their faces got close enough. He was the boy next door; clean cut and wholesome. Generic, white bread, milquetoast, Wynn thought to himself.

Wynn kept an old picture of Jared on his desk at his old job. In the photo, Jared was pinkish-tan, wearing a white oxford shirt unbuttoned to the middle of his chest. His hair was longer, thicker, and parted to the side. Wynn’s former admin, Essie, had picked up the photo and exclaimed, “Is this your boyfriend? He’s cuuuute! He looks like Andrew McCarthy, but with a stronger chin.” Wynn wanted to deny that the compliment buoyed him in the moment, as if Essie’s assessment affirmed that he’d made a wise choice in a partner.

Jared waved his hand in front of Wynn’s face. “Are you listening? Earth to Wynn!”

“Sorry, I’m just not feeling that well. What were you saying?”

“I was thinking that since you’re not working right now, you could stay home for the first year instead of the six months that we talked about. I’m starting to get nervous about leaving Mare with a stranger so young. We’ll be living on frozen food, but hey, we’re not breastfeeding.” He chuckled. “I just realized I called her by her nickname. I hadn’t done that yet! ”

“Makes sense to me, I guess.” Wynn’s hands started shaking. The sour taste of vomit intensified on his dry, caked tongue. “Let’s talk about it more when I’m feeling better.”

Neither of them had met Meryl, or, now, “Mare.” She wasn’t born yet, but Wynn already hated her.

The security line was long; it snaked around perpendicular rows staked out by navy-blue, nylon ribbon. While Jared tapped on his phone, Wynn forced himself to meditate on why he had to do what he was about do. He thought about the brief conversation he’d had with one of his officemates before he’d quit.

“YOLO! Fro-yo time,” a sorority girl turned Junior Analyst at his old job announced every Thursday afternoon at three.

“I’m lactose intolerant,” Wynn replied.

“Take a Lactaid and live a little…with gas. Bahahahaha. Have a little fun cuz the letters F-U-N will no longer be in your alphabet when the baby comes.” As she snorted at her own joke, her pearl drop earrings dangled from her peachy earlobes as if twerking from their delicate platinum posts.

Wynn reentered reality. Jared was typing on his phone. “What are you doing?”

“I’m writing an email to Yummy Kitchen. They poisoned you the night before one of the most important days of our lives. “

“I don’t think it was the food. It’s nerves.”

Wynn thought of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. He’d read the book twice and seen the movie three times. Toward the end of the book, the protagonist’s mother imparts advice to her only son, Gogol. “Follow your bliss.” Wynn knew it was a platitude, but the phrase haunted him. He’d spent an entire afternoon searching the origins and meaning of it. He learned there were dozens of websites and blogs dedicated to these three words of Rumi, a thirteenth-century Persian philosopher. One website, Following Your Bliss in Real Time, instructed readers to sit in a cross-legged position on the floor, close their eyes, breathe deeply, and remember the last time they were truly happy.

Wynn had followed the exercise in the middle of their minimalist modern living room and all he could think about was dance. Hip-hop dance classes, rehearsals, practices, and performances in dark and dirty studio spaces, where, after he touched the floor, his fingertips were smeared with a fine layer of greasy black dust, a mixture of sweat and street grime. Dance memories continued to play vividly in his mind while he sat cross-legged. A single tear had fallen down the side of his smiling face.

The security line moved quickly and Jared grabbed a plastic bin and unzipped the front pocket of his carry-on to retrieve his laptop. Wynn followed his lead, opened his backpack, and placed an iPad into his own bin. He then took off his flip-flops and placed them into a second bin. Wynn observed the black rubber conveyor belt transport his belongings through the X-ray machine. He asked himself, was it too late? Could he stop the bins even if he’d wanted to?

Wynn opened his mouth to begin talking, but couldn’t find the words.

Jared was already in the glass scanning booth, holding his arms up in the air. Wynn’s heart pounded and he could feel a droplet of sweat form at the center of his hairline. He looked down at his hands to see they were still shaking. While waiting behind the line of black security tape crudely stuck to the vinyl floor, Wynn thought of the David Sedaris book Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. He’d read it on the beach during their Hawaiian vacation last year. He’d just found out he’d been accepted as an understudy for Trayn Wrek and couldn’t relax because he’d felt he should’ve been at home attending dance classes and drilling choreography. With prodding from Jared, Wynn had managed to sit still for a few hours to devour the entire book in one sitting. In one chapter, the author laid out a concept he’d called the four burners of life: family, friends, health, and work. In order to be successful, one had to cut off one of the burners. To become very successful, one had to cut off at least two.

Wynn had trouble applying the concept to his life. He and Jared hadn’t made that many close friends since moving to the Bay Area, so that took care of one burner. At the time, Wynn had hated his job and was on the verge of quitting anyway, so that took care of another. Given his age, though, Wynn knew his health was inextricably linked to dance. He had to remain injury-free if he wanted to be serious about it. Yet suddenly, the dial on Wynn and Jared’s family burner had turned clockwise; it was on high. Before they headed to Hawaii, they’d begun exploring options for having a baby, talking nightly about the pros and cons of fostering and adoption, before landing on surrogacy. Wynn realized that the four burners concept wouldn’t work for him. Through a process of elimination, his dilemma had morphed into a battle of two burners, family and dance.

“Sir. Hello, sir! Wake up! Come into the booth, hands up,” the airport security man reprimanded.

Wynn stepped into the booth. His arms floated above his head in surrender to the machine. He told himself he knew what would happen. He would stay at home with the baby for a year, after which he’d find a new job. He would be home from seven am to five pm, five days a week – the hostage of a sleep-deprived, crying, pooping terrorist.

Wynn felt a jagged ball of sorrow, in the base of his throat. Jared’s ad sales job at Reverie demanded late hours. Wynn would miss classes, rehearsals, and performances because Jared would need to work late. Last minute meetings, conference calls in faraway time zones, and weekly deadlines would be a litany of excuses that Wynn wouldn’t want to hear. When he’d mentioned that he wanted to stay in Trayn Wrek after the baby was born, Jared looked away and he replied, “You’re going to be so tired. I give it three months before you give it up.”

This fight, along with all of their fights over the years, wasn’t violent or even angry. Jared and Wynn’s voices never even escalated to raised voices. Their arguments at their most heated resembled a courtroom debate – formal, civil, and full of death stares. They were characterized by the nature of their silences, which were tense, long, and thick. A few months after Jared had signed the contract for the surrogacy, Wynn repeatedly raised his concerns about Jared’s job and how it would impact them once the baby was born. Jared promised he would “try and work less.” His other concession was to stay at home with the baby in the evenings so Wynn could go to dance class “at least two nights a week, maybe more.” The offer, however vague, was not enough, Wynn argued, not at his age, not at his stage of development. To get better at dance, he’d need to train every day. So, three months ago, Wynn quit his job as a Senior Manager at a multinational consulting firm.

“Why didn’t you even discuss this with me before making such a big decision?”

Wynn told Jared that the time off would give him the space to explore new career options. “You know, hire a career coach and do some informational interviews.” Jared slept in the guest room and didn’t talk to him for two days. On the third day, while Jared brewed his morning coffee, Wynn intercepted him in the kitchen.

“I can’t stand the silence anymore. I’m sorry I didn’t discuss it with you beforehand.” Jared didn’t look his way as he poured hot water into the French press. “I get it. You’re worried about money with the baby coming. Maybe I can stay home with the baby for a few months?”

His peace offering broke the stalemate. Jared was back in their marital bed and his garrulous self re-emerged. He talked incessantly about baby names (something “classic, not too long”), baby furniture (“modern, gender-neutral colors”) and baby food (“organic, preferably homemade”). It was a relief, yet Wynn regretted his offer. He wanted to grab the white flag he’d waved back in the kitchen that morning and shred it. Burn it. It was a reminder that Wynn had not only lost the battle. He’d actually lost the war. Now Jared made all of the money and had all of the power. While Jared sold online pop-up ads in Silicon Valley seventy hours a week, Wynn would spend his waking hours blanching organic fruits and vegetables and blending them into brown mush. He fluttered his lips as he grabbed his backpack off the conveyor belt.

“Wynn, you’re either really out of it or going through hip-hop routines in your head.” Jared plopped down on the metal bench and tied the white laces of a neon-yellow sneaker. “You’ll feel better after you sleep on the plane. We’ll have plenty of time to rest once we’re there, too.”

Wynn looked up at the airport’s soaring ceiling and turned his body so he stood facing Jared who was sitting on the bench. Through the spaces of his fingers, Wynn mumbled that he needed to discuss something.

“I can’t do it.”

He spoke into his hands, his head facing the ground, his face burning with shame. Wynn felt acid slosh around his stomach, dancing toward his esophagus. He swallowed before he repeated himself louder so that Jared could hear him over the echoing flight announcements and the din of the crowd. “I’m not going to Cambodia with you. I’m going to stay…here.”

Wynn stared at the ground in silence. He mustered the courage to lift his head to look at Jared, whose face was frozen. “I don’t want to raise your child.”

“Our child.”

Wynn shook his head. “I don’t want to be a father. I’m sorry, so sorry. You don’t ever have to forgive me for this. I’ll understand,” Wynn’s chin fell to his chest and he closed his eyes tight.

“Don’t do this now,” Jared whispered. He dropped the plastic handle of his carry-on bag and it fell on its side with a thud. He stood up, grabbed Wynn’s shoulders, inched his face close, and shook him. Wynn turned his head away, his eyes shut, and jaw clenched.

“You’re joking right? You bettah be fucking joking.” Jared’s New York accent had kicked in. Wynn had thought Jared had buried it when they’d moved to California six years earlier. It came out only when Jared was stressed or extremely tired.

An instinct within Wynn ignited and flared. He pushed Jared away, grabbed the straps of his backpack, and ran. He heard his own flip-flops make a rapid click clock sound under his callused feet. He sprinted toward the nylon ribbon barrier and crawled underneath. The airport was crowded in patches. He weaved in and out of wandering youth groups, immigrant families, and business travelers dressed in black and gray. Wynn had found his stride when he heard Jared begin to shout.

“Come back! Let’s talk! I can’t believe you’re doing this now! Don’t fucking do this now!”

Wynn tripped on the top of one of his plastic sandals. The stumble propelled him as if he were long jumping across the ticketing area carpet. He landed on his feet and continued to run. His left foot struck the carpet bare. He’d lost a flip-flop, his mind registered, but he didn’t look back. A few steps later, he kicked off the remaining flip-flop and sprinted until he arrived at the other side of the sliding doors of the terminal. While he waited on the smooth, sun-warmed sidewalk, his face flushed and his chest heaved from exertion. Wynn’s phone rang. He reached into his pocket and silenced it. He saw the sign for the taxicab stand across the street and padded barefoot toward it, not bothering to look both ways.