We, Max Load and Alex Oliver of Midnight Ryders Productions, loaded up our bags, a camera, a laptop, a box of condoms and a c-light and headed to a Best Western two hours north of the city.
Max’s cousin’s wedding started with a long ceremony in a hot church lead by a preacher or minister or priest or whatever who mumbled into his chest for much much much too long.
The whole service, Max was trying to make eye contact with some other cousin, his favourite cousin, the cousin he’d told Alex about on the way to the hotel, the cousin who Max described as probably the hottest person he’d ever known. Alex thought, No way she’s that hot, thinking, we work with hot women almost daily, actually said, “No way she’s that hot,” but Max pointed her out and, yes, she was remarkably sexy, definitely someone that Alex could work with, but it was only really specific women who we approached to work with him, to work with us—Max did camera and sometimes P.O.V. videos—women with an often messy combination of self-hate and a desperate need for approval or validation or confirmation sometimes masquerading as who-gives-a-fuck confidence. And this cousin, Morgan, she had a different type confidence, something much closer to grace, but grace without the high-religious chasteness that word might imply to you. Grace on a human scale, as Max might have said when he was studying art and filmmaking, as Max might have said if he was in a mood to be mocked. Dirty grace, is the type of phrase Alex would have preferred Max use, but dirty didn’t describe Morgan properly at all.
At the reception, we were seated at the back table, the table for singles and childless individuals. We got our food last and we had to strain to hear the speeches, one of which included a warning to Max’s now married cousin and her husband that they should enjoy themselves in the bedroom now because maybe someone has told them, but probably not— as soon as the kids arrive their sex lives are through. Alex worked his charm on some modestly pretty maybe twenty-year-old relative of the groom’s who as soon as she sat down was giggling over the attention that he paid her. Max watched Morgan and her husband and saw the way that they avoided each other’s eyes, the way that he kept his elbows in like he was afraid of bumping against her.
During the dancing, we really saw what Morgan might mean for our modest website. When the DJ started playing “Like a Prayer,” all Max’s girl cousins let out this excited, sustained, “Oh,” and threw their hands up. One of the girl cousins, smiling and off-balance because of her shining new heels, scurried over to one of the speakers and pulled from behind it, like, twenty hula-hoops and gave them all out.
You’ve never seen anything like Morgan hula-hooping. We’ve talked about it and for each of us our favourite thing is when a leading lady rides cowgirl and grinds her hips like she’s possessed or she’s dancing. Before the work made us sadly desensitized to these simple pleasures, such moments could produce, in either of us, an instant effect. Morgan’s hips have a range and nuance of movement, a language of wiggle that could make her an instant adult film star. Alex thought, “I’ve never seen anything like it before,” and Max thought, “I must have seen Morgan do that before,” but we were too entranced to even turn and share a look that might have conveyed our thoughts to each other.
Somebody was whispering in Max’s ear. Annoyed, he turned and nearly collided with a beefy bicep. The arm moved, wrapped itself around Max’s shoulders. “What?” Max asked.
Alex turned then. The large, veinous hand and forearm reminded him of an engorged cock. He backed away instinctively, then turned back to watch Morgan keeping the hula-hoop up.
The owner of the beefy arm said, “Erin wants us to go over to the fairgrounds.”
Behind the now slender, jaw- and cheekbone-defined face, somewhere in the tilt of the smile or in the light behind the eyes, Max thought he recognized the bride’s little brother. “Fat Phil?”
“I haven’t heard that name in too long.”
“You liked it?”
“No, I didn’t.” He gave Max a squeeze. A very tight squeeze.
“You look great.”
“Thanks. The exercise is better than the anti-depressants I was on back when I was— Back when I had that nickname.”
“Uh,” Max said. Needing an out, maybe, or trying to be polite as some sort of act of apology—hard to say—Max introduced Alex. “Phil, this is my business partner.”
Phil stood and extended his powerful right arm. “You’re the ‘talent’?”
“What’s that?” Alex asked.
Max started burning. How did Phil know what we did?
Phil repeated himself, louder now so he could be heard over the church choir singing, just like a prayer, I’ll take you there. “You are the talent? In Max’s movies.”
“You a fan?” Max’s smile was just weaker than hopeful.
“Before she passed, your mom told my mom what you do.”
Alex went back to watching Morgan, but Max wilted in the heat of his understanding. The internet, so public. Pornography, so hated, so automatically scorned. His family, so? So? So what? Wholesome. Righteous. Ugly.
“Like a Prayer” ended and we went to the bathroom.
Alex unzipped his pants and started pissing into the urinal. “So? Everybody knows.”
Alex unzipped his pants and started pissing into the urinal. “So? Everybody knows.”
Max stood there with his dick out, but he couldn’t pee. “Keep your voice down.”
“We’re the only people in here.”
Max closed his eyes, took a deep breath and tried to imagine that he was standing over his own toilet in his own bathroom in his anonymous studio apartment in one of now six nearly identical buildings clustered near the train tracks and the bread factory, but his meditation failed because two men came laughing into the bathroom. They stopped when they saw us. What did that mean that they stopped? Max zipped up, made quick eye contact and nodded his head to try and gauge their reactions. Alex washed his hands.
As we gathered at the margins of the big group waiting to walk to the fair grounds, as grandmas in high heels fretted at the change in plans and tried to arrange cabs for them and their grandchildren, as people made their excuses and left for their hotels, Max was scanning the crowd, concentration making his brow crash angrily down on his eyes and fear forcing his head to jerk this way, that way and back again. “You look crazy,” Alex said.
“I’m just trying to figure out how many people know,” Max said.
“Should we do a survey?” Alex suggested.
“You can survey me,” said the girl, the young woman, the vulnerable female relative of the groom’s that Alex had been working.
“Hi Deborah,” Alex said.
“Debbie, please,” Debbie said.
“Easy. Hi Debbie.”
She touched Max on the arm and he flinched and turned. “Hey.”
“Is something wrong?” Debbie asked Max. When he didn’t reply, she turned to Alex. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” Alex said. He saw a man turn towards them and look Alex up and down, appraising him. Alex nodded an acknowledgment, then asked Debbie, “Who’s that guy?”
“Hunh.” Alex started to feel the weight that Max was carrying, the suspicion.
“He hasn’t talked to me in years.”
“Years? How old are you?”
“Twenty-one. When I was seventeen I had some trouble with drugs and with boys. Somebody found a video on my phone and it got back to Dad.”
“Yeah. He called me a slut and kicked me out and that’s that.”
Alex nodded. “You haven’t heard from him since?”
“Every once in a while he’ll get a bit drunk and show up at my house to bang on the door and shout things.”
“Who’s this?” Max asked, suddenly aware of the conversation.
“My dad,” Debbie said. “We don’t really get along.”
“Sounds like it.”
Debbie wrapped her arm around Alex’s and put her face against his bicep. He moved back a step, recognizing Debbie for the storm she was. She definitely would go back to the hotel with them and she would probably be a little crazy, too. Which was good, for the videos anyway.
Debbie’s dad looked at them again, only this time the big brush-cut kid with him, a younger double of the old man, turned too, menace on a rolling boil behind his eyes and under his broad shoulders. Debbie grabbed Alex’s hand, squeezed it and smiled up at him.
Alex knew he was being used.
Max realized he hadn’t seen Morgan in a while. Had she gone home? Maybe she’d been in some advance party to the fair. Was cousin Matthew giving Max some critical side-eye? Wasn’t Matthew the one who always left crying from the woods behind grandma’s house? There was Morgan, sitting on a leather loveseat behind the table of photographs of the bride and groom and all their dead relatives. She was rubbing her feet, a pair of sneakers on the cushion beside her. She smiled at Max and held out her arm, reaching for him. As Max walked towards her, some kid ran into him, knocking him sideway. “Sorry,” the kid said breathlessly. Max looked around to see what grownup was responsible for this child and would therefore be also looking to scorn Max. Morgan called his name before Max could find a head turned towards him. The kid had been swallowed up by the crowd.
“How are you, Cuz?”
“Please, Maxy, you’ve never called me that.”
“How are you, Mo?”
“It’s a decent party, don’t you think?”
“I haven’t seen any of you in years.”
“That’s right, you weren’t at Sarah’s wedding.”
“I think I was in Vegas.”
“Vegas? What for?”
“There’s a porn awards thing there, isn’t there?”
Max looked at his shoes, thought maybe he’d throw up all over them. Morgan touched his knee, her fingers long and gentle. Max wanted to tell her to wash her hands. What was wrong with him that he ever imagined involving Morgan in his nasty work? He loved her. Which explained something, he supposed.
“What’s wrong, Maxy?”
“Does everybody know?”
“It’s exciting,” Morgan said. “That’s the wrong word. It’s something to talk about.”
“Right.” Max looked over at Alex, Deborah standing so close to him, talking to him about whatever.
“Is that they guy? The actor?”
“I’m sorry. I’ve never watched anything you’ve done.”
“It’s probably better.”
“It’s not really my thing.”
“Maxy. I’m— I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“You are one of my favourites.” Max made sure to look at her.
“Oh, Max. You too. You too.”
She hugged him. He tried not to picture what her body, the parts he could feel through his chest and chin and hand, would look like naked. “I hate these family things, Mo.”
“I hear you.” People were starting to leave the hall for the street. “Looks like it’s time to go.”
Max stood. He made eye contact with Alex. He flicked his head in the direction of the hotel. Alex shrugged, grimaced a bit, looked at Deborah. Max nodded, thinking he understood.
To Morgan, Max said, “I think I’m going to cut.”
“What?” Morgan asked.
“There’s so much more party left.”
“It’s really great to see you.” She hugged him again. “Are you on Facebook?”
“Uh. Yeah. I don’t check it much, but.”
“I’m going to find you. Okay?”
“I’ll watch for that.”
Max walked out the door with Alex and Debbie. “I’m done,” Max said. “You coming with me?”
“Can I join you guys?” She lay her hand across the front of Alex’s belt.
“I gotta talk to Max.” Alex lifted her hand.
“Okay, whatever.” Debbie turned towards Alex, grabbed his wrist and forced his hand against her breast, her mouth open.
“Mmm, that’s nice,” Alex said. “Real nice. But not tonight.”
“Fine.” She nodded to Max then jogged to catch up with the long trail of people making their way along the sidewalk to the nearby fair.
We didn’t talk all the way back to our room. Alex opened two cans of Budweiser from our cooler and we sat in deck chairs on this small patch of flagstones level with the black asphalt driveway to the back parking lot. We could see the Ferris wheel’s light through a thin stand of trees.
“That girl Debbie was trouble,” Alex said.
“In the good way?”
“I think she wanted her dad to fuck me up. And did you see her brother?”
“Carbon copy of the dad, man. And mean looking.”
“Saw you talking to Morgan.”
“What she have to say?”
“You know, I think I love her Alex?”
“Your cousin? That’s some kinky shit.”
“I see it, though. She’s super hot.”
Max could feel something open up in himself, something parting.
We didn’t hear Debbie coming because she’d taken off her shoes. She was crying. She wiped her face when she spotted us, then tried to hurry past.
“Hey, hey,” Alex said. “You look like you need a drink.”
He stood up and went inside. Debbie sat down in Alex’s deck chair and stared silently ahead. “I’m staying here, too,” Debbie said.
“I figured.” Max sipped his beer.
“We’ve only got Bud,” Alex said, holding a can out for her. “Sorry.”
She took it from him. “That’s fine.”
Max stood. “I’ll leave you two.”
Max smiled at Alex. Patted him on the shoulder.
Alex sat down beside Debbie. Max listened to the two of them talking, the words obscured by the sliding glass door, until he fell asleep.
Toronto, Jan. 2016
Emoji sequence: Writer and educator, Nadia Pecaric
Story: Lee Sheppard