A guest review by Jenre
Ivan “Tolly” Tolliver is a former model turned modeling agent. Divorced with no children, he’s given himself over to his work, and there’s little he won’t do for the models he represents, including crossing oceans for photo shoots and fashion events despite a terrible fear of flying. One of his models is a rising star named Nate, who Tolly thinks is one of the most beautiful men he’s ever seen.
One night at a Fashion Week party, having had too much to drink, Tolly gives into his attraction and follows Nate into the men’s room for a sexual encounter. What happens the next morning when Tolly’s sober again?
I saw this short story at TQ and remembered that I’d enjoyed another story by this author from the Cherry anthology (reviewed here) so I picked it up, hoping for another good read. I wasn’t disappointed. On a side note I am completely baffled by what ‘The Nine of Wands’ means. TQ has these really odd series names that I’ve never been able to figure out. My advice is to ignore that bit and concentrate on the story itself which was pretty terrific.
The story is written in the third person present tense from the point of view of Tolly. He’s ex-army, a former model now turned agent and although we are never told his age, I estimated that he was probably in his late 30s/early 40s. Tolly is a bit of a drinker and when we first meet him he’s at a party where he’s ‘just showing his face’ to be a support for the models on his books. One of these models is Nate who makes moves on Tolly, leading to a frantic blow-job in the men’s room. As the story progresses we discover that this is not the first time this has happened between them, but Tolly is fiercely in denial of being bisexual.
At first I found it rather difficult to like Tolly. He gets drunk, has sex with Nate, Nate leaves whilst Tolly is asleep and Tolly wakes up deluding himself that it was all a dream and that he doesn’t have any sexual feelings towards Nate. However, as the story continues, I began to realise that Nate manipulates Tolly as much as Tolly takes advantage of Nate by deliberately plying Tolly with alcohol, knowing that if Tolly gets drunk enough then they’ll get to have sex. When Tolly awakens one morning as Nate is leaving, it sparks a chain reaction which forces Tolly to face up to facts, leading to a wonderful scene where Tolly finally admits that Nate is more than just one of his models.
In many ways there’s a desperate feel to both characters. Nate is obviously so in love with Tolly that he is willing to pretend that he is just in Tolly’s dreams as well as put up with other things, such as Tolly insisting that he kiss him softly like a woman. Whenever Tolly starts to realise what is happening, Nate soothes him by telling him that it’s not real, it’s just a dream. I found this part of the story quite heartbreaking and I felt sorry for Nate that he was willing to live a lie just to have a physical relationship with Tolly. Tolly is desperately lying to himself, but part of that is also that he can’t believe that someone as young and beautiful as Nate would be interested in him. Whilst sober, Tolly is unable to meet Nate’s eyes or look into his face, dazzled by Nate’s beauty, which leads Nate to think that Tolly is ashamed of what they do.
One thing I particularly liked about the story was that it has a dream-like quality to the writing. Some of this, I think, is to show that Tolly is drunk and seeing the world through a haze. It also reflects the idea that Tolly is dreaming his way through the relationship with Nate. This then contrasts with the final section where Tolly deliberately stays sober so that he is no longer able to blame his feelings on being drunk or dreaming. This section is sharper and full of awkwardness as Tolly finally realises how hard Nate is trying to appease him all the time. The scene where they came together was just so tender and beautiful that it almost moved me to tears. I forgave Tolly in that scene as he made right all the wrongs inflicted on Nate during the story.
Overall, I really enjoyed this story. The simplicity of the writing, combined with the dream-like quality appealed to me. The characterisation was solid for such a short medium with Nate’s feelings clearly signposted despite the fact that we don’t ever hear his thoughts. The plot was well conceived and executed containing a whole wealth of information in this character based story so that I reached the end feeling that I knew these men, knew their feelings and I was overjoyed that Tolly had managed to come to his senses. In fact, this story was a fine example of short story writing and I would highly recommend it to those readers who want to read an emotional-filled short with a May to December theme.