Chest Day

“He massaged your what?” Katie asked.

“My breast. Like, my pec,” Robbie said, lowering his laptop to demonstrate. They sat whispering in the library’s grand reading room, which was oddly uncongested for a university’s dead week. Katie worked on a paper about Virginia Woolf while Robbie typed incoherent paragraphs for his World Religions class, as almost three years of putting off required liberal arts courses finally caught up with the two Finance majors. Robbie’s revelation, however, had halted productivity.

“There’s not much to grope,” Katie said, crumbs falling to the table as she bit into a granola bar.

“I don’t know, I feel like I have full B-cups at this point,” Robbie said.

He provided Katie with more context: he’d been at the gym with Leo, a friend from their business fraternity. When Robbie finished pumping through a vigorous chest set, Leo started massaging his left pec, complimenting the progress Robbie’d recently made on his physique.

“Isn’t that just, like, slapping asses on the basketball court? That’s how straight guys act,” Katie said, elongating each short A sound with her native Chicago accent.

“Not with me,” he said, slouching his shoulders. Since childhood, Robbie’s social foundation was always comprised of girls, girls who knew about him the same thing he knew about himself, but let it remain unspoken until he was ready. It was no different when he came to college and joined the co-ed business fraternity, eating meals at the student center and attending house parties with Katie and the other girls in his pledge class. Then he met Leo.

Most guys in the frat were accepting at best and socially-liberal-fiscally-conservative at worst, but Leo had always been the kindest. They registered for the same course sections and studied together throughout sophomore year. He began inviting Robbie to the gym at the start of this semester, and they’d sometimes go out for a drink afterward. It was at these hangouts that Leo had become increasingly touchy—greeting Robbie always with a hug, or rubbing his shoulders unprompted. At a scary movie night in October, Leo laid his head in Robbie’s lap, with Robbie going as far as to run his fingers through Leo’s thick, messy hair. The pectoral massage wasn’t an isolated incident, but yet another mixed signal from a cryptic, unknown satellite.

“So you think he’s gay,” Katie said, crinkling up her granola bar wrapper.

“I didn’t say that. He very much has a girlfriend,” Robbie said.

“Bi? Queer? He could be anything. And he hasn’t brought Abigail around since Spring Formal.”

“She’s in Budapest this semester.”

“Oh, so he’s lonely,” Katie snorted.

“Stop. You were right to begin with. I’m one of his ‘buddies.’ That’s just a new experience for me.”

“Is he your type?”

“Okay, enough. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Well, how would I know? You never talk about boys with me,” Katie said, taking off her blue light glasses.

Of course Leo was Robbie’s type. He had brown eyes under bushy brows, a lean build, and skin that kept a tan into the winter. But Robbie’s only ex was a discreet, lone-wolf type he’d met on a hookup app during his first semester of freshman year. Going out with a guy who refused to literally go out or be seen in public with him had sullied Robbie’s ego, and he hadn’t dated since. Even conversations like these dampened his mood, ashamed of what he’d once settled for. Leo was, notably, the exact opposite: even with a girlfriend, he had no reservations about showing Robbie affection at the gym or in a living room full of friends. It was hard to tell if Leo was secretly gay, or just openly nice.

Robbie propped his laptop back up to his paper on Hinduism.

“Rama is my type,” he said, avoiding eye contact with Katie. “I need a man who’ll slay all my demons.”

Katie rolled her eyes at this deflection, hiccupped, and returned to Virginia Woolf.

Two nights later, Robbie and Leo got off the bus and walked to the latter’s apartment. After a relatively warm December day, the nighttime brought a harsher chill. Leo wore a long Canada Goose over his gym clothes, with just his bare, hairy legs sticking out beneath.

“I’m glad I don’t shave anymore,” Leo said, doing little skips along the sidewalk to keep warm.

“Your legs?” Robbie asked.

“Yeah, our swim coach made us in high school.”

Right, Robbie thought. Straight.

Leo lived in a residential neighborhood that connected Wrigleyville and Boystown, Chicago’s respective Meccas for straight and gay men. His apartment was equidistant from the baseball field on Addison and the strip of clubs that lined Halsted. As they walked up the front steps of Leo’s brownstone, Robbie saw a gaggle of gays exiting the building next door. Their tank tops and jean shorts seemed to deny the approaching winter solstice. Ten o’clock on a Friday, their night was just getting started.

“You don’t really hang out with that crowd, do you?” Leo asked as he led the way up to his second-floor unit.

“What do you mean?” Robbie asked.

“Like, you don’t really have gay friends. Why is that?” Leo turned open the door’s deadbolt and entered the apartment. It seemed neater than the last time Robbie had been over, and smelled like clean laundry.

“I don’t know. I spend most of my time with the frat,” Robbie said, wondering if his tone was too defensive.

“Doesn’t mean you can’t expand. I think it’d be good for you,” Leo said as he threw his gym bag in the closet and went to his room to change. “Feel free to grab a drink.”

Robbie went to the kitchen and found a mostly empty fridge, save for a box of takeout, a few stray beers, and a bottle of Zinfandel.

“Roommates already gone?” Robbie shouted as he opened the wine and poured two glasses.

“Yup,” Leo replied, emerging from his room in a white undershirt and flannel pajama pants. “All of their finals are online so they bounced early. Just me holding down the fort.”

“Is this from Whole Foods? When did you become such a connoisseur?”

“Bro, I took the winetasting class this semester. I’m a new man,” Leo said, making a point to swirl the liquid around his glass and take a sniff. “You wanna watch something?”

They headed to the living room and put on House Hunters. Robbie sat on the long part of the sectional, while Leo stretched his legs out from the other side, his feet brushing against Robbie’s thigh.

“Are you excited for Abigail to come back?” Robbie said, feeling his mouth dry up as he spoke.

Leo sighed. “That’s a whole thing.”

“Sorry,” Robbie said, turning his attention away from the unhappy couple in Charleston. “We don’t have to talk about it.”

“No, it’s fine. We just have some things to work out. Not seeing her for five months has made me realize we don’t know how to communicate.” Leo turned onto his side and propped a pillow under his cheek, keeping his eyes on the TV as he sprawled his legs over Robbie’s and adjusted his bulge beneath his pajamas. Robbie dropped the topic of Abigail’s return and ignored the Bro directed toward him in the kitchen. They watched the suited realtor confess his irritations to the camera and sank into the couch.

“Alright, I think it’s time to break the seal,” Leo said, as the credits rolled on their third episode. “It’s starting to hit me.” He’d finally finished his glass of wine.

“Yeah, same,” Robbie said sarcastically, having barely touched his own. It was out of reach, and he didn’t want to move from the position he and Leo had established.

“Let’s go together,” Leo said. He stood up and held out his hand toward Robbie.

Robbie looked up at Leo’s glossy brown eyes. He stared at the extended hand, feeling his mouth dry up again.

“Come,” Leo said. Robbie obeyed.

They held hands as Leo led Robbie to the bathroom. He lifted the toilet seat and lowered his pants. Robbie stared at Leo’s penis in silence, until Leo adjusted his aim and began to pee. Robbie, unsure of what else to do, followed along. His eyes shifted from their competing streams, to the black and white tile floor, to Leo’s face. Leo stared back at Robbie, his smile warm and mischievous. Leo pulled up his pants and flushed as soon as they both finished.

“Let’s go to bed,” Leo said. “It’s too cold for you to leave.”

Robbie had drank with Leo many times before, and never knew one drink (or even five) to have this effect on him. He seemed dazed, but almost unconvincingly, as if he were playing a part. Robbie assumed a role of his own, not questioning anything as they went to Leo’s bedroom, took off their shirts, and fell asleep in a knot of chests, arms, and legs.

When Leo started turning in bed, Robbie had been awake for a few hours, cocooned in an afterglow of what had initially terrified him. Leo had asked Robbie to take a leap that they couldn’t climb back from. The fear Robbie had while falling was gone now, feeling soft breaths on his neck and tangled up beneath a down comforter.

Leo groaned a little, unhooking his arm from around Robbie’s waist and rolling over.

“How’d you sleep?” Robbie asked, turning to face Leo.

“Fine,” Leo said, his voice raspy.

“Your bed’s way more comfortable than mine.”

Leo lay on his back, eyes still closed. Robbie scooted closer.

“How do you wake up looking so perfect?” Robbie said, reaching over to caress Leo’s torso.

“Dude, fuck off,” Leo grunted. “I am not a morning person.” He turned away from Robbie and covered his head with a pillow. Robbie stared at Leo’s naked back. He felt a sting in his eyes, a bite in his chest. He inched his way to the other side of the bed, burying himself in a blanket and closing his eyes to prevent any tears from coming out, to prevent himself from responding like the reprimanded child he felt like.

After a while, he heard Leo get out of bed, start the coffeemaker, and use the bathroom. Feelings of hurt and anger oscillated in Robbie’s throat. Leo eventually returned, leaning on the doorway with a cup of coffee in his hand. He stretched one tricep overhead, exposing his armpit.

“Okay, I’m awake,” he chuckled. “You can blab all you want now.”

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” Robbie said, sitting up on the bed and watching Leo’s smile fade. “I’m not Abigail.” Robbie was scorned and aiming low.

“What’s wrong?” Leo said, his voice quiet.

“You don’t get to do what you did last night then tell me to fuck off in the morning.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m right here! We spooned in your bed all night. And what you did in the bathroom…” Robbie was standing up now, cold and humiliated in his briefs.

“I was pretty tipsy.”

“You were not. You had one glass of wine.”

“Do you know how high the alcohol content is in Zinfandel?” Leo scoffed.

“Is Zinfandel your excuse for everything else? Lying in my lap, massaging my tits? It’s constant.”

Leo’s face softened and lips closed.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice almost trembling. “I didn’t mean to cross a line. Or make you uncomfortable.”

Robbie lowered his voice, too. “You didn’t. You never did.”

Leo furrowed his brow again. “Then what do you mean?”

Robbie exhaled, refusing to clarify. He’d already blown it. The touching had gone too far, past his breaking point, and in the wake of this tantrum, he’d be deprived of it all. And though he hadn’t admitted it to Katie, and could barely admit it to himself, Leo’s affection meant everything to him. He craved, hoped for, and clung to it. But by acknowledging these table scraps, he’d ruined the whole feast.

“Again,” Leo said, “I apologize for making you uncomfortable.” He exited the doorway.

Robbie looked around the bedroom floor for his clothes. He got dressed and headed toward the living room. His arm pulsed with momentum as he prepared to walk out the door and slam it behind him.

Leo called out from the bathroom.

“Hey! Gym later? It’s chest day and I need a spotter. I promise I’ll keep my hands to myself.”

Robbie paused, watching Leo’s muscles flex as he brushed his teeth. He thought of the night before: Leo’s pajama pants down around his hairy thighs; the knowing smile; his own, unquestioning obedience. All that and Robbie still didn’t know if Leo was gay, or nice, or maybe neither. He left the apartment, ignoring Leo’s question, and no longer wanting an answer to his own.


Zach Benak lives in Ravenswood, Chicago. His prose appears in GASHER, 45th Parallel, Thirteen Bridges Literary Review, and Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America (Belt Publishing, 2021), among other publications.