Introduction by Patty Yumi Cottrell
As someone who happens to regularly seek out depressing stories, sorrowful even, because I like to feel my emotional state altered magically by words on a page or screen set forth in a particular order, it’s always a shock and delight to encounter a new work of artfully-executed feel-badness. In CJ Llego’s bleak, unnerving, and very funny “Docile Bodies” a young man spends a weekend at an isolated Airbnb with an older man. The nature of their relationship, at first, is somewhat ambiguous, but like all relationships appears to be predicated upon desire and attachment. “My fingernail scratches scarred his back, meaning that, for this weekend, he was mine,” thinks our unnamed narrator. “…And I thought of the pain in my ass, meaning I was his.” Who needs whom more? The answer to this is in flux for the duration of this suspenseful story.
Earlier this year I was asked to guest-edit a queer fiction issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly. I spent my summer reading hundreds of stories about all kinds of relationships. I’m grateful to the brilliant writer Patrick Nathan (Some Hell) for suggesting I reach out to Llego. A few things made “Docile Bodies” stand out, including how Llego dispenses a specific form of pleasure to the reader: that of noticing disgusting things. Our narrator happens to be in love with seeing himself and his surroundings. This obsessive act of self-witnessing and self-making is informed by different registers of disgust. He sees the older man examining his own earwax. People have bodies with skin tags and stretch marks. Pillows smell like dandruff. The Airbnb’s television “still wore antennas”. To pay attention to this disgusting world is a form of love.
And yet, to believe one is deserving of love will always lead to suffering. To ask nothing of others keeps them a mystery. To own something means you must take care of it. “Docile Bodies” reckons with the tension between duty and generosity in thrilling new ways. I won’t spoil the many subtle revelations and layers of complication that punctuate this tremendous story. It’s a great honor to introduce you to CJ Llego. The world of Llego’s work is sorrowful and scary, but always gorgeously alive, human, and humane.
– Patty Yumi Cottrell
Author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace
He’s the Daddy for Our Weekend in the Country
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“Docile Bodies” by Christopher James Llego
I’m lactose intolerant, but he was my daddy and he wanted to watch me drink from the cow’s teat. I got on my knees, spotted a brown patch on the cow’s udder, and sucked, moaning because that would get Nicholas hard. The cow mooed, and I knew I had seconds before it kicked. I wanted my face to stay intact. With an Asian penis and a slow metabolism, my curved nose and high cheekbones were all I had to offer.
“Baby,” Nicholas said as we walked back to the farmhouse, “you make me hot all over.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Feel it,” he said, so I felt it, and it was throbbing.
I woke up with a toothache and a bruised ass. In the kitchen, Nicholas tried to figure out how to operate the coffee machine. The Airbnb had advertised modern appliances, but these farm folks thought refrigerators with ice dispensers were innovative. The Wi-Fi was slow. The microwave barely heated. Steam radiators clanged at three in the morning, and the TV in the living room still wore antennas. Nicholas poured water into the coffee machine’s reservoir, then slapped its side until he gave up and threatened to sue.
“You lift the nozzle,” I said, recognizing the machine from my dad’s house. I wiped crust from my eyes and drank water straight from the tap. It had a metallic flavor that might’ve been caused by the rusted faucet. My tongue tasted stale.
“Why don’t they have an espresso machine?” Nicholas asked.
“You’re the one who wanted a rural weekend.”
“Don’t test me.”
“Sorry, sir.” I hugged him from behind, my wet lips kissing the acne on his shoulder. He was taller than me, his hands as big as my face. I liked how calloused his fingers were from playing the guitar, even though he sang when he played, and his baritone cracked when he attempted low notes. On our second date, he made me shut my eyes while he pretended to audition for The Voice. I thought of our takeout growing cold as he fumbled through a ballad I didn’t recognize. Afterward, he asked me why I hadn’t pressed the buzzer, and I said there was no buzzer to press. He said I could’ve poked his chest, which excused me from having to tell him he lacked talent.
“You make the coffee,” he said, then went to the bathroom to pee, his stream as heavy as his penis. I tried to jerk off and forgot to press the start button, so when he came back asking why the coffee wasn’t brewing, I lied and said the machine was broken. He noticed my erection and lifted me up onto the counter, which was too cold to be pleasant. My butt still hurt, and I didn’t have it in me for a round this early, so I told him I loved him. He backed off.
“I love you,” I repeated, and watched as he walked out the door wearing nothing but his wrinkled green boxers, carrying a pack of Marlboro Lights he’d chain-smoke until his thoughts were back in order.
The coffee started brewing once I pressed start. The machine gurgled until it hissed, and I found two novelty mugs in the cabinet above the microwave. One had an i ♥ ny logo, which felt wrong upstate. I drank from the yellow mug patterned with purple Labradors and stared at Nicholas through the window. My fingernail scratches had scarred his back, meaning that, for this weekend, he was mine. The first sips of coffee made my stomach rumble, and I thought of the pain in my ass, meaning I was his.
When he came back inside, he asked me how I’d fixed the machine. “I just did,” I said.
“Genius,” he said, then kissed me while his hands cupped my ass cheeks. I wanted to chew on his smoker’s breath. “I love you too,” he said, grabbing his milk jug from the fridge and pouring whole milk into his novelty mug. “There’s a lot of love in this house.”
We went for a hike after eating tofu scramble. I’d wanted more—a banana, an apple, a bowl of cinnamon oats—but he had a rule about me asking for seconds.
I was wary of ticks because my mom was bitten during a trip to the Philippines and spent two weeks certain she’d contracted Lyme disease before her doctor informed her she just had lung cancer. Our family physician was my godfather, and the last time I’d gone in for a checkup I’d weighed only 190 pounds. No need to see my new stats. “This is a long trail,” I said, trying not to breathe like an asthmatic.
My boots hadn’t been broken in yet. I felt them rub up against the backs of my ankles. I’d have to tear off the blisters during tonight’s bubble bath. I hated when dead skin floated in the water.
I swatted a fly buzzing beside my ear. Nicholas was a few steps ahead of me, his head tilted up at the sky. “There’s no smog outside the city,” he said. “You inhale and you breathe in clean air.”
It smelled like manure, but I nodded along while he examined the bark of a fallen tree. He wore shorts even though it was autumn. His leg hair grew in patches, his calves were smooth. His thighs were so meaty that I wondered why he wanted me. At a bar, he could smile and the bartender would offer him free whiskey. I felt the heaviness of my gut from my one plate of breakfast.
“If you think about it,” Nicholas said, “bark is the one thing protecting trees from violation.”
He liked making statements that he thought were philosophical. He expected praise, so I grabbed his hand and kissed each knuckle. “I used to scratch off bark with my keys,” I said.
“I’m an only child.”
He made me kiss his other hand, then told me to unbutton my pants and bend over against the fallen tree, so I did, and when he said he hadn’t brought lube, I said spit was all I needed. I watched a trail of ants crawling along a leafless branch while he moaned behind me, his hands gripping my hips, his thumbs pressing down on my bruises. I bit the insides of my cheeks. Shards of chipping tree bark pricked my palms.
“Baby, tell me you love me,” he said.
“You are my life, sir.”
“Tell me you’d do anything for me.”
“You can do anything you want to me, sir.”
When he finished, he told me to lick him clean. He tasted like rubber and I wanted to spit him out, but he said he loved me, so I swallowed and got back up. He kissed my forehead and traced his thumb across my chapped lips. I smiled, knowing that we had only a few more hours. He shoved his thumb into my mouth and said I was the love of his life. I sucked until he got bored.
We continued down the path and were met by a small gorge. Dead leaves floated on the surface of the murky water. A fat frog hopped away once it noticed us. A tailless squirrel climbed up a short tree, as if in search of its missing appendage. Nicholas removed his clothes and jumped in, expecting the water to be deep, but it was a toddler’s height. He pretended not to be injured as he limped toward the stream.
“Get in,” he said.
“Are your legs okay?” I called out.
“Yeah, the water’s okay,” he shouted back.
In the cold water, my penis shriveled. Floating leaves touched my hips, and I kept thinking they were bugs. I wanted to be back in my dorm room.
“We didn’t bring towels,” I said once I reached him by the stream. He said we were free to roam naked, which I didn’t want to do. A tree branch would prick me, an ant would bite. A pervert with a camera could flash a photo from the bushes. Above us, gray clouds gathered. It would rain soon, and we’d be stuck indoors for our last evening.
“You don’t like swimming?” he said.
We squatted and lingered in the water. My nipples were solid. I wanted to ask him to lick them, but I never initiated. I stared at his face while he meditated. His scruff was sexy. His hair still existed. He had lips that I enjoyed kissing, but he liked using his tongue, which too often tasted like pepperoni. He liked biting my chin until it bled, and I had to moan and say I liked it.
I peed in the water, expecting warmth, but all I felt was dirty. I moved closer to Nicholas and removed a wet leaf from his chest. I kissed him and asked if he was ready to go back. He opened his eyes and asked if that was what I wanted. I told him I’d do anything he wanted.
Nicholas had a hard time getting up, his age visible as his knees popped. “You’re so short,” he said.
“You’re towering over me.” I stood up, my eyes reaching his chest. He bent down to kiss my eyebrow and told me to hold his hand while we walked back to our clothes. “It’s going to rain,” I said, using my shirt to dry off. Nicholas returned to the trail, his clothes balled in his hand. He shook to get rid of the water, his penis flopping. I hated his foreskin.
We walked barefoot along the trail. I followed behind, hoping he knew where he was going. I wanted to smoke a cigarette, but he hated seeing me smoke, which felt hypocritical. Twigs cut the soles of my feet, and I worried that a mosquito would land on my exposed penis. The cold air bit my nipples.
“My dad used to take me camping,” I said, unnerved by the sound of my own breathing. Nicholas didn’t look back. “He said the mark of a true man was being able to make a fire using sticks and rocks, but I always failed. And then my mom died.”
“I think this is it,” Nicholas said. He’d found the fallen tree where we’d fucked.
I’d been following a lost man.
I lasted two minutes in the shower before my shivering body made Nicholas go limp.
“Cold showers are about discipline, which you lack,” he lectured as he slid open the curtain, his other hand cupping my bruised cheeks. I stepped out of the tub and nearly slipped on the tiles. “You need to grow up at some point,” he said, and I nodded, shaking as I reached for the beach towel hanging behind the door. “That’s mine,” he shouted, cold water sprinkling out from the still-open curtain. “Use the cum rag in the bedroom.”
“There are extra towels in the closet,” I said, his towel in hand. “I’ll grab you one.”
“No,” he said. “I want your body to smell like my babies.”
“Yes, sir.” I hung the towel back on the hook, then dried off in the bedroom using the short towel beside the broken radiator, grossed out by the cold air and the feeling of semen rubbing around my wet body. Wanting a small victory, I dug into my backpack and pulled out my phone, which I always put away when Nicholas took me out on dates. Our first time together, when he brought me to his apartment after dinner at Jean-Georges, he’d swiped my phone from my hands, said it was impolite not to provide my full attention, and tucked it into his back pocket. His stained veneers made him look like a creep, but he’d shown me old photos of him and his baby nephew, and babies rarely smile at murderers.
Nicholas turned off the faucet in the bathroom. I had a text from my boyfriend. I listened for the sound of Nicholas’s electric toothbrush as I opened my messages.
How’s Brooklyn? Brendan had texted an hour earlier.
My dad’s cough has gotten worse, I lied, though maybe it was true.
He texted back immediately, which meant he was horny. Sorry, he wrote, which didn’t make me feel any better. I pictured him having a hard time typing with his left hand. You get back tonight, right? he added.
Late, yeah, I texted back, worried he expected something tonight. He’d see my bruises and ask how I’d gotten them, and I’d say my dad had hit me, which used to be true, and he’d say my dad deserved to die, and I wouldn’t react, because I didn’t want to blame myself if it came true.
The Foucault reading is dense, just fyi.
I figured he’d stopped masturbating, which made me smile. I imagined the Asian twink in his video, paused on all fours, begging to be played. But Brendan had picked me.
I’ll be up all night, I texted, expecting him to ask if he could join me, which I’d reject, and then he’d beg, and I’d finally cave. I liked when he got desperate. I liked being yearned for. The other night, I’d nearly replied No to Nicholas’s offer, but there was something about receiving his emails that made me want to open them again. It was the way he signed off: Grateful for you. I liked the idea of an older man thinking he was lucky to be alive at the same time as I was.
I’ll buy us coffee, Brendan texted, then sent a heart emoji, which killed my script.
Before I could respond, Nicholas walked into the room, cleaning his ears with a Q-tip, and said, “Who are you texting?”
He checked the earwax on his Q-tip and tossed it into the wastebasket. “I don’t like thinking of you as someone’s son.”
“Sorry, sir,” I said, tossing my phone back into my bag. “I don’t talk to him often, if that helps.”
“I want to be your only daddy,” he said. I thought he was flirting, so I placed my hands on his waist, but he pushed me back and said to dry off before I got the hardwood wet.
“Sorry,” I said again, annoyed that I was here. Life went on in the city, and up here we sat in dirty water and stared out windows. I thought of tipping cows. I shut my eyes, trying to meditate like Nicholas had in the gorge, but he said to quit mocking him, so I stopped.
He went to the kitchen to start cooking dinner while I shaved my nipple hair in the bathtub. I considered running a bath for my blisters, but I didn’t want to reuse the cum rag. Nicholas yelled that he was cooking chicken for dinner.
“I’m vegan,” I said, joining him as he sautéed chicken breasts in an old ceramic pan. The fire alarms looked inoperative, so I opened one of the windows in the living room just in case, then noticed the rain. I thought of the cow who’d given me her milk, hoping she’d found shelter.
“You need more meat in you,” he said.
Nicholas was a chubby chaser, and I should’ve been more appreciative that he kissed my stretch marks when he rimmed my ass. Freshman year, a guy had asked me if they were tattoos, so I turned off the lights while he took my virginity. Diet pills only made them worse.
We attempted doggy one final time, but dinner had made my stomach gurgle, and I found myself in the bathroom while Nicholas strummed random chords to hide the noise. The bedroom was too close to the bathroom, so I yelled for him to go outside and smoke, but he said he didn’t take orders. I ran the faucet.
I flushed the toilet twice, thinking a second flush would capture some of the smell. There were usually candles or air fresheners at Airbnbs, but this bathroom didn’t even have a plunger. In the cabinet underneath the sink, I found an unopened twelve-pack of single-ply toilet paper and a pile of browned magazines from 2001. I washed my hands under cold water and told my reflection that he was disciplined. I turned to the door in search of the towel, then remembered that Nicholas had left it in the bedroom. I listened to the strumming continue.
“The meat got to me,” I said, hoping for an apology, but he didn’t look up from his guitar. I watched his thick fingers trying to line themselves up along the strings. He stopped strumming when he couldn’t figure out a chord, then asked me why I was still standing. Cold water dripped from my fingertips. I wanted to flick it at him.
He attempted another chord that didn’t sound right, then cussed and placed the guitar on the pillow where he’d pushed down my face not ten minutes ago. He stared at my hairless nipples and told me to lie in bed with him.
We cuddled underneath the thin blankets. His chin stubble brushed my earlobe. His limp penis pressed against my bruised ass. I enjoyed being the little spoon because I didn’t have to do anything. Light rain patted the windows.
“My knees are killing me,” he said.
“Drink milk,” I said, imagining him on his swollen knees, sucking on a cow’s teat. It would try to escape, so he’d bite down until the cow knew who belonged to whom.
He said he wished he were nineteen again. I said it sucked not being allowed into bars. He told me it was a good thing because it meant fewer temptations. I wanted to tell him that being told no made me want the thing more, but I agreed with him instead. “You always agree with me,” he said, then sat up to play the guitar.
“Could you play me a song?”
I watched him strum two chords, then placed my hand on his knee. “Did I do something wrong?” I asked.
He didn’t say anything.
“Because if I did something wrong, I’m sorry.”
He brushed my hand off and said, “You should call your dad more often.”
“I thought you didn’t like it when I talked about my dad.”
“I’m the one talking about him,” he said. He turned to the window and stared at the rain. I wasn’t sure if I should touch him, so I kept my hands underneath my pillow while Nicholas scratched the skin tag on his neck. I wanted to see his face, brace myself if he intended to yell. He turned back to me and said, “My nephew died last September.”
“How’d it happen?” I asked, still unsure if I should touch him. I cracked my knuckles underneath my pillow.
I felt bad for him in the same way I felt bad about getting an F on a plagiarized paper, so I told him he made me happy, and asked if he wanted to talk about it, but he said he’d rather teach me chords. I let him use my fingers on the strings while he shared a story about stealing his first guitar from band class in junior high. I tried to imagine him as a teenager, but I felt like a pervert, so I thought about his dead nephew instead. I wanted to ask a question, but I needed Nicholas to remain a mystery—otherwise, I’d have no reason to come back for more.
“I don’t want our weekend to end,” he said, puppeteering my fingers into a G major chord.
I noticed a hangnail on my thumb and asked him to stop playing with my fingers, then felt useless when he let go of my hands. I wanted to peel an orange and wince from the burn.
“You have work tomorrow,” I said. “And I have class.”
“Drop out and move in with me.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
The drive home took two hours. I wanted him to drive over the speed limit, but the rain made Nicholas careful. What was the point of a luxury car if he drove his age? The air conditioner was on. My legs kept falling asleep. We listened to jazz for an hour, then he talked about his goals on the last stretch of highway. He said he had played the clarinet until his older brother used it to bat Nicholas on the back of his head and bent the keys. Then he grew up and earned an engineering degree. He turned to me while we tailgated a truck.
“I can’t wait for you to grow up,” he said, then rested a hand on my thigh.
When we reached campus, two night guards were patrolling the quad in neon jackets and oversize sunglasses. One of them walked around without an umbrella, trying to appear macho. I’d have to run to the dorms if I didn’t want to get drenched. I considered asking Nicholas if he had an umbrella I could borrow, but I didn’t want to hold on to anything of his. The weekend was over.
“When can I see you again?” he asked.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out ten hundred-dollar bills. “Add it to what I’ve already given you.”
“Thanks, sir.” I tucked the money into the small pocket of my backpack.
“Call me Nicholas, please,” he said.
“Okay.” I unlocked the door and stepped outside.
“It’s been two months,” he called out from his rolled-down window. “I still don’t know your real name.”
“Do you want to?” I asked.
He lit a cigarette. “I don’t know.”
I crossed the street and passed the front gates, knowing Nicholas would watch until I was too far down the quad. He’d email me in a few days. He needed me.
Brendan was eating a burrito bowl on the floor while his roommate watched a ten-minute washboard-abs YouTube tutorial. I took a seat beside Brendan, leaning against their shared mini-fridge, and told him I’d missed him. He swallowed a mouthful of steak cubes and kissed me, his mouth tasting like meat and gingivitis. His roommate asked if we wanted the room, and I hoped Brendan would say yes so I could blow him, but he told his roommate to stay because we wouldn’t do anything silly. I took it as a sign, wondering if what I had intended to do was silly.
I climbed onto Brendan’s bed. “Did you grab me any coffee?”
“Shoot,” he said.
“You had time to buy Chipotle.”
“There’s Mountain Dew in the fridge. Want one?”
“Soda me,” I said, then laughed at my own pun. Brendan didn’t catch it.
He opened two cans and joined me on his hard mattress. He clinked my can in celebration—maybe he knew he’d just dodged a breakup. I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay with him. His birthday was coming up, which meant I needed a gift, but I didn’t want to spend any money on him. I didn’t want to spend money even on myself. I played with the tab of my can. The carbonation would upset my stomach, but we weren’t going to do anything silly, so I took two large gulps and burped in his face.
“Tasty,” he said, then crinkled his nose in a way I always found cute. There’s something about beautiful faces acting ugly that I find endearing, like when a valedictorian smokes a cigarette, or a father changes his baby’s diapers. “You’re wet,” Brendan said, noticing only because my clothes were soiling his bedsheets. He asked me if I wanted a towel, and I took it as an exit sign, telling him I needed a hot shower. Not wanting to lead Brendan on, I said I needed to call my dad first.
“Weren’t you just with him?” Brendan asked.
“I can’t check up on him?”
“Thanks,” I said. “Pray that I get my reading done before I pass out.”
Brendan said God was a lie.
“So was that coffee.”
I walked down the hall. I shared my room with a junior who had an older girlfriend that lived in the Bronx, so he was never around, leaving me with a home that didn’t feel lived-in. The walls needed posters. The desks needed plants. I’d once thought owning a turtle might be pleasant, but then I’d have to feed it and call it by a name, which felt too intimate.
I called my dad to see if he was alive, not sure which answer I wanted.
“You’re still awake?” my dad asked, phlegm in his throat. In the background, a news anchor reported a missing teen from Flatbush. I wondered if my dad had remembered to lock the front door. His heavy breathing made my ear itch, so I put him on speaker and placed my phone on my bed while I counted my cash.
“It’s barely eleven o’clock,” I said, stacking the bills into piles of ten. My dad was chewing on something for too long. I turned off the speaker and pressed the phone back to my ear, listening to the sound of his molars mushing. “I’ll wire another thousand to your bank,” I said.
“I’m really sorry,” he said after swallowing.
“Don’t apologize, Roger. You need to pay for chemo.” I pulled the hangnail on my thumb until it bled, then muted my phone and screamed into my pillow, which smelled like dandruff. I thought of the money he could’ve saved if he had health insurance, but I couldn’t blame him. I unmuted.
I heard the news switch to a profile of a football team’s winning streak. My dad flipped to another news channel, where the anchors were discussing politics. He turned off the television and coughed into his phone.
“I cooked chicken adobo for dinner,” he said. “I took a photo of it. I’ll text it to you.” He’d been taking too many pictures since he upgraded his phone. Dogs in the neighborhood, his Mexican coworkers, a male nurse with a panda neck tattoo. One night he sent a photo of a paper cut, then a second text explaining how he’d gotten it. He said it was from paper. I wondered if anyone still listened to him.
“I ate chicken today too,” I said, then checked the photo he’d messaged. Blurry, his head casting a shadow. The chicken looked dry. He’d added too much black pepper.
“My chicken was perfect,” he said. “Your mom would be proud.”
“Yeah,” I said. “She would be.”