INTRODUCTION BY KRISTEN ARNETT
There is something so goddamn charming about a writer who can take a story about a guy pretending to be Catholic in order to snag a hot gay man and imbue it not only with humor, but with despair and hope in the crosshairs.
Here’s the thing. Peter Kispert is a funny writer, but he’s also ready to sucker punch you with feeling.
At its heart, “In the Palm of his Hand” is asking us to examine the many facades we live behind. What does it mean to be queer? To be Catholic? To show friendship? Love? How well do we know other people? How little do we know ourselves?
Peter Kispert sets us down in the life of a man who very much presents as someone who is willing to behave any way necessary to fit the mold he has created for himself. The man he wants to love is religious, so he wears a borrowed golden cross. His job at Charm Magazine (in which he waits for a promotion, to be “Charmed”) is full of transactional relationships meant to move him from one level to the next, something he feels he deserves more than the other people working around him, because he knows how to act in order to seem most worthy. His relationship with his roommate, another gay man who sits at the apartment “gayming” the hours away, is perfunctory and non-existent except for the monthly handling of a rent check. Even his friendship with Maggie, who has moved away after college, runs a very specific, necessary gamut: she is who he used to be, he decides. He is taking over the trajectory of her failed ambitions. We are watching a man pull the strings of his own life. An attempt at puppet mastery that fails, repeatedly.
Control. It’s a nice dream.
It is in these moments of subtle unbecoming that Kispert shows his true skill as a writer. We view the other characters through the eyes of a man who can’t really see them because he is incapable of seeing himself. When others behave in ways that move outside the realm of what he deems worthy of respect, they become “embarrassing.” As the story unfolds and the view of his world expands, the idea of respectability begins to warp. Can a person be respectable if they can’t even respect themselves?
While all the stories in I Know You Know Who I Am are knockouts, it’s “In the Palm of His Hand” that charmed the hell out of me. As queer people, we often measure ourselves against others because we feel that we need to behave the right way in order to maintain our identities (something that many of us found precarious enough to deal with when we initially came out). In life, in love, in friendship. It is these ways in which we define ourselves where we find the dark places. The places where we lack. The places that need light. Kispert is shining a flashlight down into all those spaces that need illuminating. Setting everything aglow.
– Kristen Arnett
Author of Mostly Dead Things
Faking Catholic To Attract a Hot Gay Man
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“In the Palm of His Hand”
by Peter Kispert
The first thing I have to confess is that pretending to have a relationship with the church (The Church?) came easily to me, in a way that at the time did not feel like a sin.
“A relationship with God, you mean. You’re not praying to a building.”
My friend Maggie had been out of Fordham for four months and found, back in her Vermont hometown, a need to reaffirm, at every turn, her hundred thousand dollars of intelligence and acquired wisdom. The phone crackled with static, her bad reception up there in the woods. I imagined her in the middle of a brown leaf pile, neck high, and stifled a laugh at the image. She continued disapprovingly, “It’s worth asking: Is this ethical?”
“You mean moral,” I said.
“No,” she said, aghast with the special irritation at having been corrected by someone who graduated from a state school.
“I mean ethical.”
“I guess I’m not worried about that,” I said. She didn’t reply immediately. I could tell I was upsetting her more but pressed anyway. “Didn’t you do kind of the same thing? Saying you played tennis for Bryan?”
“That actually could have been true. I have the body for it. Plus, I can pick that up anytime.”
“And I can’t just start going to church?”
“Again,” she insisted, “it’s about going to God. And for your first relationship?”
“Plenty of people who go to church don’t believe in God.”
“Ugh,” she said. “You sound like Bill.”
Bill was a contrarian who Maggie had dated and complained about through her sophomore year, a Columbia guy with long black hair he modeled on weekends who pushed back on everything she said, and who once infuriatingly “iced” her on a fire escape during a party. A shame memory for us both. She’d called me right after, and I’d been too drunk myself to be of any help. She still hadn’t gotten over him, I knew, and I felt awful that she still couldn’t see a fact so clearly before us both, obvious even at the time: Bill never really liked her. She was trying to become him now, though I’d never tell her that. You sound like Bill, I wanted to fire back.
“Sorry,” I conceded instead. Throwing the conversation in the trash, I said pointlessly, “What are your plans for the day?”
She ignored the question, the phone making a crinkling, fading-out noise that suggested the fraying of our friendship with each of these less and less frequent calls.
“Why are you even doing this? Is a guy worth all this energy?” She strung up those words, put extra spaces between them for emphasis: All. This. Energy.
It was something I would have said to her, might already even have. I had the urge to get off the phone, which seemed to come at me from out of the blue but in truth had been lurking all along. I touched my chest where I imagined the metal Jesus resting, proving my devotion.
“Maggie, you just have to understand. He’s like—he’s so, so hot. He has one of those fucking butt chins.”
“So you said you were Catholic?”
“Christian,” I corrected, not totally sure of the difference. “Leaves me options, right?”
“Is this worth eternal damnation?” she said. I laughed.
We were two different people now, and scheduling the conversation felt like a display of my loneliness, a feeling the city often made me think I might finally be getting rid of. The past few months, I had started to know that Maggie hated that we had switched places, and now it was my turn in the city, and despite what we’d both believed would happen, I was the one making it. And in fashion. It felt like a gift that I had to succeed at all costs. Not because I wanted to pull for a September issue or boss around an assistant, but because it created distance between who people thought I used to be; it made them know they were wrong.
“Probably I’m already damned,” I said. “Is avoiding that even an option for me at this point?”
Eric and Amy moved their chairs up to my desk, rolling them noisily along the long corridor of glass conference rooms, revealing to anyone within earshot their status as forever-assistants, unpromotable people who never get why they’re not promoted. They were the kind of people I risked letting myself become when I indulged their gossip and exclusive group lunches. Their unprofessionalism was contagious in that it gave the impression I was like them, which I wasn’t. Charm Magazine handed out one promotion every two years, on the same date—the next day. People called it the day someone gets Charmed. New though I was, six months in I’d heard during a performance review that I was being eyed for it. A secret I’d kept at all costs.
“So the date,” they said. “The church guy.”
“His name is Simon!” I said.
“He’s so hot,” Eric said. “Like, dreamy. I went on a date with a guy like this once. He ordered sushi. I could barely speak.”
Amy and I stared at him. The sushi detail read as pathetic.
“How are you playing this?” Amy said. She rolled her chair up closer. “You need a game plan.”
“I should get a cross,” I joked.
Eric gasped loudly. “My God, that’s genius.” In her office his boss, one of the top fashion editors, leaned back in her chair, wondering what had caused it.
“Probably worth a shot actually,” Amy said.
“I don’t know if I’ll see him again.”
“I have to pull for the deciduous shoot this afternoon. I’ll see if we have a prop or something.”
The “deciduous leaves shoot” was Eric’s promise at a good idea that every one of us knew would get killed last minute, and we were thankful for it. He’d saved up all his trust for this moment. The gift of self-elimination.
“Eric,” I said, “if I do it I’m getting a real cross.” He nodded and I told them I needed to get back to calendaring lunches. Overkill? Maybe. It seemed worth it, to have this insane attention to detail. As they screeched their chairs down the hall, I wanted to tell them how I’m succeeding and why they’re not: that I come in on Sunday nights to do memos. Call down to the front desk to have the nineteenth floor lights turned on. I leave with strain in my lower back from hunching over my keyboard for hours. I shut myself up pretty much all the time. I wanted to just finally say, Stop talking to me. You aren’t getting Charmed; I am.
My roommate, Dave, was a gaymer on weekends and, during the depressive episodes that were becoming a regular feature in his life, every other day of the week too. He’d quit two good jobs and been left unable to find another.
When I got home from work, he was talking into an earpiece with several other men like him, gays who don’t moisturize and spend their money on consoles not condoms. He met them all on some online forum I had been avoiding asking about, and I resisted the urge to pity him because he was such a nice guy. Even asking him to help clean the shower left me doused with guilt.
“Hey,” I said. “How’s the day?”
He took off his headset fast. “Hey! Okay. How are you?”
“Wiped,” I said. “Long day.” I didn’t mean to upset him, but bringing up that I had a salary touched a nerve, I could tell, so I kept on. “How’s the game?”
“Oh, it’s good! Yeah, good.”
“What’s the point?”
“Kill the bad guys,” he said, laughing a little. “As always.”
“Who are the bad guys?” I dropped my brown leather satchel near the couch and walked toward the screen.
“This one is pretty messed up. You go to different areas and, like, take whole places out. They’re filled with bad guys though. But weird I guess.”
“Almost makes you seem like the bad guy, huh?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. He was choking through his words a bit, flustered. “But I’m not.”
I normally never got this close to Dave. He had an aura of palpable sadness, covered up with desperation. I could always see it from a distance, but getting too close left me unable to exit conversations gracefully. I always had to shut him down, and every time I did, I knew it just made things worse. He had paid his rent on time these past few months, with life- or- death deadline urgency. Last month he told me, his forehead shining with anxious sweat, leaning nervously on my bedroom doorframe, that he’d be a little late. He’d been close to tears. I couldn’t help but think if I were him I’d have just secretly sent my check in late, that it really didn’t matter. Later on, he’d shown up in that doorframe again and asked if I wanted to get a beer. The first time we’d have hung out. I told him I had plans, and then quickly made them, as if to prove to myself I could do such a thing. An hour later, I was laughing at a bar down the street with Ashley and Lauren, hoppy foam on my upper lip.
I sat down next to him on the couch and saw the thin gold chain around his neck. “I like that,” I said.
“Oh!” He took it out, the chain hung slack. “My mom gave it to me. She said I should always wear it.”
“It looks good on you,” I said, offering him a kindness I didn’t mean.
“Thanks! I have others if you want this one.”
“Really? Or I could have one of the others,” I said. Are you this entitled? I thought, just to myself. Taking your roommate’s cross?
“Yeah, it’s totally fine!” He struggled it around his head and cupped it in the palm of his hand, holding it out for me. “She sends them to me a lot.” I took the cross from him. There was a greasy quality to the metal. He grabbed at his headpiece fast, noticing something blinking on the screen. “Sorry,” he said. “We’ve been waiting on this battle. We finally got access to the vampire armory.”
“No problem,” I said, hoping the secondhand embarrassment at his lameness wasn’t obvious in those words. And then I went off to wash the cross in the kitchen sink.
I lifted my head from his pillow, sitting upright on Simon’s couch, and adjusted my shirt (as planned) to the side so that the thin gold chain that led down to a crucifix, carved out with a tiny Jesus, flashed against my neck.
“Oh,” Simon said. “Did you have that last time?”
Glad as I was Simon had noticed, I expected for the noticing to go something like this: a quiet acknowledgment I was religious too. Eventually, a new intimacy deepened by the respect of this choice, which would (also eventually) lead through a few small devotion-proving fights to love and then marriage. I had not expected to have to confront my religiousness aloud just yet, and for a moment the lie seized me around the waist. “Yeah,” I told Simon, measuring my voice, trying to make the word sound aggressively mundane, as if I spoke of the chain often. “I wear it everywhere.”
I had worn it only once, to the grocery store the day before, in a dumb practice round of trying to pull “the look” off in public after he’d texted to ask what I was up to the next night. What is the look? I wondered to myself. Do I walk differently now? Does this make people think I’m not gay? That I’m not comfortable with my gayness? My internal dialogue was running at such a high level that I had forgotten half of what I’d gone to the store to get—chicken and rice, a roll of toilet paper Dave hadn’t bothered to buy despite the recent assurances of his accountability. (“I know it annoys you—sorry, I’ll get it tomorrow!”)
“That’s really cool,” Simon said, placing a glass of water in front of him. What would have been a normal gesture of hospitality felt oddly like a profession of love. Really cool. Not just cool. It pleased me; this was working.
“Thanks,” I said, injecting a hint of weariness into the word. “A lot of people don’t understand it.” I adjusted my shirt so the chain disappeared, and we got back to talking about the movie we were about to watch, a Christian horror film called Bells of Reckoning in which nuns become vampires and then turn absurdly and confusingly back into nuns.
“Have you seen this one?” Simon asked.
“I haven’t!” I said. Obviously, I thought to myself. The movie case looked like a bargain-bin novel, fanged nuns in idiot red tones. I was comforted by the fact we had ended the moment on a note of my honesty (no, I had not in fact seen this movie), and placed my head at an angle, so that if Simon wanted to, he could nudge me to fall romantically onto his lap. The only scene that held my attention was the one where the nuns become unpossessed, their fangs shrinking back to human teeth. It reminded me of the cool crucifix above my heart, and what it would mean for me to break through the illusion of my Catholicism, which was amazingly simple to pull off.
“Church Sunday?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said. Of course.
Maggie called me at exactly five thirty the next day, a punctuality that seemed desperate. “I have him wrapped around the palm of my hand,” I told her excitedly right when I picked up, walking to the subway. I wanted her to say anything that would support this decision, this certainty that we can change for other people, or ourselves. Maybe private school taught that.
“Isn’t the expression ‘in the palm of your hand’?”
“Both!” I said.
“It can’t be both. That doesn’t make sense.”
“Rough patch but every rough patch ends.”
“Yeah, I hope so too,” I said.
“You hope what?”
“That every rough patch ends.”
“I didn’t say I hope. I said it does.”
“Sorry,” I said, letting her win.
In the background, over the bustle of cars and distant horns, I heard, “Mag, where the fuck you put the tomatoes?” I winced at how embarrassed it must have made her feel, knowing I heard that.
“I have to go,” she said. “Did you get the cross?”
“I’m wearing it now,” I said. “I actually like it.”
She sighed loudly, sparing me the sense this was about me at all. “I have to go too,” I said. “Dinner with friends in the Village.”
She didn’t tell me what she was going to do, so I was sure it was nothing she wanted me to know. I walked down into the subway and waited ten minutes for a train and didn’t think of her once. I imagined myself going through Charm’s closet with Eric in the next few days, pulling out church-wear. White and black, I told myself. But I honestly had no idea.
“You deserve it. I’ve always known it’d be you,” I told Eric outside, waiting for him to finish his cigarette. Steam pummeled angrily up from a vent down the street. Eric had just gotten tapped to be Charmed that morning, and I was caging in my fury. His boss had walked over to him with a cake heavy with vanilla frosting that read in florid red cursive: You’re a Charmer! The whole spectacle of the promotion felt too rich, condescending in a way that made me question whether I really even wanted this anymore. I had thought the crowning would be a little quieter. For the first time I wondered if I might be too good for the job; the idea I had given up too much for it upset me.
He made a face, like he was about to cry. “That means a lot. Thanks. I honestly thought it might be you.” He laughed.
“Oh please!” I smiled knowingly, performing for him how ridiculous that must sound to me. “No, not my time.”
But it was my time, and I knew it. A taxi pulled over in front of us, two young women stepping out, bright yellow high heels.
“Fuck, my three o’clock,” he said.
He didn’t answer. He stabbed out his cigarette and walked quickly back into the lobby with a new kind of confidence I seethed at. His refusal to finish the conversation felt like a personal attack. That’s my three o’clock, I thought, just to myself. You just sat your ass down and never got up.
Dave could tell I was pissed when I walked in the door. He turned off the game right away, and I saw his face in the blank screen ahead of him, tired. I almost asked him if he’d even gotten any sleep.
“What’s got you grumpy?” he asked.
“I’m no Charmer, not today.” He seemed not to remember I had told him about this, about work, or maybe I had never told him. Either way, I felt myself blame him.
“Still wearing that cross though! I like it!”
He smiled his big, fake grin, and I wanted to tell him to take a shower.
We arrived at the church five minutes before the Mass started. The air outside was thick with the syrupy scent of frankincense or something like it. Whatever it was exactly, the smell was just left of Christmas at my rich aunt’s. Simon’s dirty blond hair, parted, slicked down, started to get me hard, so I bit my tongue. The crucifix felt invisible, the temperature of my chest, as if it had melted right into me.
Outside the large stone entrance, people were folding their hands, bowing their heads. Small groups formed, the ominous groan of an organ warming up its hundred throats. When we walked inside, Simon dipped his fingers in a bowl of water and made a cross. I could see him touch, left-right, across his chest, and did the same. A small drop of water lingered at the corner of my brow, and I sensed that at any moment it might bore a hole right into my head, announce me as the impostor I was. We sat on the end of the hard pew in the back. What kind of choreography did one do in the church? Whose lead did I follow? Suddenly, I felt more at risk of being exposed than ever before. What was the padded green bar under the pew ahead of us for? How long did this even last? Growing up, I’d heard friends talk about how Mass dragged on. Were we talking hours?
We rose at the sight of the pope. The pope? Was that a priest? It was not a shaman. The pope was the one in charge. Ah, I thought. Vatican.
He greeted us warmly; we stood, then we took our seats. I thought, Game time. One eye always on Simon. I stood behind him, sat after his lead, a power play unknown to him that registered in me as sexy. At several points we sang, “Hosanna in the highest!” And I found the tune kind of catchy. After what seemed like an hour (it had been an hour), there was a scene playing out about the Body and Blood of Christ, and I realized I was going to have to commit. To eat the Body of Christ.
Simon’s shoe lifted the bar we’d been kneeling on, and he gave me a look. Like pride. Guilt surged through me. We attached ourselves to the back of a long line of everyone. (Nothing I could have sat out.) We moved forward with a kind of overly mindful step-touch. It made everyone look pretty gay.
A few people ahead of me eyed what looked like crackers as the priest lifted them, mumbled a thing, and then placed them in the palms of hands.
I heard Maggie’s voice, singsong, almost funny: Eternal damnation.
I saw people bypassing the goblet so (unlike me) skipped on the wine. When we got to the back, Simon took my hand. I almost gasped. He led me to the foyer, where a few hymnals were scattered on the floor, that water I dabbed myself with on the way in—and he kissed me. I could still taste the grape juice. The Blood of Christ, I almost said aloud, just to correct myself.
A few days later, Amy stopped by my desk, looking around suspiciously. It was the kind of care I didn’t expect from her, and both this and the attention she’d paid to her redbrown hair, which waterfalled down onto her shoulder, gave me a jump of sit- up respect I normally didn’t experience with her.
“So, about Eric,” she said. “What do you think?” Amy was a famous gossip, so I never got to know her. (“Smart,” a photo assistant Lexi had said during drinks one day, revealing some experience she didn’t want to share. “Very smart.”)
“I don’t know,” I said, tired of being in a dishonest mode. “I’m happy for him.”
“Yeah,” she said, leaning against my desk. “He’s been here four years.”
“Four years?” I said. “That’s insane.”
“Yeah, it is. He tells all the new hires he’s coming up on two.” She ate some peanuts I didn’t know she had in her hand. “Kind of embarrassing.”
I felt a reminder not to disclose anything about myself. “Good for him,” I said again, trying to pump the words full of meaning, trying to mean them.
She sighed. “They told you you were up for it, didn’t they?”
“What do you mean?” I said, feeling a heavy thud in my heart.
“Oh, they do that with everyone. Makes you work hard like crazy,” she said.
“They told you?”
“They still tell me.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I said.
“Honestly? So you can take yourself out of the game,” she said. “Four years? Four years,” she said, making a face like she’d just witnessed a grimace-worthy football play.
“Have you really been here for just two years?” I asked her. I hoped my ability to see through her shit would override my anxiety at having bought into all this crap. Crap on crap on crap.
“Three,” she said. “And a half.” She paused for a moment. “So I’m next. By the way, I like the chain on you,” she said. “It’s a good look. You need the edge.”
I took it out from under my shirt, feeling the bumps of the little Jesus in my fingers. “It feels bad,” I said. “To be honest. To wear this and not mean it.”
“You really can’t have that much of a conscience,” she said. “Obviously he likes you.”
“Anyway, I don’t care about getting Charmed,” I said, trying to end the conversation. Just after I said it my eyes darted around, making sure no one that mattered had heard. The lie felt strong, bulletproof, but my eyes were starting to water, so I didn’t look at her. Amy laughed. She clapped her hands free of the peanut residue and placed one on my desk, staring into me. “Yeah. I said that too.”
My key didn’t open the lock. The knob felt stuck. I fumbled with it, then knocked on the door. “Dave?” I eyed the keyhole. “Dave? Can you open this up, please?”
I knew he was home. I heard gunshots on the television screen. “Dave, can you open this?” I yelled louder. Sometimes the headpiece was hard for him to hear through.
Finally, the lock gave. On the screen, Dave was out—no lives left. Blood punched at the monitor, paintballs of it. I put my bullshit keys on the bar cart and felt a lifting in me for some reason, like finally I wanted to just talk to him. It looked like they’d beaten the armory and were on to someplace else. It almost looked like a church.
I froze when I turned the corner into the hallway, my body shivering up, standing reflexively on tiptoe, like a ghost at the sight: blood traveling in a thin chain, slow, down a divot in the hardwood, from the bathroom. It looked like grape juice. I stopped in my tracks and called Maggie instantly. My hand shook, and my voice erupted with panic, everything I couldn’t keep in bursting out. She was in a good mood when she answered.
“What’s got you grumpy?” she said.
“I think my roommate killed himself.”
“You know,” she said, laughing a little, “you don’t always need to be dramatic.”
“He’s in the bathtub, I think.” The silence between us fell, hard, to the floor.
“I’m going to call someone.”
“Can you just stay on, for just a second? Dave!” I called again. I didn’t want to face it. I had nothing to feel sorry about, not a thing in the world. Maybe no one else did either. Behind me, gunshots. A tiny, triumphant voice through his headset: “Got him!”
Since I was a child, watching my older brother play video games, I had the idea that when we die we are taken to something like an end screen to give away our goodness and our badness, the sum accumulation of all we’ve done, before our game really ends. I want to give Dave everything. All of it. Not because I care, but because I can’t keep it for myself. I looked at what the truth was doing to me, disgusted, and wondered if he’s giving it all to me right now, before that red light on his console turns off.
Date four was Simon’s plan to help me heal. He said that certain views can mend a heart, God calling out clear over the hills, after I phoned him crying. Through the insanity of that moment, my tears slicking that glass, I recalled feeling perversely happy that an awful thing was bringing us closer together, and it made me wish for the suffering I had.
So it’s right now, right now. Simon and I have made it to the top of that abandoned fire tower upstate where God had visited him two years ago in a breath, something he told me on the drive there. God told him he could be gay, but he had to be careful. Date the right guy. We drove through piles of fall leaves kicking up past us, like the deciduous shoot that had actually turned out well. Not that I was there to see it with my paid leave.
On the walk up, I admired the way he moved, sometimes taking two of those rickety metal steps at a time, an eagerness for the view that seemed too pure for me. Looking out now over the trees, the sunset, all that glimmering beauty, an apology rises in me. I don’t even know who it’s for, but I don’t want it for myself. For the first time, I know Simon wants to kiss me. He thinks I’m finally safe to love. I’ve passed all the tests. A hot breeze hits us, and I watch its path through the trees, fluttering their orange-brown leaves like a spirit. Will he still love me when I tell him the truth? Will he still love me if I tell him the truth? The faith is in me, I want to say. I promise it is. I just don’t think it’s where you want it to be.
Picture perfect, I’m wearing almost everything I’ve borrowed from Charm’s closet, throwing around orange patterned shorts and spiky overthought shoes with Eric that day when we knew this is where we’d be, back when I thought I could have a clear conscience about all of this, like it wasn’t just going to hurt me in the end. The brown belt that risks, but fashionably. My white sleeves cut up higher than a short sleeve, highlighting the place my bicep starts. Suddenly, I wonder if I just look ridiculous, someone trying so hard for something they don’t need, or can’t sustain. That anxiety gives birth to a fact I know I wear well: I just look stupid.
Simon turns to me and says, “Let’s pray.”
“Okay,” I say. He has one of his serious moments, looking up with those gorgeous eyes, like a Charm cover model.
“I’m so glad we met,” he says.
“Me too,” I say. I fold my hands on the cold metal bar. When I close my eyes, I wonder if maybe he’s in a tower taller than this one, looking down on me. But I don’t believe it, not for a second. I love you, Dave, I think, and try to make myself feel it. That cool metal cross just over my heart, the one I won’t ever take off. Entering this prayer I can’t leave. A breeze coming now from the other direction, moving my hair back into place—picture perfect. Simon with his proud smile. No clue of those words but the first two. Dear God,