Introduction by Halimah Marcus
Jon Elofson’s deceptively propulsive, pleasingly chilling story, “Percent,” borrows its title from the username of a would-be one-time app hookup: %%%%%. “I worried those percent signs carried a secret sexual meaning I was oblivious to,” the narrator muses. Percent is 436 feet away. They meet for anonymous sex that is unavoidably intimate because it involves two people. “You are by far the sweatiest, smelliest person I’ve ever had sex with,” Percent tells the narrator, his transience already eroding—he’s left his scent behind, his mark.
This is the narrator’s first time having sober sex in recent memory, possibly ever, and he’s violating a central tenet of his first year of sobriety by pursuing a romantic relationship of any kind, no matter how casual. At first, things remain uncomplicated. The narrator moves from New York to Florida for graduate school. Percent continues to text, the narrator keeps his distance, until a hurricane evacuation order compromises his resolve. He has plenty of places to go but feels removed enough from his own life that he can’t follow through, unable to relate to family and old friends, who now seem nothing more than drinking buddies. A well-timed invitation from Percent to a friend’s cabin in neutral territory, out of reach of the storm surge and wind gusts, restarts their relationship.
Elofson masterfully renders how the cagey, indifferent communication style of online hook-ups masks so many messy, human desires. Everyone is acting cool, and everyone is desperate to be loved. Some people have better control over that need than others. Percent, for example, is a walking, talking, vortex of need. The kind of person who, when rejected, might turn dangerous. The narrator, on the other hand, thinks he doesn’t need anybody, a misapprehension that is dangerous in another way, because of the plausible deniability it affords him when taking advantage of more aggressively vulnerable people.
Elofson has created two needy people, sympathetic and objectionable in their own rights. There’s one who’s less appealing, the obvious bad actor, but what makes this story so brilliant is Elofson’s depiction of the mundane ways that people betray themselves, and their own codes of decency. The story questions what our responsibilities are to one another, as we transition from online interactions to real life and back again. The lines have blurred. At what point does the performance end and real life begin?
– Halimah Marcus
Editor, Recommended Reading
The Only Thing We Have in Common Is Sweaty Desperation
Percent by Jon Elofson
We met at the apex of a New York heatwave via an app designed to facilitate anonymous sex between gay men. The sky was low, touching the trees, and the sun refused to set. It was early August, my last week in the city, and I was on my back in Tompkins Square Park listening to the warble of a tenor saxophone. He was 436 feet away.
So close, he messaged. Just come over.
His profile name was %%%%%. I worried those percent signs carried a secret sexual meaning I was oblivious to. Did those ovals and slashes represent something? I scrolled through his three photos again. His hairline receded picture to picture.
Percent had been messaging me for days: u free? still up? come over already. I’d been ignoring him but today, with the humidity, I had an anxious bubble of sexual tension in my stomach. One month sober, I spent my days bouncing between AA meetings in the East Village, slinking out before anyone could talk to me about their Higher Power. This morning, I’d listened to a man complain about the Genius Bar for ten minutes. “They’re telling me I have to buy all new chargers,” he said to a circle of alcoholics staring at our shoes. I deserved some fun.
On my way to Percent’s apartment, I stopped at a bodega and purchased a stick of Old Spice Swagger. I’d sworn off deodorant years ago but I knew I couldn’t meet a sex stranger smelling like I smelled. The water had been out in my building for three days—no showers, sinks, nor flushes. Part of the ceiling in the entranceway had caved in and dark water dripped into a line of recycling bins. I applied the deodorant under my sweaty t-shirt as I climbed the five flights. Though the door was ajar, I knocked.
“It’s open,” Percent said in a Georgia drawl.
We nearly collided—he was already in the doorway, shirtless. We paused to inspect each other. He was not unattractive but not necessarily good-looking, somewhere in between. Sallow, nicotine-tinted skin. I could count the hair follicles he’d attempted to gel into volume. His eyes roved my midriff, my face.
“I wasn’t . . .” I began.
“Shut up,” he said. He grabbed me by the collar and kissed me, pulling me towards the bedroom in a sloppy foxtrot. His mouth tasted like old tennis balls. We collapsed into his unmade bed and had sex with no condom.
“Choke me,” he said and I obliged.
“Slap me,” he said and I obliged. Was this what the percent signs meant?
I tried to recall the last time I’d had sex sober. Never? I used to get drunk and find people in bars, on apps. I had a few guys I saw monthly: Taylor, who was always flying to Tokyo; Justin in an open marriage; Ryan with the armpit fetish. I didn’t expect anything from them and they expected nothing from me. We’d get drunk, fuck, and text each other when enough time had passed.
“You are by far the sweatiest, smelliest person I’ve ever had sex with,” Percent said when we were finished. Old Spice could only do so much.
I took my time in his shower, relishing the running water, carefully choosing the most expensive-looking bath products. While I shampooed, it dawned on me that this was not Percent’s apartment: the conditioners, the pink polka dot shower curtain, the framed curlicue quote on the wall, Don’t Quit Your Daydream.
“Do you live here?” I asked, wrapped in a magenta towel. The photographs above the bed featured a college-aged woman in Cabo-esque settings.
“No, it’s an Airbnb,” Percent said. “I told you that.”
“Right,” I said, but he hadn’t.
I dried off and got back in bed. I learned that Percent was visiting from Savannah. He was here alone mainly to see the Rolling Stones at MSG. He spent three hundred dollars on the ticket but ultimately decided not to go, wasn’t in the mood for crowds. The show was underway as we lay there. (Had I taken priority?) When I asked him how he’d been spending his days in New York, he told me he went to Starbucks each morning then sat in this apartment watching comedians on YouTube—too hot outside.
I explained that I was moving to Florida in a few weeks to become a therapist. Well, first to get a Master’s degree in psychology and maybe someday become a therapist. The plan felt more wobbly each time I explained it.
“Do you want a beer?” Percent asked.
“I don’t drink,” I said. Like it was a fact. Like it had been more than a few weeks.
“Never? Wow.” Empty beer bottles garrisoned the room, balanced on the lip of the dresser. His sex accoutrements were arranged neatly on the nightstand: water-based lube, silicone lube, poppers, an unopened box of condoms, a small vibrator with a wire attached.
“Have you been hosting a number of, uh, gentleman callers?” I asked.
“You’re number three,” Percent said. He rolled over so his face was in the pillow. “There are no tops down south. I have to stock up.”
Note to self: take some extra PrEP when you get home.
“You were the best though. By far,” he continued. “The others just left. Nobody stuck around. Didn’t ask a thing about me.”
Percent tried to convince me to sleep over but I said I needed to be up early, a lie. I gave him my number and we made vague plans to see each other the next day. Maybe we could see some jazz in the Village. Maybe I could help him find weed.
When I opened the door to my apartment, steam billowed into the hallway. My shower was running, the water back. I had left the handle turned to the ON position and scalding water had been pouring for who knows how long. My little studio was a steam room. Droplets snaked down every surface. White paint bubbled on the walls and a puddle encircled my mattress like a moat. I resisted the urge to ask Percent if I could come back. Instead, I opened every window, propped the door with a sneaker, and went down to the alleyway.
The alley contained the building’s trash bins and a dumpster, loose bags of recycling. The other apartment denizens avoided this area but I thought there was something magical about it. There were potted plants and a blue plastic chair that belonged in a second-grade classroom. When I first toured the building, a tan tortoise was out there basking in the smells, but I never saw it again. I sat for a while and listened to the rumblings of the trash chute, imagining what my neighbors were discarding at this hour.
My final days in New York should have been all goodbyes but I knew my friends would try to get me drunk. I pretended to be too sick to attend the going away happy hour my lab held for me. Though I didn’t have many things, I packed slowly enough to fill a week.
Percent had texted me a few times the next day to meet up and eventually I told him I had too much work to do, another lie. We’d had our sweaty sex and now it was a mostly positive memory. I wanted to leave it alone.
I guess you are like the others :), he’d texted.
I sent him a shrugging emoji and assumed I would never see him again.
Before driving south, I spent twelve days on an island in Maine in my grandparents’ sea-battered house. Nana was elated I was finally going back to school. By the time I was ten, she was certain I was destined to become a therapist. She watched me every weekend in the winter while my mom gave ski lessons, shepherding flocks of children down the bunny slope. I’d sit in the kitchen and she’d talk in one breathless stream, venting about my mother or the government or the other old ladies on the island.
“You really have a knack for listening, you know? Most men don’t know how to listen,” she said while she cut up sponges to put under my grandfather’s walker.
I’m not sure if I was good at listening or good at staying quiet.
During my twelve days on the island, my family was drunk most of the time—at the beach, during dinner, after dinner. I announced early on that I wasn’t drinking but it didn’t register. They interpreted it as one of those half-hearted proclamations made on hungover mornings, something I’d shake off by noon. My mom and my aunts put white wine and ice cubes in thermoses. Cousins offered me shots. Every afternoon, I was stuck in a row of beach chairs passing drinks up and down the line. My fingertips tingled with a real beer in my hand: they wanted to pull that frosted tab, pop it, let it sigh. Release all that aluminum tension.
Most mornings I ran a loop around the island, sometimes looping twice, three times. That summer, some mysterious bacteria was killing off harbor seals. They washed up on the beaches and blended in with the rocks. As I ran, I could smell whenever I passed a dead seal. It was enough to make me stop once and throw up into a bush of tiny yellow flowers.
I had no service on the back side of the island, but when I got to the front, my phone connected to an invisible network and my texts came through. I usually had a text from Percent.
when do u get to FL?
u know Savannah is only 3 hrs away?
cum visit me some weekend, so many places to show u
I ignored most of these but not all. I was flattered. In the hour we’d spent together, I’d made an impression on this man. He wanted me, sober me.
there next week, so much packing, I texted with a cardboard box emoji.
Percent eventually slowed down, perhaps discouraged by my unresponsiveness. After a week with no contact, he sent me a photo of a band playing in front of a snack bar. The accompanying text said wish u were here. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t. Twenty-four hours later he texted sorry, meant for someone else.
figured, I replied.
It was a hurricane that pulled us back together: Hurricane Shania, a category three. I was only a month into my semester and just settling into my new life, but the governor said to evacuate. Power lines would fall, rivers would rise, and we had to leave.
I was renting the ground floor of a pale yellow house. It was hidden behind knotted vines and Jurassic leaves. My upstairs neighbors were twin sisters in my graduate program with the air of harried professionals. I wondered how they’d managed to get this far in life moving as a unit. Most of our conversations were about the man whose apartment I’d taken. He was gay too, they said, like me but really funny.
In my first year, I had to rotate labs every semester to get a taste of different kinds of research. The first lab I was assigned to seemed eager to shove me in a dark room and plunk me in front of a computer. Surrounded by dead switchboards and coiled blue wires, I watched videos of children’s faces in ultra-slow motion, muted, and systematically coded the movements of their facial muscles. 11 – nasolabial deepener. 21 – neck tightener. 45 – blink. Taped to the computer was a reminder that fear = 1+2+4+5+7+20+26. Someone else, in another dark room, was listening to what the kids said to see if their words matched their real feelings.
At a welcome bar crawl, I moved with a pack of my coevals, drinking Coca-Cola and watching them get sloppier. A woman I’d never met wedged next to me on a couch, flicked her tongue against my ear, and whispered, “You’re too quiet.” I went home after that.
With the hurricane tumbling toward us, the twins up and left, returning to their family in Tennessee. I made plans to go back to Maine, to visit a friend in Austin, to stay with another friend in New York. On airline websites, I chose window seats, entered my credit card info, but couldn’t click purchase.
I stayed up all night envisioning the house underwater. I filled the washing machine with my books, then the dryer. I lay on my belly in the living room and tried to identify which objects would neither float nor sink but stay suspended in the middle. Maybe the modem.
let’s meet somewhere, Percent texted at 6 AM.
u need to evacuate too, right?
what about asheville? my friend has a place
The idea pulled me out of limbo. Somehow it was better than my other options, better than home, better than staying here alone. My muscles trembled and vibrated. Shania was coming to raze our cities and he was thinking about me, still.
In an hour, I was on the road, spilling coffee on myself with each sip. The traffic inched. I leaned my head against the window and drove with one hand. Percent’s facial features wouldn’t quite crystallize. I tried to Google him with the limited information I had. I found nothing. Someone beeped as I drifted over the dotted line.
In South Carolina, I took a wrong exit. I followed a dirt road until it terminated inside a barn. I got out, sat on a sagging wooden fence, and let the sun singe my neck. I heard a newscaster’s voice: a man drove eight hours to meet a stranger in a cabin and was never seen again. I saw detectives holding up chunks of my body, like fileted salmon covered in pine needles.
I’d stopped going to AA when I moved. I tried one meeting but they kept thanking Jesus and I didn’t go back. Still, the messaging was imprinted in my gray matter. They liked to say look where your best thinking got you and gesture around the room at the sad people in folding chairs. Sometimes it seemed cultish, an attempt to erode your trust in yourself, but as I drove on, I saw the question lit up on billboards and abandoned drive-in screens: could I trust me?
Percent was outside when I pulled in, kicking at logs. It was a robin’s-egg cabin on its own hill. I sensed it had once been a shed. There were two camping chairs and Percent’s white pickup. He didn’t react much when I stepped out, just nodded in my direction. We were actually about forty minutes northeast of Asheville, perched over a field of tail-flicking cows, the sunset refracting red through the trees. I felt far from civilization.
“Hey,” I called as I approached.
“Hey,” he called back with a raised arm. We shared a short man hug and I tried to rub his hair, thinner than I remembered and crunchy with gel.
Inside, we sat next to each other on the bed. It was a full-sized bed that touched the walls on both sides. The only other furniture was a desk with a mini-fridge and a hot plate. The place smelled like must covered with lemon Pledge.
Leave now, it’s not too late.
“What took you so long?” Percent asked solemnly.
“I got lost a few times,” I said.
“Started to think you wouldn’t show.”
“Well, I’m here now.”
He kissed me then, whimpering like there was romance in what I’d said. We wriggled back into the bed and had sex, loud creaking sex, kicking the walls with no one around to hear. While I was behind him, I noticed a blurry tattoo on his back that I hadn’t seen in New York. It looked like the head of a drowning raccoon.
“What’s that on your back?” I asked afterward.
“It’s a wolf,” he said, “howling at the moon.”
“It’s cool,” I said before drifting down into an evening nap.
I awoke to find Percent eating salad from a Tupperware and watching Jerry Seinfeld stand-up on his laptop. “Good morning, sleepyhead,” he said and kissed my ear.
The bathroom was in a kind of outhouse, just a showerhead and a toilet. I looked through Percent’s toiletry bag and found his Rogaine. I sprayed a dollop in my palm and dabbed it along my hairline. Who was I to judge?
That night, we drove to a bar called The Backwater on the edge of the French Broad River. Percent had six beers and I had zero and we played seven games of pool and sat around a bonfire. We watched videos of Shania ravaging the Bahamas on Percent’s phone. We gasped, put our arms around each other, nuzzled neck-to-neck. I found myself talking with a hint of Percent’s accent, mimicking his elisions and swoops. I’d always been susceptible to accents; they osmosed into my voice box. I smelled the Rogaine on his head, our heads, but I didn’t mind. When a straight couple asked how long we’d been together, Percent said, “Two years.”
Shania chose another trajectory, veered out to sea. We could have gone home but we didn’t. Our days were spent in bed, whispering into collarbones and sucking on toes. We had sex three times a day, ate dinners we couldn’t afford, went to the same bar each night. Most mornings, we sat outside under a comforter and sipped Starbucks he drove twenty minutes to get. Percent admitted that the cabin was actually an Airbnb but he was able to extend our reservation.
In the quiet times, Percent told me his life story. His dad was bipolar and never in the picture; he was a card dealer in Vegas now. His mother worked at a dollar store and was an “active alcoholic.” At sixteen, Percent moved out and lived in a warehouse with some thirty-somethings who thought it was funny to get a young kid fucked up on spray paint and meth. He was so entrenched in credit card debt now that he’d stopped caring about money. He was banking on some catastrophic economic collapse to reset the numbers. “I’ve never told anyone this before,” he said as he slurped up squid ink pasta.
On day four, we hiked to a waterfall. We hiked past where visitors were permitted and swam naked in the cold water. On a wet rock, we jerked each other off, climaxing simultaneously into the river and letting our semen drift downstream. We built a cairn to honor our orgasms.
As we hiked down, Percent told me he wasn’t out to any of his family but some of his friends knew. He said he didn’t believe in coming out, like it was passé.
“Straight people don’t have to tell everyone who they fuck. Why should I?” he asked.
“That’s fair,” I said, though I thought he was in denial.
After a leaf-crunching silence, he said, “You know, it meant a lot to me when you stayed and talked to me in New York. You’re a good one.”
I wondered: what kind of men did he usually fuck? My sex partners spoke to me at least.
Each day, his accent got thicker in my throat. Syllables slipped out with inflections that weren’t mine. My phonemes dipped in new directions. I felt like I was living in an alternate reality, embodying an alternate me, watching myself through a periscope. I said whatever he wanted me to say, touched him where he wanted to be touched, succumbed to any pressure he applied. I told him he was beautiful, special, smart. I let him make plans for us—maybe we could spend Thanksgiving together. Words pulled each other from my mouth like a magician’s handkerchiefs, words I didn’t think I meant. Sometimes, I felt an I love you forming on my tongue, curling it with the weight of a sugar cube. It was ludicrous, I knew, but was it? Was love this feeling of being beyond yourself? Could you fall in love by pretending to be?
In a psychology class, I learned that people rate themselves as happier when they hold a pencil between their front teeth, which forces the mouth into something like a smile. Maybe they were just happy to sink their teeth into some wood, to leave a dent in yellow.
“Try this one, it’s grapefruit-y,” Percent said. It was night five and we were back at The Backwater, huddled on a bench by the bonfire. Percent was four beers deep and his face was pink, eyes glassy like a taxidermy mammal.
“Just a sip. It’s like juice,” he said.
Thus far, I’d obviated terms like AA or alcoholic. It wasn’t hard; Percent wasn’t good at asking questions. And now, here he was, pressing his pint glass to my lips.
Even before I took that sip, I had already broken the rules. The AA elders, from atop their snow-capped mountains of sober decades, discouraged any new relationships, any sex even, for the first year. They would have told me to stay away from bars and cabins and internet strangers. They would have said I was already at the foot of a slippery slope.
“Delicious,” I said, and it was. Bubbly, fruity, smooth. Sip still on my tongue, I felt my body losing gravity, bones porous and aerated.
Percent kissed my cheek.
The night did not stop there. I gulped down half of Percent’s grapefruit-y beer and we ordered another round, then another. A skinny man in a flower crown set up an amp and a bass on a low stage. With foot pedals, he looped himself on top of himself until his finger-plucking became a pulse. We stood on rocks and swayed into each other.
After that, I have only flashes. My vegetarianism went out the window—I remember eating chicken fingers in the dirt. I remember stumbling between groups asking if anyone had cocaine and snorting something off a key in a bathroom. I remember making fun of a man with a puka shell necklace, calling him a tween. I remember Percent saying, “Finally, the fun side comes out.”
He drove us home though he shouldn’t have. He said I screamed “I love you” out the window, to the night, one bare foot in the breeze. We pumped electronic music through dark farmlands, following black roads that bled into nothing.
Percent was excited to see me hungover. He recounted things I’d said, delivered humiliations like punchlines. He tousled my hair and pawed at me and told me my breath reeked. I breathed into a cupped hand and smelled dead seal. Our skin suctioned together with sweat as he licked me all over, the sun too bright through the blinds. I gasped.
While I hid under the covers, Percent drove to get coffee and came back with a thousand-dollar camera he’d purchased at Best Buy. “I shouldn’t have bought this,” he muttered as he unboxed the camera at the foot of the bed.
Later, he convinced me to go on a drive so he could test it out. Parked at an overlook off the Blue Ridge Parkway, I sat in the passenger seat with my head between my legs. Outside, he took the same photograph a thousand times while eating a peanut butter sandwich, no jelly. I was fuming, imagining his gums sticking together as he pointed the camera directly into the sun. He continually adjusted the settings, turning dials and smashing buttons. When he got back in the car, he tried to show me the photos. They were white blurs but I nodded along, said wow.
We flew back down the mountain. We stopped at a pizza place and ate a cheese pizza and drank a pitcher of root beer, like kids at a birthday party. Percent drank two real beers too. I was spaced out but Percent didn’t notice. He monologued about a woman whose garage he hung out in as a child, who died of colon cancer last year.
That night, while we had sex, I forgot who Percent was. I lost track of him and he flickered into ex-lovers, morphed into Justin and Ryan and Taylor. The windows got steamy and, for a moment, the tiny cabin felt full. I flickered too: who was I exactly?
Percent fell asleep quickly and I sat alone outside. I counted the individual noises in the wall of night-sound: ribbits, chirps, bat screeches, the rubbing of cricket legs. Below, a cow moaned, perhaps giving birth in the moonlight. It was absurd to get so mad at Percent today. He knew nothing about me, my fears or addictions, the tangles in my brain. Did I want to be saved or neglected? Worshipped or swallowed?
Moths swarmed my phone as I looked up AA meetings back in Gainesville. I would go back, had to go back. Tomorrow. When I slipped into the bed, Percent wrapped himself around me and burped into my ear.
I ended it with Percent over the phone a week after we returned from Asheville. I was pacing my front porch, wind chimes whipping in post-hurricane breezes. I let him talk for too long. He talked about how much he missed me, how happy he was that I’d finally called. In a lull, I blurted out the words.
“What,” he asked, “am I supposed to do now?”
“Whatever you did before,” I said.
But Percent didn’t give up. He called me every day, many times a day, and left long rambling voicemails. He texted emoji-laden paragraphs. He found me on various sex apps and sent pictures of us he’d taken in Asheville, arms around each other, sun dipping below our shoulders. I tried not to read his messages, but phrases seeped through: I love you, I need you, we are one and the same. In another message, he called me Satan incarnate. When I blocked him, he spawned new numbers with strange area codes: Texas, Utah, Alaska. He made blank profiles with the same username. It was futile; it was whack-a-mole. Some nights, I slept with my phone in the microwave.
Soon he started appearing in Gainesville. The first time I saw him, I was sitting in a café, in a window seat, and he walked right by, dragging his fingers on the glass. Once I saw his truck in the parking lot after an AA meeting. And one night, when I got home from the lab, I found him waiting on the front porch, curled in a ball. I ran to my car and kept driving until the twins confirmed the coast was clear. “It was probably just a racoon,” they said.
Less and less I slept. Every rustle or creak was Percent breaking in. I was convinced he was living under the house or in the bungalow next door, which they rented on Airbnb. On more than one occasion, I went out onto the porch with a baseball bat, ready to swing at what was only loose siding flapping in the wind. I stocked up on mace at Dick’s Sporting Goods and changed lanes whenever a white truck entered my rearview mirror.
But sometimes, oddly, I caught myself worrying about Percent, especially on days when he didn’t reach out. After a week of silence, I wondered if he was dead. I searched the internet to see if anything newsworthy had befallen him. I called a hospital in Savannah to see if he’d been admitted. The operator said no and hung up before I could elaborate. I unblocked his number and texted are you okay, then twenty-four hours later blocked him again.
Slowly, of course, Percent faded into my dating history. He gave up on me, or perhaps he latched on to another boy. Whenever I retold the story, I omitted certain parts, certain decisions I couldn’t blame on a hurricane. To my friends, I reframed it as a joke. And I nearly bragged about him to the men I slept with, like I was proud to have been the object of this man’s obsession. With my therapist, with my mother, I tried to garner pity. My new sponsor, who called me slippery, didn’t seem to believe me. “How do you think he’d tell this story?” he said, which annoyed me.
On Saturday mornings, after the 11 AM meeting, I stay after to wash dishes. In the AA world, they call this a commitment. My sponsor cajoled me into it, but I’ve come to enjoy this time: the warm water, the steam, the quiet in the church after everyone is gone. But if my hands are busy, if I don’t resist, I can open, briefly, an aperture into his head. I can see myself in the doorway that first afternoon in New York, red-faced and sweaty and desperate. I can see myself clutching his hand, holding him, repeating his name. I remember all those tiny gestures I’ve tried to forget. The thing about selves is you can never shed them completely. They are hangnails, skin tags, birthmarks. Even when you believe you’ve changed, that old self lives on in someone else’s mind, a monstrous after-image blurring the film. Now I look to the door, waiting for him, for anyone, to burst through.