I met Declan the same night I met Karen.

I’d gotten lost on the way to my boss’s house, arriving a half hour late. Dogs barked hysterically when I rang the doorbell and I heard them sliding across the floor. Richard looked annoyed when he answered the door and directed me toward a gate at the side of the house. A handmade sign with an arrow pointing around the corner was tacked to the fence. “Don’t ring the bell,” it said. “The dogs will go crazy.”

“Hey,” he said, looking over at me. “Can I ask you something? Are you Canadian?”

When I entered the yard, small groups of people were scattered across the grass, so green it could have been plastic. Each person seemed to be wearing some summer cocktail uniform no one had told me about, so I rolled my blue blazer into a ball and stuck it underneath a chaise lounge before going to talk to another associate who introduced me to his wife. Our conversation proceeded too politely, with long pauses as we went through a checklist of topics: where we were from, where we’d gone to law school, if I was married, if they had kids, what else we were doing for the weekend. When another associate came over with his wife, I excused myself, went to the bar set up under a tent, and asked for a beer. Just as I reached for the bottle, the bartender poured the contents into a plastic cup with little American flags on it, and beer spilled all over my hand.

Behind me a woman laughed. A loud unrestrained guffaw. The kind that would blow snot out of your nose. Turning around, I saw two women about my age who’d obviously been watching me. The taller one was trying to hide her laughter behind her fingers, tented in front of her lips. I picked up a napkin at the bar to wipe my hand.

“Come join our little group,” the shorter one said, and they shifted enough to create a space for me like a pair of hands unfolding.

The women introduced themselves as Lisa and Karen and I told them I was Seth. Lisa was shorter, with dark eyes, a big smile and radiating energy. Karen was quieter, stiller, smiling as Lisa talked, occasionally taking a sip of her white wine. Not shy exactly, just taking in the scene. But it was Karen who had laughed. After we talked for a while, Lisa asked if we wanted anything to drink and when we both declined, she went to the bar.

“Now you get to talk,” I said to Karen, and she smiled.

She’d lived in Washington, D. C., for six years, wrote for a trade newspaper that specialized in hospitals, and was hoping to find something else that made better use of her skills. She had an apartment in Glover Park, a short drive from my apartment, and a dog named Sam. She liked classical music and was taking lessons so she could play the piano she had in her apartment. Lisa was her oldest friend in D. C. and knew Richard’s wife from somewhere.

I told her I’d grown up in Vermont and New York, gone to school in Boston and graduated law school the year before. I’d started working for the firm a few months before, Richard was my boss, and I was still learning my way around the city. She had a way of cocking her head as I spoke, as if she was contemplating every word I said.

We talked for a while and then joined the line of people in the tent getting food. Bunting with stars and stripes hung from the tent poles. Small American flags stood between steaming chafing dishes of fried chicken and crab cakes, next to bowls of cole slaw, potato salad, and penne coated with cheese. A woman in a chef’s jacket cut slices of beef off a huge slab and put them on rolls that she served on paper plates decorated with cartoon fireworks.

“They’ve really gone all in on this Bicentennial thing,” Karen said. “And it’s only June.”

 “I know. I’ve never felt so patriotic,” I told her.

We found a couple of chairs and balanced our plates on our knees, her wine and my beer warming in the grass beside us. Richard tapped his glass and gave a brief speech welcoming everyone. He introduced each new person at the firm, and I waved awkwardly when he called my name.

“I had no idea you were so important,” she said.

“They couldn’t run the place without me.” I said, pleased when she smiled.

When Lisa reappeared a little later, it was clear she was ready to go. I said I’d walk out with them and grabbed my jacket from under the chaise lounge. Lisa laughed when I explained why it was there. When we said goodnight to Richard on the way out, he commented how nice it was we had all met. There was a note of approval in his voice that I liked.

“Thanks for rescuing me,” I said when we got to their car. Lisa said goodnight and got in the driver’s side. Karen waited while Lisa unlocked her door and paused before getting in, creating a long silent and awkward moment. Lisa drummed her fingers on the steering wheel as she watched out the passenger window. When I asked Karen if she’d like to go for a drink sometime, she wrote down her phone number on a scrap of paper she found in her purse and gave me a quick hug. After they drove away, I jogged back to my car along a smooth cement sidewalk, under the canopy of old oaks, next to manicured lawns and pruned boxwoods, with my blazer bunched up under my arm, giggling like I’d just gotten a date to the prom.

Back at my apartment, I changed into a white T-shirt and jeans. No wallet, just some cash and my driver’s license stuffed into my front pocket. It took me fifteen minutes to walk to the neighborhood filled with crappy bars, cheap restaurants, and pizza joints serving giant slices with cheese dripping off the edges.

Streetlights spread a pale yellow light across a line of guys all dressed like me. They spilled down the sidewalk from the front door of a dilapidated townhouse with windows painted over with matte black paint. A small sign next to the door said “Heaven,” but it would be easy to miss unless you were looking for it. Some guys in line bounced from one foot to another, chatting with friends, letting their giddy laughter erupt into the warm night air. Others fidgeted, squeezing into a shadow running along the side of the building, craning their necks to see why the line wasn’t moving faster.

I never waited in line.

I walked to a bookstore with tall windows looking out on the street. A few guys wandered through the stacks, occasionally rifling through the pages of some book. I looked through a book on Watergate and stood next to a guy who was pretending to study a book about Vietnam.

“Hey,” he said, looking over at me. “Can I ask you something? Are you Canadian?”

I looked up from the book and laughed. His face relaxed.

It was a silly game. When you weren’t sure if a guy was gay, you asked if he was Canadian. If he said yes, then you knew. The straight ones always look puzzled, told you they were American, and gave you their whole life history.

It didn’t take long for the line at Heaven to disappear and a group of us trickled out of the store, no one of us having bought a book. I scanned up and down the street before going inside and waited impatiently while the guy at the door checked my ID.

Inside red, white, and blue streamers hung from the ceiling and twisted in the breeze from a ceiling fan. That famous recruiting poster of Uncle Sam hung on one wall. His head seemed to emerge out of the poster, while his finger pointed at me wherever I stood. At the bottom, where it said, “I Want You,” someone had written “To Blow Me.” Two small Canadian flags were taped up on either side of it.

Brian, a guy who had come home with me a few weeks before, leaned against the cigarette machine on the other side of the room. He tipped his beer in my direction and gave me a big smile. We’d gone to see “Rocky” after that first night. When he tried to hold my hand as Sylvester Stallone ran up the steps to the art museum, I told him I wasn’t looking for anything serious.

Brian pushed his way through the crowd as a roar came from the men crammed onto the patch of wood serving as a dance floor. Puffs of smoke tinged red and green from the strobes spinning overhead settled over the crowd. A guy emerged from the smoke, which the ceiling fan had blown across the bar.

Pretending to fan the smoke away, he turned to me and said, “The Surgeon General is going to make them put up a sign: ‘This bar may be hazardous to your health.’”

“I know,” I said, “who would have thought heaven would be so smokey.”

Brian disappeared, absorbed into the crowd.

The guy next to me got a beer and edged closer so we could hear each other. He had the body of a dancer, thin but muscled, and stood in a relaxed, but still studied manner, like he was posing for a photograph. I was thicker with broad shoulders and a soft middle from too many nights at the office. He had red curly hair that flopped into his eyes. Mine was dark and thinning. His skin was pale. Mine had tanned easily from a sunny weekend that spring. A thick tongue unrolled from puffy red lips on his Rolling Stones T-shirt.

He repeated his name twice before I understood what he was saying.

“Declan,” he shouted into my ear. “It’s Irish. It means full of goodness.”

I told him my name, what I did, where I was from, how long I’d been in Washington. He was trying to be an actor in town. It wasn’t easy. He’d been in some plays at a local theater, shot a commercial for a local bank, and was thinking about going to New York, telling me all this while he played with a gold hoop in his ear. He’d grown up in Virginia and still lived in the suburbs. He’d come out to his parents at sixteen. It was no big deal. When I told him that I still wasn’t out to mine at twenty-five, he looked shocked.

“Don’t you think it’s about time?” he asked.

I was afraid the conversation was lagging, but then he asked if I wanted to dance. We chugged the rest of our beers and squeezed into an open space on the dance floor. The gold hoop in his ear sparkled in the lights. Ridges of muscle along the sides of his body appeared under his shirt as he jumped up and down to the music, singing along, howling like he was baying at the moon. He pulled me to him and kissed me. In my mind, I already had his shirt off and his pants down around his ankles.

“Do you want to come over and get high?” I asked when we left the dance floor.

“I don’t smoke,” he said.

“That’s okay. I don’t really want to get high.”

“Thanks,” he said. “but I can’t.”

My eyes burned from the sweat dripping into my eyes and I wiped it away with my forearm, which only made the stinging worse.

“You got me all worked up and now you’re going to abandon me,” I said, shouting over the music. “That’s not fair.”

“I was having fun,” he said. “I just broke up with a guy so I’m trying to go slow for a while.”

“What exactly is your definition of going slow?” I said, laughing.

When he looked hurt, I apologized. We exchanged numbers so we could go to dinner sometime, but I felt like a balloon losing air.

He gave me a ride home and when we got to my apartment, I asked again if he wanted to come in, but he said no and leaned across the console between the seats. I twisted around to look at the street before I kissed him.

A couple of days later, I met Karen for a drink at a place called Le Jardin. Late afternoon sun filtered through the skylights, falling across small palm trees spaced around the floor. She was having a martini when I arrived. Condensation coated the outside of the glass and an olive bobbed on the surface. I had a beer. When I asked about her day, she told me she had been to a groundbreaking for a new hospital wing.

“Must have been pretty messy,” I said. “It rained all day.”

“Not a problem,” she said. “They did it inside.”

She rolled her eyes and took a sip of her martini. Then she laughed that deep laugh I’d heard at Richard’s.

“They didn’t want to do it in the rain, so they dumped a big pile of dirt on the stage of the hospital auditorium. All these big shot doctors in white coats and hardhats stood there holding shovels and posing for pictures.” She took a sip of her martini and then licked a drop of the clear liquid off her lips. “I had my camera, so I took pictures of them holding shovelfuls of dirt. They looked ridiculous.”

She made a gesture like she was holding a shovel and twisted her face into a silly expression. I pretended to hold a camera and snapped her picture as she continued to preen. When we got up to leave, she posed in front of a palm so I could pretend to take another picture.

We walked up the street looking in store windows but it started to rain, so we ducked into a record store. She flipped through classical music records and I went to see if any of my favorite bands from college had put out new albums. When I went back to her, she was lost in thought, with her eyes closed. A piece of classical music played in that part of the store.

“I know this from somewhere,” she said, “but I don’t know what it is.”

I closed my eyes, listening intently. “This is Handel’s Water Music,” I said.

She looked stunned. “Shit,” she said. “I think you’re right. How did you know that?”

“Everybody knows that,” I said.

“So you were lying to me the other night when you said you didn’t know anything about classical music.”

“I wasn’t lying. It’s just well-known. I love this version. It’s the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Von Karajan.”

She listened to the music some more and then eyed me suspiciously.

“You’re fucking with me, aren’t you?” she said.

I nodded toward the cashier’s stand, where there was a sign reading, “Now Playing,” above an album cover showing huge waves crashing on the beach. I took her picture with the imaginary camera as she turned back to me.

“You’re a jerk,” she said, shaking her head and giving me a soft punch on my shoulder. The cashier laughed at us, the archetype of a cute couple, before Karen said she had to get home to the dog and we hailed a taxi. I kissed her before she got in.

Back in my apartment, I stretched out on my couch with a beer. I pictured Karen laughing when I pointed out the album cover and then Declan’s Rolling Stone’s T-shirt stretched across his chest with a thick, fleshy tongue sticking out at me.

Karen and I fell into a pattern after that. Some days after work we met up for a drink. She got me to try a martini; I still preferred beer. Saturday was our date night. Sometimes we went to a movie or a party one of her friends was having, but her favorite thing was going out to eat.

She loved taking me to different parts of the city to try some new restaurant she’d read about. She joked that there couldn’t be any good restaurants in Vermont.

“Weren’t you all just eating the moose and deer you shot?” she said as I scowled.

But, in fact, she got me to try lots of things that were new to me. One night she took me for Chinese food that looked and tasted nothing like the red-dyed glop I’d grown up eating. Another night, we had Ethiopian food and she showed me how to break off the injira and sop up the thick stew sitting on top. When I told her I liked eating with my fingers, she laughed.

“Yeah, I figured you would.”

Another night we went out for sushi, and she ordered dishes with names I didn’t understand. She told me to close my eyes and placed a piece on my tongue. It was salty and sweet and mushy and tasted of the ocean. When I told her I liked it, she took out the imaginary camera, so she could freeze the moment.

“We’ll call this one, ‘Seth eats eel.’”

One night, after we’d gone to dinner, she asked me to stay over. We went into her bedroom and lay on the bed, kissing and slowly undressing. My mouth was dry so I took a swig of the beer I’d brought into the bedroom. When I began to clumsily unhook her bra, she did it herself, laughing softly and then kissing me to take away the sting.

She wasn’t my first girlfriend.

My sophomore year of college I went out with a girl named Susan. We used to have sex in her dorm room, but she had a roommate, so it was impossible for me to spend the night. At the same time I met Susan, I met Rob, who was in a political science class with me. He was handsome, with a smooth pink face and long blond hair that he pulled back into a ponytail. He had a way of walking on the balls of his feet and tracing broad arcs in the air with his arms as he talked. I didn’t like being seen with him, so I met him at his room and slipped inside before anyone could see.

Susan and I broke up at the end of our sophomore year because we both seemed bored with the other, but I continued to see Rob. There were other girls after that, usually after a party when everyone had too much to drink or smoke. I went out with a girl in law school, but she broke it off and told me she wanted to concentrate on school, but she could tell I wasn’t serious about her.

I never used the surface streets to go back—that tangle of lettered streets intersecting numbered ones, sliced through at odd angles by broad avenues with the names of states.

Sex with Karen was different than with Susan or other girls. There was no need to hurry. The only interruption was her dog, Sam, who came into the bedroom with a stuffed animal that he dropped by the side of the bed. We slept in a bed with flower-patterned sheets and matching pillowcases, a light blanket just the right weight for warm nights with the air conditioning on. I observed myself when I was with her, judging everything I did and measuring it against some scale I didn’t understand. But she showed me what felt good to her. How she liked to be kissed and touched. And where. How to move. And I did the same for her.

Once when we were in bed, she got still all of a sudden, and I thought I had hurt her, but she took out her imaginary camera.

“We’ll call this one, ‘Seth gets laid.’”

On Sunday mornings, we had breakfast—her in her bathrobe and me in my boxers—and then took Sam for a long walk. In the afternoon, I’d kiss her in the doorway and go back home, saying I had work to do. I never used the surface streets to go back—that tangle of lettered streets intersecting numbered ones, sliced through at odd angles by broad avenues with the names of states. Instead, I took Rock Creek Parkway, which wound its way through a park located along one side of the city—a road Karen had shown me.

I loved the drive along Rock Creek, a narrow slow-moving rill, with ducks and geese floating on it. Runners and bikers moved along a path separated from the road by a low stone wall. Some days deer stepped delicately along a hillside between the crape myrtles. It seemed a million miles from the cold, sterile marble monuments in the rest of the city.

And on those afternoons, I felt like I had fallen through a trap door into a secret passageway running under the city—a passageway I could use to travel unseen between the two sides of my life. I was always pleased with how easily I made the trip.

I had told Karen I liked to crash on Friday nights, so we didn’t go out then. I said I was tired from the long week, which wasn’t a lie. Not exactly. She seemed to understand. Those Fridays I came home, made some pasta with tomato sauce from a jar, and watched TV until about 10:00, when I left for Heaven.

One Friday when I got there, the smell of sweat, beer, and cigarette smoke drifted down the entryway like perfume. Brian was at his spot by the cigarette machine but turned away when he saw me. I was just about to go talk to a skinny blond with a wispy goatee who smiled at me from across the room when I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see Declan. That was the way I always found him, surprising me out of the shadows or the smoke or the crowds.

“Where’s your girlfriend tonight?” he asked.

“It’s my night off,” I told him.

When he caught me eyeing the skinny blond, he urged me to go talk to him.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’d rather stay here and get blue balls talking to you.”

The music picked up and Declan pulled me onto the dance floor. He took a small yellow bottle out of his pocket and took a long sniff before passing it under my nose.

“What is it?” I yelled over the music.

“Poppers,” he said. “Just breathe in.”

A smell like cleaning fluid filled my nose and a relaxing warmth flowed through my body. I moved to the music without effort. I sucked in the fumes. My face got hot. My heart raced. Declan kissed me, slipping his tongue between my lips. He laughed and howled. The smoke coming down from the ceiling seemed to shroud us from everyone else. We moved to the music like we were one body.

On cue, everyone on the dance floor started singing along to the music, with Declan louder than anyone.

“Sing,” he yelled at me, holding the popper bottle under my nose.

I joined the crowd, quietly at first, but then louder. Soon I was shouting at the top of my lungs. All of us were trying to match the ache in the woman’s voice blasting out of the speakers. Please, we all sang in unison. Please. Come satisfy the need in me. Please. We sang. Please. Don’t leave me this way.

Declan pushed the popper bottle under my nose. The feeling exploded deep in my body and came out through my skin. I was swallowed up by the music. The men dancing around me radiated with heat and desire. It was like I’d been set free.

Grabbing Declan’s hand, I led us off the floor into a dark corner. My body still pulsed from the poppers and the music. Sweat glistened on Declan’s brow. We were laughing and gasping for breath. I pulled Declan to me, but he pressed his hands against my chest and moved away.

“I told you. I’m going slow,” he said. “I’m still getting over David.”

“Oh, fuck David,” I said. The poppers were making me crazy. “Come home with me.”

He shook his head and said he was going home. My heart slowed back to normal. The whole room came into focus. He asked me if I wanted a ride, but I told him I was going to stay so he kissed me on the cheek and headed for the door.

By that time of night, lots of guys had found each other, squeezing into the corners, lighting each other’s cigarettes, clutching at each other,. Brian kissed some guy by the cigarette machine. The skinny blond with the goatee leaned against the wall, whispering to some other guy who looked just like him. How was it that whenever I hung out with Declan, I always ended up going home alone?

Outside, people drifted up the street from other bars in the neighborhood. A straight couple held hands as they walked up the sidewalk, their shadows stretching and contracting as they moved from the beam of one streetlight to another. He was wearing a jacket with a tie loosened at the neck. She wore a white dress that hugged her hips and high heels that made the backs of her calves tighten as she walked. I decided they were dissecting everything that had happened at some party, maybe at his friend’s or hers. Her hair brushed against his shoulder when she leaned over. He pulled her close and whispered in her ear and she pushed against him playfully. He drew her back to him. They kissed.

I could have that. Karen and I could walk home holding hands. I could take her to office parties. I could have dinners out at nice restaurants, long unhurried nights, and breakfast in the mornings. A bed with cool sheets and warm blankets. I could report to my parents about my escapades in my new home. We could spend the whole weekend together. I could be with someone I enjoyed in the daylight.

I felt like I had fallen through a trap door into a secret passageway running under the city—a passageway I could use to travel unseen between the two sides of my life.

That had to be better than waking up with men who looked different in the morning than they had the night before. Or waking up alone, sweating in wrinkled sheets, with nothing but a phone number on a scrap of paper that ended up in a bowl with the loose change. Or spending frustrating nights with Declan at Heaven, hoping he would finally forget about David.

I walked past a guy who smiled at me. “Are you Canadian?” he asked.

“What does that mean?” I said.

Richard had a party for the Fourth of July so people could watch the fireworks from the deck behind his house. Karen wanted to pack a picnic, sit on the Capitol lawn, listen to the National Symphony, and watch the fireworks burst over the Washington Monument, but I told her I thought we should go to Richard’s. He was my boss after all, and I had become more comfortable at work. I even had friends there.

“She seems very nice,” Richard said to me at the bar, when I was getting Karen and me drinks. “Glad to see you’re getting some,” he said. “Thought we might have to transfer you to the San Francisco office, if you know what I mean.”

Then he laughed.

“She’s great,” I said, managing a smile, but I felt dirty listening to him, so I excused myself and went back to Karen.

Gradually people drifted up onto the deck. Waiters handed out glasses of champagne. The night was satiny black. All the monuments were lit, their marble shining like it had just been polished. White headlights and red taillights—barely moving—snaked along the curve of Rock Creek Park.

A waiter refilled my glass as the first trail of orange streaked into the air, exploding in a burst of glitter. The sound took a few seconds to reach us, but when it did the dogs inside erupted in crazed barking. The next burst was green and splattered phosphorescence over the city. Cars along the Potomac honked in celebration. Children at the house next door squealed as they wrote their names on the darkness with sparklers. The fireworks began to go off in a constant stream, the sky was filled with bursts of color. The rigid geometry of the city was visible for a second and then disappeared, until the next explosion lit it up again. All the champagne had gotten to me and I kissed Karen, as someone shouted, “Happy Bicentennial.”

Everyone began to leave once the fireworks were over. Karen took my arm as we went down the front walk. I kissed her hair as Richard shut the door behind us. The breeze lifted the scent of roses and lavender from the garden and swirled it around us.

Back at her apartment, Karen opened a bottle of wine, laughing as I stumbled into the bedroom. It was like we had been together for years. I was too drunk to second-guess what I was doing so I just relaxed and enjoyed the warmth of her skin and the comfort of her arms wrapped around me. When we were done, I flopped over on the bed and pulled her next to me as I caught my breath. I could still feel the comforting buzz of champagne.

“Happy Birthday, America,” I shouted.

The next Friday Karen asked me to go out with some friends of hers I hadn’t met. I said I was tired.

“You sure” she said. “Just one drink? They really want to meet you.”

I told her I had brought work home I needed to look at. For the first time, I heard anger in her voice.

“You’ll have the whole weekend to work,” she said. “You know, it’d be nice to spend more than one night together sometime.”

At Heaven, Declan appeared out of the haze looking more ragged than usual. He hadn’t shaved so rust-colored stubble sprouted on his chin and his hair flopped over his forehead in unkempt curls that he pushed out of his eyes. He’d had an audition for a commercial that had gone well.

“So I’m feeling especially frisky,” he said.

“Oh, are you?” I said, pressing closer.

“Easy, cowboy,” he said, and he edged away from me.

Behind us, a bartender with no shirt scurried back and forth getting beers and making drinks for the guys crowding around us. Declan surveyed the room hungrily. The patriotic decorations hung from the ceiling in tatters. Uncle Sam was falling off the wall, with his finger pointing at the floor. Declan picked out different guys and asked me if I knew them. Even when I did, I told him I didn’t. He pointed out all the guys he had slept with and told me their names. I was surprised there were so many because he’d been with David for a couple of years.

I didn’t remember names. Usually it was a body part. The size or shape of a dick. The curve of an ass. The tickle of a moustache or the roughness of an unshaved cheek. The limey smell of deodorant. One guy had a tattoo of a dolphin on his chest, another had a Chinese character that supposedly meant “Balance” on his leg. This guy had a body covered with thick black hair, like a gorilla. That guy had been hurt playing football in college and had a scar like a zipper running up the front of his knee. One guy had a lock of luminescent orange hair and a stud in his tongue that clicked against my teeth when we kissed. This one had a thigh like an iron pipe; that one a bicep with a vein running along the top, like a road along a mountain ridge.

I didn’t remember names. Usually it was a body part.

I could have created a Frankenstein patched together from all those pieces. A creature with all the parts I wanted in someone else. Thin where I was thick. Fair where I was dark. A thick mane to my thinning straight hair. More artistic than my lawyerly seriousness. Decisive to my uncertainty. Loud and boisterous to my restraint. And at that moment, for whatever reason, out of all those pieces, the creature I would have created was Declan.

“What about him?” Declan asked me, pointing across the room. “Do you know him?”

Across the bar was a guy with dark hair and a close-cropped beard. Powerful arms emerged from a sleeveless T-shirt. Declan stared at him, running his hand through his curls and tugging at his earring.

“Don’t know him,” I said.

“Great arms,” he said. “That’s my thing. Arms.”

My arms felt like narrow sticks and I pulled them close to my body. “Too bad you’re being so pure,” I said.

“Rules are made to be broken,” he said. “You’re a lawyer. You know that.”

He said it in a tone I had never heard from him before, like he was ridiculing me. I turned to order a beer from the shirtless bartender, and when I looked back, Declan had dived into the crowd and was elbowing his way towards Mr. Arms, who stood up when Declan came over, capturing him in those powerful arms, pulling him close, without even speaking. I leaned against the bar, watching them lean in close to kiss, pause, and talk for a bit before kissing again. Warm beer crept back up my throat. Then Declan said something, nodding in my direction, and Mr. Arms released him reluctantly, leaving Declan to make his way back to me.

“I’m going to go,” Declan said, when he got to me. He was speaking quietly. The music was softer than usual—some new ballad—so he was easy to hear.

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“Don’t be mad,” he said. “Just look at him.”

Guys pressed against us, trying to get to the bar.

“I thought you were going slow since your breakup with David,” I said.

He shrugged and laughed in a silly way, like he was ridiculing me again. Resting his hand on my shoulder, he made a stupid face, like a child who’s done something bad but thinks he can get away with it if he smiles sweetly enough. He pushed the hair out of his eyes again as I shook his hand off my shoulder.

“There really isn’t a David,” I said. “Is there? That was all a lie.”

“It wasn’t a lie,” he said. “Not exactly. Maybe a half-lie, I guess. There was a David, but we broke up six months ago and it wasn’t all that traumatic, really.”

“Why didn’t you just tell me that?”

The music picked up. “I like you,” he said. “We have fun together. I just didn’t want to sleep with you.”

“So you made up a story?” I said. The ballad had morphed into something more complex—the tempo was faster, the volume louder. “I can’t believe it.”

“I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. It was just easier than having a big discussion about everybody’s feelings.” The bass line of the music was pumped up, making it harder to hear, so he had to shout. “You know, that talk where you tell me how you feel and I tell you how I feel, and then everybody walks away with their feelings hurt.”

A guy tried to wedge himself between us to get to the bar, but I pushed him out of the way.

“Of course. It’s so much easier to lie,” I said, moving back from him. The guy next to us turned his head because I was shouting over the music.

“Come on, Seth. It wasn’t really a lie. I just told you that.” Declan smiled at Mr. Arms who was looking back at us from his perch and gesturing for Declan to hurry. “Besides, everyone lies about sex,” Declan said. He brought his lips close to my ear. “You should know that better than anyone.” He tried to give me a kiss on my cheek, but I backed away. Mr. Arms patted his ass as they headed for the door.

Men quickly filled the space he had vacated, trying to get to the bar. The room seemed airless. A line of guys waited for the bathroom and the smell of Clorox burst out whenever someone opened the door. I could barely breathe, so I pushed my way to the door, past a table covered with empty beer bottles and an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts, not even slowing when I stepped on a guy’s toes and made him spill his drink.

It had rained while I was inside and puddles on the street reflected the streetlights above, but the rain hadn’t cooled anything off. The humidity left a moist layer on my skin. Some guys were by the front door smoking when I came out and one of them smiled at me. He was wearing a Georgetown T-shirt and baggy shorts that he’d spilled beer on.

“You look like you just lost your best friend,” he said, as I caught my breath.

“Something like that,” I said.

He was drunk in a fun loose way, excited not just by the alcohol, but by the whole scene. I wanted to feel what he felt: that there was nothing better than standing on the sidewalk with friends, outside a gay bar, talking to a stranger, sticky with sweat and spilled beer, soaking in the dense night air.

“Uh oh,” the guy in the T-shirt said. “I think someone just found out her boyfriend’s Canadian.”

People walked past us on the sidewalk, all involved in their own lives and conversations. One guy got belligerent and yelled at us for blocking the sidewalk, but everyone ignored him and he moved on, muttering to himself. In the bookstore across the street a guy put down a book and pressed his face against the window, trying to decide if it was safe to venture out. A new group came down the sidewalk, filling the air with drunken chatter and laughter. I slipped into the shadow close to the door.

“You shy?” the guy in the T-shirt asked.

A man’s voice rose above the others and was followed by a loud, unrestrained laugh full of life. It sounded like Karen, but I knew it couldn’t be because she wouldn’t be in this part of the city.

When I looked over, though, there she was—talking and laughing with some people I didn’t know. Her face brightened when she first saw me. Her friends continued down the street without her.

“Look who’s here,” she said. “What are you doing here?” She was a little drunk and her voice was light and happy. She let out that laugh I’d gotten to know.

“Just came out to get some air and ran into some friends.” She examined the guy smoking, who nodded slightly in her direction and then focused on the sidewalk.

“So much for an early night, I guess,” she said. The lilt in her voice disappeared.

Her friends shouted to her.

“I guess I’ll talk to you later,” she said.

“Yeah. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

She waved without looking back, walking quickly up the sidewalk to rejoin her friends. I thought I was going to puke.

“Uh oh,” the guy in the T-shirt said. “I think someone just found out her boyfriend’s Canadian.”

I stood on the sidewalk, looking in the direction Karen had gone down. The guy in the T-shirt asked if I wanted to go somewhere, looked hurt for a moment after I turned him down, and then went back to laughing with his friends. I started home but almost tripped on the sidewalk, still slick from the rain.

Up ahead, two guys were walking a small gray dog that ran back and forth in front of them as they moved down the sidewalk. I admired their choreography. When the dog went too much in one direction, one guy would hand off the leash to the other, until the dog ran back the other way, and the leash would be passed back. They never stopped or slowed down. Their conversation never flagged.

The sweat beaded up on my face as I remembered Declan’s smile when he told me about David. Declan. Full of goodness. I used my pent-up anger to kick an empty beer can laying in the grass and sent it clattering up the sidewalk. Declan. Full of shit. The guys with the dog looked back to see where the can had come from. I was relieved when they crossed the street before I reached them. I had walked home alone from Heaven a million times without caring, but tonight I didn’t want to be seen.

And then I pictured Karen. Not just her walking away, but her face when she looked at the guy with the T-shirt. The way her expression had moved from curiosity, to recognition, to sadness, to resignation, and finally to anger—all within a few moments. Like I was watching an actress at an audition showing off her range of emotions. But of course she wasn’t the one who was an actor. At the pizza place at the corner, a crowd of people stood on the sidewalk eating slices of pizza, drunk and happy, relieved to have reached the end of the week.

I brought muffins over to Karen’s the next morning. She answered the door in her bathrobe, her hair pulled back. She was wearing glasses, instead of her contacts, so her eyes looked bigger than usual. I was dying for some of the coffee she was drinking, but she didn’t offer me any and I knew better than to ask. Sam dropped a ragged stuffed moose in front of me, so I tossed it down the hallway for him to chase.

“This is a surprise,” she said. “I feel honored.” She took the bag of muffins and tossed it on the counter without looking inside.

I started to say something, but she cut me off.

“Well, at least now I know why we never spent the whole weekend together,” she said.

I told her I was sorry. That I liked her a lot. Tried to explain how she was different from other women I’d gone out with. Told her I wasn’t sure that I really was gay in the beginning.

“I’m really glad I could help you figure that out, Seth,” she said.

Sam brought the stuffed animal back, sticky with warm slobber. I tossed it out for him again and then wiped my hands on my pants.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“That’s what happens when you lie, Seth,” she said. “People get hurt.”

Sam brought the toy back but I left it where he dropped it.

“I was an asshole,” I said.

“At least we agree on that,” she said.

I started to say something else, but she turned her back and went into the kitchen to get more coffee.

There was construction on Rock Creek Parkway. I took the surface streets home.