Temple, TX

I blame Love is Love, streaming on Netflix, for inspiring my trip home to Texas. It was the kind of cheesy, coming out romance that usually made DeAndre and I roll our eyes. After being housebound for eight months by the COVID-19 pandemic, we had exhausted our options. It was either this or a six-part docuseries about a bigamist social influencer with a cannibal fetish running for Congress.

I hadn’t been home in fifteen years. I had been estranged from my mother ever since coming out to her in grad school. In July, she sent me a Facebook friend request. I learned she had fallen quite ill with the coronavirus. The experience must have led her to reevaluate her life. Now, we texted regularly. She always asked how DeAndre was, though she could only bring herself to refer to him as my “friend.” DeAndre and I had been together for eight years, married for two.

While the pandemic brought my mother and me closer, it created new frictions with DeAndre. A classically trained actor, ever since New York shuttered its theatres in March, he had worked only sporadically. Last year, his star was on the rise. He was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for his featured performance in off-Broadway’s Blackout ‘77. His most notable role post-lockdown was Male Clinic Nurse in a commercial for PrEP.

My psychotherapy career, on the other hand, was thriving. After a decade at Bellevue Psychiatric Center, I resigned last January. DeAndre had convinced me that I was being overworked and underpaid. I joined a private practice on the Upper West Side, which didn’t accept any insurance. I went from treating destitute addicts and derelicts to malcontent Manhattanites who could afford to pay out of pocket.

My patients struggled with dysfunctional relationships, high-pressure jobs, poor self-esteem and confusion over their sexualities. In nearly every case, the pandemic made their situations worse. Between taking on new clients and existing clients increasing their sessions, I was booked from morning to night.

Now conducting sessions via Zoom, I resented working long hours while DeAndre loafed around our Harlem apartment. Restless and bored, he seemed to delight in being a nuisance. His newest hobby was performing monologues on Instagram for Venmo tips. His shouts, laughter and anguished cries resounded through the walls, making for awkward exchanges with my patients. More than once, I was asked if I needed to cut the session short to attend to the nervous breakdown in the next room.

Fortunately, DeAndre and I both loved movies, and ended each night cuddling in front of the TV. I found myself unexpectedly moved by Love is Love. Watching the teenage protagonist, Sam, develop feelings for his misfit classmate, Rory, I remembered the first time I fell in love. Of course, our story hadn’t unfolded so winsomely. It was dark and disturbing, more horror than romance. I would never share it with anyone, even DeAndre.

“I miss my mom. I should visit her,” I said. It was after the scene when Sam accidentally outed himself to his family via group SMS. Sam’s mother hugged him tearfully, reassuring him he would always be her son.

“As soon as all this craziness ends,” DeAndre said. He turned his attention back to the film. Cheered on by his friends, Sam won the local skateboarding event. Now, he had to skate to the airport to win Rory back before he left to live with his wealthy father in London.

“How about if I go now? The flights are dirt cheap. I have to use my vacation before the end of the year,” I said.

“Do you think it’s a good idea? I mean, didn’t she have a hard time accepting you? Is she going to hate me?” he asked, hitting pause on the remote. He assumed, wrongly, that I wanted him to accompany me.

“No, she won’t hate you. In her old age, she’s turned pious. She might say a prayer for you, for us,” I said thoughtfully.

“That’s nice,” he said.

“Quote the Bible to us, invite her friends over to sing us hymns, to lead us back to God,” I continued. Though my intent was to dissuade him from coming, I wasn’t lying.

“Like being back in Atlanta with my Southern Baptist relatives,” he said, feigning enthusiasm.

“Of course, there’s a ten-day quarantine when we come back. We’ll have to order our groceries online. You’ll have to skip the gym,” I pointed out. He cringed before forcing a smile. When the gyms reopened last month, it provided him one of his few daily pleasures.

“I think you should go alone. You and your mom probably have a lot to hash out,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Next time, I promise,” he said, patting my thigh consolingly. “That gives me time to brush up on my hymns.” At once, he began yowling “Amazing Grace” in a strained, twangy voice. I broke out laughing.

“I remember why you don’t do musicals,” I said. Pouting facetiously, he snatched the remote and hit play.

As we watched the scene where Sam declared his love on the megaphone, and Rory, aided by a flamboyant flight attendant, deplaned before takeoff, DeAndre put his arm around me. Nonetheless, when Sam and Rory reunited, kissing at the gate, I thought of Zultan, not DeAndre. I never got to kiss Zultan. I had been cruelly denied that pleasure.

As a psychotherapist, I understood that there was more than one motive behind every decision. I did want to visit my mother, who might not have much time left. A week apart from DeAndre would help our marriage, make us appreciate each other more. Still, the most compelling reason for returning to Texas, and why I had to go alone, was to see Zultan. Killeen, where my mother lived, was an hour from Austin’s airport. If I exited the I-35 at Belton, I could pass through Temple and stop by the mansion on Prairie Street.

The first time I saw Zultan was outside Temple Mall. I was seventeen. Summer had just started. My older sister, Manuela, was meeting up with her friends. Our mother, dismayed that I never left the house, forced Manuela to bring me with her. Manuela sulked; I embarrassed her.

I rarely spoke. I was ashamed of my effeminate voice. I avoided eye contact with anyone. Even being looked at made me uncomfortable. I hated my face, with its pretty, delicate features. I shuddered to hear my own name, Ariel: a girl’s name, though my mother hadn’t gotten the memo. I wished I could change every part of myself, especially the parts that seemed “gay.”

Zultan stood in the parking lot. He was tall, perhaps six-four. He looked a few years older than I was. He was slim. His sandy, blond hair was buzzed close to his scalp. His eyes were a striking, pale blue. He had high cheekbones and a handsomely hooked nose. He wore khakis, a t-shirt and a hoodie, all the same shade of eggshell white. He handed a paper to an old woman, or tried to: she shrank back, shaking her head curtly.

As I walked past, we gazed at each other. He seemed to recognize me, but I was certain we had never met. I wouldn’t have forgotten it. His eyes followed me intently all the way to the mall’s entrance.

“Come on,” Manuela snapped. I was dragging my feet. The image of him lingered in my mind afterwards, consuming my thoughts. He was so perfect. I couldn’t fathom what he possibly saw in me.

When I arrived at the mansion on Prairie Street, I found it in disrepair. The lawn had grown wild. Half of the roof’s shingles were missing. The windows were boarded up. Vines covered the walls and spiraled up the marble columns at the entrance.

The door was deadbolted. It never used to be locked. A doorbell plaque, now removed, had read, “our door is always open.” The phrase had been printed on each leaflet, recited before the commencement of each meal. Every misfit knew that they had a place here.

I had assumed that the mansion would still be bustling with men and women in buzz cuts, wearing eggshell white. The Zanadus would have surely survived the pandemic unscathed. They were working from home, in fields like IT, proofreading and translation, before it was commonplace. Zultan had worked data entry jobs while earning his bachelor’s degree online.

I remembered the first time I laid eyes on the mansion. It had seemed so magnificent, bigger than my whole apartment complex in Killeen. Of course, it wasn’t the opulence that had drawn me inside. It was the chance to be close to Zultan, to spend my days with him.

The next time I went to Temple Mall, I was alone. My uncle had let me borrow his old car. Parked in the lot, I watched Zultan hand out leaflets at the entrance for an hour. The shoppers, by large, avoided him. One elderly man swung his cane at him, shouting “heretic.”

At last, I worked up the nerve to get out. As I approached Zultan, each step was more difficult. My heart raced faster. My breaths were shorter. My legs felt more unsteady. He turned to me. I stopped, paralyzed.

“Hello,” he said, walking up to me.

“What’s your name? Mine’s Zultan.” He extended his hand. I didn’t budge.

“Don’t be shy.” His gentle smile calmed my nerves.

“Ariel.” I shook his hand. I glanced at the wad of leaflets poking up from his pocket. He motioned to give me one but stopped. He gazed at me thoughtfully.

“My shift’s almost up. Why don’t we take a ride?” he proposed.

“Okay,” I said. I followed him to his car, a spacious Dodge Caravan. As he drove, he explained that he was a practitioner of Zanaduism, which was more of a philosophy than a religion. In fact, Zanaduism deemed organized religions bogus and harmful. “Heaven” existed, but it was not a place in the clouds. It was a state of consciousness attained through adherence to certain principles.

We made a stop at Temple College, where a middle-aged woman got in. Smiling affably, she introduced herself as Zila. We drove to Temple Water Park, the Mayborn Convention Center and the Walmart Supercenter, where we picked up Zalfur, Zolon and Zupa respectively. Each passenger sported a crew cut and identical, eggshell white attire.

Finally, Zultan pulled up to the mansion on Prairie Street. I gulped, astounded, causing him to smile. The other passengers got out. As I opened the door, I felt his hand on my knee.

“This is where we live,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. I tried to keep my expression blank, so as not to give away how his touch stirred me.

“You can’t go in. I’ll have to drive you back to the mall.” He sighed apologetically.

“Oh,” I repeated, unable to suppress my frown.

“Come back tomorrow at the same time. I’ll show you around,” he said.

“I will,” I promised.

“Our door is always open. But you have to cut your hair first,” he explained.

I had considered returning to Temple countless times to check in on Zultan. I could never go through with it. The pain was too fresh. I feared finding him in a wretched state. I feared the power he might still hold over me. After twenty years, I was finally ready, and it was too late.

Zultan was gone, as was Zanaduism.

Google offered few answers. Searching “Zanadu” only brought up misspelled references to an Olivia Newton-John movie. When I entered the address on a real estate website, I learned the mansion was put up for sale in 2004, lay vacant for six years, and was condemned in 2010.

Someone had to know what happened. In New York, a community of fifty could up and vanish, and no one would think twice about it: not in Temple, TX. My stomach grumbled, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten lunch. I recalled that there had been a diner nearby, Hickory’s, on Hickory Road. Zultan and I used to eat there.

Meals were served at the mansion. Breakfast was an omelet. Lunch was spaghetti. Dinner was chicken and vegetables. The lack of variety was intentional, meant to cultivate indifference to earthly pleasures. But Zultan had a weakness for French fries.

After hours spent handing out leaflets at the mall, he and I would stop at Hickory’s, order a large plate of fries and scarf it down as fast as we could. Officially, the Zanadus were free to come and go as they pleased, but long absences would be questioned.

I found the diner still open, though it had been renamed. Now it was “Patriot’s Grill,” festooned with American flags. Three waitresses were on shift, two young, one middle-aged, all wearing stars-and-stripes aprons and plastic face shields. I sat down in the older waitress’ section.

Luckily, she proved to be chatty. She introduced herself as “Jo, without the ‘e.’” She asked me where I was from, said she had a cousin in Killeen. When I revealed that I lived in New York, she let out an excited squeal. She had always dreamt of visiting. Of course, she would wait until Broadway reopened. She was dying to see Waitress.

I ordered her recommendation, the spicy brisket sandwich. When she brought the check, I exclaimed it was every bit as good as she promised.

“I remember coming here twenty years ago. My friend lived in Temple. Was this place open back then?” I asked.

“Sure was. I might’ve served you. Been here since ‘93, outlasted nine cooks, four owners, three name changes,” she said. If she had served me, I wouldn’t have noticed. When Zultan and I were together, no one else existed.

“There used to be a weird group around here, wasn’t there? All dressing the same. Didn’t they live in a big house nearby?” I asked, casually. Her face sank into a scowl.

“You mean the cult?” she said. I winced. I hated to think of the Zanadus as a “cult.” It made them sound malevolent. I saw them as misguided, not evil. If they perpetuated evil, it was unintentional.

“Yeah, what happened to them?” I asked.

“Shut down a while ago. You see, one of the kids they brainwashed was Lance Emery’s son. He was a bigwig around here: a federal judge. They couldn’t charge them with abduction; those wackos were there by choice. But they made sure to bust them up, got them for tax evasion, or something or other. Took years, though,” she revealed.

“I have to go.” I abruptly stood. Not glancing at the check, I threw down two twenties. With a befuddled expression, she reached into her apron pocket for change. I didn’t wait.

Outside the diner, I took out my phone. As I typed, my hands shook. I felt woozy with anticipation. After twenty years, I would finally learn Zultan’s real name.

As Zultan’s recruit, he was responsible for my indoctrination. “Zanadu,” he explained, was a perfect state of being, achievable only through hard work, humility, renunciation of material possessions and rejection of physical pleasures. Unnecessary indulgences were frowned upon, thus the short hair and simple apparel.

Throughout history, there were a select few, called “zeers,” who were blessed with “zanadu” at birth. Examples included Plato, Anne Hutchinson and Abraham Lincoln. There could only be one “zeer” per era. The current “zeer” was Zun. He lived on the mansion’s top floor. He was working as a freelance actuary when, one night, a dream showed him his true purpose: to enlist a community of disciples and guide humanity to a collective “Zanadu.”

The Zanadus lived two per room. Their quarters were sparsely furnished, with just two cots and a dresser. Zultan’s roommate was Zoran. Intelligent but socially awkward, I could easily imagine him quoting Klingon proverbs, or debating if the Hulk was stronger than Superman. Instead, he rhapsodized about the virtues of Zanaduism.

I told my family I got a job at Walmart, prompting my uncle to let me keep his car until the end of the summer. I arrived at the mansion each day before nine. In the mornings, I studied Zanadu doctrine and helped with household chores. In the afternoons, Zultan and I distributed leaflets at the mall.

One morning, while Zoran was off on an errand, Zultan described the initiation process. Acceptance wasn’t guaranteed. I would have to undergo what was termed the “z-terrogation.” I would finally meet Zun, whom I had heretofore only heard about. I would stand before the Zanadus as Zun asked a series of questions to evaluate my character and my commitment to Zanaduism. If my membership was approved, Zun would assign me my “z-name.”

“You’re smart. I know you have no problem grasping Zun’s teachings,” Zultan said. Zun had written a dozen manifestos extolling Zanaduism. Zultan would often recite whole paragraphs from memory, his voice taking on a fervent tone.

“Thanks.” I blushed.

“But I’m not sure if Zun will approve your admission. I’m not sure he should.” He stood. His expression dropped into a brooding frown.

“Why?” I gasped, stunned.

“You have to prove to Zun that you’re worthy. How can you, if you don’t believe it yourself? Your inferiority complex would be poison to our community,” he said, sneering. Crestfallen, I stared morosely at the floor.

“Lift your head,” he directed. I looked up. He leaned over, bringing his face level with mine. I wanted so badly to kiss him, but would never dare try. He was like a god to me, and I was nothing.

“Where’s your confidence?” he demanded.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

“Stop it!” he shouted. We reflexively glanced at the door. As with the front door, the lock had been removed. It was meant to signify the Zanadus’ communal openness. When no one came to check on us, he sat back down on the cot beside me. Letting out a deep sigh, he turned to me.

“Someone hurt you, didn’t they?” he asked, his voice low and solemn.

“Hurt me?” I asked, not understanding.

“I see it in the way you act, like you hate every part of yourself. Someone did that to you. I know it. I knew it the moment I first saw you,” he confessed. I shrank back, aghast. My face burned with humiliation.

He was right: someone had hurt me, destroyed my self-esteem and filled me with self-loathing. After my father left, when I was four, my mother dated a string of low-lifes. Amidst the petty criminals and volatile alcoholics, mild-mannered Carl had seemed like a prize. He turned out to be the worst, using me to gratify his sick desires. Though he was only around for a few years, he broke me in ways that were irrevocable.

“Everything about you reeks of shame.” He shook his head, dismayed.

“Fuck you,” I snapped.

The first time he saw me, he knew I was damaged. I was an easy mark. Soon, he had me duped into mopping floors and doing laundry. He was like Carl, a monster, exploiting me, pretending to be my friend. I sprang up. I darted to the door. He grabbed my wrist.

“Let go!” I turned around. He held onto me. He had a wide grin on his face.

“I knew it: you’re a fighter. I saw that in you too,” he said, a note of pride in his voice. I had convinced him of my worth, apparently; I hadn’t convinced myself.

“I’m trash. Poor, Latino, gay, sexually abused trash,” I spouted. I jerked my wrist free. I assumed he would let me leave now. Knowing I was gay, he must have realized how I felt towards him. He must have been disgusted by the sight of me.

“Don’t say that. You are not trash,” he declared adamantly.

“Okay,” I said, resignedly. I didn’t really want to leave. I was happier here, with Zultan, than I had ever been in my whole life.

“You are not trash, because I am not trash.” His voice cracked. His face crumbled. He lurched back to the cot. He sat, head bowed, appearing dejected. I felt sorry for upsetting him. I crept over and sat beside him. He turned to me. Tears gleamed in his eyes.

“My father is a federal judge. He’s a powerful man, but a sick man. Growing up, I had lots of money. It didn’t matter. After the things he made me do, I felt worthless. I am not, though. We are not,” he asserted. At once, I understood why he had taken an interest in me. We had been hurt in the same way. I wished I knew how to comfort him. I sat awkwardly, inept as always.

“I once acted just like you,” he confided.

“Really?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine him crippled with shyness. He was so self-assured now.

“Zun taught me we all have value. For each and every one of us can find zanadu,” he affirmed. He stared into my eyes, smiling softly. I nodded, pretending to agree, pretending I believed any of it, or worshipped anything but him.

Suddenly, I felt my jeans zipper being pulled down. I felt cool air. I felt his warm hand, stroking me. At first, I was terrified of being caught. Or worse, that he would regret this, and would never want to see me again. His steadfast gaze reassured me. I leaned into him. He draped his arm around me. He tugged harder and faster.

“Sex is an animalistic impulse. We must strive to control it. Nevertheless, if, in moments of weakness, we fail to resist our base urges, we must forgive ourselves. We are imperfect beings, until we achieve the transcendence of zanadu,” he recited, quoting one of Zun’s treatises. I reached for his groin, but he crossed his legs. When I finished, he gently zipped me back up.

“I see something very special in you. I always did,” he said, wiping his glistening hand onto the bedsheet.

It took me only a minute to find Zultan’s real name. Lance Emery died in 2011. Per his obituary, he was survived by his wife, Susan, and son, Lionel. Though Lionel had no Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn accounts, his photo came up on the website for Wichita Falls Southern Methodist Church. Tagged “Loyal parishioner, Lionel Emery,” he sat on a tablecloth in the grass, smiling as he sliced into a pie.

I studied the photo. His hairline had receded far up his scalp. Wrinkles spread from his eyes and mouth. He was still slender. His eyes were as piercing as ever. I took a screenshot. Tears formed in my eyes. I felt grateful for this image, to have his face exist somewhere other than in my faded memory.

Once I returned to my car, I found I couldn’t drive to Killeen. For thirty dollars on a public records website, I located his street address in Wichita Falls. A single photo didn’t satisfy me. I had to see him in the flesh, make sure he was really okay. Perhaps there was a way I could help him, either as a therapist or a friend.

I owed it to him. Though he was only in my life briefly, our relationship changed me forever. At college, my shyness faded. I was no longer ashamed of my sexuality. I didn’t think of myself as worthless: how could I be, if he had loved me?

The drive to Wichita Falls was four hours. Upon arriving at the address, I feared it was outdated. Pitched on the front lawn of a rustic, brick bungalow was a six-foot-tall Trump/Pence 2020 sign. Of course, such signs were commonplace in Texas. Even my mother supported Trump, echoing his claims of a fraudulent election. It still seemed out of character for Lionel, who had railed against materialism, and who had, briefly, been my lover.

Putting my misgivings aside, I parked on the corner of the street. As I approached the house, I hooked my facemask around my ears. I rang the doorbell. A woman opened the door. She was tall. She had a long mane of curly, auburn hair. Her face was pleasant but plain, with close-set eyes and thin lips.

“How can I help you?” she asked.

“Does Lionel live here?” I asked.

“He’s my husband,” she said. Seeing the shock in my eyes, she crossed her arms defensively. I considered leaving. It was too late. I caught sight of Lionel behind her, coming to the door. She moved aside.

“What do you want?” he asked, gruffly. I didn’t know how to respond. Ostensibly, I was here to help. I had imagined it would be heartening to see me, to know I still cared about him. We would catch up, commiserate. I would mention my profession, slip him my number, in case he ever wanted to talk. Now, it seemed like my arrival would only cause trouble. I would let him decide if I stayed or left. Instead of answering, I pulled my facemask down.

He gasped. He threw his wife a cagey glance. When his eyes settled back on me, he smiled warmly.

“Ariel, come in, please.” He opened the door. Blushing, he stepped aside awkwardly. He self-consciously ran his fingers through his thinning hair.

After sliding my mask back up, I walked in. Finding him free of Zanaduism and married to a woman provoked a mixture of emotions: joy, pity, anger and confusion. He led me through the foyer into the living room.

“Let me brew some coffee,” his wife said, veering into the kitchen.

A young boy, perhaps four or five, sat on the couch, watching a cartoon. He was unmistakably Lionel’s son. He had his sandy blond hair and pale, blue eyes. He regarded me in a calm, curious way that reminded me of Lionel.

At seeing Lionel’s son, my conflicting emotions were overwhelmed by relief. He hadn’t done as he had threatened to do. He hadn’t gone through with the procedure.

For about two weeks, Zultan and I were blissful, giddy lovers. We played hooky from our duties, trashing our leaflets upon arriving at Temple Mall. We saw every film playing in the mall’s theater, ate ice cream in the food court and frittered away hours in the arcade. He was a pro at air hockey. I was more into video games. One afternoon, when the weather was beautiful, we drove to Temple Lake Park for an impromptu picnic.

Despite my looming “z-terrogation,” we spent more time fooling around than preparing. He would think up a task for Zoran, so that Zoran would leave us alone. Could he run out to the grocery for eggs? His omelet had tasted off. Would he mind printing more leaflets at Kinkos? We seemed to be running low. As soon as Zoran stepped out of the room, he would slip his hand down my pants.

As fun as our trysts were, it was clear he held himself back. He touched me, but wouldn’t let me touch him. When I tried to kiss him, he swiveled his head away. I forgave him for being apprehensive. If we were caught, he would lose much more than I would, his home, his community. All I had to lose, all I cared about, was him. I believed that if we found somewhere completely safe, we could fully give in to our desires.

Only one room in the entire mansion had a lock: the basement, where the “z-terrogation” would be held. Zultan had explained that, while the Zanadus’ doors were open to all, certain practices occurred in the basement that might be misconstrued. I pictured farm animals sacrificed in bizarre ceremonies, or insubordinate members disciplined with primitive torture devices. When he offered to bring me down there, however, I pictured us locking the door behind us and taking off our clothes.

“Okay,” I said, faster than he could finish his sentence.

He had already sent Zoran off to the outlets in Round Rock, mentioning a two for one sale on khakis. I could only guess that he wanted extra privacy. Yet, as I followed him down the corridor, a feeling of worry crept in. What if, even now, when given the perfect opportunity, he still rejected my touch, denied me a kiss? I needed proof that he cared about me. I felt like some guilty indulgence, like the French fries we gobbled up at Hickory’s.

Anticipating disappointment, anger rose within me. I thought, I could make him value me. I would show him how much I was sacrificing for him.

“I haven’t told my mom yet about not going to NYU. She won’t take it well. I should probably just run away,” I said offhandedly. My acceptance letter had come last February, along with the details of my scholarship. Orientation was in a week. Of course, I had no intention of going now.

“What?” He stopped and turned to me.

“New York University,” I said, with a trace of smugness.

“That’s a good school,” he remarked. His face crumpled into a frown. Seeing his distress, I decided to change the subject.

“What name do you think Zun will give me?” I mused. I didn’t care. I would gladly be “Zitface” if it meant Zultan and I could stay together.

“I wouldn’t presume to guess,” he said reproachfully. He resumed walking. His tone stung. He was acting as if I was his pupil, nothing more.

We walked out the front door and around to the mansion’s backyard. He lifted a steel hatch on the ground, revealing a staircase. He led me down to a locked door, opened it with a key hidden under a mat, then flicked a light switch on. As soon as I stepped inside, I turned around and twisted the lock shut. I turned back to him. Lustful images ran through my mind, him pushing me up against the wall, undressing me, ravishing me. He gazed absently at the closed door, seeming preoccupied.

It was a vast space. As in the rest of the mansion, the walls were white and the décor was spare. Still, it struck me as majestic. The layout resembled the interior of a church. There were two rows of pews, with a platform at the end. As I followed him down the center aisle, I imagined us playfully acting out a wedding. After gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes, we would finally share our kiss. At the end of the aisle, he stepped onto the platform.

“You will stand where I am. Zun will stand where you are. The entire house will be here. If the ‘z-terrogation’ goes well, Zun will designate you an Apostle of Zanadu,” he pronounced.

“Great,” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic, as if it was an honor, not just an excuse to be close to Zultan.

“I’ll be there to congratulate you, and for the rechristening ceremony,” he said.

“Great,” I said, this time with genuine joy, envisioning all the ways we might celebrate together.

“But I’m afraid I’ll be gone soon afterwards, for at least a week,” he said.

“Why?” I whimpered. I dreaded the thought of staying here alone, with only the other Zanadus for company. All they ever talked about was Zanaduism, how it had supposedly saved them. It was unnerving, not to mention tedious.

“I’ve recently made a decision. Your initiation process has stirred certain feelings within me,” he said. Guessing what “feelings” he was referring to, I grinned. But he winced, as if in pain.

“I remember when I stood here, in front of Zun and my fellow brethren. I remember the values I espoused, the promises I made.” His voice broke with emotion. Wanting to soothe him, I reached out to him. He glared at my hand, his lip curled in revulsion, until I pulled it away. It was then that I realized something had gone terribly awry.

“I’ve betrayed everything I stand for,” he spat.

“No,” I cried. But I thought, “so what?” I wished he saw that what he stood for didn’t matter. Zanaduism was hokum. The love we had was real.

“Yes,” he declared. “Fortunately, there is a remedy,” he continued, solemnly. I smiled, relieved. I imagined some absolving ritual, like confession, some symbolic penance. For a while, he would try to control his urges. Once he failed, we would get back together.

“It’s called the ‘zurity measure,’” he said.

“Okay,” I said, unconcerned. I sensed his desire for me. I knew how strong it was. I knew it would win out in the end.

“Several males here have had it done. They returned happier, no longer slaves to their temptations. It might seem drastic, but why refrain from making certain modifications, if it brings us closer to ‘zanadu?’” Though he spoke in a calm, rational tone, alarm grew inside me. Why only males? The word “modifications” was so cryptic.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“A procedure to free myself of corrupting impulses. There’s a surgeon near Laredo who performs it, on the other side of the border,” he explained, his expression impassive. I felt dizzy. I clutched my stomach, suddenly nauseous.

“Are you talking about castration?” I shouted. He sighed, drooping his head. He seemed disappointed by my reaction.

“Why? Because of me? Because you want me? Because it’s wrong?” I asked. He shook his head, denying it, but I didn’t believe him.

“Don’t get worked up,” he said, stepping off the platform. I backed away.

“Don’t get worked up? You’re telling me you’re going to mutilate yourself. It’s sick, you’re sick!” I screamed.

“Shhh.” He raised his finger to his lips. I didn’t care if the other Zanadus heard me. I had only ever cared about him. Until now, I thought we would be happy as long as we were together. Until now, I would have followed him anywhere. I turned to leave.

He grabbed me by my elbow. He swung me around. I shoved him. He stumbled back, falling onto the platform behind him. I instinctively reached out to him. I hadn’t meant to hurt him. I stopped myself. He didn’t want my touch, and I had done him enough harm.

I bolted to the exit. He shuffled to his feet and went after me. I grabbed the doorknob. I turned it. I pulled it. I shook it. The door wouldn’t open.

I felt him approach from behind. On my left, I saw his hand reach out. For a moment, I thought he would put his arm around me, pull me to him. I wanted him to; I ached to feel his body against mine. I thought, maybe I could even accept this “zurity measure.” Afterwards, he would still be Zultan. I would still love him.

“Let me go,” I whispered, though I yearned to stay, though I was already falling back under his spell. His hand turned the lock above the knob.

I threw the door open. I ran up the stairs, to the outside, then to my car, parked in the driveway. As I drove, my panic subsided. Zultan wasn’t dangerous. He would never hurt anyone, except himself. I felt like turning back, trying to reason with him, but I knew it would be useless. The best thing I could do was leave. It was the only way to keep him from committing the unthinkable.

As Lionel’s wife waited in the kitchen for the coffee to brew, Lionel sat beside me on the couch, so close that our thighs touched. He had shooed his son to his room, barking, “Daddy and his friend need privacy.”

“You can take off your mask. We had it in September,” he said. I took it off and stuffed it into my pocket.

“You look good,” he remarked, after a minute of ogling me.

“So do you,” I admitted.

“Where have you been? What have you been up to?” he asked. “You look good,” he repeated, stuck on that fact.

I revealed that I had gone to NYU for undergraduate and graduate school, and was now a therapist in New York. I explained that I was visiting my mother in Killeen. I didn’t mention DeAndre, but I caught him glancing at my wedding band.

“Bet there’s good money in listening to rich, elitist New Yorkers whine about the unfairness of their lives,” he said with a smirk.

“That’s a simplistic way to look at it,” I said.

“But true, right? Bunch of crybabies.” He chuckled.

“There’s no shame in needing help,” I muttered, unamused.

“It’s not help. It’s coddling,” he grunted dismissively. He abruptly turned away. He seemed offended, as if I had come here to offer my professional services. In a sense, I had. Suddenly, I realized how foolish it was, how arrogant, to think I could swoop in and fix his life. I couldn’t save him now any more than I could twenty years ago.

His wife returned holding a tray with three coffees. She introduced herself as Jenny. She related how she and Lionel had met through their church. He was the handsome man who always sat up front, rapt in the sermon. He revealed that he was a salesman for an industrial supply company. She had owned a hair salon, but it was closed down by the pandemic.

“Sure, COVID’s no fun, but why do I have to lose my whole livelihood?” she said, fuming. “The left wants us to starve, so we all turn to socialism. That’s why we’ve got to ‘stop the steal.” She banged her coffee mug onto the table.

“The Chinese virus will turn us into Communist China,” he declared. Seeing him spout Trumpist rhetoric was jarring. Zanaduism seemed Trumpism’s opposite, shunning both excess and faith. I supposed that he needed to believe strongly in something. Zealotry filled some void he felt inside, or helped him justify his misery.

“I should get going,” I said. I wasn’t interested in arguing. And though he may have wanted something from me, it wasn’t my help.

“Killeen is hours from here. It’s late. Stay for dinner. We’ve got a guest bedroom,” he said, clasping my knee. I glanced at Jenny. She smiled, believing the gesture innocent, or pretending she did.

“I just put a meatloaf in the oven. There’s enough for all of us,” she said. I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. I took it out. DeAndre was calling me. I let it go to voicemail.

“I couldn’t impose,” I said.

“It’s no bother,” she said. Lionel hooked his foot around my ankle. It felt as if he was pleading. My phone buzzed. DeAndre had sent me a text.

“Where r u? Call me right now!”

“Sorry, can I make a call?” I asked. I hadn’t talked with DeAndre since landing in Austin around noon.

“The guest bedroom is down the hall to the right,” Lionel said.

“Thanks.” I hurried into the bedroom. Upon flicking the light switch, I was met with President Trump. He stood at a podium, before an American flag in mid-flutter. His gaze heated, his lips puckered in an “o,” he pointed his index finger at me, as if to recruit me. Directly below the poster, a makeshift shrine was arranged atop a dresser. Propped up on display was a MAGA hat, The Art of the Deal, campaign buttons and framed photographs of the entire Trump clan. I walked over, inspecting it with morbid curiosity.

“Creepy,” I thought, shuddering. I called DeAndre.

“Where are you?” he snapped.

“Texas,” I replied, befuddled.

“Okay, so why aren’t you at your mother’s house?” he asked. I gulped. Even if I knew, rationally, I had done nothing wrong, I couldn’t help feeling guilty.

“I saw your mom’s comment on Facebook. Your sister asked if you’d arrived. She said your flight was delayed. She wrote that an hour ago, five hours after you texted me that you landed,” he elaborated. We shared the same Facebook account, under “Ariel DeAndre Nunez-Jones.” I realized I should have been honest with him. I had no reason to keep secrets. Whatever I told him of my past, he wouldn’t have judged me.

“I’m visiting an old friend. I didn’t feel like having to answer her questions,” I said, truthfully.

“An old lover?” he asked. I didn’t respond, not wanting to lie. He let out an incredulous scoff.

“Switch to Facetime. I want to see where you are,” he demanded. A Facetime request popped up. I accepted it. His livid face appeared, nostrils flaring. I looked sheepish and uneasy in the upper righthand corner. I placed the phone on the dresser, leaned upright against Eric, flashing his trademark gummy smile.

“Who’s that?” he asked. I turned my head. Lionel stood by the door. I hadn’t heard him enter. He must have followed me in, made an excuse to leave Jenny. I could guess why.

Lionel looked like a ghost in the corner. He stared sorrowfully, his brow knitted, his shoulders hunched. Longing gleamed in his eyes, but he seemed aware of its futility. He knew what he wanted was impossible. He knew it was too late.

“Jenny asked me to come get you. It’s time to say grace,” he announced, making his expression impassive. I turned back to my phone. DeAndre had a huge grin of relief.

“Sorry, I must be going crazy. I miss you already,” he said forlornly. “Go ahead, have fun with your friends.” He smirked, undoubtedly envisioning a table of devout Christians and me bored out of my mind.

“I love you,” I said. I felt foolish for lamenting what might have been. I didn’t need a perfect, romantic movie ending with Lionel. I had that with DeAndre. He blew me an air kiss and ended the call.

“Thank you,” I said, turning to Lionel. Though I was no expert cook, I knew a meatloaf needed more than five minutes in the oven.

He gazed down pensively, his mouth slanted in a half-smile. I imagined he was feeling a mixture of pride and regret. He had lost me, but had saved me too, just like twenty years ago. I didn’t know if the “zurity measure” was real, or if he had actually considered it. But I knew he couldn’t let me become a Zanadu.

“You’re not going to spend the night, are you?” he muttered glumly. His desperation saddened me.

“No,” I said. I hadn’t come here for some illicit rendezvous. I had always needed more than that.

“You can still stay for dinner.” He glanced up, smiling hopefully. I supposed there would be no harm in it. I would have to avoid certain topics, namely the past, politics and religion. It would be good practice for my mother’s house.

“Okay.” I nodded. Elated, he threw his arms around me. He squeezed me close, pressed my head to his chest. I melted into his embrace. It felt too good to resist.

“I’m glad you got away,” he whispered. He planted a soft kiss atop my head, then let me go.

Scott Bassis has had short stories published in The Rappahannock Review, Litbreak Magazine, Poydras Review, The Furious Gazelle, The Writing Disorder, JAB, Sweet Tree Review, The Acentos Review, Sandpiper, Trouvaille Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, Me First Magazine, Image Outwrite, Quail Bell Magazine, The Missing Slate, Jumbelbook, Furtive Dalliance, Rainbow Curve and Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly.