The Town of Babylon

Alejandro Varela

March 23, 2022 
The following is excerpted from Alejandro Varela's debut novel, The Town of Babylon. Varela (he/him) is based in New York. His work has appeared in The Point Magazine, Boston Review, Harper's Magazine, The Rumpus, Joyland Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, The Offing, Blunderbuss Magazine, Pariahs (an anthology, SFA Press, 2016), The Southampton Review, and The New Republic. He is a 2019 Jerome Fellow in Literature and his graduate studies were in public health.

My mother was grateful for the simplicity of a home without a basement. “Who’s going to clean it?” she’d ask. “Besides, there’s something strange about being beneath the ground.” Hell, she meant.

All my friends had basements—carpeted, low-ceilinged, wood-paneled, plush-couched dens. It’s where everything happened—drinking, darts, dates. I had sex for the first time in a basement. The second time, too. Dozens of times, actually. Jeremy’s basement had been designed at some point as a refuge for his father—small kitchen, well-stocked bar, projector, lazily hidden collection of porn on VHS, pull-out couch, bathroom with a narrow shower meant for one-and-a-half persons—but the space became our own whenever his parents were out, which was often.

I went to Jeremy’s house for the first time on a Friday in March. It was cold out, but not so cold that I couldn’t ride my bicycle to his place. Jeremy invited me to sleep over because his parents went to the city on Friday nights, and his grandmother didn’t care who came by. That first time, I went because he’d been talking to a girl from the neighborhood, and this girl had a friend who, sight unseen, had agreed to be my date for the night. Jeremy said we’d all watch a movie and he’d make screwdrivers and we’d end up making out with our dates, side by side, on the couch. He’d thought it through, he said. By that point, I was a junior who hadn’t had sex, and I was desperate to catch up to my friends.

The girls didn’t show up that night. The one who was meant to be my date got her period, or so said the one who was supposed to be Jeremy’s date. Instead, he and I ordered pizza, watched Friday, and smoked pot. We became otherworldly and giddy almost immediately, before I slipped into the familiar paranoia loop. This high is going to pass. Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t forget your track meet tomorrow! This high is going to pass. Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t forget your track meet tomorrow!

Jeremy, for his part, turned playfully aggressive. He flicked my earlobe whenever I looked away, which only heightened my paranoia. When he tired of that, or maybe because he could tell I was uncomfortable, he began pinching my nipple over my shirt, all the while howling with glee. My guy friends did these kinds of things to each other and to me, but it never occurred to me to do them.

When I got up to use the bathroom, Jeremy smacked my backside and laughed. When I returned, he tried to trip me as I stepped over his legs. When that didn’t work, he pushed me onto the couch. I laughed, half-heartedly and artificially, to mask the mix of confusion, anxiety, and arousal that I was feeling. In retrospect, it was rather obvious that he was flirting or trying desperately and unnecessarily to get attention that I would have given freely. It was easier, however, to believe that he was messing around, that my sublimated queerness left me inadequate to the task of being an adolescent boy fluent in the language of horseplay. Whatever I might reciprocate would result in my being pinned beneath him in a wrestling match that I was certain to lose. Jeremy and I were of similar height and weight, but he was fit, while my physique lay somewhere between thin and malnourished. Every exit pointed toward embarrassment. But  I was, at that moment, high. The liminal haze allowed me to entertain all possibilities. Was he waiting for me to make a move? Was he as desperate for my unambiguous touch, embrace, or kiss, as I was for his?

We started to come down, and he asked if I wanted to smoke again.

“Nah, I’m good. I have to be up at five-thirty tomorrow and to school by six-thirty. I should probably get going.”

“What? C’mon, dude. I thought you were staying over.”

“The girls didn’t show up, and honestly, it’ll be easier to get to school from my house.”

“I’ll give you a ride. My parents left me a set of car keys in case of an emergency.”

“You don’t have a license.”

“Yeah I do. I got the temporary last week. The new one is coming in the mail.”

When it became clear to him that I was resolute, Jeremy started bouncing around me, like a little kid or a desperate puppy.

“You’re just down cuz you didn’t get any pussy tonight,” he said.

“No, I’m not. I’m legitimately tired, and I have to get up early.”


“Shut up.”

“Fine. You can go, but hang a bit longer. I got something for you. Chill here.”

Jeremy vanished into the spare room in the far corner of the basement. Meanwhile, I lay out on the enormous couch, running my fingers against the grain of its soft fibers, simultaneously gripping the shaggy carpet with my toes, well into the tactile portion of the high. When Jeremy returned, he was holding two nondescript rectangular black boxes. “Which one?” he asked. “Right or left?”

“What are they?”

“Right or left?”

“I don’t know. That one,” I said, pointing to the one on the right. Jeremy opened the box and stuffed the cassette into the VCR.

“It’s from my dad’s collection,” he said. Then he walked back to the couch and stood over me. His baggy gray sweatpants were taut from the wide stance. He wore a black tank top, and as he tapped his fists against each other, his bare biceps throbbed. He kneed my thigh. “Move over.”

Jeremy and I had gotten to know one another well over the previous months. Ms. Cardinale, our English teacher, had forced us to study together for state exams. I hadn’t wanted to pair up with Jeremy because I sensed that I’d be doing the lion’s share of the work. But he was engaged enough that I didn’t mind doing most of the work.

A few times over those months, he’d mentioned his dad’s porn collection, as if this moment were inevitable. I’d seen porn magazines and porn video catalogs before, but I’d never watched a proper movie. I was, without a doubt, curious, but I was also embarrassed at the thought of watching other people have sex in front of someone else. To make matters worse, I hadn’t bothered to change out of my school uniform before coming over. I was wearing thin charcoal-gray slacks, which couldn’t, under normal circumstances, hide an erection. I didn’t want Jeremy to see me aroused, but neither did I want this time with him to end.

I couldn’t help side-eyeing Jeremy, who periodically adjusted the crotch of his pants while declaring his affinity for the synthetic actress, whose artful moans undercut, for me, any semblance of arousal. “She’s so fucking hot, man,” Jeremy repeated. My eyes rested upon the equally plastic man, whose strength and intensity gave him an almost reddish tint. His enormous chest, bare ass, and engorged cock awoke the thing inside of me that I spent most of my waking moments trying to quell, the thing I feared more than anything might one day be discovered, the thing I gave myself permission to feel under my bedsheets or in a locked bathroom. When I realized that I wouldn’t be able to hide anything, I, too, began talking back to the screen: “So fucking hot. I’d love to bang her.” The inauthenticity in my voice was apparent, I believed, and I felt further shamed because of it.

Jeremy got up and scrambled away from the couch without saying a word. I took the opportunity to find the least conspicuous position for my erection. The man on the screen had his back pressed against a rack of easily rattled shelves, hoisting up his partner, who’d wrapped her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck, bouncing up and down on his enormous penis. I feared Jeremy had gone off to masturbate in private and that I would be forced to do something similar or pretend that I had so that I could leave with my dignity intact, but soon enough he returned with a box of tissues in one hand and a bottle of lotion in the other. He set the items in the yawning crevasse between the cushions. Almost immediately, he pulled his tank top over his head and where it remained taut around his shoulders and the back of his neck, like a harness; then he loosened the drawstring on his pants and slid them down a few inches. He rubbed himself over his underwear, a pair of briefs, it seemed, but I couldn’t be certain because he hadn’t pulled his pants low enough for me to see where the underwear ended. I fixated on the otherwise dull blue fabric that had bloated up from his lower body. After a few glances at Jeremy, I was more enthralled than I’d been through the first fifteen minutes of the movie.

My chest and limbs began to tremble. Whatever was happening or not happening between Jeremy and me was about as intimate as anything I’d experienced before, which, up to that point, consisted entirely of a few heavy, alcohol-induced make-out sessions with girls. One of those encounters, only a few weeks earlier, had escalated into the fingering of Monica O’Hearn (Ecuadorian Irish) in her parents’ basement. A part of me had been deep inside of another human, and specifically, inside of the adolescent cup of Christ, but it had been a soulless, solitary experience, during which Monica’s feelings were, at best, of secondary importance to my own discomfort. I’d left her home feeling like a creep. In fact, the very use of the word finger as a verb connoted something technical and violent. But I’d gone along with the motions because of the race: the checklist of heterosexual credits along the road to fucking. If I’d had sex with Monica, I’d have been on another plane; the next level of life unlocked. I’d have been able to relate to my friends in ways I hadn’t yet. I believed, too, that it would lead to transformation; I would become the man that I was expected to be.

Nowhere on my checklist had this encounter with Jeremy appeared, but the silence between us percolated with excitement and passion, everything that I had expected sex to be.

A subtle, visceral moan escaped Jeremy, and I felt my own breath shorten. I made every effort to keep my gaze trained on the screen and its heaving couple, but inevitably I found myself taking more jittery glances at Jeremy. There were his hands, squeezing the navy blue phallus through his underwear, as if he were gripping a baseball bat, a rounded weapon with a bead of moisture at its head, a growing darkness. There he was, loosening his grip and in one swift motion lifting himself from the couch with a wide arch of his back, simultaneously pushing his pants and underwear below his knees. “Here,” he said, after pumping lotion into one of his hands and handing me the bottle with the other.

Even in the locker room at school, the other guys tended to be modest, quickly switching towels out for boxers—never briefs. I wondered for a moment if this was something all my friends did and that I hadn’t been privy to. Jeremy’s nonchalance confused me. Surely, this was a big deal. Surely, this was meaningful. But he continued stroking himself, staring straight ahead, his eyelids occasionally sliding shut, blunting all of my instincts to react. I looked down at his cock. It was a thick, pasty shaft with a pinkish head, not quite beautiful, but large, bigger than mine. It had no foreskin and was vaguely scarred beneath its head. I had only ever been in this sort of proximity to two other penises, my father’s and my brother’s, both of which resembled mine. For a moment, I felt as if I were dealing with another species of human. My inner tremble morphed into something more percussive and conspicuous. I vainly repositioned myself on the couch.

Not participating in this tremendous event suddenly felt odd. I unzipped my pants and lowered them below my thighs.I kept my Christmas-patterned boxers on, instead using the front flap as egress. I was already wet with pre-cum, and my foreskin made lotion unnecessary. I grabbed some anyway, which proved a terrible decision. The added moisture and slicker hand motion were an unwanted shortcut to climax; I didn’t want to finish before Jeremy. Frantically, I searched my memory banks for something antithetical that might interrupt the flow of hormones and blood, something that would level us. I conjured up a memory of myself throwing up in front of a large industrial fan during a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. Chunks of projectile vomit blowing back into my face, landing on the game consoles, in the hair of screaming children. The vile replay helped momentarily, but Jeremy was an overpowering presence. Porn en vivo. His tumescent member, his six-pack, his tensed forearms, a small trail of hair traveling up to his belly button, and an almost uninterrupted song of moaning right beside me.

I don’t remember with certainty if we made eye contact before he came or just after, but I’m certain it happened. He exploded and our gazes met; I finished a few seconds after. Ours were epic, plentiful eruptions that dwarfed the already vigorous effluence to which I was accustomed. There was a brief spell of relief—not quite seconds, but moments—while my eyes remained closed, before the embarrassment, shame, and regret settled into the room. I felt, too, something akin to happiness. An ephemeral internal heat that matched the warmth on my hand, abdomen, and thighs, before the ejaculate cooled. I also felt a softer, deeper warmth on my foot. Something unfamiliar. It was Jeremy. He was fully reclined, one leg bent at the knee, the other extended, his foot gently caressing mine. I don’t know if he was aware of what he was doing or if it was a euphoric sort of mindlessness, but it was, in all cases, memorable.

Jeremy sat up, reached for the tissues, and pulled his underwear over the crime scene. I wiped up carelessly, grabbed the pieces of my uniform that were strewn about, and sought refuge in the bathroom, hoping to escape Jeremy and to contain the wave of nausea that was lapping on my insides, a combination of the heathenism and the screwdrivers. I hadn’t done anything wrong, I told my newly altered self as I searched the mirror for my previous self.

There was no proof of anything, I thought. Nothing had happened. Nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to pray about. Nothing to confess. Nothing to regret. But I did regret. I did feel shame. I would pray. Something had indeed happened.

“Where are you going?” Jeremy asked, as I put on my socks and fastened my running cleats to my backpack.

“I just realized I didn’t pack my running uniform for tomorrow.” This was a lie.

“I can drive you home to get it.”

“S’ok. I have my bike. I can be home in fifteen minutes.”

“You coming back?”

“No, it’s easier to get a ride from my folks tomorrow.”

Jeremy kept talking at me, but I didn’t register anything, even as he followed me up the stairs and to his garage, where I’d left my bike. “Are you sure?” he shouted, after I’d sped down his driveway and waved goodbye, with my shirt on inside out. I would never go back there, I told myself, never again into that basement, which seemed in that moment to represent the hell I’d been warned about.


 Excerpted from The Town of Babylon, with permission of Astra House. Copyright © 2022 by Alejandro Varela.

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