The marks appeared overnight. I was drinking microwaved coffee in the kitchen when Brady emerged from our bedroom, pajama bottoms hanging off his hips. His mark sat, prominent, on his naked shoulder.
“There’s something on your shoulder.”
It stayed when I went to wipe it away, and the colour didn’t change with pressure. “I’ll scrub it off in the shower,” Brady said. When he came back, the skin was red and raw, but the mark remained. Fear and confusion stained his face. We made a doctor’s appointment for that afternoon.
“You’re the fourth I’ve seen today,” the doctor said as he examined the mark, took Brady’s blood pressure, listened to his breathing. Nothing out of the ordinary. “If it isn’t gone in a week, or if it gets any worse, come back.”
We didn’t need a week. By the next day, the marks were a phenomenon. All our friends had one, each in a unique location on the maps of their skin. Whispers spread like wild screams, and everyone could see the obvious: the mark only appeared on gay men.
“Why don’t you have one?” Brady asked, the two of us tangled on the couch watching television after work. His breath tremored before the words left him, the deep inhale of a question played on repeat in someone’s mind for longer than they would ever admit.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Maybe you’re bi?”
“I’m not. Besides, bi men are getting it too.”
We went to bed in silence.
The marks were global. Social media exploded with photos of people’s skin. Some couldn’t share theirs because it was situated somewhere illicit. That was what we told our friends when they asked. “It’s on his dick,” Brady would say. He had no problem keeping my secret—I wasn’t sure which of us was more ashamed.
Those less fortunate had their marks somewhere difficult to conceal. The backs of hands, curved around wrists, high on necks, plastered on cheeks. Many were outed. Some were killed. One of our friends paid to have his removed. It reappeared the next day.
Brady grew cold. It was never clear whether it was because he didn’t trust me anymore, or whether he felt less queer by proximity. It didn’t matter how hard I kissed him, how desperately I worshipped him. He would split away from me at bars and clubs and find men with marks like his. He shifted further and further from me in our bed, the chasm between us filled with everything he wouldn’t say. When he left, I didn’t try to stop him, couldn’t dampen the loudness in my brain telling me he deserved better.
It became ritualistic for men to want to see each other’s marks, learn where they were hidden. Some had theirs in romantic locations: the inside of a thigh, the nook of a collarbone. Sometimes I drew one on with permanent marker, but it never held up under scrutiny. A tattoo wasn’t an option. Artists refused to mimic the marks; why would someone want one if not for some perverse, nefarious purpose? A predator luring vulnerable gay men into a false sense of safety before pouncing. It had happened once or twice, made it into the news. That was all it took.
“Have you thought about trying women again?” Was the chorus from the few friends I had trusted with my deficiency. None of them said it in so many words, but it was clear I was no longer one of them. I was their disoriented straight friend, a pitiable case, and they were all waiting for me to figure it out. One of them offered to set me up, and I humoured him.
My blind date was Irene. We met in a café, and I liked her. Her femininity was inescapable, a perfect encapsulation of what nature decreed I should desire. She crossed and uncrossed her legs as she sipped her latte, and I tried to picture myself between them, between a woman’s legs. It made my chest twist.
“I know what this is all about,” she said after we had been there a while.
“What do you mean?”
She rolled up the sleeve of her dress and showed me a mark on her forearm. “You can have mine.” I looked at her stupidly. She took my wrist and rubbed her mark against it. “Maybe it will transfer if we try hard enough.” I laughed. She smiled. “Nature gets things wrong,” she said. “Happens all the time.”
Marianne Cassidy (they/them) is a writer, game developer and narrative designer. They are half-English, half-Canadian, and currently live in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with their partner and too many spider plants. This is their first publication. You can find them at @mothshaped on Twitter and Instagram.