Chapter 1 (Jason)
April 6, 2017
Sex sold well, but a tease sold better. I knew that, but he didn’t, at least not yet. We stood facing each other on the pool deck waiting for the looming clouds to part and unveil the sunshine. From the start, he was the one, and his name was Noel.
Noel was toned like a twink, but with more muscle size and definition than the average gay man. His shirtless frame shuddered from the cold spring morning. The ocean winds caught his flowing brown locks, battering and obscuring his tan-colored eyes. Out of ten aspiring models, only he possessed the “zazz” the others lacked. They were too macho, too Spartan, too, dare I say, manly. He had the face of a boy and the body of a god.
“Not much of a spring shoot, now is it, Jason?” Noel said, boasting a deep, yet dramatic tone of voice. “I’d give it two more hours.”
“You’re silly. Clouds are springtime’s way of saying hello. Now stand over by the edge.”
Noel went to his assigned spot about an inch from my apartment complex’s pool. He continued to shiver as I took out my point-and-click camera and set the image quality to high. He gave me a smirk, and it looked okay through the shitty viewfinder.
“Three,” I said, shaking my bony arm every-which-way.
“Two,” I gazed deeper into my camera, and my right arm turned numb.
“One,” I stretched my thumb over the shutter button.
“Pick up quarters!” I pressed the button. Noel snickered a bit but lost his balance. He tumbled into the pool, making a splash loud enough for the birds to notice. “And that’s a wrap for the first TCS shoot.”
Noel climbed out of the pool. Before I could hand him a towel, he cornered me in front of the towering hedges. “Pick up quarters? What the fuck was that? And we’re already done?”
“I get tired of the word cheese,” I said. It was either that or shout out about bunnies. “It reminds me of grilled cheese, which I hate.”
Noel’s muscles relaxed, and he stepped to the side. “It’s cool.”
“Oh yeah, we’re done for the day. Let’s get you dried off.”
Noel and I went towards a metal bistro table. I brought a spare towel from my place just in case something like this happened, but I wasn’t expecting any accidents on the first day. As Noel dried himself, I glanced at the picture in my camera’s album. It was the frame between desire and reality. I looked at him, then back at the picture.
It was easy to stare at a photo of a guy I hired as a crush, but it was even easier to stare at the real man candy. I felt a tingling below my waist I hadn’t felt since dropping out of college. I stared at Noel’s well-defined abs as they gyrated from brushing the rainbow beach towel back and forth. It was too soon to touch, let alone push him into the pool again to get an encore. There was a little bulge coming from his trunks, but a free muscle show is nothing to complain about. He laid his towel down and winked at me. “You alright?”
I regained composure. “Yeah, let’s head back. Here’s your hoodie and stuff.”
Noel put on his baggy black hoodie. Why he concealed his chiseled torso like that baffled me, like he didn’t even want to be a model for the looks. Perhaps he was more than that.
With both of us ready, we strolled up the steps from the pool back to my apartment within a large complex in La Jolla. Ever since dropping out of UC San Diego two years ago, a place close enough to it was perfect for a bachelor like me. It was also a mile east of the ocean, but with no easy way to even get to La Jolla Shores. A cozy corner kitchen and dining room greeted visitors, all one of them I’ve had in forever.
Noel took a relaxed seat on my tattered hunter-green loveseat in my living room, resting his feet on the coffee table. “Can I see the picture?”
I sat down next to him and imagined crawling my fingers across his back and clutching him on the opposite shoulder, reaching over and letting him see the picture as long as my hand was still in control of the camera.
“You crack me up,” he said, giving a polite laugh.
“So, what do you do for fun?”
“Fun?” Noel pushed the camera back to me. “Not much time for that, being a graduate student and all.”
I twitched. “You’re a grad student?”
“Well, part-time. San Diego State. I got my Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering last fall.”
“Wow!” Not only did he have the body of every man’s dreams, but he also had a lot of smarts too. Maybe he knew why different energy colors didn’t like each other.
“Did you ever go to school, Jason?”
“Yeah, but I dropped out. I’d rather not go into why, but my friends go to the UC.”
“Triton boy, huh? Well no grudge here.”
“Thanks, man.” I patted him on the back.
“Hey Jace,” Noel patted mine in return. “Do you read?”
“Not really, but I’ve got this cool photo book I bought online.” I scooted to the edge of the couch and slid out a square hardcover book with a glossy sheen from underneath the coffee table, opening it to the first page.
“That guy looks a little thin…” Noel pointed to the first model. The twig was thinner than me. “…but the lighting’s nice.”
“I’m workin’ on that, man.” I turned the page. “This guy’s my favorite.”
The two-page spread depicted two images of the same model, a blond stud wearing a pair of black metallic headphones over his ears like he was a skater punk. In one picture, he was shirtless, and the other showed him in a black hoodie like the one Noel had, only with a red stripe on the bottom.
“He looks serious. I’d buy that. Take-no-chances kind of man.”
I smiled. “True that.”
“So, when are we going to do stuff like that?”
“I’ve got a few shoots planned, just you wait.”
San Diego was a big place, and any public beach or park proved itself worthy of my camera’s lens, especially with a hottie like Noel. He seemed willing to do just about anything, but after today’s teaser shoot, I had a plan for something bigger. We continued flipping through the photo book for the rest of the afternoon, admiring the cuteness, hotness, or muscliness of the guys inside. Noel seemed more interested in the technical aspects rather than the eye candy. I’d already studied every photo in there for that; my feast was his famine.
Eventually, Noel looked at his phone. “Hey, I’ve got class in an hour, so I’ll need to get going.” He rose from the couch. “Look at some real photography books. They might teach you a thing or three about that camera of yours that pictures can’t.” He walked out the front door, closing it behind him.
That evening, I tinkered on my freeware image editor. I had a name for my agency, but the only thing I could think of was Tribal Culture Studio, or TCS for short. As for that name, it was best not to ask why, but I needed something to put on my small business application. I pulled up the image of Noel and posted it online for a selling price of 99 cents. It was cheap, and I expected for it to suck.
Later that night, I got a call from my cousin Tyler while watching the same episode of Mr. Ball's Wacky Adventures on repeat. It must have been an off night for him dancing at the club. “Hey, Jace,” he said in a caring, yet surly tone, “how's your new boy toy?”
“He's not a toy!”
“You hired him, so yeah, he's your toy, or have you grown past that childish mentality?”
I turned the TV off and stroked my hair with my free hand, applying just enough pressure on my crown to indulge a calming sensation. “Noel's going to be my very own joy friend. He brings me joy, and I'll show it to him when I visit you in two weeks.”
“Whatever,” Tyler said as I twirled a strand of my hair. “No fudge-pumper in the world's worth a trip to Vegas just to propose a relationship, especially if you've known the ab-candy for only two weeks.” It was Tyler 101; he said little unless he gave a shit, then he'd ramble for hours and hours over anything having to do with the price of weed in Colorado. “Look at Uncle Josh, I mean your father; should I even call the tooked-out tweaker manchild that? He at least dated your pretentious trip of a mother for six months before marrying that rainbow-haired druggie.”
“Don't you insult my mom. She's your aunt, you know?” I cringed when I heard my own flesh and blood defaced like that. Sure, my dad was a deadbeat loser, but my mom actually worked for a living, and Ty didn't see reading tarot and providing crystal therapy as legitimate businesses. “She takes the LSD to speak to her spirit friends.”
“Oh my gosh,” I heard Tyler muttering to himself over the phone. “Don't burn the only family you got, Ty. Jace can’t help it.”
Tyler's words were clear as the San Diego air to me, but I feigned ignorance. “Excuse me?”
“Nothing, Jace. Anyway, I'll see ya when you get to Vegas. Bring the candy, the Christmas present, whatever you want to call him if you want. But a fair warning between family; not everyone is the same inside as they are on the surface. Don't be sold on someone just because you have a crush on him.”
“I'm certain he's it. He has to be, and when I bring him to see you in Vegas, it'll be the perfect first date. We'll have a photo shoot, a sexy massage session, followed by a hot tub soaking...”
“Uh, I'm gonna go.”
Tyler hung up. My cousin had provided me with financial support for over two years since leaving college. Three thousand a month was enough to cover rent and living expenses, not to mention some extra for fun and games. Everything was set. I booked a cheap hotel near Ty's place called the Silver Station where each and every room had its own hot tub. I saw Noel shirtless before, but I wanted to explore him deeper. Only the waiting and trivial platonic growth of Tribal Culture Studio remained.