“Always Listen To a Good Pair of Underwear” by Steve Berman from Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories (Lethe Press, 2008).

The stories in this collection were originally published in a variety of publications over a period of six years. This means, of course, that associations created here were never meant to be. For instance, it feels very much as if the character Mike from the previous story (written in 2003 and published in X-Factor), steps into this tale (Harrington Park Press, 2007), and because he’s still tripping on that peyote button, believes he is someone named Steve who has a roommate named Mike, who wears magic boxers that talk.

See what I mean?

Okay, so the Steve of this story is borderline obsessed with his roommate, Mike. In the best of times, Mike takes advantage of that fact. In the worst, he becomes physically threatening.

I had difficulty figuring out how to process this story. That the gaudily printed boxers talk would seem to indicate a humorous piece, but the first two times I read it I felt unsettled afterward. That shouldn’t be all that surprising; the Mike of the story treats his roommate Steve badly, and the author’s notes reveal that this tale—like many of those in this collection—closely mimics events from the author’s life. There was a Mike; the volume is dedicated to him, and a deep current of regret runs all through it. I imagine someone with no knowledge of the author’s history, who read this as a standalone piece, would have an entirely different reaction to it. But you can’t unring a bell. Reading it here, I was unable to see the character as just that, a character. (It also did not help that it is written in the first person.) Because I couldn’t adequately separate character and author, the humor of the piece couldn’t lift it out of its overall sadness.

What helped immensely was listening to the audio version. Having a narrator voice the character’s thoughts created the distance I needed to, finally, stop being unsettled and momentarily be entertained instead.

Side note: In the digital version of this collection the title of this story appears in regular type, not as a clickable link. In figuring the stories for the end of this project, my eye passed right over this title. It means there are two extra stories in the queue.