As the afternoon faded into dusk, Piazza della Republicca filled with tourists and swift-
footed locals. The air smelled of coffee and pine and garlic—except when the wind changed, summoning up the acrid scent of uncollected trash. Sightseers posed in front of a giant Christmas tree as a troop of Italian teens in silver uniforms dutifully blew their way through an all-brass rendition of "Jingle Bell Rock." And across the square, Exley sat alone on a marble bench, searching his brick-heavy guidebook for somewhere to go.
He'd left Belfast when the semester ended, planning to circumnavigate Western Europe
before returning to his mother's place on the Upper East Side for Christmas; instead, he was stranded in Florence by a prolonged transit strike. He’d toured the Uffizi three separate times. Knelt in the Basilica, lighting candle after candle to warm his hands. And wandered the contours of the city's touristy, cobblestone heart.
“My poor baby,” his mother teased, “trapped in scenic Tuscany.”
“You know, that sounds quite pleasant," Exley's father told him, sounding wistful over the
transatlantic connection. “Savor these moments.” Now Exley found himself searching for a new distraction, something bright and foreign to fill his evening. But as he paged through the guidebook, his eyes landed on the index card he was using as a bookmark, his own garbled handwriting visible on the back.
“the boyfriend” by f.c.
(1) weak pacing
(2) ending doesn’t fit
(3) who IS august, really?
He'd forgotten about these cards, though he'd written dozens his freshman year. Back
then, he had camped out in the dorm lounge every Sunday to read other students’ stories and take notes for the workshop’s mandatory feedback letters. This was back when he still thought he'd become a writer, when it had seemed reasonable to hope that his pointed critiques and unmuted venom might thin the competition. He knew this story. It was one of Faye’s.
"The Boyfriend" begins with Lana, a college freshman, bringing someone home for
Thanksgiving. Faye was from North Adams, a mill town near Williams, but for some reason she'd set the story in Berkeley. Written in a close third, the piece explores the POV of August, the eponymous boyfriend, with an interiority Exley found suffocating—lingering for paragraphs on the significance of the house's gingerbread trim, the sad look in the eyes of the Glassman family dog.
Exley hadn't known Faye back then, not really. The awkward girl in the Porco Rosso tee
had been just a name on the roll call, a speck in his peripheral vision. Looking back, it was hard to remember that she and Faye were the same person.
The summer after freshman year, Faye worked mornings at Sawyer Library, trying to save
up for an iPod Touch. Exley, for his part, stayed on campus for an unpaid internship and also to escape his parents' acrimonious divorce, which had been all over Page Six. He'd breeze into the library just before lunch, feeling poised and confident and effortlessly cool, and nod at Faye as he passed, always seeming to catch her doing some unpleasant task—yanking paper fragments from a jammed copier or explaining to a skeptical townie that, yes, he did need to put on a shirt. Aware of her eyes following him through the stacks.
One day, Exley was leaving an ice cream shop on Spring Street, Williamstown's thousand-
foot downtown, when he was cornered by two teenage girls, refugees from a high school volleyball clinic being held on campus. One cooed a greeting; the other shyly traced his side with her fingertips. Unused to being on this side of a proposition, he stumbled over his words, then caught sight of Faye nearby. She drank a milkshake and watched the scene play out with a sly smile, like this was something she'd long dreamed of.
"Was that your fan club?" Faye asked, amused, after the girls departed. "Part of it," Exley
retorted, a little stung. He turned to leave and was surprised to find Faye walking at his side. Her smile confident, her jokes growing more affectionate on the way back to campus. That evening, they sat on the roof of Hopkins Observatory and talked wistfully about their workshop, then lobbed pinecones at high schoolers crossing the quad. He'd kissed her at the door to her single; they dated for a year.
After their breakup, Exley flew to Northern Ireland for a semester in exile. But for all its
gun-barrel murals and rebuilt bombing sites, Belfast felt oddly familiar; like North Adams bisected by razor wire. The signs were all in English. The stone sidewalks were swarming with bored, up-for-it college girls—and only their Ulster accents reminded him that he was overseas.
Four pages into "The Boyfriend," Lana's six-year-old sister plops down on the couch and
starts grilling her parents about August. Scrunching up her nose when her father explains that August is Lana's new beau. Asking, "Why would Lana go out with a boy?" Mr. Glassman says it's perfectly normal, that people on TV do it all the time.
A sentence later, it's revealed that Lana's exes are all women.
In workshop, that scene had dominated the conversation.
The professor took a long sip from his Nalgene and cautiously praised the exchange as
"well-constructed." A lacrosse player pronounced the twist "wicked." Even Madchen—the dyspeptic goth Exley was then sleeping with—shrugged and said she liked it. Exley took the opposing position. He called the scene predictable and "obviously autobiographical," enjoying Faye's angry blush as she waited for her turn to speak.
For Exley, that summer together felt wondrous and wholly new. He was her first lover, but
she was his first girlfriend. The two of them spent hours lounging naked on Faye's unmade bed, the glow of sex slowly fading. He'd lie back and watch her, in love with her enthusiasm as she described scenes from Black Jack and Legend of the Twilight, hands moving like puppets.
In August, Faye drove Exley to North Adams to meet her family. Their house was just like the Glassman house; her parents were just like Lana's parents. But Faye didn't have a kid sister; just Emile, her prematurely balding twin. After a stroll around the neighborhood, a quiet family dinner, and a three-hour game of RISK that Emile won decisively, Faye led Exley up to her childhood bedroom. They were right in the middle of things when Faye slipped suddenly off the bed and pulled open her closet door, revealing a strange mass of fabric.
Growing up, Faye had always identified with cartoon animals on TV; they'd seemed more
real than the people they shared the screen with, more human. "I thought it was just me," she told Exley. But then she discovered the internet—and with it, thousands of people just like her. Seeing all those costumes led Faye to covet a fursuit of her own; she’d spent countless study halls picking out a species (sea otter) and a name (Lucinda the Sea Otter). "I don't dress up that much anymore," she said, stepping into the suit, "but it's part of who I am." Faye pulled on the top half like she was shimmying into a turtleneck, then asked: "Can you...handle that?"
And Exley found himself nodding. Aware that others had accepted far worse in the name
"Do my zipper?" she asked. And he did, watching half-dazed as her bare, freckled skin was
swallowed by brown fabric. Then Faye lay back and reached between her legs, the shriek of Velcro filling the air.
That fall, Exley read FAQs and breathless manifestos on a succession of eye-burning
Geocities pages and slowly came to terms with the realities of felt-related chafing. And when New Year's rolled around, he turned down the chance to watch the ball drop from a friend's Times Square penthouse; instead, he and Faye drove north for a house party organized by people she'd met on the internet.
Exley had braced himself for a crush of groping bodies covered in fake fur, but that wasn't
the vibe at all. A group of badgers clustered by the TV, talking sadly about how much Dick Clark had deteriorated since his stroke. A grizzly showed a capybara photos from a recent trip to Istanbul.
And just before midnight, two women in cat outfits cornered Exley and teased him about
his lack of a costume. "Is that a three-piece suit?" the calico asked, fingering his vest.
"Four-piece," Exley told her. "If you count the girdle."
Faye came to his rescue, then fell into a conversation about the challenges of dating outside
the community. Smiling as she said that love ultimately conquered all, but educating your partner could still be draining. Stung, Exley stared down at his drink, watching champagne bubbles pop on the surface.
"Oh, totally," a polar bear agreed. "Either they know nothing, or they think everything they
see on TV is true. My girlfriend was convinced that it was a sex thing, that people actually fuck in their fursuits."
Exley turned to his girlfriend, his eyebrows all the way up. "So ridiculous," Faye haltingly
said, a mortified blush just visible through the eyeholes of her costume.
The polar bear laughed. "Can you imagine? I mean, the dry-cleaning bills alone!"
At dusk, Exley rose from the bench and strolled east through the city's vandalized side
streets, the index card still pinched between his fingers. The evening hit him full-force as he took a seat in the far corner of the bistro, as all those thoughts and feelings and memories pressed down on him like a weighted net.
He draped his jacket over the table's empty chair. Ordered a small salad and a full bottle of
wine. And waited, clasping his guidebook like a talisman, a sacred text. He tried to ignore the other patrons but still saw them everywhere, their shapes warped and distorted by the mirrored ceiling, the chrome tables. A young Italian couple sat by the door and Exley watched as the boy tenderly took his lover's hand, seeming for a moment like he might kiss it. Behind them, an American couple in their thirties lingered at the bar, the husband looking like he might well burst into tears.
Gazing at their reflections, Exley found himself thinking about the brutal workshop letter
he'd written Faye. Pictured it tucked into a neglected binder in her bedroom closet, waiting to be rediscovered when she was twenty-five or thirty-two or fifty. Imagined her rereading it, her mind bolding all his flagrant little cruelties, each one another reminder of the asshole he'd been.
After the breakup, the two of them went no-contact; with the Atlantic between them,
it was easy to keep their distance. Exley wrote papers about The Troubles. Fucked other girls. Mourned an edited version of their relationship. And tried to find his way back to the person he'd been before they dated.
On Thanksgiving, Faye reached out. Exley, distracted, didn't notice as his flip phone shook
there on the dresser. But later, he sat on mussed sheets and read the note twice from start to finish, his chest tight, his thoughts numb and slow. Faye had a new boyfriend, someone she'd met at the Williams Anime Club. Someone more like her.
"The Boyfriend” ends in Lana's childhood bedroom. August perches at the edge of the
mattress, watching nervously as Lana steels herself to go down on him. And even two years later, snapshots from that sequence rose effortlessly in Exley’s mind: the moonlight catching cheap white blinds; August's obsessive notice of a too-dark mole next to Lana's right nipple; a patch of worn carpet half-hidden beneath a shrugged-off winter coat.
And in its final moments, "The Boyfriend" plays out like a slow-motion car wreck, the
story skidding and swerving before lurching to a halt. Lana's eyes shine, terrified, in the darkened room. She dips her head. Her cracked lips part. And then there's a sudden expanse of shocking white.