a sailor selling a nostrum by the sea “The Most Popular Agent” / Drs. Starkey & Palen, via Wellcome Collection

When did I become the kind of person who walks a mile along the highway at midnight to meet a stranger at a motel? This is the question I keep asking myself when cars approach on Route 8, the main road connecting Moscow, Idaho, where I live, and Pullman, Washington. Some drivers slow down as they pass, and I wonder if they’re staring at my bright red jacket, which I chose because it makes me feel like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. I wonder if they can tell what I’m up to.

It’s a midsummer Monday, and less than an hour ago, I received a Grindr message from a man I’d never seen before. He sent me several photos of his puckish face, enviable abs, and exceptionally beautiful ass; I assumed that my own, less Instagram-worthy photos would bore him, but to my surprise, he responded enthusiastically to the ones I sent in return. He said he’s from out of town but staying the night at the Super 8 by the mall and asked if I’d be down to meet there. I hesitated.

I texted my friend Cameron, a more sexually adventurous person than I’ll ever be. “Am I going to get murdered?”

“No,” Cameron said. “Prepare to be disappointed.” Citing my uncle Bruce’s favorite motto, he added, “But live the fantasy!”

So I said yes to the stranger with the beautiful ass, gave him my number, showered, spent a needlessly long time picking an outfit that would say hot but not desperately eager to please, and tried not to get run over as I crossed Route 95.

At this hour, the traffic lights only flash red instead of changing colors. The stranger sends parking directions; I admit that I don’t own a car, and he falls silent for several minutes. Approaching the Super 8, I wonder if he’s lost patience with me, but then he texts to apologize: he’s actually at the Motel 6, another third of a mile away. Wary of getting catfished, or worse, I ask him to send a photo from inside the room, though I stay at motels so rarely that I can imagine making the same mistake. His reply: a shot of the bedside table’s landline, its panel displaying the Motel 6 logo and the front desk number. I forward the image to Cameron: “If I die tonight, this is how you’ll find my body.”

I’m prepared for disappointment but not disaster; I don’t have pepper spray or a knife or any of the self-defense tools that many women I know carry. (How many Grindr users take such precautions in 2019?) I’m relieved to see that the Motel 6 is near a McDonald’s, and I pause by the windows, comforted by the warm glow inside. I could run here for sanctuary if something goes wrong — a ridiculous exit plan, yes, but one that soothes me all the same.

The stranger instructs me to wait by the pool, hidden beneath a sagging tarp. Ducking under a fire escape to avoid the lampposts’ glare, I see a curtain quiver in one of the ground-level windows and check my phone. “Red jacket?” he asks. I find the room number he gives and knock tentatively, in case he’s messed up that detail too. He cracks the door and invites me into a room lit by only a TV. Shirtless and gaunt, he appears to be around my age. He’s wearing gray sweatpants, slung low enough that I can see the banana pattern on his briefs, and the cologne I remember my eighth-grade crush buying from Abercrombie & Fitch.

On the nightstand, next to an enormous bottle of baby oil, is a white, lunchbox-shaped container emblazoned with an EMT symbol and red block letters: human organ for transplant. I point to it and ask if he’s a doctor. At first he can’t hear me over South Park, but then he smirks — it’s a cooler full of White Claws. I laugh nervously, waiting for him to open a can for himself or hand one to me, but I can tell from his face that he’s wondering why I’m still standing by the door. I sit on the tucked-in bedspread and remove my sneakers. He sits beside me, reaches for my fly, and asks, “May I?” Won over by his politeness, I slide off his sweats.

“That was fun,” he says as I fumble back into my shorts an hour later. I nod and ask what brings him to Moscow. “Business,” he says, explaining that he normally stays at his parents’ house here, “but sometimes I just need to get away.” He doesn’t ask about my situation, but he offers to let me fix my hair in the bathroom mirror before I go. I decline and joke that, since I live alone, I’ll be the only one scrutinizing my appearance when I get home. He looks a little bemused, so I drop the subject and assure him I’d love to get together again when he’s back in town. “Sure,” he says, sounding deflated or maybe just noncommittal, and we exchange names as he shows me the door.

I remember his when I next see him on Grindr, several months later. He admits that he’s forgotten mine and sends a screenshot to prove he still has my number saved under Walked From Downtown Moscow Room 111 Motel 6.

* * *

I don’t know why I didn’t invite him to my apartment from the start, nor do I know why he didn’t ask. I don’t consider myself a Grindr connoisseur, but even novices know its most routine question: “Can you host?”

Which is dicier: entering a stranger’s home or opening your home to a stranger? Maybe this has always been the defining dilemma of hospitality, a transaction of mutual goodwill that’s loaded with unsettling imbalances. The term comes from the Latin hospes, which could mean either “guest” or “host” but originally referred to any stranger — including a hostile enemy — who held some degree of power over another. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the concept of hospitality encompassed both the host’s duty to take in a foreigner and the guest’s right to receive this refuge, regardless of the danger involved for either party. The practice still depends on the host’s authority over a domain, where you agree to respect certain boundaries as soon as you cross the threshold. But in the digital age, for gays who are just looking for a place to hook up, the ethics and etiquette of hospitality typically aren’t part of the conversation.

Throughout my childhood, plenty of fables taught me to expect the worst as both a host (“The Three Little Pigs,” “Little Red Riding Hood”) and a guest (“Hansel and Gretel,” “Bluebeard”), but nothing prepared me to face the particular anxieties that arose when I, at twenty-six, first downloaded Grindr and Scruff. By the time a long-distance boyfriend persuaded me to try these apps during our time apart, I figured I had no reason to be afraid of big bad wolves or bloodthirsty seducers, yet I struggled to shake my chronically inhospitable attitude toward most queer men my age. If they showed any interest in me, I assumed they must have wanted something I couldn’t possibly give, and if they showed no interest, they must have smelled my inadequacy. My usual solution: avoid them altogether and still complain about feeling alienated. (I joked to my boyfriend that my profile should include a caveat: not “conventionally friendly.”)

This defensive posture may have been the result of bad luck with the fuckboys of my youth, each of whom had left me newly heartbroken and increasingly distrustful of men’s motives. It may have been internalized homophobia deterring me from joining any club that might accept me as a member, as if I were always already bound to be rejected. Or it may have been rooted in a much older and deeper fear of not belonging. In any case, once I pushed past these insecurities and discovered how willingly another man would invite me into his bedroom, his every additional gesture of hospitality appeared both even more extravagant and more moving. When R. offered me a glass of wine on his fire escape after tenderly wiping his cum off my face, or G. prepared us a naked breakfast of poached eggs and sourdough toast at two in the morning, or B. performed a Reiki ritual on my back after straddling me on his couch and finding a knot of tense muscle near my tailbone, each of these efforts to put me at ease chipped away at my ingrained reluctance to get physically and emotionally intimate with near-strangers.

When I began hosting these encounters at my own home, I lived at the intersection of Ocean and Church Avenues in Flatbush, which I loved, and which was also one of the few parts of New York City I could afford on my publishing salary. This was 2017; I was among the few white professionals in a historically working-class West Indian community, and my role in the neighborhood’s gentrification became even more conspicuous whenever I escorted a date, who was likely gentrifying some other part of Brooklyn, inside my building. My outsider status may be less overtly menacing now that I’ve moved to Idaho for graduate school, though renting an apartment in a converted hotel and attending a land-grant university are daily reminders that I’m an interloper in territory that doesn’t belong to me. But because Moscow’s queer community is relatively small, and because a far-right evangelical church is working hard to take over the town’s real estate, opening our doors to each other, whether for sex or other kinds of company, can be an overture to the kind of solidarity that many of us find lacking here. I don’t know whether that stranger in Motel 6 was trying to avoid his family’s judgment or seeking a neutral, impersonal space. Either way, I remain embarrassed that I neglected to offer up my home. But would extending this hospitality have been for his benefit or mine? Maybe he didn’t want or need a host in the first place.

* * *

For the first twenty-something summers of my life, my father would drive us to spend a weekend with Bruce and Will at the eccentrically decorated Victorian they shared in a small town along the Connecticut River. From the two of them, I learned to fix one’s guests a batch of cocktails upon arrival (whiskey gingers for the grown-ups, Shirley Temples for the kids), to select just the right background music (Celia Cruz, always; Sade, maybe later), and to avoid controversial or distasteful topics of conversation (The Real Housewives, health-care reform). Bruce and Will were the sole committed couple in my immediate family — my parents separated when I was an infant — so for a long time I never considered that the protocol of hosting, even in a nonsexual sense, might hold any special significance for queer people. Hospitality often seems to reinforce the codes of bourgeois respectability, but I gathered that playing host, as if it were a form of drag, provided subversive pleasures for my uncles, whose relationship with domesticity was already vexed.

Before they met, Bruce and Will were wanderers. Bruce often recalled dropping out of the University of Missouri to follow a boyfriend all over Mexico, but his favorite story to tell was about sneaking out of his parents’ house as a teenager in 1950s Memphis and loitering around Graceland: one time he spotted Elvis at the gates, said hello, and somehow invited himself inside. Wearing a smug grin, Bruce would tell us that he even slept over, but he never confirmed anyone’s suspicions about what happened that night, and I’ll never know for sure.

Or that’s what I keep telling myself. A year after Bruce’s death, shortly before I move to Idaho, Will assures me, “I’m certain — I am certain — that if your uncle had sex with Elvis, I would’ve heard about it.”

Let a boy dream. I ask Will if he was similarly brazen in his youth, remembering the tales he’s half-told me about his first time in New York. Like me, he arrived in the city as a teenager; unlike me, he was running away from home, without any definite plans for the future. He stayed afloat by getting a job at an infamous West Village eatery named Mama’s Chick’N’Rib — coincidentally, the hub for the neighborhood’s chicken hawks. “The cook took me down to the basement and had his way with me,” Will says. “Not that that was very difficult. It was about as difficult for me to be seduced as, I don’t know, ‘Here, have a glass of water.’” He secured lodging by cruising up Christopher Street, finding a different man to host him every night. “It was the late ’60s,” he explains, “after the Summer of Love but technically before the sexual revolution. Rather than go to law school, I did what a lot of people who were full of spunk and vinegar did. We weren’t quite hustlers, but we were looking for sex, and there were plenty of guys hanging around who certainly loved the idea of having some young man on his arm. So that answer that?”

Yes, sort of. I still have trouble picturing how this young vagrant transformed, over half a century, into the uncle telling me this story, spilling crumbs in his beard as he nibbles on a Danish, sprawling on a couch surrounded by more coffee-table books than I can imagine ever affording. On paper, Will’s life now looks stable and relatively conventional. He’s a father and a grandfather; though he rarely discusses his estranged ex-wife and their brief, disastrous marriage, he’s still close to their son, whose own son is around my age. He’s worked as a patient advocate at the same hospital for nearly three decades. And for most of those years, he shared this house with Bruce, who bought the place in terrible shape and moved here from New York in 1978. Bruce liked to say he would’ve died in the city if he’d stayed through the ’80s, and I used to find his survival heroic, as if fate had been on his side: good thing he escaped just in time! But the older I get, the more this reaction embarrasses me.

This embarrassment weighed on my mind when I saw Matthew Lopez’s play The Inheritance, which recasts the story of E. M. Forster’s Howards End among gay millennial New Yorkers wrestling with the legacy of the AIDS epidemic. I expected to love The Inheritance, since it tackles many of the questions I ask myself about queer bonds between generations, but Lopez stages his answers in a maudlin, didactic fashion that left me cold. Nonetheless, I was fascinated by Eric, one of the young protagonists, a softhearted, idealistic boy who lives on the Upper West Side and spends his Saturdays at the latest Whitney exhibition or Justin Peck ballet. I squirmed watching Lopez’s spot-on caricature of my “type.” Early on, Eric befriends an older, avuncular couple, Walter and Henry. One night at Eric’s apartment, Walter tells the story of meeting Henry soon after arriving in New York in the early ’80s:

walter: For five years, Henry and I clung to one another for safety, for comfort, as the city burned around us. By the summer of 1987, we had had enough of funerals and hospital visits and the sight of once vital men laid to waste. We looked for a house as far from civilization as we could find. We finally stumbled across a rambling old farmhouse on an aimless country road, three hours north of here, built in the late eighteenth century. It’s set off from the road so you have the illusion of being alone in the world. And in front of the house, my favorite thing on the property: an enormous cherry tree that has been there since the time George Washington was out terrorizing them.… And — I don’t know if you’ll believe me but it’s true — deep in the trunk of the tree are a set of pig’s teeth that were put there I don’t know how many generations ago. The superstition among the colonials was that if you bite the bark of the tree, it will cure all your ailments.

eric: Does it?

walter: No. Of course it doesn’t. Pure superstition. And yet, there in the country, on rolling pastureland, with flowers and breezes and cherry trees with pig’s teeth stuck in the bark, there was no death, there was no illness, there was no loss or danger.

After a year of this secluded pastoral life, Walter says, he grew restless and returned to
New York, where he ran into an old friend who’d been ravaged by AIDS, evicted, and shunned by his family. Against the wishes of Henry, who wanted to keep the virus as far away as possible, Walter began inviting this friend and many others to their house and taking care of them as they died. “I eventually came to see,” he tells Eric, “that leaving the city and our friends behind was as unforgivable an act of cowardice as I have ever performed. The answer, I realized, was not to shut the world out but rather to fling the doors open and to invite it in.”

When Eric finally sees the house for himself, he hears someone inside call his name, and soon the rooms fill with the ghosts of all the friends, acquaintances, and strangers who died there. One by one, they shake his hand and greet him: “Welcome home, Eric.” It is Eric’s home, though he doesn’t yet know that Walter has bequeathed it to him. This scene closes the first half of The Inheritance; by the end of the second, Eric has turned the house into “a shelter, a refuge, a place of healing; a reminder of the pain, the fragility, and the promise of life.” I initially rolled my eyes at this mawkish conclusion, but then I wondered if Bruce would have written similarly about his own home. I don’t know whether he spent the worst of the AIDS years shutting out the plague or flinging the doors open to the afflicted. Nor do I know what he had in mind when he used to joke, in his dark way, that if he outlived Will, he’d leave the house to me. Perhaps his reasoning had less to do with the property itself than what it represented: someday, nephew, all the history embedded in this place will be yours. But I’ll never find out. I’m glad the house now belongs to Will, who married Bruce as soon as they legally could, and who will pass it down to his son and grandson. Unlike the characters in Lopez’s play, I have no idea what I’d do with such an inheritance.

At least, that’s something else I keep telling myself. I want to believe that if I had such a sturdy, lasting haven, and if I were as secure as someone like Eric, I’d accept the responsibilities of hosting and being hosted without any qualms. But, of course, hospitality is never so simple: no matter the circumstances, it will always require me to yield some control over my body or my space to someone else’s desires, and it is always possible that I will be found wanting. This uncertainty shouldn’t stop me from reaching out to welcome other people into my life, yet I get hung up on doubting whether they’ll welcome me. Maybe someday I’ll receive the invitation or the knock on my door that will quell my fears and snap me out of my self-pity, once some kind stranger finally proves me a good-enough guest or host. But I know that’s not how this works.

* * *

When did I become the kind of person who drives eighty miles into the wilderness to meet a pair of strangers at their log cabin? Traffic has been light this afternoon, but as I ease down a steep, unpaved road at the base of the Blue Mountains, every approaching car rushes to pass me, impatient with my gawking at the endless hills and valleys adorning the horizon. The skies are clear, and the snow has melted, yet I still fear slipping over the edge of these hairpin turns and tumbling into the Tucannon River.

During the blizzard a few weeks ago, in a fit of restlessness, I “woofed” at a handsome face on Scruff — a less popular app than Grindr in Moscow, meaning that I often see profiles from all over the region. He introduced himself as Derrick, a sculptor turned bartender, and responded enthusiastically when I described an essay I’d been writing about Robert Rauschenberg. After we swapped photos, he showed me the stylish website for the homestead he shares with his partner, Steven — spelled like my name, which I took as a good omen. In the summer, Derrick explained, they rent out their grounds to campers, but since winter tends to be quieter, he asked if I’d like to stay at their cabin. And since he and Steven, a fabricator at a foundry, have opposite work schedules, he suggested the upcoming holiday weekend, so they both could get to know me. “It’ll be nice to make a new friend,” he said, adding a kiss-blowing emoji.

I texted Cameron to ask if I could borrow his SUV for a few days.

“Of course,” he said. “Just fill it up and get it back in better shape than your butt, which should be wrecked.”

So I said yes to the strangers with the beautiful cabin, packed my most rustic-looking flannel in my gym bag, and accepted Cameron’s challenge. But now I’m trying not to blow a tire on the rubble scattered across my hosts’ mile-long driveway and wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.

Derrick hears me park and appears on the porch in a billowy chambray shirt, well-worn work pants, and slippers. “The nice thing about living in the middle of nowhere,” he says, “is not giving a shit about dressing up.” He greets me with a warm hug, carrying himself like an urbane artist roughing it in bucolic drag. Since it’s still light out, he gives me a tour of the chicken coop, the fairy garden that will soon teem with irises and lilies, the forest you can hike through all the way to Oregon if you’re not afraid of cougars, and their campsite on the riverbank, fractured and eroded by a recent flood — hence the bumps along the last stretch of my trip. A week earlier, he says, the whole road was submerged in water; had I arrived then, he adds with a wink, I would’ve been stuck here.

Derrick leads me inside the cabin and introduces me to Louisiana, a jumpy rescue mutt who seldom leaves his and Steven’s bed, and Pip, the one-eyed cat who mostly hides in the loft, where I’ll be sleeping. I carry up my bag, enter a wardrobe built into the wall, and slide open a door to the guest quarters — not quite Narnia but impressive in its way. A former closet illuminated by a skylight, the room is barely wide enough for a double bed and a ladder to a cupola, which I consider climbing until I hear Derrick call my name from the kitchen. But it’s the other Steven, who’s just come home from work, so I return downstairs to say hello. He’s clearly the more reserved of my hosts, and I feel unexpectedly bashful in his presence. As I watch him unpack groceries and prepare a pot of corn chowder, we two quiet Stevens exchange furtive glances that tickle something in the small of my back.

Derrick hands me a cup of wine, refuses to let me help with dinner, and urges me to sit with him at the thick ponderosa stump they’ve repurposed as a dining table. He asks where and when I was born (Boston, 1991), when I began to come out (2004), whether I have any siblings (no), whether I have a partner now (it’s complicated), and what I’m doing in Idaho (writing, teaching). I can tell from their reactions that he and Steven, though they’re only seven and ten years my senior, view me as a different generation, at least in queer time: Steven recalls the bullying that led him to drop out of high school in Seattle, where he fell in love with Derrick, who had migrated from Houston after his mom found a copy of XY magazine in his bedroom.

I ask what brought them to this cabin, and Steven tells me that his grandparents built it in 1978 and lived here for thirty years. When his grandfather died, his grandmother sold the place to another family, but they abandoned it amidst the devastating wildfires of 2015. At the time, Steven was studying carpentry and struggling to run an antique shop, while Derrick, disillusioned with the art world after finishing his MFA, was spending more and more time in his garden and less in his studio. So they decided to leave Seattle, rehabilitate the cabin, and advertise it to travelers. Since then, they’ve hosted hundreds of strangers, both paying guests and casual acquaintances like me, far more than ever walked through their doors in the city. But I’m only the second Moscow boy they’ve met through “the apps,” Steven says, shooting Derrick a look to signal that I’ve already made a better impression than the first.

I laugh, relieved to have outshined my predecessor, but Derrick catches me straightening my posture, senses my self-consciousness, and changes the subject to my writing. I tell him a lot of it is about my uncles, and he lifts a Bernie 2020 magnet from the fridge to show me a photo of Steven’s nephew, who’s just come out at eighteen. Steven smirks with pride, but before I can pry further, Derrick asks what I’m working on now. I answer that I’ve begun writing an essay on hosting and joke that this weekend is part of my research. To my surprise, Derrick takes me seriously.

“What’s your angle?” he asks.

Do I have an angle? Perhaps I’ve overstepped by putting my cards on the table, but my hosts don’t seem shy about sharing their life in this cabin.

“Yeah,” Steven says, “how do you feel about traveling here?”

He hands me a bowl of chowder and a wedge of fresh sourdough, and I fumble between bites to find words for my excitement and my nervousness: “the apps” have never led me to such a remote location. Steven nods in understanding. He and Derrick used to worry about the isolation, but they haven’t been too lonely in the country.

“We become entwined in other people’s stories in a different way here,” Derrick says.

“And with every new guest,” Steven says, “we take a mutual leap of faith we might not otherwise risk.”

I don’t ask what might have inhibited them from taking such a leap with me, and I’m not sure I want to know. I can imagine feeling less anxious and breathing more easily in this rural life, but first I’d have to learn carpentry, farming, and other subsistence skills — not to mention how to make soup and bread as mouthwatering as this, which I wolf down while my hosts debate how to spend the rest of the evening. They suggest that I pick a movie from their extensive videocassette collection in the loft, and I choose The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which I’ve somehow never seen. Derrick rewinds the tape and asks, “Doesn’t VHS bring you back to ’90s porn?” I remind him that I was a child until the twenty-first century, so most of my porn consumption has been online. He ignores this comment and summons me to join him on the loveseat; Steven takes the armchair beside us and quickly dozes off. Derrick drapes my arm around his shoulder, and during the occasional lulls in the movie, I cautiously unbutton his shirt lower and lower. When I reach the bottom, he kisses me and whispers, “Take your time, why don’t you,” and tugs my hand to his fly.

We’ve shed all our clothes on the loveseat and shuffled to the guest room by the time the end-of-tape static rouses Steven, who cracks open the wardrobe door to wish us goodnight. “Don’t worry,” Derrick says, “we’re just frotting,” and Steven, smiling wistfully, watches us a moment before sliding the door shut. Once we’ve turned off the lights, Derrick cradles my head with one arm and points with the other up to Cassiopeia, but my eyes are too bleary to see the stars.

He’s already left for his brunch-shift job by the time the skylight wakes me. To get a panoramic view of my surroundings, I climb up to the cupola — a drafty, unfinished roost — and suppress a yelp when I spy what must be a cougar, but no, it’s just Pip prowling around the chicken coop. I briefly consider how much to cover myself before heading downstairs, where I find Steven still in bed. He invites me to join him, shoos away Louisiana to clear space for me, and removes the briefs I’ve needlessly retrieved from the loveseat. “Mind if I put you to work today?” he asks. I shake my head, which he gently presses toward his legs, and I notice the Cassiopeia tattoo on his left hand as it caresses my face.

After washing away his and Derrick’s residues in a deep tub enclosed by tropical houseplants instead of a curtain, I dress and rejoin Steven in the kitchen, where I help him dust and pack some knickknacks for his booth at the nearby antique mall. During the half-hour drives into town and back, after Steven tunes the radio from news of a virus outbreak in China to a local call-in show about far-fetched bucket-list items, we talk about what our lists would include. He wants to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and watch the northern lights, but most of all he wants to see the trees he’s planted in his yard grow to maturity. Once home, we leash Louisiana, grab some empty jars, walk down the road to a cottonwood uprooted by the flood, and harvest the buds, which Derrick will later infuse in oil to make a healing salve. The bitterly cold wind stings my fingers, but the sweet, sticky sap makes them smell like springtime, and I never want to rinse it off.

When night falls, Steven sends me inside with some tinder, and I pretend to know how to light the hearth. He sits behind me, opens his notebook, and proposes a game of MASH. Though I haven’t played since middle school, I rattle off an assortment of names, numbers, vehicles, jobs, and cities without trouble. Derrick comes home right as I finally start a fire, and Steven, having crossed off all my other options, announces that someday I’ll drive a Ford F-150, work for Cirque du Soleil, and share a mansion in Albuquerque with Oscar Isaac and nine kids. They wipe away the soot smudged on my face, pour a round of whiskey, and toast to my good fortune, and I promise that Oscar and I will invite them to our lavish housewarming party. But the mood sours when Derrick sees Steven’s notebook, the source of an ongoing quarrel between them. Whenever Steven feels stuck in self-doubt, he explains, he’ll write a detailed counternarrative of his own life; instead of shutting up the voices that nag him about what could have been or what still could be, he’ll talk back, following the roads not taken to their logical conclusions.

“I feel so comforted by the thought of spending the rest of my life here,” Derrick says, “but you’re always looking for a way out.”

“I’m not,” Steven says, clearly bruised. “I just want to prove to myself that certain paths would be impractical or unattainable. I think you have to cauterize and mourn your life’s severed branches.”

They wrangle over how hard they have to work to sustain this home they’ve made together, how much their day jobs pull them away from both their housekeeping and their relationship, how far they feel from achieving any kind of equilibrium. Have they forgotten about me sitting at the kitchen table, or has their captive audience inspired this performance? Within a few minutes, Derrick adjourns to prepare some biscuits and gravy. While he whistles at the stove, I glimpse Steven brooding by the fire and want to ask: What future did you long for ten years ago, at my age, or twenty, at your nephew’s? What possibilities now seem out of reach? What branches have you severed to become a host of your caliber, and what do you now have to mourn? But I can tell that these are sore subjects, and it seems impolite to prod. I try to cut the tension after dinner by picking Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion from the video shelf, but we all fade swiftly, and I wake too late to say goodbye to Steven before he heads to work in the morning.

Louisiana looks a bit put-upon as I come downstairs and approach the bed, but she gets the idea and wanders off. As I fill the spot she’s warmed beside a half-awake Derrick, he turns to make me his little spoon and mutters, “Don’t leave, Steven.”

I can’t tell whether he’s sleep-talking to the one who’s already gone, so I gently mention all the unread books and ungraded papers awaiting me at home. He tightens his grip on my torso and cranes his neck over mine, and I swivel my head back to face him. Like the ancient hosts who inspected each guest’s station in life, testing whether the stranger’s presence augured well or ill, Derrick gives me a long, intense stare. Is he calculating the debt I owe for my time here? Maybe I should invite him to visit me in Moscow, though my little apartment can’t compare with this cabin. Maybe I should stick around to cook or garden or chop wood until I earn my keep. Or maybe, if this hospitality is a gift, he expects me to do something else with it. Finally, he pops the question: “You’re on PrEP, right?”

Before I go, we take one last walk with Louisiana, who keeps turning around and looking askance at us, as if embarrassed by our unkempt hair and perfunctory outfits. “When you arrived here,” Derrick says, “I really thought you’d be a total bottom.” I ask what gave him that impression, and he shrugs, pausing to pick me another sample of the plants along the road: damiana, rosehip, sumac, yarrow. He tries to teach me their Latin names and medicinal properties, but I lose track, distracted by a Steller’s jay darting among the hills. Its blue-black plumage glows against this gray-and-brown backdrop, and I have trouble believing, though Derrick keeps reminding me, that this whole landscape will be neon green in a month or two. I really need to get going, and I rehearse a little thank-you speech, promising to reciprocate his and Steven’s generosity. But who am I to them now, apart from one more visitor? When will I become — well, do I need to be another kind of person? Derrick keeps talking as he beckons Louisiana and me to admire the tall ponderosas along the riverbank. Many were decimated by the wildfires and the flood, and the remnants look charred and disfigured. “But don’t worry,” he says, “they’ll still be here whenever you come back.”