Isaac Bauman Buys a Phone

(Novel excerpt)

In the months after his breakup with Mary Elizabeth, Isaac told himself that all he had to do was survive. He repeated the injunction whenever he felt like he was in danger of collapsing in fatigue or exhaustion, and whenever he wanted to howl at the congregation's falseness. Sundays and Wednesdays, his hands heated as he sat in the meetinghouse pew beside his father. Weekdays, he squirmed in his carrel, his stomach twisting like the tarps on the roof of a failing farmer. The more his body defied him, the more clearly he understood the only truth he could be certain of: there was no Almighty looking down on him. There was no divine plan. There was no peace apart from what members could manage within their bodies. The specialness of this insight provided him with a portion of comfort. Alone among the membership, he understood that congregational teaching was false. Alone, he saw the world as it actually was.

At least, now that he knew the falseness of Scripture, he had no reason to deny his longing. In the privacy of his bedroom that winter, Isaac thirsted for Luke Sauder's ease, Luke Sauder's loveliness, Luke Sauder's touch. Still, he shuddered every time he envisioned Luke actually bending over him and recoiling from his clammy skin and burbling stomach. So he reverted to the habits he'd cultivated when his longing for Luke had first started to rise: he stored up furtive glimpses of Luke, taking care, all the while, to seem outwardly compliant – like a member in good standing in the congregation, like an obedient son.

By the middle of December, the other fellows had stopped joshing him. The older members no longer stared at him in sorrowful confusion. When January came, Mary Elizabeth did not raise the matter of their relationship during their occasional, arms-length chats about the Republican primary. Isaac certainly wasn't going to broach the subject. He was perfectly content to let the memory of their near-courtship fade into the background of congregational life. Which it did, for the most part.

His parents still scrutinized him, of course. Mealtimes remained a trial. At the table, his mother never stared at him directly, but he could feel her registering his stiffness, tensing whenever his hand trembled while he cut his meat, or when he dropped his napkin or spilled a glass of water. And then there was his father, whose baffled, questioning looks had quickly given way to an air of generalized gloom. Even during the holidays – even on Christmas day – weariness had seemed to press upon him at the head of the table, his gaze veiled or glazed by something Isaac couldn't bear to observe too closely, for fear that his own spreading misery would infect his father.

Nights, after each service in the meetinghouse, Isaac replayed his glimpses of Luke Sauder. Luke on the basketball court, lofting a perfect jump shot, Luke in the meetinghouse, inspecting his neatly chewed fingernails, Luke on the dock at the Martin's pond, one golden arm thrown over his eyes. Whenever Mark Beiler sounded off about the importance of supporting Donald Trump, Luke never said much. He just hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and stared into the distance, his expression unreadable. As ever, his inscrutability only made him seem lovelier.

What if? Isaac thought, in bed on those frozen January evenings. What if Luke really was like he was? It didn't seem impossible. Luke was handsome, capable, and eighteen, yet he was not dating anyone. He had never dated anyone. The previous fall, Mary Elizabeth had confided in Isaac that Glenda Nolt – Gladys's younger sister – had an enormous crush on Luke. And Glenda was very pretty; she and Luke would have made a fine couple. But Luke had never done a thing about Glenda's interest, and now Glenda was going around with Linford Keener, Nevin's younger brother. And though Isaac took care not to investigate this too closely, it certainly never seemed like Luke paid much mind to the girls who batted their eyelashes at him in the foyer of the meetinghouse. He just stood there in patient, perfect silence while the ease rolled off of him like the haze that rose off of the low patch in the cornfield on summer nights. But what did it matter how Luke was? He was still disgusting, repulsive, entirely unfit to be touched by Luke or anyone.

So the winter continued. Days of sleet and slush and cold rain and the occasional snowfall. Florid blooms of panic, lush dreams of Luke Sauder, dark blooms of pain. And then, one dreary Saturday at beginning of February, at the Kuernerville Library, Isaac looked up from the back cover of the book he was perusing at the Kuernerville Library to behold a young Amish woman standing by the racks of Amish romance novels tapping away on a phone. The Amish church was even stricter than the Kuernerville Mennonite congregation. Yet here this young woman was. If an Amish girl could have a phone, why couldn't he have one?

From the newspaper, Isaac had learned that "smart" phones were basically computers. He'd read all about Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google. He knew how powerful these companies were, how prosperous. He'd long wanted to know what it was like to use their transformative technology, to hold it in the palm of your hand. Isaac no longer worried much about the congregational prohibition against "smart" phones. But even if he didn't believe in the foundation of the congregation's authority, the church still had the power to crush him.

That afternoon, instead of driving straight home from the library, Isaac headed to the Kuernerville strip mall. A pimply, blue-haired clerk walked him through the various models. Isaac winced at the cost of the most attractive, bechromed options, and settled on a phone whose price seemed exorbitant, but which fell squarely in the middle of the models that lined the wall. The cost of a "data plan" imparted a fresh shock. For what the phone company wanted him to pay each month, he could eat out at the Mennonite restaurant in the village ten times a month. But he had his savings. So, begrudgingly, he handed the clerk his debit card.

Home, he charged the phone at the outlet behind his bureau. He experimented with the camera, the video recorder, and of course, the browser, hiding the phone in an inside pocket of his blue canvas Bible cover when he was done. The promise of that sleek, transporting object sustained him during his excruciating lessons in the schoolhouse and the tedium of Pastor Yoder’s sermons. He began to live for the blessed hours at night when he could lock himself in his room and explore the world unobserved and unafraid, for once. He read all about the Republican presidential primary. He absorbed demoralizing predictions for the price of milk and explanations for the falling rate of milk consumption. He popped in his earbuds and watched music videos, bobbing his head in time to beats far more contagious than those in even the most "charismatic" worship songs on the Christian radio station.

It was while conducting exhaustive research on the biography of a charming singer named Justin Bieber that Isaac discovered that the browser on his phone enabled him to access an endless trove of free pornography. The films he watched were not beautiful; they were terribly lit and peopled with sullen, garishly tattooed models, but they still shocked and thrilled him in roughly equal parts. Some nights, however, the clips of men grappling with and heaving into each other seemed to reflect and amplify his flaws. The grimness of the actors’ predicaments seemed so like his own entrapment in his flesh that what was meant to divert and titillate left him more conscious of how inhibited he was, how blocked. Often, the instant Isaac came, he shuddered with pity for the men he'd just watched, their abjection seeming entwined with his own, the thinness of his relief so far from the rich pleasure he'd felt whenever he'd dreamed of Luke Sauder. But however empty he felt when he was finished, he always returned to those films. They were the only way he knew to acknowledge the longing that he had to keep hidden in every other part of his life – the schoolhouse, the meetinghouse, even the milking parlor.

Between streams of porn during his second week of phone ownership, Isaac began searching for potential solutions to his trouble with his hands and stomach. Maybe he had "social anxiety"? Ever since his teens, he'd been fearful around other people. But his stomach cramped even when he was alone in his room. What about Crohn's Disease? Irritable Bowel Syndrome? Certainly, his bowels seemed irritable enough, but how could stomach trouble be responsible for the propensity of his palms to drip like spigots at the slightest provocation?

During one bout of searching on his phone, he discovered a surgery that treated over-perspiration of the hands by severing the nerves that controlled the sweat glands in the palms, but the cost of such a procedure seemed prohibitive and the side-effects were alarming. Terrible as it was to sweat too much, it might be even worse to not be able to sweat at all. He read about "probiotics," and even bought a pack of pills at the Kuernerville Rite-Aid in the middle of October, but the pills left him feeling even more bloated than usual. He ended up stumbling to the bathroom to void his bowels twice in the middle of the night.

All through the next day, Isaac had "helped" his father and grandfather carve up a fallen walnut tree in the pasture, meaning that his father and grandfather had taken turns running the chain saw, and he'd clumsily wheeled the weighty slices of wood toward the bed of the truck. That evening, demoralized by the wearying routine, Isaac had downloaded an "app" one of the porn sites kept recommending to him, inputting a false birth year to trick the system into believing that he was eighteen. Eagerly, he'd skimmed the profile photographs on Slider. A paunchy, goateed middle-aged man leered at him. He swiped away. The next profile belonged to a rail-thin man with a shaved head and a tattoo on the side of his neck. Bitterly, he’d kept swiping. Where was the man of his dreams? (Where was Luke Sauder?) But each successive prospect only seemed more like someone he would have wanted to witness to if he'd encountered him at the township fair in the days when he'd still believed in God.

It was only after he'd perused the men on the app for several minutes that Isaac noticed the green dot in the lower corner of some of the profiles. The dot, he swiftly concluded, signified whether the person whose profile he was scrutinizing was currently online. Below each dot was a number that reported the profile-holder's proximity. The goateed man with the sagging, pierced nipples who called himself MasterClassCocksucker was 6347 feet away – scarcely more than a mile! And if Isaac could figure out his distance from other users, surely, they could calculate their distance from him. It wouldn't matter that he hadn't uploaded a photograph; anyone could still find out where he lived. All they would have to do was drive around the township until the distance between them started dropping.

How stupid he was. How exposed he'd left himself. He turned off his phone, rushed to the window, and peered out into the darkness, half-expecting a green light to be glowing like an emergency beacon on the tenant house lawn. But the lawn was dark. The night remained quiet. Slowly, his pulse had stopped thudding. And it occurred to him that on the remote chance someone he knew was using the app, that meant they were probably like him, and would almost certainly be just as afraid of getting caught.

Probably. But that did not mean that there wasn't some ogre out there trolling through the various advertisements, searching for some poor, foolish, queer Mennonite farm kid to expose and ruin. And Isaac's shame was already overwhelming. He couldn't handle any more shocks.

For the rest of that night, he'd left his phone off, tucked away in the zippered pocket of his blue canvas Bible cover. After the work was done the following morning, he'd switched his phone on, but the sight of the Slider icon made him nauseous.

It was several weeks before Isaac finally feel ready to test the hook-up app.A series of internet queries revealed that it was possible to use Slider while disabling your location. The evening Isaac made this discovery, he carried the phone out to the middle of the field, switched off his GPS, and hurried back into the warmth of the tenant house, ignoring his mother's questioning stares and the snores that rose from his father where he lay sprawled on his recliner.

Back in his bedroom, he opened the app again, and a red light on the inbox icon signaled a message from someone named EaglesDaddy73.

Looks like ur new here. I'll send u a pic if u send me one.

Isaac clicked on the man’s profile. A stocky, late-middle-aged man with a bulbous red nose and blond beard grinned out at him. The bearded face was not handsome, but there was at least the appearance of friendliness in his large blue eyes. Isaac peered at the photo, trying to imagine how that watery gaze would regard his own body.

At least with a photo, he wouldn't have to present himself for open scrutiny. He wouldn't have to worry about being touched and found wanting. He turned on his bedroom's ceiling light, unbuttoned his shirt, and stretched out on the quilt. Holding his phone above him, he snapped several shots of his chest and stomach, taking care not to include his face in the frame. Finished, he studied the images. The photos gave no sign that anything was wrong with him. Indeed, in the pictures, he looked surprisingly attractive, never mind that his nipples were too small. He deliberated, checking and double-checking to make sure there was no clue in the images that would render him identifiable. Satisfied, he fired them off to EaglesDaddy73.

Thirty seconds later, he received a reply.

Boy, you're hot– this accompanied by a terrifying close-up of the man's short, stout penis.

Isaac closed that image as quickly as it had arrived.

The questions came in a flurry: Where do u live?How old are u? I'm in Manheim. U want to come over tonite?

Maybe another time, Isaac typed, ignoring the previous two questions.

How bout another pic at least? Ur so hot.

Maybe tomorrow, he typed, dizzied by the speed and volume of the replies. But still, that sense of satisfaction remained. How nice it was to be wanted, even by someone who looked so rough. And how safe to communicate wholly by photograph – without having to worry about repulsing the other party, without having to dread being touched.

The next evening, when Isaac logged into the app, eight messages were waiting, six of them from EaglesDaddy73, each one praising him and beseeching him to send another photo, which he did, which prompted another welcome volley of praise accompanied by even more zoomed-in shots of the man's penis. Once again, Isaac winced and closed the photos, trying to put those images out of his mind. But the satisfaction of photographing himself remained, the pleasure of sharing with another person his tiny portion of comeliness.

Every night that week, EaglesDaddy73 messaged him, begging for a meeting or at least a photograph that showed "something new." Each evening, Isaac obliged, unzipping his trousers part way, and then slipping them off, and then, at the end of the week, sliding out of his briefs, taking care to conceal his identity all the while.

In his second week on the app, he added a profile picture of his abs, which took on a hint of definition if he clenched his stomach with all his might. Evenings, in his room, he started doing pushups and crunches. As a means of avoiding meals with his parents, he began jogging after the evening chores four nights a week, keeping well clear of the road that led past Art Smucker's. And all the while, he kept trading photographs with EaglesDaddy73. How exhilarating it was to see the muscles gaining definition in his chest and stomach. He marveled at his body's improving leanness and hardness. He wasn't nearly up to the standards of the models he admired on Photomash but, he told himself, he was looking pretty good for someone who still got his haircuts from his mother and despised his skin everywhere but on Slider.

If only Luke could be on that app, Isaac thought, most evenings. If only they could trade pictures. Several times, at church, Isaac contemplated asking Luke if he'd ever considered buying a phone. Each time, his fear of exposure stopped him. It was too risky to speak to Luke. Everywhere but on the app, he was too disgusting.

Nights, he still dreamed of Luke. He dreamed of making money. He imagined the two of them lolling by a swimming pool in a villa he'd purchased, or swimming in the Mediterranean, or even the Susquehanna, like Elio and Oliver. He pictured Luke bending over him, pinning him to his mattress and somehow not being disgusted. So long as he was dreaming, he could forget the grossness that clung to his pores and lingered under his skin. He could dismiss the panic that seized him whenever he thought of being touched. And then morning came again, and he dragged himself out of his bed and down to the parlor, and shuffled off to school when the work was done. It was his routine, and soon enough, school would be finished, and there would be nothing but his chores, and church services, and the privacy of his bedroom and communion with books and his phone and the images that disguised everything that was wrong with him.

In his room, at night, he traced the lines of his body on the photographs he'd snapped. If only he could look like that everywhere. If only he could always be that composed, that in control of his skin. But what he told himself, in those minutes, was that it was enough to look charming online.

Just survive, he repeated. Just get through the day, the hour, the ticking minutes in the after lunch in the schoolhouse when his stomach seemed about to explode, the nights in the milking parlor beside his father when he had no idea what he was doing on a dairy farm in the middle of Kuernerville Township, Pennsylvania, no idea where in the world he belonged.

About the Author

Andrew Harnish

Andrew Harnish’s work has been published in NDQ, the Journal of Mennonite Studies, Atticus Review, Disability and Society, The Rumpus, Journal of the Southwest, and Miracle Monocle. He is currently at work on a crip/queer coming-of-age novel set in a Mennonite farming community. In the fall of 2019, he will begin as an Assistant Teaching Professor of English at Quinnipiac University.