Ruben Reyes Jr.

The One Where Henry Tries to Make Money


Ruben Reyes Jr. is the son of two Salvadoran immigrants and a senior at Harvard College studying History and Literature. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming from The Florida Review Online, Strange Horizons, La Horchata Zine, Pidgeonholes, and other publications. You can find him on Twitter @rubenwrites\

You spread a bidi bidi bom bom red lipstick over your lips, the pigment heavy, uneven and pushing the boundaries of your upper lip. A bit stains your dark moustache. Slip into the astrodome outfit, one leg at a time, thighs tightened together when you pull the glittering purple fabric over your waistline. Como la flor, tanto amor. You are the flower full of love as you slip the rest of the full body suit over your flat chest. Spin in a circle, let the bellbottoms flow. Side-step, two-step, salsa, cumbia, in those shiny silver heels. Ignore the aching at the bridge of your foot. Ignore when you forget the words and crush your toes with a sharp heel.


“I’m dreaming of you, Selena, of wearing the bustier you did,” Henry whispered into the mirror as he cemented the final touches of his face.

The stage lights would make his face shine, leaving the audience unsure if whether it was generously-applied glitter or his sweat. In the end, they wouldn’t really care. He’d be their favorite part of the show, the best drag show the Inland Empire has to offer. The individual faces in the crowd that evening might look different, but it’d be the same composite audience Henry had performed for dozens of times before—people who were too lazy to drive to West Hollywood, sixteen-year-olds with fake IDs, the regulars who weren’t looking for a real thrill.

The gay bar in Pomona was rowdiest on Friday and Saturday nights, and Henry preferred to work those evenings. The men couldn’t keep their hands to themselves on those nights, drunkenly grasping for a performer’s hips and backsides if they got too close to the edge of the stage. But the pay and tips were much higher, so Henry put on his Selena outfit and walked out on stage.

He always opened with thirty seconds of a slower song, usually “No Me Queda Mas” or “I Could Fall in Love.” It was the only part of the show where Henry’s actual voice came out of the speakers hoisted above the stage. The rest was lip synched, but he loved opening with his baritone, before Selena’s vocals played as he danced along to a routine from one of her final shows. As he over-accentuated each syllable, his lips rolling over each other, Henry imagined himself in the Astrodome, a crowd cheering him on, his faced filled with a joy miles and miles from the bar where he found himself.


You learn to dance cumbia in your bedroom, alone, barefoot, the soles of your feet on the cool linoleum floor. You crank up “Mil Horas,” the version by La Sonora Dinamita, and stumble around trying to move like those old ladies at family parties, who look as if they’ve lived three lifetimes, four civil wars, and still dance cumbias with more rhythm than you’ll ever have. Dance, foot following foot, and sing the lyrics about a man waiting a thousand hours in the rain. You wonder what the purpose of war is, and why you can’t make sense of the steps, why they feel so clunky, and how someone could suddenly stop loving you. Avoid the trophies on the desk, burn the landscape of your childhood bedroom into your memory as you step out of your heels.


The suburbs were a lovely, quiet place to grow up. Henry enjoyed life there for the most part. When he got bullied, as a young brown kid inevitably does in a predominantly white neighborhood, he turned to the television for some escape. He never had arguments with his mother about sleeping over at a friend’s house because overnight invitations were nonexistent. Instead, he spent hours glued to the screen watching whatever was on—educational cartoons, telenovelas, daytime talk shows, cooking shows, and sitcom reruns.

That’s where he found those families and men and women, so perfect, so nuclear, and always a harsh reminder of what he was not. That night, Henry thought about the white people on the TV as he turned on his webcam and began to take off his shirt. He adjusted the camera on his laptop so that his room wouldn’t be in the shot. This room was nothing like his childhood bedroom. The walls were empty, covered with only a faded off-white coat of paint. The room lasted as long as rent money did, and chances that Henry would be evicted were high, so he never bothered to decorate.

But as he adjusted the camera, preparing for his cam-show, he still tried keeping as much of the room out of the shot as possible. Getting naked, touching himself, and taking request from people who donated tokens felt routine at this point. There was nothing intimate about it, the money came in and his body did what he willed it to. But strangers on the Internet knowing what the inside of his room looked? That’d be far too intrusive.


You get into a huge argument with your long-term, on again, off again boyfriend, but this time it feels more serious because he hasn’t just made an off-color comment or forgotten an anniversary. He’s slept with another woman. He says that the two of you were on a break, but you know you weren’t. It was an intense argument, but you were still together when he’d stormed off, but then he’d gone home with another girl and you’re unsure if you’ll ever be able to trust him again. You’re living the plotline from Friends, and all your problems are so trivial, you live in a Manhattan apartment far too nice to be financed with the job you supposedly have, and in a city that is chock full of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Western Africans, all your friends are white.


Henry initially got into cuddling people for money because it was a ludicrous business. But as he spent more and more time in strangers’ homes, on their couches or in their beds, Henry found a sense of comfort in the intimacy. He’d just moved into a new room, in a new city, a colder city, and he’d yet to make any real friends. He’d left bars with a few men and a few women, but none of those nights blossomed into deeper connections. So, in the minutes before his client handed him the money for the session, Henry pretended it wasn’t a paid gig. He spooned and pretended a genuine warmth existed between him and the other person.

The app where customers could book Henry for a session, anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours, explicitly forbade any sexual advances by either party. Yet somewhere around Henry’s eightieth appointment, a bearded twenty-five-year-old personal trainer became his first solicitation. As soon as he walked into his apartment, Henry knew he was attracted to this man, but he’d been attracted to other clients before. He’d thought nothing of it. About half an hour into the cuddle session, the man pressed himself into Henry and tightened his arms around him. Henry felt the main getting hard against him, but remained silent. When the man whispered in Henry’s ear that he’d been willing to pay for sex, in cash, Henry just nodded and let himself melt into the man’s muscular chest.

Soon after that first encounter, Henry found a website with listings for “personal connections” and started sending out emails. The men would come over to his apartment, many of them depraved, many of them much older than him, and none of them as good looking as the personal trainer. Depending on whatever they’d agreed to previously, Henry would take them in his mouth or they’d take him, and at the end of it, they’d hand him a wad of cash. In the moment, Henry tried to enjoy himself, often managing to pretend the men were other men he’d known, sometimes even convincing himself they were versions of ex-girlfriends. At the end, they handed him the money and slammed the door on their way out.

 Rent was paid every month for almost a year with this new gig. He was still dressing up as Selena, undressing as his webcam username, and platonically cuddling people to make ends meet. His life was not one of excess. The food he cooked himself was simple and repetitive, the rare treats he indulged in not all that luxurious. It was living, but only barely, and Henry spent the long blue year trying to leave a trace of himself in that cold city so far from home.


You’re lying on a countertop, strewn out in the middle of a large, open-floor plan apartment, the raggedy clothes you haven’t changed out of in two weeks draping off your limbs. Don’t make a sound. Keep your breathing shallow. Keep your friends and the audience wondering, are you alive? Will you survive the night? The apartment doesn’t have heat or electricity, and the room is lit by a couple of candles. Your friends have been evicted, but this is the only home they know, so they brought you here when they found you, half-breathing in the winter cold. Listen as the musical number ensues at your deathbed. Open your eyes and tell them that you were heading towards a warm, white light. Swear that your dead friend Angel told you to listen to the song and turn back.


Henry had been kicked out of his home when he was only eighteen because his parents were upset that he dated boys and secretly wore heels when he went out on the weekends. They didn’t care that he also dated women, or that he made sure to change into his more feminine outfits once he’d left their home. They kicked him out, and Henry had no choice but to begin making money however he could.

In what some journalist had popularized as the “gig economy,” Henry jumped from temporary job to temporary job, trying to collect enough money to afford a place to live. In the beginning it was on couches, eventually a shared bedroom, and at some point, his own room. But bouncing from place to place, without a base to actually call home, Henry felt like an astronaut, untethered, drifting through a plane devoid of gravity.

As he wondered what he should be orbiting, Henry turned into himself. Tracing a finger along the edges of his beard, he slowly whispered his names to himself: Selena Quintanilla, Alvaro Pava, Rachel Green, Mimi Marquez, Henry Cienfuegos. Home was his body, flesh, hair, lips, whispers, screams and all.

© The Acentos Review 2019