Issue 84, Summer 1982
I can’t really remember how I met Tommy. I recollect him first as a smooth cloche of shiny light brown hair sporting the slender plume of a cowlick, a head bent over a book in study hall belonging to someone I’d heard was captain of the tennis team, leader of the Crowd and Sally’s steady; then, without transition, he was my friend and he was struggling to explain to me his theory about Sartre’s Nausea as we kicked our way through autumn leaves. “Uh… uh… ” he was crying out on a loud, high note, a sustained nasal sound, as he stopped walking and held a finger up. Then his small, blue eyes, straining to see an idea in the distance, blinked, glanced smoothly up and down. The glitter of prophecy faded. He shrugged: “Lost it.” He exposed his palms and then pocketed his hands in his trousers. I held my breath and counted ten before I offered my soft, apologetic suggestion: “But aren’t you really saying that Sartre thinks Man is… ” and I filled in the blank with the closest approximation I could invent, not of Sartre’s thought but of Tommy’s dubious interpretation of it.
“That’s it! That’s it!” Tommy shouted, and again he excitedly waded out into the philosophical murk. I, who thought only of survival, had no interest in philosophical questions. The proximate ones were enough to obsess me, not as things I chose to contemplate but as decisions rushing up at me as out of oncoming traffic. These were the things I thought about: Am I boring Tommy? Will he mind if I rest my elbow on his shoulder? Should I powder my white bucks or keep the scuff marks? How low should I let my jeans ride?
If the ultimate questions—the meaning of life, time, being—interested me now, it was only because they interested Tommy. To the extent the other kids thought of me at all they considered me to be something of a brain; certainly in their eyes Tom was a jock. Ironic, then, that he was the one who did all the thinking, who had the taste for philosophy—ironic but predictable, since his sovereignty gave him the ease to wonder about what it all meant, whereas I had to concentrate on means, not meaning. The meaning seemed quite clear: to survive and then to become popular. The game of king and servant I’d played in the snow or sand or in cloud castles now became real. The princess, asleep for so many years, awakes to the taste of the prince’s lips, a slightly sour taste; she stares up into a face visored in shadow.
In that old, comfortable suburb even the biggest mansions hunkered democratically down on the curb and sat right next to other dwellings. No concealing hedges or isolating parks could be seen anywhere. Even quite massive houses of many rooms and wings engulfed their plots right down to the sidewalk. This conspicuousness declared a pride and innocence: We have nothing to hide, and we want to show you what we’ve got. Tom’s house was a Mediterranean villa with six bedrooms and servants’ quarters over a double garage, but its gleaming leaded panes and the front door (thick oak gouged into griffins) loomed up just ten paces from the street.
Once inside that door, however, I felt transported into another society that had ways I could never quite master. The Wellingtons were nice but not charming. The Wellingtons gave thought to everything they did. They wanted no praise for their accomplishments; they would have found an outsider’s praise impertinent. The staircase was lined with expensive, ugly paintings done from photographs of their four children. Their kids’ teeth were bound in costly wires, their whims for sailboats or skis or guitars were lavishly but silently honored; they were all paraded in a stupor past the monuments of Europe, their vacations down rapids and over glaciers or up mountains were well funded—but silence reigned. No one said a word. Dinner there was torture. A student from the university served. Mr. Wellington carved. Mrs. Wellington, a woman with a girlish spirit trapped inside a large, swollen body, made stabs at conversation, but she was so shy she could speak only in comical accents. She’d grunt in a bass voice like a bear or squeak like a mouse or imitate Donald Duck—anything rather than say a simple declarative sentence in her own fragile, mortified voice. The father terrified us all with his manners (the long white hands wielding the fork and knife and expertly slicing the joint). He radiated disapproval. His disapproval was not the martyr’s blackmail but a sort of murderous mildness: if he weren’t so fastidious he’d murder you. We watched him carve. We were wordless, hypnotized by the candle flames, the neat incisions and deep, bloody invasions, the sound of the metal knife scraping against the tines of the fork, the sickening softness of each red slice laid to the side and the trickle down silver channels ramifying back into roots of blood.
The odd thing is that the father’s spirit did not contaminate the house. His lair, the library, was even the sunniest, most relaxed room of all as the two little dogs, Welsh Corgies, trotted from couch to front door at every disturbance, their small, shaggy feet clicking on the polished red tiles. The dogs, the children, his wife—all seemed to prosper in spite of his punitive reserve, his tight, superb eyes, the way he sniffed with contempt at the end of every sentence someone else said. “Oh, yes,” he said to me, examining his overly manicured hand, “I know of your mother .. . by reputation,” and my heart sank.
In this house the parents maintained a silence except for the father’s dreaded little comments, the sugar substitute of his sweetness, and the whole chirping menagerie of the mother’s comical voices. No one hovered over the kids. They came and went as they chose, they stayed home and studied or they went out, they ate dinner in or at the last moment they accepted the hospitality of other tables. But under this surface ease of manner ran their dread of their father and their fear of offending him in some new way. He was a man far milder, far more (shall I say) ladylike than any other father I’d known, and yet his soft way of curling up on a couch and tucking his silk dressing gown modestly around his thin white shanks terrified everyone as did his way of looking over the tops of his glasses and mouthing without sound the name of his son: “Tommy”—the lips compressed on the double m and making a meal out of his swallowed, sorrowing disappointment. He was homely, tall, snowy-haired, hard-working, in bad health. He seemed to me the absolute standard of respectability, and by that standard I failed. My sister had coached me in some sort of charm, but no degree of charm, whether counterfeit or genuine, made an impression on Mr. Wellington. He was charm-proof. He disapproved of me. I was a fraud, a charlatan. His disapproval started with my mother and her “reputation,” whatever that might be (her divorce? her dates? the fact she had to work?). He didn’t like me and he didn’t want his son to associate with me. When I entered his study I’d stand behind Tom. Only now does it occur to me that Tommy may have liked me precisely because his father didn’t. Was Tom’s friendship with me one more way in which he was unobtrusively but firmly disappointing his father?
Once we closed Tom’s bedroom door we were immersed again in the happy shabbiness of our friendship. For he was my friend—my best friend! Until now other boys my age had frightened me. We might grab each other in the leaves and play squirrel, but those painful stabs at pleasure had left me shaken and swollen with yearning—I wanted someone to love me. I had prayed I’d grow up as fast as possible.
No longer. For the first time I found it exhilarating to be young and with someone young. I loved him, and the love was all the more powerful because I had to hide it. We slept in twin beds only two feet apart. We sat around for hours in our underpants and talked about Sartre and tennis and Sally and all the other kids at school and love and God and the afterlife and infinity. Tom’s mother never came to his door, as mine would have, to order us to sleep. The big dark house creaked around us as we lay on our separate beds in weird positions and talked and talked our way into the inner recesses of the night, those dim lands so tender to the couple.
And we talked of friendship, of our friendship, of how it was as intense as love, better than love, a kind of love. I told Tom my father had said friendships don’t last, they wear out and must be replaced every decade as we grow older—but I reported this heresy (which I’d invented; my poor father had no friends to discard) only so that Tom and I might denounce it and pledge to each other our eternal fidelity. “Jesus,” Tom said, “those guys are so damn cynical! Jeez... ” He was lying on his stomach staring into the pillow; his voice was muffled. Now he propped himself up on one elbow. His forehead was red where he’d been leaning on it. His face was loose from sleepiness. His smile, too, was loose, rubbery, his gaze genial, bleary. “I mean, God! How can they go on if they think that way?” He laughed a laugh on a high brass note, a toot of amazement at the sheer gall of grown-up cynicism.
“Maybe,” I said suavely, “because we’re not religious, we’ve made friendship into our religion.” I loved ringing these changes on our theme, which was ourselves, our love; to keep the subject going I could relate it to our atheism, which we’d just discovered, or to dozens of other favorite themes.
“Yeah,” Tom said. He seemed intrigued by this possibility. “Hold on. Don’t forget where we were.” He hurried into the adjoining bathroom. As I listened through the open door to the jet of water falling into the toilet I imagined standing beside him, our streams of urine crossing, dribbling dry, then our hands continuing to shake a final glistening drop of something stickier than water from this new disturbance, this desire our lifting, meeting eyes had to confess.