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.
No sooner would such a temptation present itself than I would smother it. The effect was of snuffing out a candle, two candles, a row of twenty, until the lens pulled back to reveal an I entire votive stand exhaling a hundred thin lines of smoke as a terraced offering before the shrine. In this religion hidden lights had been declared superior to those that glared. Somewhere I was storing up merit, accumulating the credit I’d need to buy, one day, the salvation I longed for. Until then (and it was a reckoning that could be forestalled indefinitely, that I preferred putting off) I’d live in that happiest of all conditions: the long but seemingly prosperous courtship. It was a series of tests, ever more arduous, even perverse. For instance, I was required to deny my love in order to prove it.
“You know,” Tom said one day, “you can stay over any time you like. Harold”—the minister’s son, my old partner at squirrel—“warned me you’d jump me in my sleep. I have to tell you I was weirded out. You gotta forgive me. It’s just I don’t go in for that weird stuff.”
I swallowed painfully and whispered, “Nor—” I cleared my throat and said too primly, “nor do I.”
The medical smell, that Lysol smell of homosexuality, was staining the air again as the rubber-wheeled metal cart of drugs and disinfectants rolled silently by. I longed to open the window, to go away for an hour and come back to a room free of that odor, the smell of shame.
I never doubted that homosexuality was a sickness; in fact, I took it as a measure of how unsparingly objective I was that I could contemplate this very sickness. But in some other part of I my mind I couldn’t believe that the Lysol smell must bathe me, too, that its smell of stale coal fumes must penetrate my love for Tom. Perhaps I became so vague, so exhilarated with vagueness, precisely in order to forestall a recognition of the final term of the syllogism that begins: If one man loves another he is a homosexual; I love a man...
I’d heard that boys passed through a stage of homosexuality, that this stage was normal, nearly universal—then that must be what was happening to me. A stage. A prolonged stage. Soon enough this stage would revolve and as Tom’s bedroom vanished, on would trundle white organdy, blue ribbons, a smiling girl opening her arms…but that would come later. As for now, I could continue to look as long as I liked into Tom’s eyes the color of faded lapis beneath brows so blond they were visible only at the roots just to each side of his nose—a faint smudge turning gold as it thinned and sped out toward the temples. He was a ratty boy. He hated to shave and would let his peach fuzz go for a week or even two at a time; it grew in in clumps, full on the chin, sparse along the jaw, patchy beside the deep wicks of his mouth. His chamois-cloth shirts were all missing buttons. The gaps they left were filled in with glimpses of dingy undershirt. His jockey shorts had holes in them. Around one leg a broken elastic had popped out of the cotton seam and dangled against his thigh like a gray noodle. Since he wore a single pair of shorts for days on end the front pouch would soon be stained with yellow. He got up too late to shower before school; he’d run a hand through his fine hair but could never tame that high spume of a cowlick that tossed and bobbed above him, absurdly, gallantly.
His rattiness wore a jaunty air that redeemed everything. Faded, baggy jeans, Indian moccasins he’d owned so long the soft leather tops had taken on the shape of his toes, sunglasses repaired with Band-Aids, an ancient purple shirt bleached and aged to a dusty plum, a letter jacket with white leather sleeves and on the back white lettering against a dark blue field—these were the accoutrements of a princely pauper.
We walked beside the lake at night, a spring night. As we walked we rolled gently into each other, so that our shoulders touched with every other step. A coolness scudded in off the lake and we kept our hands in our pockets. Now Tom had leapt up onto the narrow top of a retaining wall and was scampering along it in his moccasins. Although heights terrified me I followed him. The ground on both sides fell away as we crossed a canal flowing into the lake, but I put one foot in front of the other and looked not down but at Tom’s back. I prayed to a God I didn’t believe in to preserve me. Soon enough I was beside Tom again and my pulse subsided: that dangerous crossing was a sacrifice I’d made to him. Our shoulders touched. As usual he was talking too loud and in his characteristic way, a sustained tenor uh as he collected his thoughts, then a chuckle and a rapid, throw-away sentence that came almost as an anticlimax. Since Tom was the most popular boy at school, many guys had imitated his halting, then rushing way of talking (as well as his grungy clothes and haphazard grooming). But I never wanted to be Tom. I wanted Tom to be Tom for me. I wanted him to hold his reedy, sinewy, scruffy maleness in trust for us both. We were heading toward a concrete pier wide enough for a truck to run down. At the far end people were fishing for smelt, illegal lanterns drawing silver schools into nets. We ambled out and watched the lights play over that dripping, squirming ore being extracted from the lake’s mines. A net was dumped at my feet and I saw that cold life arc, panic, die. Tommy knew one of the old guys, who gave us a couple dozen fish, which we took back to the Wellington’s place.
At midnight everyone was in bed, but Tom decided we were hungry and had to fry up our smelt fight now. The odor of burning butter and bitter young fish drew Mrs. Wellington down from her little sitting room where she dozed, watched television and paged through books about gardening and thoroughbred dogs. She came blinking and padding down to the kitchen, lured by the smell of frying fish, the smell of a pleasure forbidden because it comes from a kingdom we dare not enter for long. I was certain she would be gruff—she was frowning, though only against the neon brightness of the kitchen. “What’s going on here?” she asked in what must have been at last the sound of her true voice, the poor. Hat intonations of the prairies where she’d grown up. Soon she was pouring out tall glasses of milk and setting places for us. She was a good sport in an unselfconscious way I’d never seen in a grown-up before, as though she and we were all part of the same society of hungry, browsing creatures instead of members of two tribes, one spontaneous and the other repressive. She seemed to bend naturally to the will of her son, and this compliance suggested an unspoken respect for the primacy of even such a young and scruffy man. My own mother paid lip service to the notion of male supremacy, but she had had to make her own way in the world too long to stay constant to such a useless, purely decorative belief.
After the midnight supper Tommy started to play the guitar and sing. He and I had trekked more than once downtown to the Folk Center to hear a barefoot hillbilly woman in a long, faded skirt intone Elizabethan songs and pluck at a dulcimer or to listen, frightened and transported, to a big black lesbian with a crew cut moan her basso way through the blues. The People—those brawny, smiling farmers, those plump, wholesome teens bursting out of bib overalls, those toothless ex-cons, those white-eyed dust bowl victims—the People, half glimpsed in old photos, films and WPA murals, were about to reemerge, we trusted, into history and our lives.
All this aspiration, this promise of fellowship and equality, informed Tom’s songs. We worried a bit (just a bit) that we might be suburban twerps unworthy of the People. We already knew to sneer at certain folksingers for their “commercial” arrangements, their “slickness,” their betrayal of the heartrending plainness of real working folks. Although we strove in our daily lives to be as agreeable and popular as possible, to conform exactly to reigning fads, we simultaneously abhorred whatever was ingratiating. As a result we were drawn to a club where a big, scarred Negro with lots of gold jewelry and liverish eyes ruminated over a half-improvised ballad under a spotlight before a breathless, thrilled audience of sheltered white teens (overheard on the way out from the newly elected president of our United Nations club: “It makes you feel so damn phony. It even makes you Question Your Values”).
Of course the best thing about folk music was that it gave me a chance to stare at Tommy while he sang. After endless false starts, after tunings and retunings and trial runs of newly or imperfectly learned strums, he’d finally accompany himself through one great ballad after another. His voice was harsh and high, his hands grubby, the nails ragged crescents of black axle-grease, and soon enough his exertions would make the faded blue work shirt cling to his back and chest in dark blue patches. Whereas when he spoke he was evasive or philosophical, certainly jokey in a tepid way, when he sang he was eloquent with passion, with the simple statement of passion. And I was, for once, allowed to stare and stare at him. Sometimes, after he fell asleep at night, I’d study the composition of grays poised on the pale lozenge of his pillow, those grays that constituted a face, and I’d dream he was awakening, rising to kiss me, the grays blushing with fire and warmth—but then he’d move and I’d realize that what I’d taken to be his face was in fact a fold in the sheet. I’d listen for his breath to quicken, I’d look for his sealed eyes to glint, I’d wait for his hot, strong hand to reach across the chasm between the beds to grab me—but none of that happened. There was no passion displayed between us and I never saw him show any feeling at all beyond a narrow range of teasing and joking. Except when he sang. Then he was free, that is, constrained by the ceremony of performance, the fiction that the entertainer is alone, that he is expressing grief or joy to himself alone. Tom would close his eyes and tip his head back. Squint lines would stream away from his eyes, his forehead would wrinkle, the veins would stand out along his throat and when he held a high note his whole body would tremble. One time he proudly showed me the callouses he’d earned by playing the guitar; he let me feel them. Sometimes he didn’t play at all but just sounded notes as he worked something out. He had forgotten me. He thought he was alone. He’d drop the slightly foolish smile he usually wore to disarm adolescent envy or adult expectation and he looked angry and much older: I took this to be his true face. As a folksinger Tom was permitted to wail and shout and moan, and as his audience I was permitted to look at him.
His father invited me to go sailing. I accepted, although I warned him I was familiar only with powerboats and had had no experience as a crew member. Everything about dressing the ship—unshrouding and raising the sails, lowering the keel, installing the rudder, untangling the sheets—confused me. I knew I was in the way and I stood, one hand on the boom, and tried to inhale myself into nonexistence. I heard Mr. Wellington’s quick sharp breaths as reproaches.
The day was beautiful, a cold, constant spring wind swept past us, high towers of clouds were rolling steadily closer like medieval war machines breaching the blue fortress of sky. Light spilled down out of the clouds onto the choppy lake, gray and cold and faceted, in constant motion but going nowhere. Hundreds of boats were already out, their sails pivoting and flashing in the shifting beams of sunlight. A gull’s wings dropped like the slowly closing legs of a draftsman’s compass.
At last we were underway. Mr. Wellington, unlike my father, was a smooth, competent sailor. He pulled the boat around so that the wind was behind us and he asked me to attach the spinnaker pole to the jib sail, but I became frightened when I had to lean out over the coursing water and Tommy filled in for me, not vexed at me but I suspect worried about what his father would think. And what was I afraid of? Falling in? But I could swim, a rope could be tossed my way. That wasn’t it. Even my vertigo I had overcome on the sea wall for Tom’s sake. It was, I’m sure, Mr. Wellington’s disapproval I feared and invited, that disapproval which, so persistent, had ended by becoming a manner, a way of being, like someone’s way of holding his head to one side, something familiar, something I would miss if it were absent. Not that he bestowed his disapproval generously on me. No, even that he withheld and dispensed in only the smallest sums.
The wind blew higher and higher and Mr. Wellington, who’d taken in sail, was holding close to it. We gripped the gun whales and leaned back out over the cold, running waves, the water brushing, then soaking, the backs of our shirts. The sun solemnly withdrew into its tent of cloud, disappointed with the world. By the slightest turn of my head I could change the moan of the wind into a whistle. There we were, just a father and his teenage son and the son’s friend out for a sail, but in my mind, at least, the story was less simple. For I found in this Mr. Wellington a version of myself so transformed by will and practice as to be not easily recognizable, but familiar nonetheless. In him I sensed someone as unloved and unlovely as I felt myself to be. He wasn’t handsome now nor had he ever been, I was certain, and his lack of romantic appeal shaded his responses to his glamorous son, the muted, wary adoration as well as the less than frank envy.
I’d begun to shiver. The day was turning darker and had blown all the birds out of the sky and half the boats back to harbor. I was huddling, hugging myself down in the hull, wet back to the wind. Mr. Wellington was letting out sail—the tock-tock-tock of the winch releasing the mainsheet—and he was looking at me, holding his judgment in reserve. Between us, these two tight minds, flew the great sail and Tom inhabiting it as he leaned back into it, pushing it, pushing until we came around, he ducked and the boom swung overhead and stopped with a shocking thud. Here was this boy, laughing and blonded by the sun and smooth-skinned, his whole body straining up as he reached to cleat something so that his t-shirt parted company with his dirty, sagging jeans and we—the father and I—could see Tom’s muscles like forked lightning on his taut stomach; here was this boy so handsome and free and well-liked and here were we flanking him, looking up at him, at his torso flowering out of the humble calyx of his jeans.
It seemed to me then that beauty is the highest good, the one thing we all want to be or have or failing that destroy, and that all the world’s virtues are nothing but the world’s spleen and deceit. The ugly, the old, the rich and the accomplished speak of invisible merits—of character and wisdom and power and skill—because they lack the visible ones, that ridiculous down under the lower lip that can’t decide to be a beard, those prehensile bare feet racing down the sleek deck, big hands too heavy for slender arms, the sweep of lashes over faded lapislazuli eyes, lips deep red, the windblown hair intricate as Velasquez’s rendering of lace.
One fall evening Tom called me to ask me if I’d like to go out on a double date. He’d be with Sally, of course, and I’d be with Helen Paper. Just a movie. Maybe a burger afterwards. Not too late. School tomorrow. Her regular date had come down with a cold.
I said sure.
I dashed down the hall to tell my mother, who in a rare domestic moment had a sewing basket on her lap. Her glasses had slid down to the tip of her nose and her voice came out slow and without inflection as she tried to thread a needle.
“Guess what!” I shouted.
“What, dear?” She licked the thread and tried again. “That was Tom and he’s arranged a date for me with Helen Paper, who’s the most beautiful and sophisticated girl in the whole school.”
There, the thread had gone through.
“Yes, yes”—I could hear my voice rising higher and higher; somehow I had to convey the excitement of my prospect—“she’s only a freshman but she goes out with college boys and everything and she’s been to Europe and she’s—well, the other girls say top-heavy but only out of sour grapes. And she’s the leader of the Crowd or could be if she cared and didn’t have such a reputation.”
My mother was intent upon her sewing. She was dressed to go out and this, yes, it must be a rip in the seam of her raincoat; once she’d fixed it she’d be on her way. “Wonderful, dear.”
“But isn’t it exciting?” I insisted.
“Well, yes, but I hope she’s not too fast.”
“For anyone. In general. There, now.” My mother bit the thread off, her eyes suddenly as wide and empty and intelligent as a cat’s. She stood, examined her handiwork, put the coat on, moved to the door, backtracked, lifted her cheek toward me to peck. “I hope you have fun. You seem terribly nervous. Just look at your hands. You’re wringing them—never saw anyone literally wring his hands before.”
“Well, it’s terribly exciting,” I said in wild despair.
My sister wasn’t home so I was alone once my mother had gone—alone to take my second bath of the day in the mean, withholding afternoon light permeating the frosted glass window and to listen to the listless hum of traffic outside, in such contrast to my heart’s anticipation. It was as though the very intensity of my feeling had drained the surroundings of significance. I was the unique center of consciousness, its toxic concentration.
I was going out on a date with Helen Paper and I had to calm myself by then because the evening would surely be quicksilver small talk and ten different kinds of smile and there would be hands linking and parting as, in a square dance, you had to be very subtle to hear the calls, subtle and calm. I wanted so badly to be popular, to have the others look back as I ran to catch up, then walk with my left hand around his waist, the right around hers, her long hair blown back on my shoulder, pooling there for a moment in festive intimacy, a sort of gold epaulette of the secret order of joy.
Helen Paper had a wide, regal forehead, straight dark hair pulled back from her face, curiously narrow hips and strong, thin legs. What she was famous for were the great globes of her breasts which were as evident as her smile and almost as easy to acknowledge and so heavy that her shoulders had become very strong. How her breasts hung naturally I had no way of knowing since in her surgically sturdy brassiere her form had been idealized into—well, two uncannily symmetrical globes, at once proud, inviting and (by virtue of their symmetry) respectable.
But to describe her without mentioning her face would be absurd since everyone was dazzled by those fine blue eyes, harder or perhaps less informative than one would have anticipated, and by that nose, so straight and Hellenic, joined to the forehead without a bump or transition of any sort, the nose a prayer ascending above the altar of lips so rich and sweet that one could understand how men had once regarded women as spoils in wars worth fighting for. She was a woman (for she surely seemed a woman despite her youth) supremely confident of her own appeal, of her status as someone desirable in the abstract—that is, attractive and practicable to anyone under any conditions at any time, rather than in the concrete, to me now as mine. She wasn’t shy or passive, but to the extent she was a vessel she was full to the brim with the knowledge that she represented a prize. She was a custodian of her own beauty.
Her custodial role made her elusive, a self seen through smoke. She did seem to be looking at me through smoke, its irregular updraft rearranging her face, lifting and enlarging a detail for a moment before letting it catch up with itself, reintegrate with the rest, smokey arabesques turning silver in the back light as she turned halfway and her profile went dark, the only touch of brilliance on her lip.
Our date was quick, unremarkable (it’s the curse of adolescence that its events are never adequate to the feelings they inspire, that no unadorned retelling of those events can suggest the feelings). Tommy’s mother collected us all in her car (we were still too young to drive) and deposited us at the theater. Green spotlights buried in fake ferns in the lobby played on a marble fountain that had long since been drained. The basin was filled with candy wrappers and paper napkins. Inside, behind padded doors each pierced by a grimy porthole, soared the dark splendors of the theater brushed here and there by the ushers’ traveling red flashlights or feebly, briefly dispelled by the glow of a match held to a forbidden cigarette. The ceiling had been designed to resemble the night sky, the stars were minute bulbs, the moon a yellow crescent. To either side of the screen was a windswept version of a royal box, a gilt throne on a small carpeted dais under a great blown-back stucco curtain topped by a papier-mache coronet. When I finally held Helen Paper’s hand after sitting beside her for half an hour in the dark, I said to myself, “This hand could be insured for a million dollars.” She surrendered her hand to me, but was I really a likely candidate for it? Was this the way guys became popular? Did certain girls have the guts to tell everyone else, “Look, be nice to this guy. He’s not a nerd. He’s worth it. He’s special?” Or was this date merely some extraordinary favor wrangled for me by Tommy, something that would not be repeated? Could it be (and I knew it could) that the star chamber of popularity was sealed and that no one would be admitted to it—no one except some casual new prince who belonged there? Tommy was a prince. He had a knack for demanding attention; even when he called the telephone operator for a number he’d hold her in conversation. Once he even talked her into meeting him after work. The receptionists in offices downtown, salesladies in stores, the mothers of friends—all of them he sized up, mentally undressed, and though this appraisal might seem to be rude, in fact most women liked it. An efficient woman would be sailing past him. He’d grab her wrist. He’d apologize for the intrusion, but he’d also stand very close to her and his smile wouldn’t apologize for a thing. And she, at exactly the moment I would have expected outrage, would flush, her eyes would flutter, not in an experienced way but meltingly, since he’d touched a nerve, since he’d found a way to subvert the social into the sexual—and then she’d smile and rephrase what she was saying in a voice charmingly without conviction.
After the movie we went somewhere for a snack and then I walked Helen home. Her beauty stood between us like an enemy, some sort of hereditary enemy I was supposed to fear, but I liked her well enough. Even the fiercest lovers must like each other at least once in a while. The trees arching above the deserted suburban streets tracked slowly past overhead, their crowns dark against a hazy white night sky, clouds lit up like internal organs dyed for examination, for augury… I spoke quietly, deliberately to Helen Paper and I snatched glances of her famous smile rising to greet my words. Our attention wasn’t given over to words but to the formal charting of that night street that we were executing. I mean we, or rather our bodies, the animal sense in us, some orienting device—we were discovering each other, and for one moment I felt exultantly worthy of her. For she did have the power to make me seem interesting, at least to myself. I found myself talking faster and with more confidence as we approached the wide, dimly lit porch of her house. Some late roses perfumed the night. A sprinkler someone had left on by mistake played back and forth over the grass. A sudden breeze snatched up the spray and flung it on the walkway ahead, a momentary darkening of the white pavement. Inside, upstairs, a room was just barely lit behind a drawn curtain. Crickets took the night’s pulse. Although I said something right out of dancing school to Helen—“Good night, it’s been great to spend some time with you”—an unexpected understanding had fallen on us. Of course her allure—the sudden rise and fall of her wonderful soft breasts, the dilation of her perfume on the cool night air, the smile of a saint who points, salaciously, toward Heaven —this allure had seduced me entirely. I loved her. I didn’t know what to do with her. I suspected another, more normal boy would have known how to tease her, to make her laugh, would have treated her more as a friend and less as an idol. Had I been expected to do something I would have fled, but now, tonight, I did love her, as one might love a painting one admired but didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t own. She was completely relaxed when she took my hand and looked in my eyes, as she thanked me and bobbed a curtsy in a little-girl manner other men, I’m sure, liked better than I; sensing my resistance to anything fetching, she doubled back and intensified her gravity. By which I’m not suggesting she was playing a part. In fact, I don’t know what she was doing. Because I loved her she was opaque to me, and her sincerity I doubted not at all until I doubted it completely.
I thanked her and said I hoped I’d see her soon. For a moment it seemed as though it would be the most natural thing to kiss her on those full, soft lips (had I not seen her a moment ago covertly pop some scented thing into her mouth to prepare for just such an inevitability?). Her eyes were veiled with awareness of her own beauty. I suppose I suddenly liked myself and I could see a light in which I’d be plausible to others. My love for Tommy was shameful, something I was also proud of but tried to hide. This moment with Helen—our tallness on the moon-lashed porch, the coolness that sent black clouds (lit by gold from within) caravelling past a pirate moon, a coolness that glided through opening fingers that now touched, linked, squeezed, slowly drew apart—this moment made me happy. Hopeful. An oppression had been lifted. A long apprenticeship to danger had abruptly ended.
After I left her I raced home through the deserted streets laughing and leaping. I sang show tunes and danced and felt as fully alive as someone in a movie (since it was precisely life that was grainy and sepia-tinted, whereas the movies had the audible ping, the habitable color, the embraceable presence of reality). I was more than ready to give up my attraction to men for this marriage to Helen Paper. At last the homosexual phase of my adolescence had drawn to a close. To be sure, I’d continue to love Tommy but as he loved me: fraternally. In my dream the stowaway in the single bunk with me, whom I was trying to keep hidden under a blanket, had miraculously transformed himself into my glorious bride, as the kissed leper in the legend becomes the Christ Pantocrator.
When I got home my mother was in bed with the lights out. “Honey?”
“Come in and talk to me.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Rub my back, okay?”
“Okay,” I said. I sat beside her on the bed. She smelled of bourbon.
“How was your date?”
“Terrific! I never had such a good time.”
“How nice. Is she a nice girl?”
“Better than that. She’s charming and sophisticated and intelligent.”
“You’re home earlier than I expected. Not so hard. Rub gently. You bruiser. I’m going to call you that: Bruiser. Is she playful? Is she like me? Does she say cute things?”
“No, thank God.”
“Why do you say that? Is she some sort of egghead?”
“Not an egghead. But she’s dignified. She’s straightforward. She says what she means.”
“I think girls should be playful. That doesn’t mean dishonest. I’m playful.”
“Well, I am. Do you think she likes you?”
“How can I tell? It was just a first date.” My fingers lightly stroked her neck to either side of her spine. “I doubt if she’ll want to see me again. Why should she?”
“But why not? You’re handsome and intelligent.”
“Handsome! With these big nostrils!”
“Oh, that’s just your sister. She’s so frustrated she has to pick on you. There’s nothing wrong with your nostrils. At least I don’t see anything wrong. Of course I know you too well. If you like, we could consult a nose doctor.” A long pause. “Nostrils .. . do people generally dwell on them? I mean, do people think about them a lot?” Small, high voice: “Are mine okay?”
A hopeless silence.
At last she began to snore delicately and I hurried to my own room. My sister’s door, next to mine, was closed but her light was burning resentfully.
And I gave myself over to my reverie. I had a record player I’d paid for myself by working as a caddy and records I exchanged each week at the library, the music an outpost of my father’s influence in this unmusical female territory.
I slipped out of my clothes as quickly as possible, though I tried to do everything beautifully, as in a movie of my life with Helen. In some way I felt it was already being filmed—not that I looked for hidden cameras but I simplified and smoothed out my movements for the lens. Every detail of my room asked me to be solicitous. When the dresser drawer stuck I winced—this sequence would have to be reshot. I turned my sheets down as though she, Helen, were at my side. I rushed to snap off the lights. She and I lay side by side in the narrow boat and floated downstream. The stars moved not at all and only the occasional fluttering of a branch overhead or the sound of a scraping rock below suggested our passage. By dawn I’d made love to Helen four times. The first time was so ceremonial I had a problem molding the mist into arms and legs; all that kept flickering up at me was her smile. The second time was more passionate. I was finally able to free her breasts from their binding. By the third time we’d become gently fraternal; we smiled with tired kindness at each other. We were very intimate. At dawn she began to disintegrate. The sickening certainty of day pulsed into being and all my exertions were able to keep her at my side only a few more moments. At last she fled.
I stumbled from class to class in a numb haze. Strangely enough, I was afraid I’d run into Helen. I didn’t feel up to her. I was too tired. In homeroom I yawned, rested my head on my desk and longed for the privacy of my bed and the saving grace of night. I wanted to be alone with my wraith. In my confusion the real Helen Paper seemed irrelevant, even intrusive.
That night I wrote her a letter. I chose a special yellow parchment paper, a spidery pen point and black ink. In gym class as I’d stumbled through calisthenics and in study hall as I’d half-dozed behind a stack of books, phrases for the letter had dropped into my mind. Now I sat down with great formality at my desk and composed the missive, first in pencil on scratch paper. I offered her my love and allegiance while admitting I knew how unworthy of her I was. And yet I had half a notion that though I might be worthless as a date (not handsome enough) I might be of some value as a husband (intelligent, successful). In marriage, merits outweighed appeal, and I could imagine nothing less eternal than marriage with Helen. But I mentioned marriage only once in the letter.
A week went by before I received her answer. Twice I saw her in the halls. The first time she came over to me and looked me in the eye and smiled her sweet, intense smile. She was wearing a powder-blue cashmere sweater and her breasts rose and fell monumentally as she asked me in her soft drawl how I was doing. Nothing in her smile or voice suggested a verdict either for or against me. I felt there was something improper about seeing her at all before I got her letter. I mumbled, “Fine,” blushed and slunk off. I felt tall and dirty. I was avoiding Tommy as well. Soon enough I would have to tell him about my proposal to Helen, which I suspected he’d disapprove of as a ridiculously false and fruitless move.
Then one afternoon, a Friday after school, there was her letter to me in the mailbox. Even before I opened it I was mildly grateful she had at least answered me. At least she’d spared me the indignity of acting as though she had never heard from me.
The apartment was empty. I went to the sun room and looked across the street at the lake churning like old machinery in a deserted amusement park, rides without riders. My mind kept two separate sets of books. In one I was fortunate she’d taken the time to write me even this rejection, more than a creep like me deserved. In the other she said, “You’re not the person I would have chosen for a date nor for a summer or semester but yes, I will marry you. Nor do I want anything less from you. Romance is an expectation of an ideal life to come, and in that sense my feelings for you are romantic.”
If someone had made me guess which reply I’d find inside the envelope, I would have chosen the rejection since pessimism is always accurate, but acceptance would not have shocked me, since I also believed in the miraculous.
I poured myself a glass of milk in the kitchen and returned to the sun room. Her handwriting was well-formed and rounded, the dots over the i’s, circles, the letters fatter than tall, the lines so straight I suspected she had placed the thin paper over a ruled-off grid. The ordinariness, the schoolgirl ordinariness of her hand frightened me—I didn’t feel safe in such an ordinary hand. “I like you very much as a friend,” she wrote. “I was pleased and surprised to receive your lovely letter. It was one of the sweetest tributes to me I have ever had from anyone. I know this will hurt, but I am forced to say it if I am to prevent you further pain. I do not love you and I never have. Our friendship has been a matter of mutual and rewarding liking, not loving. I know this is very cruel, but I must say it. Try not to hate me. I think it would be best if we did not see each other for a while. I certainly hope we can continue to be friends. I consider you to be one of my very best friends. Please, please forgive me. Try to understand why I have to be this way. Sincerely, Helen.”
Well, her phrasing was less childish than her hand, I thought, as though the letter were a composition in class that concerned me in no way. Even as this attitude broke over me, but before I was drawn into another more dangerous one, I had time to notice she said I was one of her very best friends, an honor I’d been unaware of until now—as who had not: I registered the social gain before the romantic loss. Unless (and here I could taste something bitter on the back of my tongue) —unless the “mature” advice (“I think it would be best if we did not see each other for a while”) was actually a denial of the consolation prize, a way of keeping me out of her circle at the very moment she was pretending to invite me into it. Could it be that the entire exercise, its assured tone, the concision and familiar ring of the phrasing, figured as nothing more than a “tribute” (her word) she had piled up before the altar of her own beauty? How many people had she shown my letter to?
But then all this mental chatter stopped and I surrendered to something else, something less active, more abiding, something that had been waiting politely all this time but that now stepped forward, diffident yet impersonal: my grief.
For the next few months I grieved. I would stay up all night crying and playing records and writing sonnets to Helen. What was I crying for? I cried during gym class when someone got mad at me for dropping the basketball. In the past I would have hidden my pain but now I just slowly walked off the court, the tears spurting out of my face. I took a shower, still crying, and dressed forlornly and walked the empty halls even though to do so during class time was forbidden. I no longer cared about rules. I let my hair grow, I stopped combing it, I forgot to change my shirt from one week to the next. With a disabused eye I watched other kids striving to succeed, to become popular. I became a sort of vagabond of grief or, as I’d rather put it, I entered grief’s vagabondage, which better suggests a simultaneous freedom and slavery. Freedom from the now meaningless pursuit of grades, friends, smiles; slavery to a hopeless love.
Every afternoon I’d stumble home exhausted to my room, but once there my real work would begin, which was to imagine Helen in my arms, Helen beside me laughing, Helen looking up at me through the lace suspended from the orange-blossom chaplet, Helen with other boys, kissing them, unzipping her shorts and stepping out of them, pushing her hair back out of her serious, avid eyes. She was a puppet I could place in one playlet after another, but once I’d invoked her she became independent, tortured me, smiled right through me at another boy, her approaching lover. Her with other men fascinated me and the longer I suffered, the more outrageous were the humiliations I had other men inflict on her.
Yet what I felt most often was not bitter lust but pain and a fascination with insanity that was at once frightening and soothing. I knew I was drifting farther and farther out to sea. I was losing weight. I’d torn up my phone list. When other people said hi to me in the halls I stared right through them, my face a Ku Klux Klan sheet with burning holes for eyes—or I smiled with weary compassion at these antics. Paul Valery, or rather his narrator, writes of Monsieur Teste: “When he spoke he never raised an arm or a finger—he had killed his puppet.” I felt I’d killed mine, that I was no longer routinely producing gestures, that I was old and thoroughly disenchanted. Other people’s ambitions struck me as ludicrous and I’d look for a smile, the hint of the co-conspirator, behind their zealous faces. Surely we all knew we were in a ridiculous game, that if we kept playing it we did so only as a frivolous alternative to suicide.
I became ill with mononucleosis, ironically the “kissing disease” that afflicted so many teenagers in those days. I was kept out of school for several months. Most of the time I slept, feverish and content: exempted. Just to cross the room required all my energy. Whether or not to drink another glass of ginger ale could absorb my attention for an hour. That my grief had been superseded by illness relieved me; I was no longer willfully self-destructive. I was simply ill. Love was forbidden. My doctor had told me I mustn’t kiss anyone. Helen had been spared. I had been absolved. Tommy called me from time to time but I felt he and I had nothing in common now—after all, he was just a boy, whereas I’d become a very old man.