Issue 185, Summer 2008
Jack and Dwayne lived in apartment 6E in a twelve-story building facing Central Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. One morning in the late fifties, I moved into the apartment above theirs with my two young sons, our clothes, a few pieces of furniture, some boxes of books and games and papers, including my divorce decree, and a carton or two of kitchen odds and ends.
I met Jack a few weeks later when he rang my bell, held out a book, and inquired whether I had lost it. He had found it in the trash can at his back door, which opened onto a dimly lit, gloomy service stairway. “By accident, I guess,” he added quickly, as though obliged to account for the book’s presence in his trash can.
No one had claimed it yet, he said. He had checked all his neighbors. Now he was trying the tenants on my floor. If he had no luck finding the owner, he might keep the book. He loved the title, Tender Is the Night, although he had never heard of the writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I recognized my worn volume at once and took it, thanking him. It had been given to me by a friend when I was seventeen and living in a small apartment in San Francisco on Telegraph Hill.
I recall wondering how it had ended up where it had. Now and then the tenants had to use the back stairs when the elevators weren’t working. It was possible that I, or the movers, had let the book fall into his can on the way up to 7E—but not likely.
There was a momentary silence during which we smiled at each other. He began to turn away then appeared to change his mind, introduced himself and held out his hand. I shook it, aware of its warmth and firmness.
I saw all of him that afternoon, as one takes in the full portrait of another person before moving in closer and noting details of face and body. Jack was in his early thirties, I guessed, boyishly handsome, tall and narrow-hipped, with short, dark brown hair. Later, after we became friends, I saw more distinctly the details of his face, its hint of secrecy, its changeability, and what I sensed was an ardent hope for affection. In the uncertainty of his smile, I felt a shock of recognition, but unlike my own smile, his was unguarded. I learned quickly that neither of us was open with others unless we felt in them the same hope—although I’ve made mistakes now and then.
Jack told me he’d been in the navy toward the end of World War II. I thought he must have been the picture of nauticalness in his uniform—except for that uncertainty, or perhaps it was hesitancy, in his voice and manner. He had joined the navy to avoid being drafted, he said.
I couldn’t imagine him battling enemy sailors. After a few days of knowing him, I realized that he didn’t want to contend with other men, but only to make love to them, sometimes to love them.
Dwayne was in a new dance company that had earned a reputation for the originality of its choreography. There were no stars yet. Dwayne would often return home to 6E exhausted from rehearsals, smoke a little marijuana, and lie down on the living-room floor to sleep for an hour or two.