Ricco Villanueva Siasoco
In the summer of 1972, I beat a man and left him-pinstriped shirt bloodied and eyes swollen to purple slits-on a bank of the Muddy River. He was a man I had met in a bar, and he'd given me a blow job. I had never laid hands on anyone before that evening, and never have since.
Years later, teaching English in the same urban university where I'd completed my undergraduate and post-graduate degrees, I called the roll for the first meeting of a composition class. The man I left for near-dead beside the Muddy River sat at the far end of the folding table. He made a striking figure, with his shiny hair pomaded and his crisp pinstriped shirt. He was tall, and though he appeared to be my age-in his late 50s-he had the slouching posture of a young man. I don't know if he recognized me then. When I called his name, Oliver Neal, he raised his hand and dangled a yellow handkerchief at me as if he were waving a tiny dinner bell.
I extend the same invitation to my students as I do to my colleagues in Comparative Literature-that is, to call me by my first name, George. Our department chair, Sandra Lockwood, a small unassuming woman with blonde streaks in her hair and raisin-like eyes, asks me for more formality. I disagree. In order to command respect, after all, one must also bestow it.
Now I consider myself neither overly masculine nor blithe and effeminate. I wear black shoes with black belts and own stylish, unusual ties that I wear to department gatherings or late-summer evenings at the Symphony. I am single. I like a full-bodied Cabernet or Shiraz with my dinner, a vintage port (second-label) following dessert (if given the choice between fruit and pastry, ordinarily fruit), and each January, in the month-long holiday between terms, I retire to the same vineyard north of San Francisco to escape the brutality of the New England winter. My parents died more than a decade ago, and my 19-year-old daughter Maggie is my only family besides a few aunts and uncles, second cousins and the like, scattered through the verdant Green Mountains of Vermont.
Oliver Neal, on the other hand, was nothing less than flamboyant. Flamboyant in the manner of Quentin Crisp, complete with witticisms and caustic remarks. One morning I recall that he appeared in class dressed in a tangerine shirt with petal-like frills at the end of the sleeves. It was a "Fight Ugliness" morning, he announced to the class, who, en masse, chuckled. And in a strange way, I found this flamboyance a comfort. Because despite my years of teaching and Sandra's complaints of my overfamiliarity with students, I retained a certain nervousness when speaking to them. I'd sit in my office before class and jot down notes on lined cards: Take attendance. Tell joke. Oliver, in his carefree way, provided a contrast to my nervousness. If I faltered or said things that seemed inane, I would never be as ridiculous as this man.
The first assignment I gave the class was to write two pages about the most frightening event that had occurred to them. It was the same exercise I assigned at the beginning of each term; I found it useful in assessing skills.
As a windy rain clinked the flagpins of the pole outside our classroom, the usual parade of 18-year-old woes were read aloud: the loss of a sporting event, mutilated romance, the sudden death of a grandparent. Oliver had titled his essay, "The Irreparable Loss of Mr. Cat."
How to be gentle about a dead cat. I placed my bifocals on my forehead and praised the detail of Mr. Cat's sleeping bag, its connotations of warmth and intimacy. It was the easiest part to extrapolate in the essay. I talked about the compassionate tone, how Oliver made the detritus of his tragedy compelling, how he evoked loss without idling in love. Then I commented on the need for organization, several dead metaphors, and a page of description that might be cut.
After I dismissed the class, Oliver remained. He sat with his head erect and hands clasped atop his leather notebook. I was the first to speak: "You're a returning student, Oliver?" This term I'd learned from Sandra. It was a polite way of referring to an older student, the middle-aged housewife or one of a dozen senior citizens in the department's Evergreen program. Oliver smiled. His tanned face seemed to breathe in the sunlight that had displaced the rainstorm and now cast the room in a bland yellow haze.
"I wrote another essay," Oliver said. "The most frightening event that ever happened to me. It was the night I was nearly beaten to death."
He stared at me across the table. I gathered my notes and neatened them like a deck of cards. Was he playing games? Did he recognize me? The morning after I deserted him on the Muddy River, I remember clipping an article from the Globe about the incident and carefully stowing it in a desk drawer. When I discovered it later, I stuffed it in my pocket and brought it home, shredding it with a leftover cassoulet in the garbage disposal.
Outside my classroom, a young man with a bullhorn extolled the virtues of his fraternity to the entire quad. The day had brightened considerably. I encouraged Oliver to bring his essay to a future class, speaking with the breezy, non-committal tone of a teacher. (Granted, a part of me was intrigued to see his account of that night.)
Oliver stood. His chair scraped the tile floor. With one hand, he carefully smoothed a lock of white hair that had fallen across his cheek. As he closed the door of the classroom, I could have sworn that he winked at me; it seemed as intimate and as flagrant as the handkerchief that he always held in one hand.
I often assign my students Homer and Dante or the Heaney translation of Beowulf-Faulkner or Hemingway if they seem particularly earnest or unread. In the eighth circle of the Inferno, for example, Dante is both repelled and fascinated by a pair of disembodied heads, the soul on top making a banquet of the one beneath. It seems an apt metaphor for this life: conquer, or be conquered; eat, or be consumed by a voracious beast. Never to this extreme, of course, but I do believe much can be gained from assertiveness.
I follow a Tuesday-Thursday schedule for teaching, and thus slot my office hours to coincide with my days on campus. After our tense conversation, Oliver left a copy of his essay about our Muddy River encounter in my faculty mailbox. A note written on elegant stationery with the initials O.N. embossed at the top accompanied it.
There was no mention of me in "Under the Bridge," simply the fact that Oliver had never found his assailant. And though the essay's overall tone was one of anger, it was the quietness in his prose that shocked me: the persistent need for closure; the gentle hint of a refrain. There was a natural cadence that seemed to repeat, Tomorrow I'll understand, or the following day, or the next. I was sure he knew my identity and this essay was his method of confrontation. Come out with it, I wanted to say, correcting his grammar in red ink.
On Tuesday morning, Oliver waited in the dim hallway outside my office. He was dressed in a button-down shirt and a gaudy pink tie. I unlocked my door and offered him the chair opposite my own.
"Did you read my essay?" he asked.
I nodded and placed my satchel on the floor.
"It was you. You were the one, George."
I sat quietly and forced myself not to speak.
Oliver leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "That part about leading me out of the reeds? Do you remember that? When we went under the bridge. Me crouching at your waist and undoing your belt-"
"What do you want, Oliver?"
He leaned back, crossing his legs and staring at me. He was pleased with himself, a crooked smile indicating the distance between student and teacher had been breached. He stared at the floor, and I noticed the shiny gloss of scalp beneath his thinning hair. His fingers were pressed together at the tips, resembling an A-frame. Another moment passed, and he reached for his briefcase-a rigid brown box-and placed it on his lap. The lid snapped open. Papers, I thought, a lawsuit or some other form of extortion. This, I realized, would please Oliver Neal the most.
He handed me an ordinary file folder with five or six papers inside. I moved my bifocals from my head to my nose and opened the folder. At the top of the first page was the logo and address for Random House Publishers, New York. Below, a letter to Oliver from an acquisitions editor named Marilyn O'Connor.
"I received $15,000 up front, because they loved my proposal. The rest of my advance is contingent upon acceptance of the manuscript." Oliver gently closed the lid of his briefcase. "They think it needs structure. Ms. O'Connor suggested I find an editor, someone with experience. She mentioned a grammar Nazi or some college type."
He placed his elbows on the armrests of the chair. My chest felt constricted, my teeth unnaturally clenched, but I would not reveal this to Oliver. I often denied that this was the year 2001, that society had entered a new, uncharted millennium, and a part of me began to understand Oliver's motivation for reentering my life. It had been decades since I had studied Walter Benjamin in graduate school, but his theory of history seemed manifest in this man seated across my desk: the angel of history, with eyes turned to the past. Even as his wings propelled him forward on the progress of Paradise.
I leaned back in my desk chair. It creaked loudly: a single, rust-corroded hinge. Oliver was silent, his mouth curved into a thin smile. I imagined both squealing with delight.
Retribution has always held more interest for me than redemption. Dante? The great poet didn't make lemonade from his lemons. Rather, he squeezed every last drop of acid from the experience and, through his unholy Inferno, splashed it on the open sores of his persecutors. Twenty-eight years ago, I had committed a crime that had yet to be paid for. Now Charon-in the form of a middle-aged dandy-had arrived to ferry me across the river.
Several days later, I sat in my office and reread Oliver's manuscript. He had written approximately eighty pages of his life story, a description of his childhood in a wealthy Boston suburb up to his melodramatic 16th birthday, when he entered his family's parlor in white bloomers and his mother's strapless sundress. His father, a staunch New England Brahmin, smacked him; his mother locked herself in their solarium and wept."How could you do this to us?" Father fumed. He yanked Mother's beautiful sundress off me and I stood before him in the parlor, naked as the wind.
"You don't understand," I yelled back, piercing him like a razor-sharp blade . "And you never will. I'm not like you. I will never be so old." (Did Oliver mean "bold"? or "cold"?)
That was the last time I spoke with Father . Like a fragile bouquet that has bloomed and lost its fragrant scent, my dear Father died later that same day.
Oliver's manuscript was riddled with this florid prose. I'd read better descriptions of bat mitzvahs and seventh-grade dances.
We discussed revision strategies and new ideas for the manuscript on a weekly basis. In the beginning I wrote minimal comments on the manuscript and dreaded the endless recall of that evening. I wanted to refuse him altogether, but Oliver had intimated that he had no qualms about contacting the police. One cold October morning, we talked in my office, the high-pitched clanking of the radiator a counterpoint to our quiet conversation. Oliver had written a description of our fateful encounter that paralleled the tale of David and Goliath.
And there went out a Goliath that lured me carefully into the reeds . I was enthralled by this monster, being but a young and defenseless David, and I would have followed him anywhere. I was portrayed as a vicious, one-dimensional beast; Oliver, as the noble, though disadvantaged, David.
I handed him a sheet with my comments organized in a bulleted list. "Can't we tone down the aggression a bit?" I asked. "Make the monster more human?"
Oliver snorted. "The entire story hinges on your aggression, George."
"But you asked me to hit you." There was a surreal quality to our conversation, as if we were discussing gardening rather than a violent encounter. I tapped my shoe restlessly on the floor beneath my desk.
"That's irrelevant, isn't it? I want this to be fierce, to embody the wild terror I felt that night. It must be epic, George! 'He who desires, but acts not, breeds pestilence.' Oscar Wilde said that."
Of course Oliver chose to identify with Wilde. I didn't tell him the quotation sounded more like William Blake.
I swallowed and straightened my dark tie. "The reader has to feel sympathy for both characters, Oliver. You need to prepare us for the confrontation. It will only make the story more resonant." I looked him directly in the face.
Oliver made a constipated expression, his upper lip touching the end of his nose. For a moment I considered suggesting a composition handbook I preferred that emphasized the audience as a focusing force.
"I know what you want me to say, George. But this is my story." He grabbed his manuscript from my desk. "I'm going to tell it the way it happened."
The second week in October, my daughter Maggie phoned. She was in the process of selecting spring classes and had to declare a major. I asked which of her courses interested her.
"I really like Cultural Studies. Don't smirk, George. Somebody needs to deconstruct hip-hop lyrics for old white guys like you." I laughed. In the background, I heard the sizzle of a lighter, and I imagined Maggie in her dorm room smoking a cigarette. It pleased me that I was privy to a few secrets that her mother did not know.
"I'm thinking about teaching after I graduate."
"But you have so much potential, Maggie."
"I'm a social justice freak," she said. "Education is power. Could I sit in on one of your classes?"
My daughter is bright and genial, "not gay, but gay-friendly" I heard her remark once, the kind of young woman who prefers listening to all sides of an argument before making a decision. I imagined her leading an NGO in Eastern Africa someday.
"Let me think about it," I said. I heard the click of her telephone and returned to the dozen or so essays I had yet to grade.
Maggie loves literature as much as I do; she has always been a reader-solely my influence, I'd like to believe, but her mother, my friend Pamela (to whom I donated my sperm, but with whom I have never been romantically involved), is a devotee of Shakespeare and Yeats, Trollope (to my chagrin) as well as the Romantics and even the Beats. Pamela has been a devoted friend since our undergraduate days, when she and I worked for a research lab that studied attention-deficit disorders in children; now she is "Dr. Pam" to our friends and practices internal medicine at Brigham and Women's. She has always supported a close relationship between Maggie and myself, explaining to Maggie when she entered junior high school that I was her birth father. The timing couldn't have been better: Maggie asked me to Sadie Hawkins dances, and to lend an impartial ear when her mother would not. But our time together had become increasingly limited during this, her difficult freshman year. A few days after our phone call, Maggie told me she had purchased a plane ticket to Boston. I immediately began to buy her favorite junk foods-yogurt pretzels and caramel rice cakes-as well as thick fashion magazines.
Our lesson the Thursday of Maggie's visit was on the persuasive essay. Oliver's manuscript, of course, had usurped much of my time, so I offered up the usual suspects: King's "I Have a Dream" speech, a thoughtful essay on migraines, a brief excerpt from Notes of a Native Son. Only two-thirds of my class were in their seats when we arrived.
I introduced Maggie, and she sat in a desk chair apart from our table near the window. She produced a reporter's notepad and a pen and sat poised in her deliberate way. Did we both sense that she wasn't going to learn anything from my class? Her attentiveness-the very effort of it-emboldened me and reminded me of a child seeking approval. Over breakfast, we had argued about her education and her staunch refusal to accept my financial support. In her gravelly voice she repeated, I'll pay for it myself, George, or I just won't go. Last spring she had entertained the idea of working on a fishing boat in Alaska with her deadbeat boyfriend rather than entering Princeton. Pamela and I tried to be gentle in our disapproval, but it was her boyfriend's inertia that ultimately changed her mind.
Oliver, of course, volunteered to read his essay aloud. Ostensibly, the topic was the formative years of the homosexual. "Nature or nurture?" he began, and I felt the physical attentiveness of my students as a musician intuits his audience from the lighted stage. Maggie, too, leaned forward in her rickety chair.
"The homosexual has always been oppressed in society. This essay seeks to understand why this oppression occurs-but more importantly, the roots of homosexual desire." I recognized the passage from the end of Chapter 8, which we'd just revised in conference.
Oliver gestured theatrically. I caught Maggie's eye, and she shrugged. It seemed more an acknowledgement of Oliver's essay topic than a truce to our morning argument. How could I make her understand? Her education was something I valued, something I was passionate about and wanted to contribute to.
"In reality, homosexuals aren't the oppressed," Oliver concluded, "but the oppressors. Until we learn to voice our opinions, to love ourselves, how can we expect others to love us?"
I thought Oliver's argument lacked teeth, and had told him so, but my horde of impressionable freshmen applauded. Oliver had ignored my wishes for more dialogue and scene-rather than his long-winded proselytizing. He was a stubborn man. I looked at Maggie in the back of the room, hunched over her reporter's notebook, nodding to no one. What was she puzzling over? Could she still be angry about our morning argument?
I dismissed the class, and the usual zippering of book bags ensued. Maggie approached me, and I hugged her, suggesting a restaurant for lunch. I sensed her distance. When Oliver passed us, Maggie tapped him on the shoulder.
"I loved your essay," she said. "Could I read a copy of it?"
Oliver clapped his hands at chest level. "I would be honored, Maggie!" He introduced himself, holding out his left hand, hinged at the wrist, as if he were royalty. Maggie clasped it warmly.
"You must be proud of your father," Oliver said. "He's a fabulous tutor."
They turned and looked at me. Maggie's eyes narrowed with dissent.
I fastened the brass buckle of my satchel, staring at my daughter. She was still angry with me. Oliver continued to rant about our special relationship, then asked Maggie how long she was visiting me. Their banter-the easy familiarity-frustrated me, but I tried to play along. After a few minutes I held Maggie's elbow and whispered, "Let's hurry, honey. I want to beat the lunch crowd on Newbury Street."
Maggie looked at Oliver. She seemed to sense my impatience and shook me off, linking arms with Oliver. "Why don't you join us? We're celebrating my birthday today. George shouldn't be my only guest."
The crowded restaurant Maggie had chosen was not on Newbury Street as I hoped, but rather in Kenmore Square, and was decorated with a car-wash-style banner, a depressing mural of a fiesta, and a fireplace containing a television monitor-which in turn played a videotape of a crackling fire. The specialties were slow-cooked BBQ brisket and lime-green margaritas. Our waiter, a young man in no particular hurry, approached our table and stared at me in a direct manner for several seconds.
"Remember me, George? Rudy? I wrote the essay about the karaoke tournament I won in junior high?"
"Of course," I lied. He stretched his arm in the air like a basketball player, awaiting my slap. I lowered it and shook his hand.
Rudy sat unexpectedly in my booth and wrote down our drink order: a vodka martini for me, a Diet Coke for Maggie, and for Oliver, the house margarita. As he walked away, I told Maggie and Oliver that his writing was remarkable only for his overuse of semicolons.
Maggie unrolled her napkin, chiding me. She leaned toward Oliver. "Do you really think my father's a good teacher?"
"I'm not overstating when I say that George is quite remarkable. He has always encouraged me to write the truth." With his yellow handkerchief in the air, he winked at me.
I returned his confidence with a frown, smoothing my napkin in my lap.
"Good," Maggie said. "Because he's trying to convince me to follow in his footsteps."
There was an awkward silence. Oliver dipped a tortilla chip in salsa. I wondered if he had the gall to reveal our relationship to her.
Maggie said, "Your essay made a good argument for nature, Oliver, but I'm not sure it's necessarily true."
"Let's not discuss this right now," I said.
She fastened her eyes on me.
"It's my party, isn't it?" She turned to Oliver. "Did you ever lie to anybody about yourself?"
I tapped Oliver's boot beneath the table, trying to silence him with a glance. "My dear," he said, "I told my parents the terrible truth about their son when I turned 16."
"Really? How did they take it?"
"My mother threw a tantrum. And then my father had a heart attack."
Maggie's mouth dropped, and she expressed her sympathies. She turned to me and asked the same question. I ignored her, staring at the electronic flame across the room. Oliver sipped his lime-green margarita. I was willing to wait out the silence, but Oliver could not. He politely excused himself to the bathroom.
"You don't have to be so uptight," Maggie said.
"How could you invite him? This was supposed to be our celebration."
"I'm sick of arguing with you all the time."
I reached out and held her soft fingers atop the table. Her nails were painted a glossy white. "What can I do to please you, Maggie?"
"Just lighten up." She pulled her hand away. "Why can't you be more like Oliver?"
I crumpled my napkin beneath the table. "Oliver Neal is not a role model."
"I like him. He's got a good sense of humor."
He's a dandy , I wanted to yell, but held my tongue. What kind of man would I be if I carried myself like him? Maggie craned her neck toward the spot where Oliver had disappeared behind a pair of saloon doors.
She turned to me, her mouth pulled back at the corners. "It's obvious you hate him."
For a brief instant I wanted to tell her the truth. I wanted her to know about Oliver's cunning, his manipulation of me, his book deal. I wanted her to know that Oliver consented to everything that night beside the Muddy River. Over her shoulder, I saw Oliver talking near the rest room with Rudy. He had twisted his arm to show Oliver an intricate tattoo that circled the upper half. Oliver squeezed his biceps and cooed.
Maggie stared out the large plate-glass window.
"If you're ever to be an educator, a truly exceptional one," I said, "you must understand that teachers and students don't mix. It's asking for trouble. I hope you can understand."
She gave a weary sigh. When Oliver slid back into the padded booth, he unfolded a receipt and showed it to her. It was not until a few days later, when I dropped my daughter at Logan Airport, that she shared the contents. Rudy had given Oliver his phone number and, below it, reduced the bill for Maggie's birthday dinner by thirty percent.
Later that autumn, Pamela made plans for a cruise to the Bahamas with her partner. Maggie and I decided to celebrate Thanksgiving in my home. Oliver had quickly put together a passable first draft, 200-odd pages, and left it in my faculty mailbox before the holiday break began. It had finally become exciting, working on our book, and I had convinced myself that the story was not the actual event, but a dramatization. Years of deconstructing Eliot and Pound had taught me to separate the writer from the text. Our meetings centered on Oliver's voice, diction, occasional lapses of tone. He had surprised me with his professionalism and determined approach.
Maggie sat in my kitchen on Thanksgiving morning and read a tattered copy of Vogue. I cracked three eggs on the rim of a stainless-steel bowl.
"There's an article in this issue by a gay kid . . . I mean, the child of a gay couple. The interviewer asked him if he had a choice, who would he pick? Straight or gay parents? Guess how he answered."
"God forbid." I placed her toast on a porcelain plate and slid it with a small jar of marmalade across the counter.
"Gay, of course. Isn't that awesome?"
"No one, of course, would choose gay parents."
Maggie frowned, buttering her toast. The eggs congealed in an old frying pan on the stove. Maybe her mother never should have told Maggie my identity. I think it may have been too much for any young girl.
"You're so cynical, George. My roommate says pessimism is bad for your skin." She took her toast and her magazine and sprawled on my Turkish carpet. I sighed. Maggie's new bravado: she reminded me of one of my students.
The telephone rang, and Maggie looked at me. I ignored both, breaking the egg yolk in the pan. When the answering machine picked up, Oliver spoke. "I was thinking we should work on the sex scene, George. Do you think it's too graphic? Maybe we should make my attacker immediately regret hitting me. Just a thought. Ciao."
I slid the fried eggs to another plate. Maggie raised her dark eyebrows at me. I feigned interest in the sports section of the Globe, and when I failed to acknowledge her, she rose, touching my forearm.
"Did you know Mom wanted me to go to Grandma's house for Thanksgiving?" She sat on a high stool across from me at the counter. "She thinks your issues will rub off on me. I said, 'What issues?' but she wouldn't say."
Maggie laid her hand flat on the newspaper headline that I was reading. "Why can't we just talk like regular people, George?"
I stared at her delicate fingers. Though I loved Maggie and would support her unconditionally, I was unwilling to share this part of my life. How could I possibly broach it? How could I explain to her that Oliver Neal had once engaged me in anonymous sex and then asked me to strike him under the Boylston Street Bridge?
I was her father. Yet I didn't want to invoke this cliché.
"Maggie, please," I said, placing my hand on top of hers. "Allow me to keep parts of my life private." What I did with other men, whom I chose to be physically intimate with, was no concern of hers.
She slinked to the bathroom as if she'd been reprimanded (or, upon reflection, hurt). I didn't know how to comfort her. She would spend the rest of that weekend talking to her mother long-distance, prodding me with existential questions, drinking coffee. Always, always, trying to steer the conversation to the topic of sexuality. My sexuality, my unwillingness to talk about it. She was infuriating, sulking from living room to bathroom. My 19-year-old daughter, impressionable and idealistic in her white polished nails, still hopeful for change in this world.
I heard the click of the bathroom door. I gathered her dirty plate and rinsed the remains of her toast in the sink.
Arnold, the manager at Devon's, filled a highball glass with plain-label gin and tonic water, then ran a thin lime wedge along the rim. I had dropped Maggie at Logan Airport with a small crate of tangerines and twenty minutes to spare before her flight back to New Jersey.
"My bartender called in sick for the third time this week. Can you believe it, George?" He set the drink before me. Despite his complaint, Arnold was smiling. I imagined that pouring cocktails in the crowded bar was better than paying invoices in his dingy office, surrounded by cases of beer and a metal desk where late one night, after one too many cocktails, he had lowered my trousers. I had allowed him to pleasure me.
Arnold lifted my gin-and-tonic from the bar and set a small napkin below it. I stirred the petite red straw and then sucked the gin from the end. Devon's was crowded with bare-chested men in leather pants and matching leather caps. There were a few put-together college students who talked in small tribes at high tables.
"Why so glum?"
"Oh, Arnold," I said, "my daughter loathes me."
He leaned on his chin and poured himself a Coke from the soda nozzle.
"Things can only get better."
Arnold struck me as a "good old" type-welcoming to everyone, discriminating against no one. I'd always found it surprising, the fraternity of a gay establishment. Community newspapers and support-group flyers near the door, disco music blaring from mounted speakers, men cruising other men but also laughing with one another and greeting each other with kisses on the mouth.
Arnold nodded in the direction of the jukebox. "That boy in the corner? He's got a sweet smile for you."
I turned. The stocky red-haired boy looked barely out of high school. A Red Sox cap was level with his eyebrows, and he possessed a shy, unassuming smile. Dimples fast at work. He was seated at a table with two equally youthful friends.
"Thank you, Arnold, but he looks like one of my students." I finished my drink and walked away from the bar to the billiards table. The red-haired boy's gaze followed me. Soon he stood and went to the bathroom. I followed him, standing at the stall to his right. "What's your name?" I asked.
He smiled. "Chad Kline."
We moved to the porcelain sinks, and I introduced myself. Chad rubbed his hands beneath the faucet and then combed his wet fingers through his short hair.
"You don't look of age, Chad."
"How old do I you think I am?"
"It's the zits. I just moved back from California. Do you know how much L.A. revolves around sex?"
I laughed, asking him if he'd like to have a nightcap. On the short walk to my apartment, he told me his life story: he had attended a private school in Cambridge, then, upon graduation, moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. His accomplishments over the past three years, however, consisted of a diet-soda commercial and a management position at a pornography shop in West Hollywood. I encouraged him to keep at it, as I would with any of my students. "It's difficult to wend one's way through the Inferno," I added.
Half an hour later, inside my disorderly living room, I handed him a bottle of beer and told him to remove his baseball cap, make himself at home. He flashed that quick smile I'd noticed at Devon's and said he'd remove whatever I wanted.
Truthfully, boys did nothing for me. It was body hair I loved, the goatee circling a man's lips, the muscular thighs, the soft scratch of hair beneath the arms. These things aroused me and reminded me I was with another man. If I wanted smooth skin, I would have made love to women. When I removed Chad's shirt, the zits he'd mentioned in the bar covered his shoulders and back like small red ants.
When he was unclothed, he crouched in front of me at my piano bench and removed my loafers. He reached for my waist, and I helped him to remove my black belt, my dark linen trousers, my boxers. He threw my trousers on top of the piano. I wanted to fold them neatly. Instead I ran my hand through his short hair, and, when he looked up, he asked what I wanted to do.
"Hit me," I said, somewhat uncertainly.
I kissed him and then handed him my belt. "With this." His red lips were parted, not sure how to proceed; I grinned, noting that he was aroused.
Except for laying hands on Oliver Neal nearly three decades earlier, I can say that I had never struck, or been struck, by another man. Chad rose to his feet and gathered his clothes from the settee where they lay. I remained on the piano bench.
As he dressed, I repeated my request.
Chad shook his head, incredulous. He buttoned his baggy jeans. "You're fucked up," he said, lifting my trousers off the piano and hurling them at me. He squared his Red Sox cap across his brow. "Crazy old queen." Before I could reply, he had unlocked the dead bolt and let himself out.
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