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Two Steps Forward

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Sometimes Finny would just drop into a conversation with no preliminaries at all, no warnings for what he was about to say, already halfway through a conversation only he knews both sides of. It was something about him that Gene didn’t miss about him, not at all. He didn’t miss Finny. Years had gone by, following Gene’s banishment from Devon (it sounded romantic but it wasn’t), and they hadn’t spoken since that night of Brinker’s court.

(Gene knew he had been measured and found wanting.)

Under suspicion, he had left to finish off his education in obscurity. The war was a disappointment, college, a bore, and afterwards was just as frightful.

Gene was in a bad way now, his father’s money coming in in small, deliberate drips that threatened to stop at any time. And then it was goodbye New York, goodbye trying to make it as a writer, and back to Connecticut and a desk with his name on it.

(Unless his father wanted him starting in the mail-room.)

He sent out story after story, and even some longer manuscripts, but there was just no interest out there for a semi-autobiographical pieces about one’s education. Not unless he’d done something amazing, and amazing in a way that almost killing one’s ex-best friend wasn’t.

(Finny hadn’t died, Gene clipped out all the mentions he got in the press.)

That was why he was here --to please his father mostly -- look, he could say, I’m trying. He was cramped and uncomfortable in a forty-dollar suit with a mustard stain on its left elbow, mixing (trying to mix) in a room full of his former classmates, all of whom seemed to have done much better than he had, over every damn thing he can think of.

He listened glumly to Brinker’s wife as she described the simply astonishing diamond necklace her husband had given her this last Christmas, completely by surprise, what a darling, don’t you agree, Mr...?

“Forrester. Gene Forrester.”

“Oh!” Her hazy blue eyes sharpened with interest. Yes. I’ve heard about you, they seemed to say. “And what do you do, Mr. Forrester?”

“I’m a writer.”

She looked at him expectantly. He coughed.

“I’m writing a novel.”

“How interesting,” she said, in a tone that implied that it was anything but. “Did you know, one of your friends is here? Funny looking fellow too, if I may say so...”

Gene straightened, and pushed his thick-framed spectacles up on his nose and tried to look interested.

But he wasn’t, he really wasn’t, so when Mrs. Brinker was momentarily distracted with a late-arrival, he slipped away from her and found the most obscure corner of the room. He sat on a pill-y sofa, half-hidden by a giant potted plant, and that was where Finny found him.

The first thing he noticed was the cane, cherry-wood and polished within an inch of its life, tapped impatiently against the tiled floor.

“You forgot about me, pal?” Finny’s smile hadn’t changed, it was still silly and challenging as ever, though now it also seemed a little sad.

Gene said, “Never.” Honestly.



And it started like this again, like a puzzle being put-together again. They fell into step together easily, as if the years of separation had never happened, as if they hadn’t aged in any way. But they had -- Gene hadn’t had glasses in school, his thick wavy hair hadn’t had that streak of gray in then.

And Finny. Finny hadn’t had that cane and -- “A heart-condition, can you believe it? They force me to do practically nothing all day, and then act shocked when I can’t stand it. It’s a conspiracy, Gene, I tell you.”

(So. Finny had found a real conspiracy at last.)

There were fine wrinkles in the corner of Finny’s eyes and mouth, from squinting in the sun and smiling too much, maybe. His hair was still fair and he still stood straight, defiant, daring anyone to call him a cripple.

No, he wasn’t a young Apollo anymore, he couldn’t be. But Gene still found Finny to be divine. He bite his lip and frowned.



Sandra, his roommate and sometimes-lover, had moved out the week before, citing irreconcilable differences. (“You’ll always be an asshole, Gene,” she had sighed, pushing away the stray hair from her face. “I always knew it, but I just can’t stand it anymore.”)

Sandra had taken with her the vacuum cleaner and most of the dishes and sheets, and that was why, when Finny had finally come to his apartment in the Village, having made the laborious climb up five flights of stairs, he found Gene’s place to be a complete dump.

“It’s not this much of a mess, usually,” said Gene, picking up an undershirt that had been thrown over a lamp, and nudging an empty take-out carton under the sofa. There wasn’t much he could about the sickly yellow and white wallpaper (something he and Sandra had inherited from the previous tenants) or the slightly sticky brown carpeting.

“No, it’s perfect,” said Finny, and the funny thing was, when he said it, Gene believed him.

He wandered over to Gene’s desk, examined the papers that were at places, an inch deep. “Is this where you write? Can I read your stuff?” Finny didn’t wait for permission, he never could. He just picked up a sheet, and read, his face crumpling in concentration. He put down the page almost immediately.

“You’re a Beat poet, Gene?”

And he looked like he was about to laugh.

Gene blustered, escaping into the kitchen, which isn’t much of an escape, really, since it was a studio apartment, and Finny could see him as he clanged pots and pans together, trying to make dinner, trying to ignore Finny’s questions.

But Finny was close, leaning over the counter with a friendly expression of inquiry in his face, and so Gene righted himself and said, sheepishly, “Not quite.”

Finny, cheerful, said, “You never could rhyme worth shit.”

Gene blinked. “I guess not.”


Gene was not, per se, a very good cook, but compared to Finny who wasn't cook at all, he was a French chef, Michelin stars and all. They shared a slightly charred roast beef, and overcooked vegetables, gulped down the wine Gene had bought -- a forgettable red -- and then the wine Finny had brought along -- an unforgivable white, until they were were both a little tipsy and glad.

They left the dishes on the table -- “Let the maid take care of that,” said Finny airly, that WASPy son of bitch, and Gene giggled (he did). They stumbled down to the squishy old sofa, and Gene brought Finny down with him, both breathing hard, lips slightly parted. Anticipatory.

(They weren’t athletes now.)

Finny lingered there, on top of Gene, all hard bones and taut flesh. And it was like all the those summer nights at Devon, lying in that tiny, stifling little bed, in that tiny, stifling little room, listening Finny breathing from a little ways away and wanting -- so badly -- to reach out from that small distance to touch -- but that small distance was an uncrossable gulf and Gene could never... Had never dared...

He leaned up, and kissed Finny. Who rocked back a little, and then seemed to expand, long legs sliding out and folding around Gene, arms and hands wrapping around him. “You finally get it,” said Finny, pulling away, his head coming to rest on Gene’s shoulder.

Gene felt his stomach settle somewhere in the vicinity of his knees, and yes, his guilt kicked up viciously, and he was the only pushing Finny away now. “No, no,” he said, he croaked. “Finny, I tried to kill you.”

This was something they never talked about. Finny’s fall, Gene’s culpability, their seven-year silence. Finny avoided it because it hurt him to think that someone he trusted, someone he loved (completely, Finny never did things by half) could be capable of hurting him. And Gene wanted, more than anything, to forget that he had destroyed someone he had loved.


Things did not seem so damn precious now, as they had when they were young. Everything, then, had taken on a special importance, a tragic significance, partly because the war that was breathing down their necks. And because of their sometimes-claustrophobic friendship.

Because of Gene’s all-consuming jealousy.

Because of Finny’s deliberate obliviousness.

Finny had thought of Gene as an extension of himself, but Gene had only wanted Finny. If he couldn’t get Finny, he had wanted to be Finny.

It had been strange, a strain, this need they shared of wanting to be inside each other’s skin, and it had ended in tragedy.

(And near-homicide, because Gene, like Finny, just couldn’t do things by half.)

Finny was shaking, a little, and Gene couldn’t help but to hold him steady, hands locked on his arms. But Finny wasn’t scared, he was laughing. He was wracked with laughter, biting his lip, with tears streaming down his face.

“You … You idiot, I forgave you a long time ago.”

Gene opened his mouth. He closed it again, at a loss.

“Gene,” and Finny’s lips were traveling down Gene’s neck, nippling a little, here and there. “Gene,” he said, paused, sighed. “Do you want me to leave? Because if you’re going to torture yourself, that’s best done alone, and not with me hanging off you.”

Finny should leave.

Leave and not come back, not look back.

And Gene should say so, he wanted to, really he did. Instead, he half-led, half-dragged Finny to his bed, peeling off his clothes, throwing Finny’s cane across the room. It made a muffled clatter on floor. No one noticed.

There was a time when Gene knew Finny’s body as well as -- perhaps even better than -- his own. He had examined it, observed it, sometimes surreptitiously, but often with Finny’s knowledge, with his encouragement. Finny always worked best with an audience. Gene was at turns appreciative, then resentful, but always, always attentive.

But now, Gene couldn’t help but contrast how different things were, from when they were sixteen. Finny has scars now, and it shouldn’t be exciting (it really shouldn’t be) that he, himself, had put some of them there.

He ran a tentative hand across Finny’s hips, then across his belly, which was softened now.

Finny gave him a half-smile, inscrutable still.

Finny’s skin was tanned, except for the strip of pale skin on his wrist, and across his hips, and his thighs. Gene’s mouth was dry, his tongue felt clumsy, unsure. And Finny slipped closer to him, and said, “Are you just going to stare?”

He wasn’t. Not anymore.


“I’m writing about Devon. That is to say, the novel. It’s about us. About that summer.” Gene lay on the flat of his back, and studied the cracks on the ceiling. He couldn’t get over the feeling of Finny’s skin against his. Finny was on his side, examining him closely, green eyes narrowed with curiosity.

“I don’t think you’d be able to get that published, pal. At least, not in anything anyone would admit to reading.” Finny’s elbow dug at his side.

“Ha. Spoiled prep school boys, stifled homosexual desire, the looming threat of war... It’d be a classic.”

“I wouldn’t read it.”

Everyone would read it.”