''The thousands of people I went to bed with! Much of that had to do with being a teen-ager, but it had to do with the war too.'' ~Ned Rorem
''New York in wartime was the sexiest city in the world. Everybody did it—in numbers.'' ~Arthur Laurents
"People sort of did with their gay behavior what they did with everything else. Which was take chances and risks and try to enjoy things because who knows where you might be sent tomorrow." ~Stuart Loomis
Everyone loved a man in uniform. That's what Bucky said, anyway, and Steve figured while it might be true for Bucky it wasn't so much for him. Bucky could wear anything and attract positive attention; Bucky could dress like a hobo in threadbare pants and a thrift store jacket and the dames would still flock to him like nothing else. Steve, on the other hand, just looked ridiculous in everything, including the extra military uniform that Bucky had managed to scrounge up. The shoulders of the jacket hung loose and sloppy over his own shoulders, the cuffs of the sleeves reached to almost his knuckles, and the pants were bunched up at the waist where a thin sliver of a belt attempted to hold them around his frame.
"This is wrong," Steve said.
Bucky didn't look up. His knuckles were moving over the fabric covering Steve's chest, working the tie into a neat little knot. "It's a little big, but it's alright."
"No. Me wearing this suit." Steve had wanted to wear it for so long. He had gone to so many recruiting offices and induction stations dreaming of being able to wear the uniform. But now, staring at himself in the mirror, staring at the both of them, it was all wrong. "I'm not a soldier. I shouldn't be wearing this, it's disrespectful."
"Don't worry about it. There are soldiers who end up renting civvies when they go out on the town, just think of it as taking one of their places."
Steve shook his head. "That's another thing. What if we're caught? You could be discharged and thrown into a psychiatric ward. I could be. . . I don't know, but I'm betting it's some kind of crime to dress like a soldier when you aren't one."
"Plenty of soldiers go out in the city. And if we see an MP, we'll just turn and head the other way."
Steve still wasn't convinced. It seemed an awful lot to risk. Here Bucky had the opportunity to go out and do some good in the world, and it could all be ruined because of one night on the town. And then there was still the point that Steve felt awkward and uncomfortable in the damned suit. He had no right to wear it, not yet, even though he hoped like hell that he would in the near future.
Bucky clasped his hands around Steve's arms. Smiled in the same way that he had since they were kids and Bucky looked out for him even more than he did now. "Stevie, I know, but I could be shipping out any day now and I just want to enjoy a night with my best friend. A night where we can be ourselves and hit up the classy kind of joints we deserve to go to every now and then, and we're not going to get into those places if we're wearing our usual God awful clothes."
Steve didn't really have a reply to that. He wanted to give this to Bucky, he did. And he knew that in their run-down, everyday clothes, they wouldn't be able to do anything except maybe cruise Third Avenue where the Elevated created nooks and shadows for people like them, or maybe hang out with the queer demimonde at a Child's restaurant.1 Steve hated Child's. He hated that it always seemed on the verge of turning into an orgy unless the police showed up to scatter everyone away. Steve sighed. "Alright."
"Thank you, Steve." Bucky's eyes were warm as he leaned forward and pressed a mostly chaste, closed-mouth kiss against Steve's lips. "I promise I won't let you get into trouble."
"You should stop making promises you can't keep."
"And when I have ever broken a promise to you?"
Steve opened his mouth in order to recite all the promises Bucky hadn't kept (although it was always through no fault of his own), when he remembered the last one Bucky had made. I promise to come home. He quickly closed his mouth, not wanted to jinx it. That was a promise that he would hold Bucky to as much as he could.
They paid a nickel to take the subway into Manhattan and got off in Time Square, and it was like stepping into a completely different world. There was such a frenetic energy to it, like it ran on a life force all its own. And unlike dreary Brooklyn, it was all flash and color, crowded with people from all walks of life. The tourists who came from all over the world to see the Big Apple. The soldiers and sailors who flooded the streets in reverie. The fairies who put on make-up to cruise the soldiers and sailors without any care in regards to police or queer bashers.
The last of those groups noticed Bucky, of course, everyone always noticed Bucky. They tried to stop him with too-brazen pick-up lines and quick flutterings of their heavy eyelashes, and he just laughed and laughed as though they were friends sharing the funniest of jokes. They never bothered Steve, of course. Steve realized he wasn't anything worth bothering.
"Where are we going?" Steve asked. He knew that Bucky was fond of the decadent hedonism of the Metropolitan Opera House, at least when a gentleman richer than them would offer to pay Bucky's way, but Steve didn't think that was the plan right now.
"Where do you think?"
And just like that they were in front of the Astor Hotel, a grand building that took up an entire city block and looked like it could be right at home in Paris, France. At least, in the Paris, France of Steve's mind, which was the only Paris he was familiar with. The stepped up to the doorman, who smiled and held the large, heavy door open instead of shooing them away.
The lobby was all chandeliers and plush carpeting and men and women in just the loveliest, trendiest clothes. It was like being on the inside of a jewelry box, luxury every direction he turned. Steve wished he could sketch or paint it right now to preserve the moment in posterity. Steve Rogers at the famous Astor. Of course, he didn't have the time or materials for that, and at any rate Bucky was pulling him away. He found himself stepping into a more intimate but still large room, decorated in rich reds and browns and gold. The air was thick and hazy with cigar smoke, a man sat playing piano in an elevated corner, and a large, oval bar sat in the center of the room. On one side of the bar was a mixture of couples and groups. Men held the hands of their sweethearts and tried to steal kisses as they all chatted and laughed. On the other side of the bar were strictly men, sitting prim and proper and seemingly having important discussions over their drinks.
The maitre d' looked up at them and smiled. His black tuxedo was neat and sharp and his teal blue bowtie was crisp and shiny, and Steve thought that this was most likely the first time someone so well-dressed smiled at him so politely.
"Would you gentleman care for a seat on the left or the right side of the bar?" he asked.
Bucky didn't hesitate to answer. "Left."
As they were led through the haze of smoke, Steve couldn't help but tug at Bucky's sleeve and whisper into the air. "Can we afford this?"
"My treat." Bucky had a look on his face that said it would be pointless to protest. "Let me splurge on my best friend every now and then."
"Please," the maitre d' said, his eyes on where Steve's hand sat on Bucky's sleeve. "No touching. We expect out more lavender patrons to behave with decorum."
Steve apologized and let go even as his eyes glanced toward the other side, where the first thing he saw was a man with his arm wrapped around a woman's waist as he whispered into her ear. It almost didn't seem fair, but he supposed he should feel grateful the bar let in queer patrons at all; it was certainly not expected from a hotel of some renown, even in a crazy place like New York City.
Once they were seated, they didn't even have a chance to order before two drinks were placed in front of them.
"Courtesy of the sailor in the corner of the room," the bartender said, with a smile and a nod toward the man in question.
There was a round booth of upholstered leather in the corner. In it sat a sailor tall, dark, and handsome, with a broodingly attractive face that looked like it belonged on the Hollywood screen. It wasn't hard for Steve to guess which of the two of them the drinks were intended to impress.
"Shall we?" Bucky asked with a smirk of his lips and a nod of his head.
Steve picked up his drink and followed after Bucky. He was used to being the tag-along so he didn't think too much of it, and soon enough they were scooting into the booth and Bucky was introducing the both of them.
"Roy Fitzgerald," the man said, his tone easy and his handshake firm. Just as Steve predicted, Roy's eyes stayed fixed on Bucky. "Where'd you two fellas ship in from?"
"From right here in Brooklyn," Bucky replied. "New York born and raise."
Roy smiled. "Well, isn't that something? I've been meeting people from all over the world tonight and, aside from the people who have to work in this city, you two are the first locals I've met. Cigarette?"
"Wouldn't mind one." Bucky smiled and reached toward the proffered carton, taking just a little too long to retrieve a cigarette as his fingers lingered over Roy's fingers.
Steve mumbled a 'thank you' but turned it down when the pack was offered to him, a little surprised that Roy had even remembered he was there. So many of Bucky's paramours tended to just ignore him. "So, Roy, you're not worried about being caught out here by an MP?"
Bucky sent Steve a sideways glare, but Steve still didn't know why any of them would risk being in an openly queer bar with their uniforms on. There were plenty of illegal locker clubs in Time Square that rented out civvies precisely so soldiers could go off and do things without MPs catching them. It just seemed like an awful risk to take. Steve would do anything to be over there, fighting in the war, and a little thing like this could prevent them from doing a lot of good in the world.
Roy took a drag of his cigarette and shrugged. "Never had a problem before, to be honest. For all everyone keeps talking about queers being bad for the war movement, they're not trying too hard to keep us out. When you two were recruited, what were your psych exams like?"
"Mine was long," Bucky said. "Almost an interrogation, but I wasn't worried about it. I'm not really a fruit. This is just a bit of fun while I can have it, but I really do want to settle down with a nice girl one day."
"You know what my psychiatric exam was like? I go in there and the shrink asks me, 'Do you like women?' I say, 'Why, yes, sir, I do.' Who doesn't? Some of my loveliest friends are women. And then he asks me, 'Are you a homosexual?' Now, I don't know what that word means, but I figure if I don't know it, it must not apply to me. 'No, sir, I am not,' I say, and that's the end of that." Roy laughed, a sound that seemed to rise from the pits of his stomach. He rubbed the butt of his cigarette into a crystal ashtray before grabbing another stick. "So much for keeping queers out of the military."
"Not that I knew what I was at the time," Roy went on. "I'm from a small town in Illinois. Always knew there was something different about me but wasn't sure what it was. Thought I was the only one that felt that way. Then I get to the Navy, and there are men doing their buddies right in the gun turrets, and everyone knows it and doesn't care. You New York boys are different, New Yorkers seem to be wise to these things, but for a sheltered kid me? I tell you, this war has been eye opening. To think I'd come out in the military.2"
Steve felt for sure that Roy was exaggerating. "People are that open in the military?"
"Sure. Lots of opportunity to let your hair down in the war. Just don't drop hairpins3 in front of the wrong people, and you'll be fine."
Steve was about to ask how you knew who the wrong kind of people were when Roy finished his drink and turned toward Bucky.
"I was thinking of heading back to the Y. The Sloane House Y. Maybe if you want, you could come with and we can keep drinking there." Roy turned toward Steve after. "I've got a friend, too."
They always had friends. Friends that were never interested in Steve.
"You two go ahead," Steve said. "I'm not much in the mood."
"What?" Bucky placed a hand on Steve's leg before remembering where they were and pulling it away. "If you don't go, I won't go. The whole point of tonight was us spending time together."
Steve looked up at Roy, who was frowning in disappointment.
"No, it's fine," Steve said, "you go. We're hanging out tomorrow, aren't we?"
"Just go, Bucky."
Bucky narrowed his eyes, but he knew better than to argue with Steve when Steve had his mind made up. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," Steve said.
"Mighty swell of you," Roy said. "Let me buy you another drink as a goodbye."
As they left Steve nursed the drink that appeared in front of him. He felt foolish and awkward, a skinny kid in a uniform that didn't belong to him, in a bar that he had no business being in. He finished off the drink as fast as he could and got up to go, spilling out of the hazy interior and into the cool, crisp night outside.
Steve looked up at the voice. It was a slim, tall man with brown hair in a regulation crew cut, but he wasn't wearing a military uniform. Just a neat suit and a blue-grey tie. He wasn't handsome but he was handsome enough, with long, unremarkable features that no one would object to and clear blue eyes.
"There's a party going on in my home right now," the man said. "Would you like to come?"
And Steve would have said no, but he was fairly certain he recognized this man. So he stopped, nodded, and followed him home.
"Gay society at that point was so hermetic and so safe and so wonderful." ~Otis Bigelow
"[T]he naivete of the public was a great benefit if one didn't want to be exposed. I don't think I ever worried about exposure exactly." ~Paul Cadmus
"I think it was a little bit like that thing Mrs. Patrick Campbell said: 'My dear, I don't care what people do as long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses.' I think a lot of people in New York felt that way about their homosexual friends. I think that meant: don't be a roaring faggot and don't be a roaring bull dyke because that's offensive—not because of the direction of the sex drive, but because it's not subtle" ~"James Atcheson," a pseudonym
It was mostly men. And by "mostly men" Steve meant "all men with the exception of one woman." Inside a non-descript brownstone somewhere in the fifties, they played loud jazz on a phonograph and danced and laughed and flirted. Nearly all of them had a drink in hand, although a lack of proper glasses had half of them drinking out of tea cups, lending a distinct Prohibition-esque atmosphere to the whole affair. The knick-knack laden house smelled of smoke and whiskey and, beneath that, a subtle hint of gardenias.
Steve, his small body in danger of disappearing into the oversized armchair he was sitting in, wasn't quite sure what he was supposed to do with himself. Paul, the man who had invited him, had disappeared somewhere in the nooks and crannies of his quaint little home shortly after they arrived. Steve had little else to do but watch the proceedings and listen to the conversations going on around him.
"Washington is all in a tizzy over Summer Welles."
"The undersecretary of state?"
"The one and only, darling. Awhile ago he imbued a bit too much on a train back to Washington and made some rather brazen advances at the negro porters that were attending him. His enemies have been calling for his head for years and Roosevelt refuses to do anything against his good friend Summer, immoral queer or no."
"How come no one outside Washington's heard about it?"
"Darling, if you ran a newspaper, would you print the story? It's just too scandalous!"
The woman Steve had noticed before was twirling about in a silk gown of decadent green. The skirt of it was like paint running over canvas as she danced with one man and then another, red lips smiling with a joie de vivre that Steve didn't see much of in his part of Brooklyn. She was beautiful as she spun, and she spun right into the Steve's armchair. Her arm fluttered against Steve's arm. Her chest heaved with light exertion. And then she looked up, a little amused smile on her lips.
"Well, look at what the Paul dragged it."
Steve smiled back and tried to put a little bit of respectable distance between them. "His last name wouldn't be Cadmus, would be?"
"Oh." She sat up straight as her eyes lit up. "You wouldn't happen to be a fan, would you?"
Steve flushed just a little bit and looked away; he hadn't meant to be so obvious. He had wanted to ask Paul himself, of course, but had been too self-conscious during the walk over.
"You are! How precious."
He had never used the word "fan" in relationship to himself, but Steve supposed that was what he was. The first time he had heard of Paul Cadmus was about several years ago. There were articles about him in the dailies, articles spinning words like scandal and controversy. And those articles were always accompanied by a painting.
The painting was of sailors carousing, as sailors were wont to do, but it was a scene in the very corner of it that had caught Steve's attention. There was a man in a suit, rouge on his cheeks and perfect finger curls in his hair. Around his neck was a tie of scarlet red, the secret symbol of so many queer men declaring themselves to each other. He was lighting the cigarette of a sailor and, even though the painting was only of a moment, you could see how their gaze lingered and heated over the exchange.
The articles all talked about the depiction of drunken sailors and loose women and the ensuing public outcry to have it banned from the Corcoran, but to Steve it was such a glaring portrayal of homosexuality that he wondered how they had ever contemplated showing it at all. And it had been beautiful, really, all of Cadmus' paintings were, infused with a sublime kind of magic that lifted the real-word scenes to some kind of storybook world.
"Jared, love," the woman called out, interrupting Steve's thoughts. "Come here and meet my new friend."
The man who appeared by her side had a messy tuft of blond hair on his head and a thick moustache on his upper lip. He was broad of chest and of average height, with facial features that could be described as either commonly-handsome or rugged, depending on the tastes of the beholder.
The woman turned back to Steve. "I am the incomparable Margaret Hoening, and this is my husband Jared French."
Steve shifted away even more, a little uncomfortable to be sitting side by side in an armchair-for-one with a married woman. Jared didn't seem to mind, however. He only smiled and held out his hand to shake Steve's.
"And whose acquaintance am I having the pleasure of meeting?"
"Steven Rogers. Steve."
Margaret reached an elegant hand toward her husband and Jared took it in his own as though the action were automatic. They smiled at each other, eyes almost twinkling, before looking back at Steve.
"And what, pray tell, are you doing with my lovely wife?" He seemed to drop his own question, however, to look back at Margaret. "I have told you how lovely you look tonight, haven't I? The dress I picked out looks so beautiful on you; I do wish you would wear something other than pants more often."
"But you know how I hate these dreadful gowns. Give me a pinstripe suit any day." Margaret's eyes went large as she apparently remembered why she had called Jared over in the first place. "Oh! My love, Steve is a fan of Paul, you see."
"Are you?" Jared asked. "You have good taste, then. And how did a fan of Paul's come to be at this party?"
"He picked me up in Time Square," Steve admitted. He felt a little sheepish about it, especially since he wasn't the kind of person to be picked up by anyone, but it was the truth. There a small flare of concern as he wondered if they would think him lying, but Margaret didn't have much of a reaction and Jared only scrunched up his nose in distaste.
"A dreadful crowd," Jared said. "I understand camping it up a little in the privacy of your own home, but those swishy queens in Time Square are an embarrassment. They're the reason the war effort thinks we're inadequate fighters. They're the reason people hate us."
Steve wasn't sure he agreed with that. People would hate them no matter what. And if some of them were swishy, as long as they were swishy in safe areas Steve didn't see a problem with it. They weren't hurting anyone by being something other than what society considered "masculine." Before he could say something to that effect a new voice was interrupting them, in a cultured accent that sounded somewhat Bostonian to Steve's ears.
"Are you two still playing at house?"
The new participant was a slim man in a black button up and white cardigan, the wool of which looked so much softer well-made than anything Steve had ever seen. The man was handsome if a bit austere, with an unfortunate smattering of dark freckles across his nose. He held a packet of cigarettes in between long fingers, a pack he offered in turn to Steve, Margaret, and Jared.
"And where is your wife today, Lincoln?" Jared asked, as he grinned and slapped the newcomer on the shoulder. "Taking care of your sick boyfriend, I imagine."
"Ah, but unlike you and Margaret, Fidelma and I are quite in love and quite attracted to each other. It's just that Fidelma allows me to turn my love and attraction on others, as well. We're quite the enlightened couple." Lincoln turned his gaze on Steve. He cast his eyes down and up Steve's body and seemed to come back with an assessment caught somewhere between disapproval and indifference. "And who is our young guest?"
Margaret's lips moved close to Steve's ear in a conspiratorial whisper. "Lincoln is Paul's brother-in-law and benefactor. He's the reason Paul can afford such a cozy pied-à-terre." She turned back to Lincoln then, her voice loud and full of mock-anger. "I resent that, Lincoln. Jared and I are as in love as two people like us can be. And this is Steve. Paul found him in Time Square."
"Going off to war soon, soldier?" Lincoln asked.
And now Steve was caught between the truth and a lie. Looking around at the faces of his new companions, though, he wondered if it mattered. This was just polite chatter; come morning they probably would have all forgotten about the tiny soldier they had met the night before. "Something like that."
"Awful state of affairs," Lincoln said. "When I see all those young bodies leaving on those ships, I just think what a waste it is."
Steve's lips set in a thin line and his shoulders straightened as he turned a glare on Lincoln. "With all due respect, I don't think it's a waste at all. Those men are doing their part and fighting against injustice in the world. We should all have the honor."
Lincoln waved a dismissive hand, unstirred by Steve's words. "You would fight for a system that hates you?"
"I can put aside my personal injuries for the greater good, yes." When there were people being killed and oppressed, Steve didn't see how there was any other option.
"And what did you say during your psychiatric evaluation?" Lincoln asked, his voice calm but his gaze cutting. "Did you lie when they asked you if you were queer?"
He would, in a heartbeat, because it wasn't much different than the hiding he did on a day-to-day basis and because it was a small sacrifice compared to how much he could help with the effort. "Of course."
Strangely, Lincoln seemed more amused than any other emotion as he continued. "And you're proud of that? You're denying a part of yourself because the military thinks you're weak and unqualified. Do you not see an injustice there? And what of the next generation, the next war? Will things be even harder for the queers of the future, because no one in our generation stood up against that mentality?"
"But people like us are still going to war," Steve countered. "We're serving proudly and they're letting us."
Lincoln shrugged and took a deep, slow breath on his cigarette. "Sometimes they might tolerate us. And sometimes, as in the case of one of my dear friends, they discover us and toss us in queer stockades where they can humiliate us before sending us back home. And then once back home, they make sure that the reason for our discharge is right there on our papers, so that no university with accept us and no employer will hire us."
Steve didn't have anything to say to that. It's not like he hadn't heard the horror stories, of people whose lives were ruined because they were found out. Instead of saying anything, his hands fisted on his pants as he glared down at them. He knew it wasn't right, but. . .
"Oh, don't mind him." Margaret placed a gentle hand on Steve's shoulder. "Lincoln just loves to play devil's advocate. Why, he's actually thinking of enlisting himself. And you know how Harvard men are, forever trying to assert their superiority on others."
Lincoln huffed a little bit as he gave Steve one last, little look. "As thrilling as this intellectual frisson has been, I really must go seek out other company."
"Don't let us keep you, old friend." Jared laughed a bit as Lincoln walked away, then turned and held out his hand to Steve. "Come on, then. I'll show you something nice."
"What?" But Steve was already taking Jared's hand and letting himself be pulled up.
"The universe." Jared's voice was full of badly acted wonder as he pulled Steve up a thin flight of stairs. "Well, the universe according to Paul, but since you're a fan you'd probably get a kick out of it."
The noises of the party faded more and more with each carpeted step they took. At the top of the staircase Steve had expected perhaps a hallway, with perhaps two doors leading to other rooms. Instead, the top of the stairway opened up to one large space, paint-smudged floors, and walls lined with paintings. As Steve walked along them, at a snail's pace in order not to miss any detail of any painting, he really did feel a sense of wonder.
There was nothing extraordinarily innovative about Paul Cadmus' work. In the future he might be remembered but probably not by the general populace, and not among the names of familiar revolutionaries like Picasso and Monet. But there was something about his work the resonated with Steve. Here, a painting of youths playing baseball on one of New York's fenced in, concrete playgrounds. Here, a soldier staring back at a woman dressed in elegant finery, the two separated by a hallway of pillars and arches. Here, two men sharing a bathroom, both nude, laundry drying on wooden poles all around them.
They weren't just pictures, they were stories. Each one was a glimpse into the fictional lives of its characters, rich and complex, full of details to be unravelled if only they could move and speak. Looking at one of the paintings was like looking into the lives of his friends, his neighbors, the people who walked the streets of New York City every day.
The last painting Steve stopped in front of was of Jared. The man was bare-chested and in casual repose on a bed, light creeping up his body as though the morning sun were rising. There were white sheets pulled to his waist and a book (a book that had been banned in the country for obscenity, Steve noticed) held loosely in between his fingers. He was looking out of the painting as Steve looked in, and for all the intimacy of the painting they could have been laying together in the same bed.
"I keep forgetting to take that home with me," Jared said, closer to Steve than Steve had realized.
"Are you two lovers?" Steve knew the answer, knew it from the painting, but he asked anyway.
"For about a decade now. Are you an artist?"
Steve almost jerked away as a hand ran over the hair above his ear. It wasn't that the touch was unwelcome, it was just. . . unexpected. Good-looking men just didn't touch him like that. "How'd you know?"
"The fingers," Jared said. "It's always in the fingers."
Steve looked down to see the creases on the edge of his fingernails filled with black. Sometimes he spent too much of his time with charcoals and inks, enough time that it took a few washes to get all the dark out. Steve rolled his hands up and tried to hide them underneath his sleeve, but before he could Jared's hand was on his, keeping his fingers straight.
"They're something like battle scars for us, aren't they?" Jared asked. He had calluses on his fingers, in familiar places, and Steve could easily imagine him holding onto a paintbrush for hours at a time. "Most of us here are artists. Although I suppose every person is in a way; is it not human nature to want to create beautiful things?"
Another voice, one Steve had only been made familiar with a little while ago, interrupted Jared's philosophical entreaty. "I go away to make one phone call and you manage to snatch my guest right up from under me."
Jared smiled as he turned back toward Paul, who was now appearing at the top of the stairs. "I assumed you brought him as a present for me."
Steve snatched his hand away from Jared's hand. Jared was all masculine good looks and Paul had a mysterious charm, but Steve was just a short, skinny nobody from Brooklyn in a uniform that was too big for him. He realized how silly he seemed in just this kind of situation. "I don't enjoy these kind of jokes."
"What joke?" There was a light but sincere confusion in Paul's voice that made Steve almost believe him. "I'm not in the habit of picking up strange men that I'm not attracted to."
"I'm not the kind of man that men like you go for." That much was all too clear to Steve. He was sure that the only reason Bucky and Arnie had ever fooled around with him was because they were his childhood friends. It had seemed almost natural then, just teenagers learning about themselves and each other, but now that he was an undergrown adult he didn't exactly have his pick of dates.
"Oh?" Paul seemed amused enough by Steve's reticence. His footsteps carried him into the space of the studio, where he took his time taking a seat on one of the stools scattered about. A long cigarette dangled between his fingers. When he spoke, his words were turned over like a professor exploring an existential problem, heavy and interested. "And what kind of man are you?"
Steve crossed his arms over his chest, as if to hide himself. He had never felt comfortable in his own body. Had never felt that it really belonged to him. As the years went by he would sometimes place his hand against Bucky's hand, against Arnie's hand, and wonder why it was that his always looked so small and frail.
At any rate, Paul didn't give Steve much time to answer before he turned toward Jared. "Pass me my sketchpad."
The cigarette was dropped into a little red mug with a rather large chip in its handle. A large, thick sketchpad was precured and passed on. And even as Steve said "Don't," Paul pulled out a box of pastels and started to work.
"You learn pretty quickly to let him just do as he pleases," Jared said with a laugh, putting a sympathetic hand on Steve's shoulder.
"Golden hair." It was a mumble without direction, so that the other occupants of the room couldn't tell if it was said to them or to Paul himself. "Blue eyes that burn with conviction. Classic features that wouldn't look out of place on a statue. And you wonder why other men would be attracted to that?"
Paul turned to sketchpad around, and Steve flushed and looked away. It was quickly done but still beautiful. And it was true that he looked somewhat presentable in it, but it was a trick of the angle and the coloring, and also to do with the fact that his thin-as-a-rail body wasn't shown. "That's cheating, a headshot like that. You can't even see my body in it."
"Than maybe you can be convinced to pose for a nude."
Steve flushed even more. But then Jared's fingers were underneath his chin and lifting it upward. His gaze landed on the portrait once more, on a man who he would have admitted was handsome if he didn't know it was him, before it was turned on Jared himself.
"You're free to leave, of course." There was a smirk to Jared's lips that said he didn't believe Steve would take up that option. "Or you can stay and let us show every inch of you how gorgeous you are."
Steve didn't turn away when Jared leaned forward. He didn't pull back when a mustache tickled his upper lips. And when lips met his own, he pressed back, just for a moment until they both drew away. He still didn't believe this was happening, but he was done questioning it.
"I'll stay," he said, and saw them both smile for it.
"It was 'Be nice to GIs' during the war, regardless of orientation. Let them have a good time. If they're gay, fine. Just so long as they didn't embarrass anybody or do anything on the premises." ~Ben Small, Army Air Corps
"All I can say is, have a good time. Do whatever you want to do, but just don't get caught." ~A doctor to a soldier named Jim Warren about the latter's homosexuality
The sun was on the verge of rising when Steve neared his apartment. The sky was cast in dim purple-grey and early risers were heading out for a day of work, off to factories and markets and wherever else, before most people had even woken. Steve loved this part of the day. Every morning it was a little bit like a new world had been created, with new opportunities and new experiences to uncover.
Today that sense of revival was even more present than usual. Steve had to fight the urge to whistle or hum as he made his way home. He smiled extra big at Mrs. Fitzgerald when she passed him on her way to work. A large envelope was clasped in his hands ("Just fold it up and put it in your pocket," Paul had said, but Steve couldn't bring himself to do that to a piece of art) and held tight to his body. Steve's good cheer continued as he walked up the thin, dirt-encrusted steps to the sixth floor, but then abruptly stopped when he saw a body sitting slumped against his doorway.
Steve ran over to his friend, who had apparently been sleeping with his head on his knees. When Arnie stirred and looked up, Steve could see that his handsome face was mottled with bruises and swollen in places.
"Arnie," Steve said, low and disapproving this time. "Look at you."
"Yeah, because I've never had to fix you up after you get into a state." Arnie didn't let his injuries keep him from smiling at Steve in a teasing way, nor did he let them mitigate the boasting tone that his next words took. "And you should see how the other guys look."
Steve just shook his head and unlocked the door. They didn't say much as Arnie took a seat and Steve ran a washcloth under the faucet. Just perfunctory questions like how long were you here (several hours), why didn't you go back to your place (lost the key), and what happened, anyway? At the last question Arnie reached into the leather satchel by his side and pulled out a long, brown wig. There was a sheepish grin on his face and, now that Steve was looking, traces of light pink lipstick on his lips.
Steve scowled even as he started to wipe Arnie's face of dirt and blood. Thankfully there wasn't much of the latter, and it seemed to come from non-Arnie sources except for the dried blood from a small cut on his lips. "Why would you go out looking like that, Arnie?"
Arnie wasn't like the Time Square crowd. Those were men who liked to wear some make-up and act theatrical, but they were still clearly men. Arnie also wasn't like the queers who liked to entertain at drag balls and shows in seedy little clubs. Those were over-the-top versions of women, done up in exaggerated beauty. Arnie's make-up was always subtle and he liked to accompany it with a modest wig; when you didn't look closely, he almost passed as a tall, wider-than-usual woman. But all it took was a careful second-glance to shatter that illusion.
"I don't know," Arnie said, and he looked just as confused as he sounded. "It's just sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and I think, wouldn't it be swell to be able to walk the streets as a dame? You're always saying that people should be allowed to do what they want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone. I don't know why, but this is something I like to do, and I'm not hurting anyone."
"You're hurting yourself, Arnie." It's not as though people outside of certain niche areas took kindly to men dressed as women.
"I know. It's crazy." Arnie shook his head. "I don't know what I was thinking. I think I might be sick."
Arnie had always been the strongest of all three of them. Bucky might have always been around to protect Steve, but Arnie had always been there to protect and watch over the both of them. Steve couldn't stand to see big, dependable Arnie looking so despondent, eyes glued to the floor and a sad, crooked smile on his face, so he sighed and wrapped his arms around Arnie's body. "You're not sick. You're just different. We're all different, in our own ways."
Arnie's cheek nuzzled against his cheek as arms came up to wrap around his back. For awhile they just stayed like that, just holding each other as close as possible, before they pulled away. The smile on Arnie's face was more sincere now.
"Thanks, Stevie," Arnie said. "You always were the best at making a guy feel better about himself."
"Come on. I'll make you breakfast."
The next several days passed like usual for Steve. Work, play, attempt to join the army. Bucky arranged a double date at the World Fair and Steve tried to get out of it by hanging out at the cinema. Bucky found him, of course, Bucky always found him. And then, stumbling into yet another recruitment center, Steve found hope in the form of an old man named Abraham Erskine. Steve's hands grew clammy as he sat on that little cot, Erskine right in front of him. The physical exam had been dispensed with but there was still a matter of the psychological one.
"Are you a homosexual?" Erskine asked, like it was a throwaway question, his hand already poised above the "no" checkbox on his papers.
But to Steve, the question was more than just a cursory line. He had always thought that, once he got here, he would just lie. One lie for the greater good. But now that he was here, it was so hard to deny that part of himself. He wasn't sure why; it was a part he kept hidden almost all the time, locked away unless he was around other people like him. Maybe he was being a coward after all and trying to avoid the war when it was right in front of him, but he just couldn't say no. He lifted his chin up and looked Erskine straight in the eyes. "I'm an American, and I just want to do my part for the world."
For a second the world seemed to freeze, and Steve wondered if he had thrown away his first and probably only opportunity to go make the difference he knew he could make. But then a slow smile spread over Erskine's face.
"That's good enough for me."
1 A chain of cafeteria-style restaurants. In 1940s NYC they were popular as hangouts for the gay crowd.
2 In the 1940s, "coming out" meant to find gay friends and the gay life.
3 Dropping hairpins: dropping hints about being queer.